Academic journal article Harvard International Review

Evil by Any Other Name: Humanitarian Intervention for the 21st Century

Academic journal article Harvard International Review

Evil by Any Other Name: Humanitarian Intervention for the 21st Century

Article excerpt

In 1978, Deng Xiaoping began the economic reforms now referred to as Gaige Kaifang, through which China ushered in an era of unprecedented receptivity to foreign influence. The shift to liberalized trade policy led to reduced poverty levels and set China on the path to economic strength. But the reforms also catalyzed massive change within the formerly centralized medical system. Medicine is now the domain of the private sector, along with provincial and local governments, rather than the national authorities. While market reforms in the economy have been a boon for the Chinese, similar reforms in the health care system have improved quality but also created unequal access to health care due to rising costs.


The 20th century was the most violent in the history of mankind. Looking back across the war-torn century, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan voiced the blood-soaked wisdom of the era in a 1999 speech to the UN General Assembly and urged for the next hundred years to be more peaceful. After a century marked by such violations--from the Armenian genocide and the Holocaust during World War II to the horrific reign of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, and from Slobodan Milosevic's "ethnic cleansing" campaign in Bosnia to the brutal Rwandan genocide--one lesson seemed clear: The timidity of the international community in allowing crimes against humanity to go unstopped or unpunished because of state sovereignty, was unforgivable. Throughout the century, millions had died at the hands of their own governments while the world watched and did nothing.

Taking this lesson to heart, US President Bill Clinton stated in 2000 that the United States had the right to intervene in any country it deemed to be abusing the human rights of its citizens, based solely on humanitarian grounds. It was a far cry from the turn of the nineteenth century, when the inviolable tenet of state sovereignty prevented punishment of even the most heinous crimes by state leaders.

A decade into this new century, looking back at two bloody--and ongoing--conflicts that the United States and its allies justified at least in part or in retrospect on humanitarian grounds, it is evident that repenting for the international community's inaction in the 20th century has likewise proven deadly and troublesome. Indeed, since the beginning of the decade, the European Union has intervened abroad more than 15 times under the justification of humanitarian intervention. Some interventions have been successful; many have not.

The concept of military humanitarian intervention--the most visible and controversial form of humanitarian intervention--is being rethought and redefined. The international community has realized that forcefully imposing Western systems of statehood and development is an onerous, painful, and perhaps impossible process that harms the occupier as much as the occupied. Indeed, some recent interventions have ended up being so violent and bloody that they can hardly be considered "humanitarian." But international players like the United Nations, the United States, and the European Union also refuse to abandon failed and struggling states like Somalia, Zimbabwe, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Pakistan, Haiti, and Yemen--after all, there are cases where, both morally and politically, inaction is not an option. So where is the line to be drawn?

Just War?

Oxford University professor Adam Roberts, the President of the British Academy, has defined humanitarian intervention as "coercive action by one or more states involving the use of armed force in another state without the consent of its authorities, and with the purpose of preventing widespread suffering or death among the inhabitants." The term humanitarian intervention encompasses a wide range of possible actions--including economic sanctions and diplomatic efforts--and involves military force only in the most extreme cases. …

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