In Rwanda, in 1994, the nations of the world abstained from intervening until they could ignore the humanitarian outcry no longer, but were accused of offering too little, too late, and hundreds of thousands of Rwandans died in brutal massacres. In Kosovo, in 1999, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), recalling the atrocities of Rwanda and loathe to repeat the same mistakes as had been made five years previous, intervened militarily against Yugoslavia with the stated goal of driving Serbian forces out of Kosovo, installing international peacekeepers, and returning refugees to their homes. However, the United Nations Security Council did not sanction the NATO bombing and ground campaign and many other questions remained as to the extent to which peaceful solutions were explored before violent action was taken. In East Timor, in 1999, an intervention was sanctioned by the UN, but many had already died by the time peacekeeping forces arrived.
Although many deride humanitarian intervention as a cynical method of fulfilling a nation's political aims, by definition “humanitarian intervention” has a just cause – the preservation of human life. The standard upon which all so-called “humanitarian” interventions must be tried is the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) of 1948, a foundational document of the United Nations, and to this day one of the most important documents in international relations. The rights enumerated within the UDHR are accepted as the global standard by the 194 member and observer states of the United Nations. Indeed, in the Proclamation of Tehran, the International Conference on Human Rights declared that “the Universal Declaration of Human Rights … constitutes an obligation for the members of the international community.” The most powerful court in the world, the International Criminal Court (ICC) of the United Nations, uses the UDHR as a guide to indict individuals for war crimes and “crimes against humanity." According to Article 3 of the Declaration, “everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person.” Therefore, all nations are obligated to respect that right to life, liberty, and security of person stipulated to in the UDHR. This forms the foundation on which the doctrine of the responsibility to protect is based. To ignore the responsibility to protect and to hide one's crimes behind the shield of national sovereignty is just as cynical, if not more so, than the act of intervention with political motives.
However, the decision whether or not to endorse interventions as “humanitarian” remains the purview of the United Nations Security Council. Due to the unique rules and procedures of that body, one country can often derail an entire proposal to intervene on the side of civilians that is otherwise in complete agreement with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and all other international laws. This leads to watered-down and untimely responses from the United Nations, the only international body that, due to its near-universal membership, can confer “true” legitimacy on an intervention from the perspective of all nations. In effect, this forces a decision to be made between two undesirable outcomes: a single nation, or a coalition of nations, can intervene without UN approval, risking international prosecution and censure (Kosovo, Iraq); or nations can do nothing, which is widely criticized by the press and the citizenry, as innocents die (Rwanda, Darfur). In both situations, the outcome reflects badly on both the UN (which looks either impotent or evil) and the doctrine of humanitarian intervention (which looks either opposed to international law and democracy or useless in the face of ruthless dictators/rebels/genocidaires). A majority of the bad reputation that humanitarian intervention has, then, is unearned; it is not the doctrine itself (which is guided by the noble ideal of protecting human life), nor the United Nations as an organization (which is left in the unenviable position of being the impartial mediator) that causes the complaints leveled against humanitarian intervention. It is the member nations themselves who use both the organization and the ideal as an excuse and a scapegoat.
Opponents of the responsibility to protect love to point to the 2003 invasion of Iraq as an example of the cynical and neoimperialistic ways that nations have employed humanitarian interventions. In many ways, it is exactly that. Iraq was a miserable failure of diplomacy and intelligence. However, it is not a sign that the concept of humanitarian intervention is wrong, or that the responsibility to protect is in any way invalid. If anything, Iraq is a reminder that we must improve our systems of international law, that we must put more faith in diplomacy and peaceful resolution of conflict, and that if all else fails, then (and only then) we should intervene militarily.
There is no agreed-upon specific definition of national sovereignty, but a general definition is “the international independence of a state, combined with the right and power of regulating its internal affairs without foreign dictation." Although national or external sovereignty is regarded as a high law of international affairs, there is no law more supreme than the right to life enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Any nation that commits an offense by breaking the provisions of the UDHR forfeits its national sovereignty, and should be subject to judgment according to international laws such as the Rome Statute and the Geneva Conventions. However, not all nations accept international laws and treaties such as these. In these situations, the use of humanitarian intervention is warranted, and if massacres, atrocities, or genocides are likely to occur, then intervention is not only warranted, it is morally requisite.
No nation should be allowed to use the pursuance of peace as an excuse to invade another sovereign state, but neither should any country be allowed to use sovereignty as an excuse to slaughter civilians. Humanitarian intervention and the responsibility to protect are protections against the latter situation. They are part of an ideal: the separation of politics and humanity. Human life should be respected with the utmost solemnity and protected with the greatest fervor. It is not a question of whether or not humanitarian intervention and the responsibility to protect as whole doctrines are valid; it is a question of when we must use them. They are not perfect, but they are infinitely better than the alternative: the deaths of thousands, perhaps millions of innocents.
[Yay for multi-use articles! Originally, this was a paper for an English class, but I think that it works just as well, if not better, as a blog post.]