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Global Ethics Corner: Military Intervention and Democracy?

July 10, 2009

Is military intervention legitimate if its rationale is to save democracy?

Democratically elected leaders on both right and left are moving to extend their terms. Voters are asked to change constitutions through referendums.

Some differentiate between democracy and legitimacy. Hence, "illiberal democracy" is when laws and institutions are changed through referendum in ways that constrain people's freedoms.

On June 28, in Honduras the military arrested President Zelaya and put him on a plane to Costa Rica. The military then turned power over to his constitutional successor.

Zelaya was arrested hours before a controversial "non-binding public consultation," a survey which would ask the public if they would support constitutional change, perhaps removing his one-term limit.

The Honduran Congress opposed Zelaya's survey, and the Supreme Court ruled the survey illegal.

However, the military ouster is also illegal under the Honduran Constitution, and world leaders called for Zelaya's reinstatement.

So both the arrest and the survey were illegal. Were either ethical?

What do you think? Is it ever legitimate to violate a democratic constitution?

By Christina Madden & William Vocke

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