Problems and Controversies in Human Rights

When is it right to intervene in the affairs of a sovereign state?

Sovereign states have rights, including the principle that other states should not intervene in their affairs; however, many states feel a moral obligation to intervene if a catastrophe is taking place in another state. Should the world stand by when innocent men, women and children are facing genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes?

Since the Holocaust ended, there has been a growing view that the international community should act if crimes against humanity are taking place in another country, but there have been many cases where the international community stood by and did nothing as human rights were ignored. Using force in such situations raises both moral and legal questions.

• Forcible humanitarian intervention assumes that there are universal moral absolutes that unite the world, yet Western inventions could equally be seen as a form of cultural imperialism.

• States that intervene can be seen as using humanitarian grounds as an excuse to increase their power and further their own interests, or even as a pretext for the control or annexation of another state.

• Humanitarian intervention is not guaranteed to make the situation better on the ground. The use of force may lead to the loss of more life as war escalates.

• Forcible humanitarian intervention goes against the principles of state sovereignty by interfering in the internal affairs of another state. If the international community increasingly allows humanitarian intervention, this is clearly a challenge to state sovereignty.

• Humanitarian intervention can be seen as contravening ‘just-war’ theory, as it is not a last resort. It could even be another way of starting a war.

One particularly problematic intervention was Western intervention in the Libyan civil conflict in 2011. This was ostensibly made on humanitarian grounds, to stop the bombing of innocent people, but this was soon claimed to be a cover for the overthrow of the Gaddafi regime. Gaddafi’s overthrow also led to more chaos and killing in Libya.

Impact on state sovereignty

The right of a state to determine its own policies is at the heart of what it is to be a state, as well as at the heart of sovereignty. Nothing is more controversial in a state – especially in a democratic state – than foreign interference in the affairs of another state. There is oſten a strong feeling that countries should ‘keep their noses’ out of others’ affairs, whether they are foreign politicians, judges or the media.

China reacted to criticism of its human right record. “The United States made comments on the human-rights situation in many countries while being tight-lipped about its own terrible human-rights record and showing not a bit of intention to reflect on it,” Xinhua State News Agency said. “Since the U.S. government refused to hold up a mirror to look at itself, it has to be done with other people’s help." China alleged the “wanton infringement” of civil rights and “rampant gun-related crimes” in the United States, citing a toll of 13,136 killed and 26,493 injured by gun violence last year. Xinhua said 965 people had shot dead by U.S. police.“

The end of the Second World War saw the most immediate catalyst for human-rights protection, but the end of the Cold War in the early 1990s made practical help possible. The demise of the Soviet Union and the decline of Russia as a global power meant that the UN Security Council, in particular, was able to sanction humanitarian intervention missions. Also, the end of the Cold War seemed to issue a new era of liberal thinking that justified such protection of human rights. Failures of UN interventions include Srebrenica in 1995 Rwanda in 1994 and Somalia in 1995. However, intervention in Sierra Leone between 1999 and 2005 – where a peace-deal was successfully implemented to end a civil war and tens of thousands of fighters were disarmed – was widely deemed to have been successful.

Reasons for selective interventionism, development of responsibility to protect and conflict with state sovereignty

The world is, unsurprisingly, a very complex place. Clearly, the world is not always as we would like it to be. There are inequalities, injustices and innocents who suffer all around the world at any one time. While the West may see itself as upholding liberal, humanitarian values, intervention can be impractical or lead to a escalating conflict, it may even make things worse.

Positioning Iraq in the Metanarrative of the ‘War on Terror’

There are sometimes practical difficulties with launching humanitarian interventions against states. The Syrian Civil War (beginning in 2011) is perhaps an example, as it would have been very difficult for Western military forces to be directly involved in a region such as the Middle East. There will oſten be domestic political pressures resisting intervention; why should troops from one nation fight and die for people in a country its citizens might not care about? This was oſten the argument against NATO involvement in Afghanistan in recent years.

Is interventionism just another form of neo-colonialism, of Western states imposing their values on others?

Is humanitarian interventionism a façade behind which Western states invade and exploit other countries?

Some felt the 2003 invasion of Iraq was carried out just so the USA could gain access to Iraqi oil; claims that the Iraqi regime possessed weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) formed the legal basis, but overthrowing Saddam Hussein because he was a bad man and had violated the human rights of citizens was also a factor. Of course, the danger of humanitarian intervention is that the human-rights abuses are not stopped. Indeed, the situation may be further destabilised, as occurred following the overthrow of President Muammar Gaddafi of Libya in 2011 by NATO-backed forces. One attempt to square the circle of state sovereignty and humanitarian intervention has been the doctrine of Responsibility to Protect (R2P). The doctrine has only been in place since 2005. The idea behind R2P is that part of a state’s sovereignty is the responsibility to protect its own citizens. If a state fails to uphold this responsibility, then the responsibility to protect falls on the international community allowing, eventually, for humanitarian intervention through force. R2P places the focus on state sovereignty coming with responsibilities.

In October 1993, elite American troops launched a disastrous raid in the Somali capital Mogadishu. Their aim was to capture key allies of the powerful Somali warlord, Gen Mohamed Farah Aideed. But US forces met fierce resistance from Aideed's militia. Two US Black Hawk helicopters were shot down.

Alleged Western double standards

During the Cold War, the USA was heavily criticised in some quarters for preaching democracy and human rights on the one hand but overthrowing democratically elected governments and supporting military regimes that used torture on the other. The USA was particularly fearful of communist expansion in its ‘backyard’ – Central and South America. The USA saw this area as its sphere of influence and was not willing to tolerate any attempts by communists to get a foothold there. The USA was willing to tolerate and support military dictatorships that were also anti-communist in nature. The USA supported the Somoza family dynasty in Nicaragua, and attempted to overthrow Fidel Castro numerous times in Cuba. The USA justified this approach by arguing that the USSR was a greater threat to the USA, and Soviet expansionism needed to be stopped. Today, there are still claims that the USA and the West operate double standards. There are numerous criticisms that could be levelled at the USA, including the use of the Guantanamo Bay

Naval Base as a detention camp for ‘unlawful combatants’ in the war against terror and the use of ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’, including waterboarding, which are widely viewed to be examples of torture. The Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq was also a scandal that seemed to show the hypocrisy of the USA when detainees were abused and maltreated in 2003. The US authorities were accused of inflicting ‘grave breaches of humanitarian law’. British troops were implicated in the death of Baha Mousa in Basra, Iraq in 2003. The British were accused of using banned interrogation methods and ‘gratuitous violence’. One soldier admitted a charge of inhumane treatment, becoming the first member of the British armed forces convicted of a war crime. In 2013 a British marine was found guilty at a court martial of executing an injured Afghan insurgent in 2011.

The USA has also been accused of breaching core liberal values in the war against terror through the use of ‘covert rendition’. The US government is alleged to have unlawfully transported terrorist suspects to other countries to by-pass normal legal and human right protections. Detainees were oſten tortured, denied legal advice and fair trials. For a country that prides itself on upholding the rule of law, such acts can be seen as utterly hypocritical. The West is meant to symbolise liberal values of democracy, respecting human rights and upholding the rule of law. However, it is oſten alleged that Western countries ignore these values when dealing with other countries if it suits the national interest of the Western country, or if it means making money.

Allied to the challenge of sovereignty from humanitarian intervention is the role of the International Criminal Court, which is based in The Hague, the Netherlands. Though some significant global actors have not signed up to the court, such as the USA, China and Russia, the court is the first permanent international criminal court in the world. This has advanced the concept of an international higher law considerably. The fact that a large number of states have agreed the definitions of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity and have accepted that these crimes can be tried at an international court suggests that there is a little less anarchy in the international system, and that states are not as sovereign as they once were.