The Crisis of Humanitarian Intervention

Sep 08

Events in Libya and Syria have again brought to the forefront the question of armed humanitarian intervention or the “responsibility to protect.” Our hearts all go out to the unarmed demonstrators seeking to bring down corrupt dictatorships that are a plague on their people. In Tunisia and Egypt, the people rose and deposed dictators on their own. Armed supporters of the Mubarak regime did attack and even fire on people in Tahrir Square, but a massive crackdown was avoided when the military decided not to take the side of the dictator. Things have not been so simple since then. Libyan despot Muammar Gaddafi came down hard on civilian protesters, providing the opportunity for the United States and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) to intervene militarily by waging an air war and arming the rebels. Today, the Assad dictatorship’s massive repression in cities and towns in Syria that have risen in revolt has also sparked agitation for intervention in the West. Is it ever legitimate to supersede the principle of national sovereignty with a military intervention aimed at protecting citizens from their government?  And if the answer is yes, what circumstances would justify this course of action and how should it be carried out? Circumscribing National Sovereignty Ever since the Peace of Westphalia ended Europe’s wars of religion in 1648, the principle of the inviolability of the sovereignty of the nation-state has evolved to become the bedrock principle of international relations. Under the so-called Westphalian system, the nation-state emerged as the basic unit of international relations, sovereign unto itself and expected to respect the sovereignty of other states, be they ruled by people or princes. The supremacy of national sovereignty as a principle, however, clashed with the reality of conflicts among states. Thus systems of collective security like the United Nations emerged both to protect and to circumscribe the exercise of the principle of national sovereignty. In recent years, the principle of national sovereignty has been limited from another quarter, from the expansion of the doctrineof human rights. Ever since the tragic events in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia in the early 1990s, there have been efforts to further circumscribe the principle of sovereignty to justify foreign state intervention...

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