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Published on February 9th, 2012 | by Saira Khan
Image © [caption id="" align="alignleft" width="333" caption="London, April 19th 2011, Tom Swain ©"][/caption] The juxtaposition of intervention and the responsibility to protect has been recurring issue of late. The notion of humanitarian intervention was founded in the late 1940s, in the aftermath of the Holocaust, with the Nuremburg Trials, establishment of the UN and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This extended international law from states to the individual. It abandoned the principle of sovereignty -- that every state was equal and had the exclusive right to manage its internal affairs – in response to a more pressing issue; more people were killed in the 20th century by the hands of their own governments than the amount killed in all of the wars during this period. Hitler killed approximately 11 million, Stalin killed approximately 40 million, Mao killed approximately 60 million. Paradoxically, the maintenance of international peace and security came to depend on allowing a state to exercise power over another state. This new conceptualisation of order required an international framework to regulate it, which is still lacking. Half a century on, we have unanswered – or inadequately answered -- questions. Who decides what the threshold for intervention is? Who authorises it? Who decides the proportional use of force? Who holds interveners accountable? We have the UN, International Court of Justice and International Criminal Court to deal with these matters but they have proven to be ineffective and insufficiently empowered to do so. With such a loose framework, intervention can easily be used a scapegoat for the pursuit of national interests at the same time as the lack of legislation can be used as a way to ignore our responsibility to protect and preserve our national interests. Examples of the first can be seen too often in Soviet interventions and in the invasion of Iraq; Bush first attributed it to Al-Qaeda links, which was groundless, then to Weapons of Mass Destruction, which was groundless, so he fell back on the easy justification that it was humanitarian intervention. Examples of the second can be seen in Darfur, where there were Chinese oil interests, in Yemen, where there are US economic and military interests, in Bahrain, where there is the US Fifth Fleet in an imminent Iran issue, and in Syria, where the interests are countless. Selective application and inconsistent behaviour of countries partaking in interventions makes universal support difficult to achieve. This is why many countries see the ‘responsibility to protect’ as a justification for neo-imperialism. Intervention can be met with resistance, resulting in further military violence and worsening the situation. Even a successful intervention does not guarantee any betterment of the situation – the business of setting up a stable and rights-respecting state out of chaos and murder is complex and susceptible to foreign manipulation. As Curtis LeMay said of Vietnam, ‘we had to destroy the country to save it’, is that worthwhile? Some 12 billion euros have been spent on Bosnia since 1995 and it is still not a wholly viable, stable state. There is no template for re-conciliating populations. Conversely, intervention may de-legitimise leaders who are in support of it; Karzai’s problems in domestic politics arise from the association with us, others see him as a stooge and as our support for Karzai increases, so does support for the Taliban. If there is no guarantee that intervention will do more good than harm, should we do it? If we don’t really know what we are doing, should we be requiring our citizens to go and die? If there is no evidence that we can do the job properly, should trial and error be used? If there are potentially positive outcomes, should impure motivations be ignored? If there are no robust principles and manipulation can be used to undermine the very principles we are trying to establish, is humanitarian intervention right? On the path it is currently, without a defined legal framework, humanitarian intervention has the potential to be more threatening for international peace and security than absolute sovereignty.

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Is humanitarian intervention right?

London, April 19th 2011, Tom Swain ©

The juxtaposition of intervention and the responsibility to protect has been recurring issue of late. The notion of humanitarian intervention was founded in the late 1940s, in the aftermath of the Holocaust, with the Nuremburg Trials, establishment of the UN and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This extended international law from states to the individual. It abandoned the principle of sovereignty — that every state was equal and had the exclusive right to manage its internal affairs – in response to a more pressing issue; more people were killed in the 20th century by the hands of their own governments than the amount killed in all of the wars during this period. Hitler killed approximately 11 million, Stalin killed approximately 40 million, Mao killed approximately 60 million. Paradoxically, the maintenance of international peace and security came to depend on allowing a state to exercise power over another state.

This new conceptualisation of order required an international framework to regulate it, which is still lacking. Half a century on, we have unanswered – or inadequately answered — questions. Who decides what the threshold for intervention is? Who authorises it? Who decides the proportional use of force? Who holds interveners accountable? We have the UN, International Court of Justice and International Criminal Court to deal with these matters but they have proven to be ineffective and insufficiently empowered to do so.

With such a loose framework, intervention can easily be used a scapegoat for the pursuit of national interests at the same time as the lack of legislation can be used as a way to ignore our responsibility to protect and preserve our national interests. Examples of the first can be seen too often in Soviet interventions and in the invasion of Iraq; Bush first attributed it to Al-Qaeda links, which was groundless, then to Weapons of Mass Destruction, which was groundless, so he fell back on the easy justification that it was humanitarian intervention. Examples of the second can be seen in Darfur, where there were Chinese oil interests, in Yemen, where there are US economic and military interests, in Bahrain, where there is the US Fifth Fleet in an imminent Iran issue, and in Syria, where the interests are countless.

Selective application and inconsistent behaviour of countries partaking in interventions makes universal support difficult to achieve. This is why many countries see the ‘responsibility to protect’ as a justification for neo-imperialism. Intervention can be met with resistance, resulting in further military violence and worsening the situation. Even a successful intervention does not guarantee any betterment of the situation – the business of setting up a stable and rights-respecting state out of chaos and murder is complex and susceptible to foreign manipulation. As Curtis LeMay said of Vietnam, ‘we had to destroy the country to save it’, is that worthwhile? Some 12 billion euros have been spent on Bosnia since 1995 and it is still not a wholly viable, stable state. There is no template for re-conciliating populations. Conversely, intervention may de-legitimise leaders who are in support of it; Karzai’s problems in domestic politics arise from the association with us, others see him as a stooge and as our support for Karzai increases, so does support for the Taliban.

If there is no guarantee that intervention will do more good than harm, should we do it? If we don’t really know what we are doing, should we be requiring our citizens to go and die? If there is no evidence that we can do the job properly, should trial and error be used? If there are potentially positive outcomes, should impure motivations be ignored? If there are no robust principles and manipulation can be used to undermine the very principles we are trying to establish, is humanitarian intervention right? On the path it is currently, without a defined legal framework, humanitarian intervention has the potential to be more threatening for international peace and security than absolute sovereignty.

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