The Problem with Humanitarian Intervention

The side of humanitarian intervention that most people see is the positive side. How it protects the lives of many citizens abroad. Or, how it helps restore peace in society and allows them to rebuild after events such as genocide or ethnic cleansing. However, the side that is very rarely covered is the side that it is not regulated properly and that it is very selective in the way it is carried out. Due to writing a essay on this recently, I thought what better than to write a blog on it.

Humanitarian intervention is the right and/or duty of the international community to intervene in a state that has suffered a large scale loss of life or genocide. This can be the deliberate action of the government, or it can be done in the absence of a strong government. The Responsibility to Protect (R2P) doctrine was adopted by the United Nations (UN) in 2005. This doctrine has three layers (or pillars) that aim to end the worst forms of violence and persecution. In particular, it aims to end genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity. The first pillar of the doctrine says that it is the responsibility of that state to protect their citizens. The second pillar says that the international community should provide help for the state if they fail to recognise the human rights violations in that state. Finally, if the state continues to fail, under the third pillar, it the duty of the international community to intervene in that state and protect their citizens. However, R2P has not legal basis to it. It derives its authority from previous bodies of international law such as the Genocide convention, International Humanitarian Law and the International Criminal Court (ICC). All of these bodies, however, place the responsibility for implementation in the hands of the state.

So, what about humanitarian intervention? Humanitarian intervention goes against the notion of state sovereignty. In a Westphalian sense, sovereignty is the legal identity of a state in international law. This definition derives from the Peace of Westphalia, 1648. This treaty ended the 30 year war on territories. It gave each state their set boundaries in which they had supreme authority. This brought order and stability to the international system as each state was regarded as equal, regardless of their size or wealth. This means that there is no hierarchy within the global system. However, the notion of humanitarian intervention goes against this. By one state intervening in another, that state is insisting that they have a higher status. Not only this, but that state is interfering into another state’s affairs which assumes that they do not think that they are managing their affairs properly. Humanitarian intervention is therefore very flawed as it goes against the idea of sovereignty.

In addition to this, humanitarian intervention is not regulated properly. If we are thinking about the notion of a common good, then humanitarian intervention should go through the same process each time- through the UN Security Council. However, this has not been the case in examples such as Kosovo in 1999. Instead of going through the UN Security Council, NATO took actions into their own hands and intervened themselves. This is because there were fears that Russia or China would veto the resolution. In addition to this, when looking at the permanent members of the Security Council (Russia, China, France, UK and the US), it can be seen that the entire continent of Africa is not represented. By being a P5 member, these states are able to veto resolutions. This is when they are able to reject and decision and stop it going through. Again, if we look at these members, there are some of the strongest economies and states in the world. This depicts how there is a hierarchical system within the UN. If only 5 states can decide on the actions of the UN, then the whole idea of the UN is very flawed as it does not represent the views of everyone.

Furthermore, if we look at the case of Myanmar, humanitarian intervention is very selective in it’s choices. The Rohingya Muslims have been victims of mass genocide in Myanmar, by the government and security officials. Many have been killed, displaced and put into detention camps. In addition to this, Rohingya villages have been destroyed and there have been many cases of sexual violence towards Rohingya women. Although this case ticks all the boxes for humanitarian intervention, it has not happened. This is because of Myanmar’s close ties to China. Since many states have reduced their investments into Myanmar, China have increased their investments. Furthermore, the two countries have signed an agreement on the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor, a development project under China’s “One Belt, One Road” initiative. Therefore, if intervention was to happen in Myanmar, China’s investments would be affected. As a result of this, China would veto any resolutions to intervene in Myanmar because it will affect their interests. This is one example of how humanitarian intervention is flawed through its selective nature.

In the case of Rwanda, 1994, the Hutu government and its extremist allies very nearly succeeded in exterminating the country’s Tutsi minority by using firearms and machetes. The international community did not respond. In fact, the US said that they did not know enough about the genocide to intervene. However, a three year study, involving 60 elite interviews, revealed that the US did in fact know enough about the genocide early on to save lives, but passed up countless opportunities to intervene. Now, the reasons behind this are unclear. Perhaps, they felt like the genocide within Rwanda was not affecting their national interests? If this is the case, then why would they shed the blood of their soldiers for suffering foreigners? It makes sense. Again, this case shows that humanitarian intervention is very flawed.

The idea of humanitarian intervention, on paper, is a great idea. Who wouldn’t want to help people suffering abroad? Or, who wouldn’t want to restore peace in communities abroad? Whilst this does all sound great, it is not the case. Firstly, who has the right to intervene? If the international system is filled with states who are equal, then why should one have the right to intervene in another? Isn’t this just showing that there is a hierarchy? Secondly, humanitarian intervention is flawed through how it is regulated. Each case does not go through the same system. If one state, or organisation, wants to intervene, then they can. Even if it does go through the system of the UN, this is in itself flawed through the power of large economies. There is not a fair spread of power across this organisation. Finally, humanitarian intervention is flawed through its selective nature. Not all cases that need humanitarian intervention actually get it. Is this because states do not think it needs intervention? Or, because states don’t think that intervention will help their national interests?

Whatever the answers to the questions above, humanitarian intervention is very flawed in practice. Let me know your thoughts by emailing me or messaging me on instagram @politicsblog .

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