Is Humanitarian Intervention a Pious Hope?


As military clashes are reportedly mounting in the Syrian crisis, proponents of humanitarian intervention have reignited the debate whether use of force can be practical in the country if it saves more civilian lives than otherwise. Ironically though former UN Secretary-General Kofi A. Annan has been enlisted as a special envoy of the UN and the Arab League to resolve the above crisis in whose second term the vexed issue of humanitarian intervention was at its peak in the aftermath of Kosovo war which was fought with complete disregard for Article 2.7 of the Charter of the United Nations.

UN’s founding fathers in the early 1940s anticipated that internal affairs of a member country should remain outside the jurisdiction of an international organization, whose fundamental objectives have been identified as the maintenance of world peace and security, among others. Therefore, UN Charter’s Article 2.7 provides “Nothing contained in the present Charter shall authorize the United Nations to intervene in matters which are essentially within the domestic jurisdiction of any state or shall require the Members to submit such matters to settlement under the present Charter; but this principle shall not prejudice the application of enforcement measures under Chapter VII.”

Whether a member state’s sovereignty should remain inviolable under all circumstances has become an open question especially against the background of the Libyan intervention in March, 2011, which is supposedly the first test case of the principle of Responsibility to Protect (R2P) by the United Nations. But in the name of humanitarian intervention launched to secure the lives of innocent civilians perceived to be the victims of state-sponsored atrocities whether in Sierra Leone, Liberia or Somalia in the 1990s and early 2000s, the western powers have pushed their own agenda of regime change. This apprehension among the developing world got reinforced last year when NATO-led forces intervened militarily in Libya resulting in the regime change in that country.

What is happening in Libya at the moment is crystal clear before the international community. The lawlessness consequent upon the killing of then Libyan leader Colonel Qaddafi is no less evidenced by the recent capture of International Criminal Court (ICC) official who was in the country to deal with the possible indictment of Qaddafi’s son for crimes under ICC Statute as reported by “The New York Times” in its most recent issue.

The Libyan model would have been applied in Syria, were it not for the Russian and the Chinese resistance, where crisis has continued for the last fifteen months despite efforts by the UN and other powers to establish peace. In February last the resolution to punish Syria, which was considered to be a grand design to engineer regime change by the pro-intervention powers represented in the UN Security Council, could not be adopted due to vetoes from two permanent members of the council i.e. China and Russia. This polarization in UN’s principal body entrusted with securing global peace has stalemated the action by the Security Council with regard to Syria where outside big powers like the U.S. is seemingly more concentrating on countering Iran, which has been Syria’s main supporter.

With escalating violence in Syria as more deaths are frequently reported voice has been raised to justify military intervention against the country invoking the controversial doctrine of “Responsibility to Protect”. Such voice is not irrelevant considering fragility of Kofi Annan’s six-point proposal of peace in Syria. In this connection Neil MacFARQUHAR in his June 9 report published in The New York Times has quoted Kofi Annan “I must be frank and confirm the peace plan is dead”. The journalist has observed that a cease-fire brokered by Annan went into effect on April 12, but the government and the rebels have consistently violated it.

Although unease prevails among many countries about the practicability of humanitarian intervention to resolve crises around the world, Joseph S. Nye the former U.S. assistant secretary of defense and professor at Harvard University believes that such interventions are more likely to occur in future. In his most recent article “Dilemma of Intervention” Professor Nye quotes former U.S. president Theodore Roosevelt in support of intervention. In 1904 Roosevelt said “there are occasional crimes committed on so vast a scale and of such peculiar horror” that we should intervene by use of force.

However, one needs to bear in mind that the basic precept of international law is the prohibition against interference in the internal affairs of other sovereign states. On this basis we can conclude that without due regard for this rule there would be no basis for international order of any kind. Michael Mandelbaum Professor of American Foreign Policy at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies argues that if this rule of non-interference in the domestic affairs of a sovereign nation is inviolable, rulers can mistreat people in any way they like as long as the mistreatment takes place within legally-recognized borders. To stop such mistreatment of a state’s citizens exceptions have been invented so that internal affairs of a UN member can also be brought under the jurisdiction of the international organization. One of the most justifiable conditions permitting the violation of Article 2.7 of the Charter of the UN is authorization of the use of force by the resolution of the Security Council.

Looking at this issue with pessimism smaller and weaker nations such as Nepal have genuine concerns about possible invocation of the principle of the Responsibility to Protect, which can be selectively applied as we have noticed in cases related to Bahrain, Libya and Syria. The permanent members of the UN Security Council have been largely guided by their own national interests rather than humanitarianism. Nepal may not have reached the stage for inviting international military force to restore calm and normalcy but in course of time it may trigger such outside intervention if our ineffectual, visionless and power hungry leaders continue abetting ethnic rivalries for the sake of their own party ends.

Humanitarian intervention is intended for upholding universal values but if narrower national interests of so-called big powers of the current world prevail, the pious objective of saving innocent lives from state atrocities will remain as illusory as ever. One can seldom be forgetful of hard lessons from intervention in Kosovo and Libya.

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