Should the international community intervene with military force if a state is either unable or unwilling to protect its citizens

against gross human rights violations?


lthough the question whether military interventions for humanitarian reasons is one which easily can lead to most emotional discussions, there has to be a rational approach – and there

is. This rational approach first of all needs clarification of the terms and concepts used. ntervention, in the context of this essay and the report “Responsibility to Protect”, on which it is based, is defined as follows: [...]action taken against a state or its leaders, without its or their consent, for purposes which are claimed to be humanitarian or protective.”1


be considered intervention as well, as there are economic sanctions or rebuilding assistance after natural disasters, to mention just two. irstly, the concept of intervention for humanitarian reasons has to be put into it's historical context. This can easily be done by dividing it's history into two parts: The cold war and the

his essay focuses on the most drastic form of intervention: Military action taken within one country by third countries under the aforementioned conditions, although other actions could

post-cold war eras. During the cold war, the use of military interventions as means of improving human rights situations was limited to the classical forms of UN peacekeeping, for example monitoring ceasefires. It was not before the iron curtain came down that the idea of using military force to ensure human rights gained momentum, although it always was subject of intense discussions.


he 1990s showed both the risks of intervention and non-intervention. When NATO decided to attack Serbia in 1999, the outcry in some parts of the world – especially Russia – was huge.

And till today there is debate whether this attack was justified and successful or whether it actually caused more harm than it should have prevented. Quite the opposite is the case in Rwanda, where the 1994 genocide marked one of the darkest spots in UN history, as international forces where present, but the international community lacked ability or rather interest and willingness to stop the slaughter. his makes pretty clear that there can be no unconditional answer to the question of legitimacy of military intervention. On the one hand it is obviously morally close to impossible to justify

inaction when confronted with atrocities as they occurred in Rwanda, on the other it seems to be an intolerable violation of one core achievement of the United Nations: The concept of state sovereignty. Thus the prerequisites that make an intervention legitimate and rightful have to be strict
1 Evans, Gareth; Sahnoun, Mohamed: The Responsibility to Protect. Ottawa: International Development Research Centre. 2001. p.8.

and precisely defined. Six prerequisites can be named:

Just cause: This is the threshold prerequisite. Military intervention is only justified if it aims to reduce large scale loss of life and/or ethnic cleansing. Right intentions: The intention of the military action taken has to be the reduction of human suffering. Last resort: There are various means of influencing a state which is either unable or not willing to protect it's population from aforementioned harm. The UN charter is pretty clear in stating that military action can only be considered if everything else failed. Proportional means: Contrary to conventional warfare, military intervention does not aim to win completely over an enemy, but to end an situation and improve the lives of the population on ground. Thus the means have to be chosen accordingly. Reasonable prospects: There have to be reasonable prospects that a peaceful and safe situation for the populus can be achieved. Authority to act: The only body on earth that can authorize military intervention is, despite all its flaws that became apparent during the past years, the United Nations Security Council. It is the one body competent to decide in security matters that draws its legitimacy from the general representation of the United Nations. ith all this prerequisites fulfilled, military intervention is not only admissible, but even an obligation – at least a moral one. At this point state sovereignty is not an argument against


intervention any more, but one in favour. This is due to its mutual nature: A states sovereignty is not only directed outward, as expressed in the freedom from foreign forcible influence, but also inwards by giving the state the responsibility to grant its population a life in dignity. One cannot be without the other, as there is no freedom coming without responsibility. Another basis for the legitimation of intervention is the commitment towards the protection of human rights which the international community has expressed through the United Nations charter, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the covenants on human rights. In addition to this there are also reasons beyond altruism that make military interventions feasible. In the modern world, globalized and interdependent as it is, even regional and intra-state conflicts can amount to a threat to “international peace and security”, which the UN charter sets as a threshold for intervention in chapter 7. These interdependence also means that conflict in a distant part of the world can have a backlash on otherwise unaffected countries – be it via migration, economical ties or modern media, which can put significant pressure on governments to end suffering elsewhere.


ltogether, the answer to the question whether the international community should make use of its military capabilities to end suffering elsewhere is a clear “Yes, but...”. Under the

aforementioned conditions, military intervention appears as an necessity – but the prerequisites are tough and often difficult to evaluate, additionally the international bodies to govern this kind of action, especially the Security Council, seem to be less and less up to their task. To allow for truly legit military interventions the international community has to do quite some work at the reform of its processes and institutions. Still, given the atrocities this dangerous world poses to some of its inhabitants these days, one might argue: It is better to intervene once to often than to let genocide happen anywhere.