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Does the violation of human rights justify an intervention into the affairs of a sovereign state?

Does the violation of human rights justify an intervention into the affairs of a sovereign state?

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An essay for the 2011 Undergraduate Awards Competition by Kate Solovieva. Originally submitted for International Justice at University College Dublin, with lecturer Dr. Graham Finlay in the category of International Relations & Politics
An essay for the 2011 Undergraduate Awards Competition by Kate Solovieva. Originally submitted for International Justice at University College Dublin, with lecturer Dr. Graham Finlay in the category of International Relations & Politics

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Published by: Undergraduate Awards on Aug 29, 2012
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10/27/2013

 
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Does the violation of human rights justify an intervention into the affairs of a sovereignstate?
The title of this paper brings forth the fundamental debate between the legal and themoral. At what point should our inherent sense of right and wrong give way to constraints of theinternational justice and further, should these constraints be demolished altogether? Such are theoverarching themes of the question on humanitarian intervention. The argument has two broadpossibilities, for and against, both with numerous stipulations on each side as there is indeed nostraight answer; it will depend on the interpretation of definitions, values and individualspecificities of a particular situation. This discussion in history began with the formal conceptionof the law of nations by M. De Vattel (1792), continued into the liberal interpretation of JohnStuart Mill and is relevant as ever today, as is evident in the writings of Jean B. Elshtaindiscussed below. Broadly, the debate seeks to reconcile two very distinct values of theinternational system, sovereignty and individual human rights, which are by definitionincompatible. Human rights were created to protect the individual from state infringement,while the state was created as a civil or political association of citizens who are willing to submitthemselves to its authority (De Vattel in Prins, 147). However modern approaches to humanrights claim that it is possible to envision a human rights - based approach to internationalpolitics, including the question of intervention. Presented below is a discussion of two broadconsiderations on intervention, for and against with arguments on each side to support them, yetthey are by no means exhaustive. The paper does not provide a solution to the key question butseeks to present a well-rounded analysis of possibilities, with a conclusion reached based on thecases presented.
 
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The case for intervention could include one or a combination of the following arguments.The first claim that justifies intervention does so, on the basis of supremacy of universalhuman rights above state rights and sovereignty. An idea (re)born during the Enlightenment andadvanced by scholars of ecclesiastical humanism such as Bartolome de las Casas and Franciscode Vitoria, suggests that rights are attributed to all persons solely on the basis of their humanity.(Anaya, 16) However having been subdued for centuries by nation-state interests in internationallaw, it is not until the twentieth century that the concept resurfaced with creation of institutions
such as the United Nations which now “exists to uphold rights belonging to peoples, not togovernments.” (Prins, 146), and has the obligation “depending on the circumstances…to rescue
victims of ty
ranny…” (Tesón, 94)
This idea is based on the assumption that states can only claimlegitimacy if they have the popular support of their people:
“Governments and others in power who seriously violate those rights undermine the one reason
that justifies t
heir political power, and thus should not be protected by international law” – 
 (Tesón, 93)Tesón further argues that that violation of rights by states places the obligation on foreigngovernments to intervene:
 
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“We have a general duty to assist
victims of grievous injustice...persons in grave danger if wecan do it at reasonable cost to ourselves. If this is true, we have, by
definition, a right to do so.”
 (Tesón, 97)In his article Niezen
claims that the human rights idea has “a wider global reach than any onemajor religion or system of thought.” (Niezen, 86) He further attributes the end of apartheid inSouth Africa and the collapse of Eastern European regimes to “the moral power” of hum
an rightsthan to any other product of international law (Niezen, 87-88). Therefore, according to sometheorists, the significant progress that human rights have made in the international politics andthe conscience of individuals has earned it enough credibility to justify interventions intosovereign affairs.The second argument for intervention builds upon the first and concerns itself with therole of international opinion. Having acknowledged the importance of human rights and seeingthem violated by tyrannical governments, states come together under the auspices of the UN andsimilar organisations, denouncing the violator state and taking a series of measures to influenceits behaviour. This consensus essentially constructs legitimacy to intervene as the last resort, dueto overbearing international condemnation. Here the function of the Security Council needs to beemphasised. New developments in international affairs in the 1990s have increased its influencein decisions with regard to peacekeeping and peace enforcement operations (R2P, 7). The sharedcommunal identity of states within the international system also produces responsibility towardsthe people of those states. This is the idea conveyed in the modern concept of Responsibility ToProtect (R2P) as a fresh look on interventions.

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