Reconciling Non-Intervention and Human Rights

By Stuart, Douglas T. | UN Chronicle, June-August 2001 | Go to article overview

Reconciling Non-Intervention and Human Rights


Stuart, Douglas T., UN Chronicle


"When you come to a fork in the road, take it." Yogi Berra's well-known aphorism is an apt introduction to the topic of this essay. Over the last decade, the international community has been protracted engaged in a debate over issues raised by humanitarian interventions in defense of human rights. To date, world leaders have attempted to finesse these issues by committing themselves to the human rights path without abandoning the well-trodden path of non-intervention. When Governments have authorized interventions in support of human rights, they have been able to avoid a direct clash with the principle of non-intervention by citing established legal principles such as "threats to international peace and security" and "failed States". As the precedents accumulate, however; it is becoming harder to skirt a confrontation between the traditional commitment to state sovereignty and the growing commitment to the protection of basic human rights. Some choices have to be made, but they will not be easy or without co sts.

The debate between the proponents of non-intervention and the supporters of intervention in defense of human rights is sometimes presented as a struggle between a cadre of reactionary lawyers and authoritarian rulers on the one hand, and a community of enlightened humanitarians on the other. This is both misleading and unfair. In fact, it is better understood as a choice between two important value clusters. The first is associated with a 400-year tradition of international law based on the principle of state sovereignty. This principle, which is usually traced to the Treaty of Westphalia of 1648, has been the basis for a rich body of rules and practices associated with non-recourse to force, the legal equality of States and respect for differing cultural traditions within countries. The second value cluster can also be traced back four centuries as a principle in international law--to Hugo Grotius' assertion of a "right vested in human society" to intervene in the event that a tyrant "should inflict upon his subjects such treatment as no one is warranted to inflict". In diplomatic practice, however this principle was almost completely eclipsed by the commitment to state sovereignty prior to the 1990s. Viewed in this historical context, the changes that have taken place since the end of the cold war can only be described as revolutionary. Today, it would be irresponsible to publish a textbook on international relations which did not accord a substantial section to human rights and humanitarian intervention.

The international community in general, and the United Nations in particular, now recognize a clear mandate to become involved in situations of large-scale, imminent or ongoing human rights violations. The Economical magazine. on 6 January 2001, contended that this international consensus has only developed since 1999 and is the result of successes achieved in Kosovo and East Timor. If this were true. we would have little reason to predict that humanitarian intervention will become established as a permanent and influential principle in international law and diplomacy. In fact. international interest in humanitarian intervention has been developing for more than a decade. in reaction to such event as the 1989 Tiananmen Square incident, the Iraqi repression of its Kurdish minorities. mass killings and population displacements in Rwanda, and the violent collapse of the former Yugoslavia. The Kosovo and East Timor operations represent stages on this continuum, but they also gave the international community new r easons to be concerned about the way in which humanitarian interventions are being initiated and managed. Kosovo raised questions about the appropriate procedures for authorizing humanitarian intervention and about the appropriate use of force. East Timor highlighted the costs associated with the United Nations Security Council's enduring concern for state sovereignty.

In spite of the mixed results achieved to date, the growth of world public support for humanitarian intervention seems inevitable, since it is driven by transformative changes in communications and transportation technology. …

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