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Humanitarian intervention has become a buzz word of sorts. But is it accepted in international law? Can a state intervene in another state's affairs on any ground? How is a state to determine whether its intervention is capable of bringing about the change it wants to see? Who is to decide if a situation requiring intervention exists in the first place?
“The first question that comes to mind about humanitarian intervention, is if it exists”, said Noam Chomsky. In a world that houses Western states that lived in fear of terrorism and tried to weed out its roots by embarking upon a massive hunt for Osama Bin Laden in Afghanistan by launching Operation Enduring Freedom in 2001 and then seeking to weed out the Taliban and set up a more democratic government, in a world which houses a state that decided that Iraq had to be invaded in 2003 since it had failed to abandon its nuclear and chemical weapons development program in violation of UN Resolution 687 along with a professed intention of getting rid of a dictator to give its people a better leader, and in a world with a western coalition that intervened in Libya to implement Security Council Resolution 1973 through Operation Odyssey Dawn, there is no bigger reality than to accept the fact that humanitarian intervention does, truly exist.
Amidst a host of news reports and ghastly images emanating from the zones under humanitarian intervention each telling terrible stories peppered with statistics that do not show things in good light, there are feeble voices of observers and analysts, questioning the very validity and feasibility of this means of intervention. Traditional international law prohibits the use of force on all accounts under Article 2(4) of the UN Charter, which has attained the massively exalted position of jus cogens. Save for self-defence, as explained under Article 51 of the UN Charter, there is simply no exception to the prohibition on the use of force. These two rules put together spell out some of the basic founts of international anarchy upon which international relations is built- state sovereignty and equality of states. Consequently, one wonders how humanitarian intervention could carve a niche for itself- especially since the general viewpoint favours the notion that most of them are just interventions with a humanitarian pretext- a veiled sham. It confounds the rational mind that the international community has come to accept a flagrant violation of international law when it dons the garb of an action pursued with humanitarian considerations. To a rational mind, it only seems like a wolf in sheep’s clothing.
But what choice is the international community left with, when states are clearly in distress and need help? The rebels of Libya haven’t been able to dent the prowess of a dictator so steeped in antagonism to the values of human rights and democracy. The tyrant has left no stone unturned in suppressing the revolution, and even if it involves taking lives by the dozen, he has showed no signs of relenting. Should the international community turn a deaf ear, sport a blind eye and move on as if everything that is happening there should be within the domestic domain? Certainly not, especially with the transnational nature that the basic norms of human rights have taken- for it is a duty of every state to enforce these rights and guarantee them to the people. However, looking at the past few events, one cannot help but note that there has been a crossing of lines. Afghanistan was no doubt bearing the troubling brunt of the Taliban regime, but the clear intention of the West in its intervention was only just an attempt to capture Osama Bin Laden- a classic case of self-help. Along with trying to result in a by-product regime change, Iraq was also on the same lines, for it was on the premise that the state was building up weapons of mass destruction and nuclear weapons. A thin red line divides a case of intervention on truly humanitarian grounds, and on a mission to seek a regime change while coating the attempt with a glossy sheen of being a “humanitarian” move.
Therefore, knowing that it is fundamentally a necessity in the wake of atrocious events transpiring in some regions of the world, there needs to be a set of ground rules to understand exactly what is allowed and what isn’t, and therefore to quell attempts to toe the line. Primarily, there needs to be a definitive outline of what the term implies, and comes to mean. “Humanitarian intervention” is generally given to be relied upon to prevent or stop a gross violation of human rights in a state and in principle, differs from other kinds of illegal intervention, for it is neither performed wilfully, nor to alter the authority structure of the target State. This should be the very basis of all forms of humanitarian intervention. There must be a moral standard to a policy of intervention, and this element of morality is highly subjective, but not without one element of objectivity. The subjective faction requires that each incident of humanitarian intervention needs to necessarily be undertaken by studying the moral and traditional values of the state seeking to intervene. The objective element lies in the expected standard and yardstick of behaviour of states under the international realm, coupled with questions of human rights and preservation of values of maintaining peace and security world over. This is particularly necessary, for military interventions by countries at first sight assume the air of a ‘humanitarian’ cause and on closer inspection, validate the oft-repeated riposte: humanitarian intervention is a misnomer. In effect, most instances have only come across as being a quest for regime change.
Secondly, the means that are permitted to be deployed to deal with humanitarian intervention is to be defined. The term seems to wrongly suggest that the intervention will take place using humanitarian means. Nothing, however, is further way from the truth. The use of high-flying aircrafts that drops bombs on military as well as non-military targets (the oft-quoted ‘collateral damage’ in the case of Kosovo), is by no means more ‘humanitarian’ than shooting a person at close range or launching a ballistic missile are. The present day instance of deploying drones and the like in Libya is hardly humanitarian. If techniques such as these are put to use, the very purpose of humanitarian intervention is totally destroyed. The common criticism against the use of military force for humanitarian reasons is that it does not do what it sets out to do. It cannot alleviate an already desperate humanitarian situation: in fact it will probably make it worse. There is no point if the process of intervention is going to add to the death toll, or if it is going to destroy the very fabric of the society it is intervening in. This should be settled by exploring various options of peaceful settlement.
Thirdly, the outcome of such intervention needs to be clear. Humanitarian intervention is built fundamentally on the precept that a state’s sovereignty can be dishonoured, if morality demands that we consider not only the good of a single polity, but of the people within, and also keeping with the need to pursue the good of the international community. This involves a simple study of what the result should be, i.e., what the outcome of the intervention itself should be. Every instance of humanitarian intervention brings two benefits with it, if it is carried out in an acceptable manner. A short-term benefit, in the form of bringing the human rights violation to an end, and a long-term benefit which would imply a commitment to rehabilitating the region and overhauling its weak condition. Neither is going to be possible if the method used is violence, and neither is going to be achievable if all that the target ultimately seeks to establish is a regime change without considering anything else.
In this respect, humanitarian intervention is more of an investment and a commitment than anything else, especially since the results cannot, and will not be achieved in a trice. It makes more sense to have a set of rules jotted down, because in the present state of a Banana Republic that prevails where humanitarian intervention is concerned, states are left to redefine the law each time they embark on a journey of humanitarian intervention. And there could be nothing more destructive than that.