Does Foreign Military Intervention Help Human Rights?

By Peksen, Dursun | Political Research Quarterly, September 2012 | Go to article overview

Does Foreign Military Intervention Help Human Rights?

Peksen, Dursun, Political Research Quarterly


This article examines the effect of foreign armed intervention on human rights conditions in target countries. It is argued that military intervention contributes to the rise of state repression by enhancing the state's coercive power and encouraging more repressive behavior, especially when it is supportive or neutral toward the target government. Results from bivariate probit models estimated on time-series cross-section data show that supportive and neutral interventions increase the likelihood of extrajudicial killing, disappearance, political imprisonment, and torture. Hostile interventions increase only the probability of political imprisonment. The involvement of an intergovernmental organization or a liberal democracy as an intervener is unlikely to make any major difference in the suggested negative impact of intervention.


military intervention, human rights, repression, third-party intervention


Foreign military intervention is a pervasive feature of international politics.1 States frequently resort to armed forces with various self-interested and humanitarian goals. With military intervention being a popular policy tool, and potentially more risky and costly than nonmilitary strategies, a large body of research has been devoted to the possible consequences of intervention for the target state. The extant literature has examined whether foreign armed operations promote democratization (e.g., Meernik 1996; Hermann and Kegley 1998; Pickering and Peceny 2006; Bueno de Mesquita and Downs 2006; Gleditsch, Christiansen, and Hegre 2007), cease internal armed conflicts (e.g., Regan 2000; Balch-Lindsay and Enterline 2000; Stedman, Rothchild, and Cousens 2002), sustain longer term peace and stability (e.g., Diehl 1993; Doyle and Sambanis 2000; Fortna 2004; Call and Wyeth 2008), and change socioeconomic circumstances in target countries (e.g., Pickering and Kisangani 2006; Peksen 2011).

While this line of research has been insightful in understanding the possible effects of intervention, scholars have yet to fully study the human rights impact of the external use of force. There are two notable studies that partially address the connection between intervention and human rights practices. Meernik, Poe, and Shaikh (2006) examine only the U.S. military intervention cases for the period 1977- 1996 and find no major effect of the U.S. interventions on human rights in target countries. Murdie and Davis (2010) show that peacekeeping interventions with a humanitarian purpose will likely improve human rights conditions. Yet they also find that humanitarian missions, at least in the short term, might adversely affect empowerment rights such as political freedom and workers' rights. Another major finding of the same study is that the peacekeeping interventions that attempt mediation between the belligerent groups might lead to greater level of respect for human rights.

A major limitation of these studies is their focus on a single country's use of force (U.S. military intervention) or a small subset (third-party intervention in civil wars) of intervention cases. Furthermore, these studies suffer from a serious methodological problem using one-stage econometric models where they only predict the impact of intervention on repression. By doing so, they overlook the issue of reciprocal causation (i.e., endogeneity) between the foreign interference and human rights abuses. Besides the possible human rights impact of intervention, poor human rights conditions in the target state resulting from ongoing complex humanitarian crises, violent conflicts, and other socioeconomic problems might trigger external intervention. It is therefore imperative to model the mutual interdependence between the use of force and repression to avoid biased statistical estimates and offer a more accurate analysis of the human rights effect of intervention.

Given the limited scope and methodological shortcomings of the studies, more research is needed to determine whether foreign armed interference has any major impact on human rights conditions. …

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