The Obligation of Humanitarian Intervention

By Sophie Upperton

Issues surrounding humanitarian intervention are rife in the modern day, where a state’s basic right to sovereignty is pitted against our collective moral duty as an international community to intervene in the midst of humanitarian crises. There exist strong arguments against humanitarian intervention that seek to prioritise and uphold the sovereignty of states, and to question the true intentions of their intervening neighbours. Of course it is paramount that close scrutiny be applied to dissect the intentions of an intervening state, so as to avoid unjust and unnecessary conflict. Where we cannot hesitate, however, is in those clear-cut cases where near-unanimous international consensus supports humanitarian intervention in modern international society. History has revealed the complexities and detrimental side effects of some instances of foreign intervention on humanitarian grounds, but such rare occurrences should not discount the overwhelming and undeniable improvements made in many more regions of conflict as a result of intervention. Indeed while humanitarian intervention may disrupt international order (and provoke violent retaliatory responses from host states) the very fact that it is desperately needed in certain states suggests there remains little ‘order’ on the global stage for it to threaten – and that there is a greater threat to the safety of the “rogue state’s” civilians than that posed to ‘international order’. To abandon the notion of humanitarian intervention due to the risks it carries, would be to stand idle and turn a blind eye to mass atrocities. Where a state neglects its duty to protect significant numbers of its citizens from harm, it forfeits the entrenched right to sovereignty, and humanitarian intervention can be warranted. Ultimately the international community has a moral and ethical duty to protect the vulnerable – and to hold all states to a common standard of universal human rights as set out in the UN Charter.

Key arguments against humanitarian intervention surround the assertions that it poses a significant threat to both a state’s sovereignty and to international order; and that it merely cloaks the self-interested actions of intervening states in a more admirable, humanitarian disguise. The US-led coalition force in Iraq in 2003 – ostensibly to remove the serial human rights abuser, Saddam Hussein – greatly damaged the “brand” of humanitarian intervention, and is a prime example of this. With no approval by the U.N. Security Council, the United States offered many reasons behind its intervention, and these were outlined at the time by President George W. Bush: ‘to disarm Iraq, to free its people and to defend the world from grave danger.’ The U.S.’s national interests – consisting of furthering national security and employing anti-terrorism strategies, as outlined in their white paper of that year – however, were rather conveniently fulfilled by their intervention in Iraq – and thus Bush’s stated intentions provoked scepticism amongst other U.N. members. That is, it appeared to some that the label of humanitarian intervention effectively disguised self-interest by the United States. Further, the resulting civilian death toll in Iraq has been studied by ‘university researchers in the United States, Canada and Baghdad in cooperation with the Iraqi Ministry of Health…,’ and is estimated at ‘500,000 since [the] start of U.S.-led invasion in 2003.’ Such an extreme death toll does indeed illustrate the threat posed by humanitarian intervention to international order – particularly when states can so easily exploit loopholes in the UN Charter to justify their armed intervention, without fear of repercussion.

Despite such possible negative outcomes of humanitarian intervention, however, there exist many compelling justifications for humanitarian intervention in certain conflicts. Indeed while international order may be disturbed in the process of humanitarian intervention, this ‘disturbance’ pales in comparison to the destruction caused by the international community turning a blind eye to humanitarian crises. The genocides in Rwanda (1990), Bosnia (1995) and Darfur (2003) reveal the devastating consequences of failing to intervene. With the death toll for the Rwandan genocide alone estimated at over 800,000 Tutsi people, we must question: what ‘international order’ we are seeking to preserve by abstaining from humanitarian intervention? Neo-realism suggests that the mistrust and uncertainty between states is what creates fertile ground for the conflict and violence so widespread in the modern day. Thus if such disorder and destruction are indeed intrinsic to the global system, perhaps what we consider efforts to preserve ‘international order’ are in fact excuses to avoid the costly action of humanitarian intervention.

Similarly, the second argument – that the term ‘humanitarian intervention’ is manipulated to legally shelter a state’s intervention in pursuit of its own national interests – may be easily countered, through closer scrutiny and deliberation by the U.N. or respected bodies such as the International Human Rights Court in the Hague before any sanctioned humanitarian intervention. Indeed a key role of the UN Charter chapter VII is to regulate the use of force and aggression by foreign intervention, and such stipulations would not be so easily manipulated if its misuse was backed up by the threat of sanctions. The widely-criticised and unlawful intervention by the U.S. into Iraq (2003), for example, has seen no repercussions on behalf of the UN Security Council, and in doing so has simply opened the flood gates for further exploitation of the label of ‘humanitarian intervention’ by other states. Thus while there are indeed significant flaws with humanitarian intervention in practice, many can in fact be remedied. To refuse to intervene on humanitarian grounds based on such minor risks and technicalities is to essentially – and inadvertently – condone atrocities.

As members of an international community, we possess a certain moral obligation to uphold universal human rights and dignity – irrespective of the protests of states who have neglected their fundamental responsibility to protect their citizens. Indeed a state can be said to have forfeited its right to sovereignty, when it wilfully ignores – and thereby facilitates – human rights abuses within its borders. The concept of the universality of human rights is codified in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and seeks to commit all states to uphold basic human rights and dignities. While a noble ideal, the universality of human rights is yet to be achieved. Its fulfilment is primarily threatened by states’ prioritisation of their own sovereignty, religion, economy, traditions or culture – over the preservation of human rights. The state of Syria, exemplifies this issue. Deputy Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov spoke on behalf of the Assad government in response to U.S. intervention in Syria, stating that the ‘[U.S. intervention] is a violation of sovereignty,’ despite recent reports by the Human Rights Watch that the Syrian ‘government and its allies carried out deliberate and indiscriminate attacks on civilians.’ Thus it is evident that when issues of sovereignty arise, human rights can become a secondary concern. Indeed it is in response to these very excuses that humanitarian intervention must be permitted; where the international community should possess the right and the obligation to intervene in instances where basic human rights are discarded or forgotten on a national scale. Furthermore, a state’s international standing and moral credibility can hinge on its ability to match human rights rhetoric with actions. Humanitarian intervention provides the opportunity for states to tangibly burnish their moral credentials and in doing so, achieve some moral leverage over others in the international community.

It can therefore be seen that the issue of humanitarian intervention is inherently complex, multifaceted and morally and practically fraught. While it can indeed pose a threat to international order at times, there can be no denying the overwhelming positive outcomes it can engender. Indeed we must ask ourselves what we value most in our international society: the preservation of fundamental human rights, or the diminishing sovereignty of a state caught in the prosecution of war. Humanitarian intervention is not to be embarked upon precipitately – however there are compelling ethical arguments for invoking it judiciously when it may prevent large significant human rights abuses or significant loss of human life.

Sophie Upperton


Baylis, John, Steve Smith, and Patricia Owens. 2013. The Globalization Of World Politics. 6th ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Chesterman, Simon. 2011. ““Leading From Behind”: The Responsibility To Protect, The Obama Doctrine, And Humanitarian Intervention After Libya”. Ethics & International Affairs 25 (03): 279-285. doi:10.1017/s0892679411000190.

George W. Bush, Address on Iraq War, March 20, 2003

Grove, Thomas. 2016. “Russia Says U.S. Buildup Violates Syrian Sovereignty”. Wall Street Journal.

Haas, Richard. 2003. “Armed Intervention : When Nations Forfeit Their Sovereign Privileges”. The New York Times.

Mellow, David. “Iraq: A Morally Justified Resort to War.” Journal of Applied Philosophy23, no. 3 (2006): 293-310.

Sheridan, Kerry. 2013. “Iraq Death Toll Reaches 500,000 Since Start Of U.S.-Led Invasion, New Study Says”. The World Post.

“Statistics | Survivors Fund”. 2008. Survivors-Fund.Org.Uk.

“Syria”. 2016. Human Rights Watch.

“The Rwandan Genocide – United To End Genocide”. 2016. United To End Genocide. Accessed May 12.

United Nations General Assembly, 1948. The Universal Declaration Of Human Rights.

“War In Iraq: Not A Humanitarian Intervention”. 2004. Human Rights Watch.

Walzer, Michael. 2006. Just And Unjust Wars. New York: New York Basic Books.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s