MYANMAR: Reviewing the Argument for Humanitarian Intervention

May 8, 2008

Flag of Myanmar

Unfolding events in Myanmar have once again shocked the international community by the sheer scope of a natural disaster, and by the enormous humanitarian need that has been left in its aftermath. Comparisons to the Asian tsunami of December 2004 are obvious and not inappropriate.

However, a key difference between the two situations is that in the case of the tsunami, the affected governments not only welcomed international humanitarian relief, they literally pleaded for it. Not so in Myanmar. What began as a purely natural disaster has quickly become exacerbated by the lack of cooperation—even the obstruction—of the country's ruling Junta.

In the face of such a crisis in which the lives of countless thousands are in eminent peril, the thorny question of humanitarian intervention must inevitably arise. The question has, of course, long been with us. Put in simplest terms: Does the sovereignty of the state trump the responsibility of the international community to take action when the peoples of a nation are at risk? But of course the question is anything but simple, and the Carnegie Council has long explored this delicate and controversial nexus of sovereignty and humanitarian responsibility, turning to the brightest minds and most profound thinkers on this topic.

To that end, we offer here a sampling of works from our journal, Ethics & International Affairs, that explore the boundaries (and beyond) of humanitarian intervention from a variety of perspectives. As events continue to unfold in Myanmar (and, inevitably, elsewhere around the world), we hope that these resources will continue to provoke new thinking in this complex area.


Toward a Realist Ethics of Intervention
Michael Wesley, Vol. 19.2, Summer 2005 [Excerpt]
Wesley explores the possibilities for developing a realist-informed normative framework for humanitarian intervention in the context of the post–September 11 international concern with transnational threats.

The Moral Basis of Humanitarian Intervention [Abstract]
Terry Nardin, Vol. 16.1, Spring 2002
Nardin examines the moral principles underlying the idea of humanitarian intervention from the perspective of international law and from that of the natural law tradition.

Humanitarian Intervention: An Overview of the Ethical Issues [Excerpt]
Michael J. Smith, Vol. 12, 1998
This essay analyzes the arguments justifying or opposing the notion of humanitarian intervention from realist and liberal perspectives and considers the difficulties of undertaking such interventions effectively and consistently.

Intervention: From Theories to Cases [Full Text]
J. Bryan Hehir, Vol. 9, 1995
This piece examines the ethics of intervention in light of recent policy and academic debates on the subject. It proceeds from an examination of the reasons for intervention today to an assessment of the moral and legal traditions governing intervention and also provides a review of selected cases of intervention recently confronting U.S. foreign policy.


Legitimizing the Use of Force in Kosovo [Full Text]
Julie Mertus, Vol 15. 1, Spring 2001
Kosovo captured the attention of policy makers, ethicists, journalists, peace and human rights activists, military analysts, and international relations scholars. Something new happened there. This review covers books by Noam Chomsky, Howard Clark, Michael Ignatieff, and others.

Humanitarian Intervention: Which Way Forward? [Abstract]
Richard Caplan, Vol. 14, 2000
NATO's member states put aside their concerns for national sovereignty in favor of humanitarian considerations, acting without UN authorization. European states are rethinking historic prohibitions against humanitarian intervention after Kosovo.

Special Section: The Politics of Rescue [Abstracts]
Lead authors Amir Pasic and Thomas G. Weiss, "Yugoslavia's Wars and the Humanitarian Impulse", plus commentaries by Andrew S. Natsios, Morton Winston, Alain Destexhe, and David R. Mapel, Vol. 11, 1997


Whither the Responsibility to Protect? Humanitarian Intervention and the 2005 World Summit [Abstract]
Alex J. Bellamy, Vol. 20.2, Summer 2006
This article examines how consensus was reached on the responsibility to protect, given continuing hostility to humanitarian intervention expressed by many (if not most) of the world’s states and whether the consensus will contribute to avoiding future Kosovos and Rwandas.

Responsibility to Protect or Trojan Horse? The Crisis in Darfur and Humanitarian Intervention after Iraq
Alex J. Bellamy, Vol. 19.2, Summer 2005 [Excerpt]
What does the world’s engagement with the unfolding crisis in Darfur tell us about the impact of the Iraq war on the norm of humanitarian intervention? Is a global consensus about a "responsibility to protect" more or less likely? There are at least three potential answers to these questions.

Redefining Sovereignty and Intervention [Full Text]
Joelle Tanguy, Vol. 17.1, Spring 2003
The International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty's effort to revisit intervention and the lessons of the 1990s have resulted in a conception of intervention as a "responsibility to protect." But its effort to ensure that past failures are not repeated may go unfulfilled. (Review Essay)