Global Ethics Corner: Ethics and Humanitarian Intervention

November 26, 2010

Is it legitimate to intervene in another state's internal affairs?

Do gross violations of human rights justify armed intervention to stop atrocities?

According to the UN Charter, protection of human rights is the responsibility of international society. Hence, humanitarian interventions are foreign military actions which prevent or halt mass murder and other severe violations of human rights.

In contrast, the Charter also prohibits forceful interference against the territorial integrity and political independence of any state. The Charter rests on the principle of sovereignty.

Here the international community faces a legal and moral dilemma. Which takes precedence in humanitarian crises, sovereignty or human rights?

For skeptics, sovereignty is the key to international order, and each state holds the legitimate right to use military force domestically. They argue that hegemonic powers might exploit an ability to disregard sovereignty. Not-so-humanitarian, i.e. imperial, interventions could be justified on human rights grounds, using human rights as a foreign policy tool promoting national goals. (The Soviets in Afghanistan and the US in Iraq are possible examples.)

Supporters of humanitarian intervention embrace the idea that sovereignty is conditional based on states actually protecting their citizens, on human rights. Smith writes, a state "which violates the integrity of its subjects forfeits its moral claim to full sovereignty." Similarly, former UN Secretary General Annan argued that "no legal principle—not even sovereignty—can shield crimes against humanity."

What do you think? Should the principle of sovereignty be overridden in humanitarian crises? If so, what criteria should be used and who should intervene? Does the UN Security Council have enough legitimacy to make these calls?

By Omer Zarpli

For more information see:

Michael J. Smith, "Humanitarian Intervention: An Overview of Ethical Issues," Ethics and International Affairs, Volume 12, 1998

Kofi Annan, "We the Peoples: The Role of United Nations in the 21st Century."

Photo Credits in order of Appearance:

Olivier Duquesne
Craig J. Shell/ U.S. Marine Corps
Isriya Paireepairit
Andrew W. McGalliard
Tommy Avilucea
Sean A. Terry/ U.S. Army
Marion Doss
Mikhail Evstafiev
Michael Blackwell II/ U.S. Army
Rubén Díaz
Matthijs Gall
Alan Chan
Pete Souza
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