When Is Humanitarian Intervention Justified?

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When is Humanitarian Intervention Justified?

“The regime is killing us, many of the opposition fighters are becoming criminals and the world is watching it like a film” (The Economist, 2013). This is a statement by a Syrian student whose sentiment has become common amongst Syrians. According to the UN, since March 18th 2011, the date that marked the beginning of the Syrian uprising, 70,000 Syrians, mostly civilians, have died, but the death toll is likely to be considerably higher (ibid.). The conflict between followers of the governing Ba’ath Party and the Syrian opposition, which has turned into an utter civil war (Nebehay, 2012), has also resulted into a substantial refugee problem and a deficiency in basic resources and services that has led to “more than 4 million Syrians now lack[ing] fuel, electricity, a telephone line and food” (The Economist, 2013). These facts reveal that the Syrian situation, which has been going on for more than two years, has turned into a conspicuous humanitarian catastrophe. Yet, “both NATO and the United States have stated in no uncertain terms that they will not intervene” and “Russia and China have vetoed efforts in the UN Security Council to condemn Syria” (Landis, 2012).

I used Syria as an introductory case study because it forms a contemporary demonstration of the extent to which states can abuse their sovereignty rights, “treating [them] as a license to kill” (Bellamy & Wheeler, 2011, p.512). Although the international community has gotten militarily involved in other instances, for various reasons it is not willing to do so in Syria, as it was not ready to intervene in Darfur in 2003-4, when the Sudanese government “embarked on what the UN has described as a reign of terror” (Bellamy & Wheeler, 2011, p.520), despite previous “declarations that such crimes must ‘never again’ be allowed to happen” (Stark, 2011, p.4). In this essay it will be argued that within today’s normative context, especially with our conceptions of humanity and the historical struggle behind it, and with an increasing interdependence of states, the international community is provided with a justification to intervene militarily in states that abuse their sovereignty rights, using unjustified force against their own people, committing genocides or mass atrocities, and causing thereby massive human suffering and a potential threat to international security. It will be stressed that this justification is strongly linked with the time and normative setting we live in, but also that humanitarian justifications can be abused and must therefore be carried out within a certain framework to be viewed favorably by public opinion. For the scope of this essay, humanitarian intervention will be defined as “the threat or use of force across borders by a state (or group of states) aimed at […] ending widespread and grave violations of the fundamental human rights of individuals other than its own citizens, without permission of the state within whose territory force is applied” (Holzgrefe & Koehane, 2003, p.18).

It is crucial to note that social norms are in constant evolution. They are essential to the understanding of international politics because they define “the rights and duties states believe they have toward one another […], the goals they value, the means they believe are […] legitimate to obtain these goals, and the political costs and benefits attached to different choices” (Finnemore, 2003, p.53). As a consequence, the meaning, role and motive of humanitarian missions have changed quite significantly over time. In the 19th century, unlike today, “intervenors found reasons to identify themselves with the victims of humanitarian disasters in some […] exclusive way”, which is strikingly demonstrated by the fact that “before the twentieth century virtually all instances of military intervention to protect people other than the intervenor’s own nationals involved protection of Christians...
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