April Putney
Humanitarian Intervention

from the author:
The assignment was to explore a debate within a community. Professor Jankiewicz asked that we choose a community that was of particular interest to us. I chose the International Relations community because it is my major and I hope to find a permanent place within it. I focused on humanitarian intervention because it is incredibly important to have an understanding of this debate in this volatile international society. Unlike other popular debates on capital punishment or abortion, this debate is less about arguing whether humanitarian intervention should or should not happen, and more about when and how it should happen.
from the teacher, Henry Jankiewicz:
My section of Studio 2 Honors was designed as an extended exercise for writers to use rhetorical analysis, argument, and critical research to study and assess a controversy of their choosing and work out positions of their own. April chose the problem of humanitarian intervention, a point of debate in international relations, and worked out a wonderfully nuanced analysis of the views of each philosophical camp toward the claims and values of the others. Little could she have known, a year later, as the U.S. flouts international law to intervene in Iraq, our country as a whole would be taking up the issue, but not in as studied a manner as this.
from the editor:
Having no experience or knowledge with foreign policy or humanitarian intervention prior to reading this piece, I was both excited and intrigued by the April’s thorough information and complete argument. She did an excellent job of explaining each point of view without losing the audience and then quite effectively arguing each point she disagreed with. By the end of the paper, I not only felt like I truly had a basic understanding of all the points, but based on the information, was able to make an educated decision on the issues myself.


Eight hundred thousand Tutsis were killed in just one hundred days, and the world watched some of the most graphic footage seen since the Holocaust. People could not pull away from their television sets, unable to believe it was happening. “Never again,” they had pledged, and yet, here it was in 1994. As the Hutus enacted a massive genocide, attempting to eliminate the Tutsi minority from Rwanda, the world did nothing. The United Nations stalled while the United States refused to have another failure as in Somalia where three American peacekeeping soldiers were dragged through the streets. Belgium was already pulling its peacekeeping troops from the state. The Tutsis’ human rights were clearly being violated. Why did no state intervene and force the Hutus to stop this ethnic cleansing? There was no intervention because states have rights too: political sovereignty and territorial integrity. This battle between states’ rights and individual rights is at the heart of the debate on humanitarian intervention.


Humanitarian intervention is not the same thing as humanitarian assistance or aid; it is not peacekeeping, but peace enforcing. It is an uninvited military operation by one state in another state, in which the intervening state cites mass suffering of the host state’s nationals as its motivation. This sort of intervention is debated amongst scholars and professionals in the international relations community. The debate has three sides: realist, legalist, and moralist. Realists believe that intervention should only occur if it is in a state’s national interest because if not, the host state’s rights are violated. Legalists argue that humanitarian intervention is only acceptable when it is legal according to international law. Moralists claim that a state should always intervene because human rights are more important than states’ rights. This paper will explain and critique the position of each group in order to prove that humanitarian intervention should happen.


The humanitarian intervention debate is not a new one, but it has received more attention recently, mainly because of the Clinton Administration’s continual call for humanitarian intervention. In 1648, the Treaty of Westphalia was signed by all of the continental European powers, in which they agreed that cuius regio, eius religi—the state’s ruler decides the state’s religion—but in effect, the states were agreeing that each state had full control of the happenings inside its borders (“Why and When”). This treaty created the idea of sovereignty. The notion of sovereignty merged with the idea of a just war, as described in their books by Saint Augustine, Saint Thomas Aquinas and Hugo Grotius. Each man tried to define when one would be legitimate in declaring war. In most cases, the only legitimate reason for declaring war was self-defense or to “right a wrong.” Humanitarian intervention falls into this last category. Can one state right a domestic wrong of another state? Many philosophers attempted to determine whether sovereignty did indeed grant rulers the right to do whatever they wanted without any repercussions. For a while, humanitarian intervention was placed on the back burner when the Cold War began, as neither East nor West wanted to interfere with the other’s internal affairs and possibly initiate a nuclear war. As the Cold War ended and President Clinton entered office, this debate regained its visibility as Clinton cited humanitarian concerns in Somalia, Haiti, and Kosovo.



The international relations community is both academic and professional. Professionals are government officials, heads of states, and diplomats. In most cases, the professionals rely on the academic members of the community to make the analysis for forming policy, and occasionally, the professionals were at one time scholars themselves. Scholars are sometimes believed to have less credit than professionals because they usually deal with theory, not practice; thus they can keep their opinions in the abstract. Although this may be true, many scholars are the ones that teach the professionals or give advice; so I believe, in general, they have the same credibility. The scholars and professionals themselves are divided into the three groups stated above: realists, moralist and legalists.



However, each position is more than as stated above. It is perhaps best to think of this debate as lying on a continuum. In this continuum, each position has moderate and extreme views of why and when humanitarian intervention should or should not occur. The realists’ extreme belief is that humanitarian intervention should never take place because states’ rights can never be violated. The more moderate and general expression of the realist position is that a state ought to intervene only when that intervention is in its national interest, where national interest is defined as economic and security interests. The legalists can be described through strict and more lenient readings of the United Nations’ Charter, which they believe establishes international law, thus determining when intervention is legal. Extreme moralists argue that humanitarian intervention should occur every single time there are human rights violations. The more general moralist belief is that it should happen only when there are massive human rights abuses such as genocide or ethnic cleansing.


For the most part, the members of this debate are easily identified within the three groups. However, it is sometimes difficult to understand where everyone stands in this controversy because some people that promote humanitarian intervention using moralist arguments are realists masked as moralists. The complexity lies in understanding their true motives. Although this is a real problem, this paper is going to assume that the members of the community mean what they say when something is an intervention, that it has at least minimal humanitarian motivation.


In a sense, realists are entirely against humanitarian intervention because when they legitimize intervention, it is certainly not for a humanitarian agenda, but to protect and enhance the national interest. States are inherently self-interested creatures, so to expect them to act in any way that is not in their self interest is illogical (Smith 9). Realists argue, as do the legalists, that intervention violates states’ rights, but they add that as long as there is national interest involved, humanitarian intervention should occur. The Bush Administration is a professional realist because it does not advocate humanitarian intervention unless the U.S. national interest is at stake. This is a hypocritical position because on one hand the realists can justify intervention through national interests, but on the other they denounce it through a violation of states’ rights.


John Stuart Mill and other realists argue that if freedom is not “earned” by a people, it will not survive and endure (Walzer 87). The suffering people of a nation cannot be “set free” and expected to succeed without earning their right to self-determination; thus intervention will always fail (Smith 2000). The moralist response to this would be that in many cases, intervention is necessary where there is no self-determination demanded (Walzer 90). The Tutsis in Rwanda were not trying to create a separate state within Rwanda, they were not asking for anything; thus there should be nothing that they must earn in order to live. I would add that although it seems important for a people to earn their right to governance, it is not more important than their right to life. Should earning one’s right to autonomy come at the expense of his or her life? Therefore, Mill’s claim is not relevant because humanitarian intervention is not about governing a people, but saving a people from destruction.


Legalists believe humanitarian intervention should only be taken when it is legal according to international law. They define international law as that which is put forth by the United Nations in its Charter and by what the numerous Geneva Conventions codified. The Geneva Conventions’ agreements are not relevant in this debate because they deal specifically with proper conduct in war and conflicts. The UN Charter is the primary legalist document. Humanitarian intervention is illegal according to international law because Article 2 (4) of the United Nations’ Charter says


All members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state, or in any othermanner inconsistent with the Purposes of the United Nations. (Simons)

Territorial integrity and political sovereignty are two fundamental rights of states according to international law. However, a later article in the Charter adjusts the legality of humanitarian intervention. Only when there is a threat to international security or if the host state gives permission, may humanitarian intervention be legal according to Article 7. Legalists that cite these passages are specifically the representatives of the five member states of the Security Council: China, Russia, France, England, and the United States. They are the principal legalists because they decide when to allow intervention to occur; they make the decision because they are each allowed the right of veto in the Council. If a state wants to intervene with the support of the United Nations, the Security Council has to decide whether the United Nations deems it legal and only the states with the vetoes can prevent the intervention.


The primary legalist assumption is that international law exists. It is true that the numerous Geneva Conventions have codified the laws of war, by merely writing into law the former international norms, and the United Nations has written down its general purpose, mission, and beliefs, but does this necessarily mean that international law exists? If international law exists, there must be a punishment for breaking international law. Returning to Article 2 (4), states should be punished if they threaten force, which would harm another state’s political integrity or sovereignty, but this does not happen. The United States has threatened military bombing of Iraq, India threatened to bomb Pakistan, England accidentally attacked a Spanish island in February, and yet the United Nations has not punished any of these states. Furthermore, in order to have international law, is it not necessary to have some sort of law enforcement? The UN cannot force any state to do anything because it lacks jurisdiction; it can only strongly recommend and use sanctions in efforts to convince the state to follow the rules. The only laws that one could say states follow are the laws of nature, and that law is to survive. Although there may be no formal international law, there are norms that most states adhere to, so if they were only norms, then humanitarian intervention would not technically be breaking any laws. Legalists would probably respond to this criticism by saying that all of the states are morally obligated to follow international law because they agreed to the UN Charter by becoming member states. But if this is only a moral obligation, it cannot be expected to be followed any more so than realists expect states to intervene under moral obligations.


Legalists believe that since sovereignty is a fundamental right of a state, it cannot be broken unless legally done so. Legalists define sovereignty as the inherent right to govern a state without foreign dictation. If it is defined as such, it is clearly illegal to intervene in that state’s affairs because any interference would be violating that state’s right to govern. However, moralists claim that this is not the true definition of sovereignty; instead, sovereignty can best be defined as the supreme will; thus it lies with the people of the state not the political leader of the state. “If there is a conflict between a state and the people, then the people’s will should prevail” (Abrams, 2000). An intervening state will not breach sovereignty as long as the people of that state want the intervention to occur. Moralists do not expect the conflict to halt while citizens cast their ballot, but there must be a general sense that the people want the violence to end; if so, intervention should occur. Of course, there is a realist response to this critique: the idea of sovereignty lying with the people is only appealing to Americans because of the “we the people” philosophy, so it is not valid in the international community. Although this is a valid critique, there is no place in the Charter that specifically says that sovereignty lies with the state’s leader rather than the people. Additionally, moralist Kofi Annan, the Secretary-General of the United Nations, says that “sovereignty does not give the State an unlimited freedom of action; the concept of sovereignty cannot be seen in isolation from other provisions of the Charter, namely those that relate to ‘promoting and encouraging respect for human rights and for fundamental freedoms for all’” (United Nations, 1945).

One last critique of the legalist argument is that although the UN Charter does verbalize the importance of states’ rights, it also promotes the rights of humans. With both rights equally promoted in the Charter, it becomes difficult to determine which is more important. It becomes a matter of opinion as there is no passage that says states’ rights hold more value than individual rights.


One common moralist justification for intervention is questioning how one could possibly not help someone else in pain. Moralists like Michael Walzer, David Rieff, and Mona Fixdal make a comparison between a person at an accident scene refusing to help the victims and a state failing to intervene. Moralists use a false analogy in this argument. Most cite the horrific cases of Rwanda and Burundi as examples of a state’s failure to intervene. Robert Kaplan explains why this analogy is false in a roundtable discussion of Atlantic Monthly. The moral responsibility of an individual and state are not comparable, says Kaplan, because states are not bound by Judeo-Christian ethics, as most individuals believe they are (2000). It is generally believed that the laws of nature govern states; they do what they must in order to survive and maintain internal peace and security. This may mean states will simultaneously ignore what they must as well. Because states and individuals do not have the same ethics, they cannot be held to the same standards of action and inaction. One should only expect a state to intervene in another state’s inhumane actions when citizens of the first state are at risk. This is precisely what happened in Rwanda. Less than three weeks after the genocide started, American soldiers were flown into Rwanda only to retrieve American citizens who had been working as school teachers; upon collecting the Americans, the soldiers left. This action was repeated for all states that had citizens in Rwanda at the time of the genocide. Although this analogy is false, it illustrates the difference between what is legal and what is legitimate.
Humanitarian intervention may not be legal, but it can be a legitimate action for a state to help suffering foreign nationals. This point is illustrated by Gray’s Maxim, named for J. Glenn Gray, a twentieth century philosopher, “the more one can do, the more one must do” (Walzer, 1997: 301). Although one is not legally obliged to act (and acting may be illegal) it does not mean that the state cannot act.


Another false analogy along these same lines is that of comparing humanitarian intervention to the Good Samaritan Law. This is false because although there may be Good Samaritan Laws within the state by which an individual is obligated to help another unless helping would put the individual in harm’s way, there is no such law in the international community. There is no passage in the UN Charter that says states must help other states. Furthermore, what would constitute danger to the state? If a state did intervene, the international community or its own citizens could punish it, not to mention the state’s soldiers’ lives are at risk in an intervention. Thus this is an inaccurate analogy because there is no legal obligation for international humanitarian intervention. Moralists, like Jacques de Lisle, counter that, by saying that although states may not have a legal obligation to intervene, they are not freed from the moral fault of inaction (547).


Although it may be wrong to compare humanitarian intervention to the Good Samaritan Law, it does seem as though there is a better comparison to be made. Michael Walzer makes this comparison by suggesting that intervention is analogous to domestic law enforcement. Essentially, if a state is doing something that would require another state to intervene, the first state is a criminal government (Smith, 2000). In this way, humanitarian intervention is much like the work of the police, Walzer argues, because the governments engaged in massacring its people are easily identified as criminals (Smith, 2000). An example to prove that this is a legitimate analogy is demonstrated by the apprehension of Augusto Pinochet, the authoritarian ruler of Chile, who was arrested after he left office for the humanitarian abuses he committed while dictator.


As an international relations major, I fit into this community as a less credible scholar, although eventually I hope to be an ambassador or something on those lines; thus I might in fact become a professional member in the future. My perspective is unique from the ones I have already mentioned because I am a pacifist. As such, I am struggling with the prospects of using force to stop injustice. Humanitarian intervention is a last resort; it should only be used after failed negotiations and economic sanctions. Although this may seem like what the moralists would want, it is not, as many moralists argued (with respect to Rwanda) that only intervention would work and it should be performed early so as to stop the most suffering. Obviously genocide is not something that can be allowed to go on for a long time, but it should be necessary to at least attempt negotiation and then give warning when a state has decided to intervene. Economic sanctions can be effective in changing domestic policies, as was the case in apartheid South Africa; unfortunately, they can also exacerbate the suffering, as seen in Iraq. Despite their two-part nature, sanctions should be implemented initially, and every attempt should be made to direct their impact at the targeted area. If the sanctions and negotiation fail to end the violations, humanitarian intervention should occur. The host state should be warned of the oncoming humanitarian intervention. A realist would probably say that a warning would put the intervention troops at risk because it would give the host state time to prepare for the “attack,” but this is not a suitable defense. Soldiers are expected to face more risk so that civilians are spared. The military (enlisted and drafted) implies consent to this expectation by adhering to the Geneva Conventions’ rules of warfare. Returning to my position in the debate, as of yet I would best be defined as a scholar lacking credibility, therefore I will keep my opinion in the abstract: I agree with the moralist theory but not its practice when it utilizes violence as the first option.


Humanitarian intervention is one of the most debated topics in the international relations community. One reason this is so controversial is because of the difficulty in judging a state’s true motivation to intervene. The fundamental claims of the legalist position are questionable because not all parties in the community agree on them, thus making this position itself shaky. The realists’ argument seems to be hypocritical as they both justify and oppose intervention. But what this debate approaches is the choice between individual and state’s rights. Although there are some flaws in the moralist argument, I find that it is the strongest position because I believe its basic premise that human rights are more valuable than state rights. Thus, it is the following position, stated by Kofi Annan, Secretary General of the UN, that I believe the world is leading towards: “[Where grave crimes are being committed and] peaceful attempts to halt them have been exhausted, the Security Council has a moral duty to act on behalf of the international community” (Simons, 2001, emphasis added).


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April Putney
April Putney is a third year International Relations and Spanish major. She also minors in economics and hopes to add nonviolent change and conflict resolution to the list as well. Her free time is spent as an active member of NYPIRG (New York Public Interest Research Group). Although she comes from Vermont, April hopes that her International Relations major will help her explore more than her small hometown of Barre. She got a little taste of the rest of the world while studying last semester in Madrid, Spain.