Academic journal article Alternatives: Global, Local, Political

Cosmopolitan Guidelines for Humanitarian Intervention

Academic journal article Alternatives: Global, Local, Political

Cosmopolitan Guidelines for Humanitarian Intervention

Article excerpt

An increasing demand has arisen in the last decade for humanitarian interventions. (1) In some cases, such as in Somalia, Bosnia, and Kosovo, these interventions have actually taken place. In many others, such as Rwanda and East Timor, they have been much invoked, but they have not been implemented. The fact that the actual or only invoked military interventions are labeled "humanitarian" serves to make it clear that they may, sometimes, be carried out with altruistic motivations. It is often said that there is a right, and even a duty, to intervene when huge violations of human rights are taking place. This raises important and as yet unresolved implications for the political theory of international relations.

The arguments that have traditionally been used to justify humanitarian intervention are certainly fascinating. The idea that other secular powers could use their military force to rescue inhabitants of other communities and to punish those responsible for atrocities has always had a powerful intellectual attraction. This was an issue at the core of the ius gentium approach, and virtually every treaty from the sixteenth century to the eighteenth century devoted attention to it.

Reading the literature, however, two things emerge. The first is that today we fail to agree with many of the motivations put forward. "Just" reasons for military interventions included other people's religious beliefs, idolatry, incest, sodomy, and ill-treatment of relatives. (2) The second is that a historical reading of the context in which scholars have provided justification for the use of organized violence shows that they were, in the majority of cases, in conformity with the interests of the rulers they served. Kant labeled three main exponents of the ius gentium tradition--Grotius, Vattel, and, rather ungenerously, Pufendorf--as "sorry comforters." (3) This severe remark seems much more appropriate in the wake of the historical investigations of Richard Tuck and others, which have shown the degree to which legal theorists of the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries provided legal justification for the organized violence carried out by their employers.

This does not mean that an intellectual tradition as important as military intervention for humanitarian purposes should not be retrieved and developed. We should, however, be aware that, over the last decade, the distance between long-term ethical principles and short-term decisions has become much narrower than in the past. And when theory leads to action the day after, and vice versa, scholars should be aware of the danger of overlapping too quickly "what is" and "what should be."

Today, philosophical debates on ethics and international relations and on duties beyond borders are used to justify far too many military interventions, including those inspired by the iron logic of political realism. (4) Michael Walzer is certainly right when he stresses that "there are more occasions for intervention than there are actual interventions," (5) but this does not necessarily mean that the interventions that have actually been made were carried out in the places where they were most needed or that they achieved their aims. Better institutional design might, hopefully, increase, if not the number, at least the effectiveness of the interventions undertaken.

The historical context of contemporary military humanitarian interventions should, therefore, be made explicit. Today we are dealing with interventions carried out or supported by liberal Western states in countries of the world's South or, at any rate, in countries with much weaker political, economic, and military capabilities. The issue is not over a military intervention by Mexico to stop the death penalty in Texas or by Cuba to guarantee fair elections in Florida: Clearly, what we are dealing with is military interventions by the liberal Western states in developing countries. …

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