“Humanitarian intervention” is a mechanism relied upon to prevent or stop a gross violation of human rights in a state, where either the state is incapable of doing the needful for its people, or, where the state is unwilling to do the needful for its people or may be the perpetrator of human rights abuses against its people. In terms of the intent, it differs from illegal intervention in that the ultimate gain of a humanitarian intervention is for the people of the state intervened into. Practice thus far shows that most states would ideally prefer to secure UN authorization for intervention on the basis of humanitarian considerations.
Although technically, the UN Charter prohibits the threat or use of force by one state in violation of another state’s political independence and territorial integrity under Article 2(4), the shades of black and white on paper have been merged and painted into gray in reality. Despite the prohibition, the intervention of one state in the territorial sovereignty or political independence of another state has happened plenty of times. There have been instances of covert intervention through coercive policies through withholding privileges or benefits, in a bid to make another state change its political or economic policy. These forms of intervention have remained untouched by Article 2(4) because of the “force” element as required by the article’s oft accepted interpretation, being conspicuous by its absence. However, the evolution of intervention on humanitarian grounds when it involves military force, would be tantamount to a violation of Article 2(4). The only exception on paper, to Article 2(4) is Article 51, which allows self-defence in response to an armed attack- also echoed under the portals of customary international law and judicial opinion. However, with the Security Council authorizing some interventions on humanitarian grounds, and with some other instances of unilateral and unauthorized interventions, reality has suggested the evolution of what should reasonably be accepted as another exception.
Many scholars identify the 1990s as a ‘decade of humanitarian intervention’. The UN has authorized intervention for humanitarian grounds in Yugoslavia in 1999, Somalia in 1992, and Sierra Leone in 1999. During the 1990s, even when the specific action was not authorized by the Security Council, intervention occurred, such as the establishment of no-fly zones in Northern and Southern Iraq in 1991 and 1992, the bombing of the Bosnian Serbs by the NATO in 1995, and the NATO’s Kosovo campaign against Yugoslavia in 1999. Some instances of intervention though unauthorized, have been declared legitimate- like the NATO Intervention in Kosovo, in 1999. More recently, the military intervention in Libya, though frowned upon by several states in the international community, can be said to be “lawful” since it was authorized by the Security Council in Resolution 1973, in ostensible exercise of its powers under Chapter VII of the UN Charter.
There are arguments in support of humanitarian intervention- “We can’t stand and watch when a state is faced with an extreme humanitarian crisis.” “How can we let mass slaughter happen? How can we let people die?” But, most times, this implies the invasion of a sovereign state- an issue which has its own arguments in its support- “How can we justify invading a sovereign state even if it is for humanitarian purposes?” “Who has the right to decide if a situation is ripe enough to warrant an intervention?” “What principles govern the modality of intervention?” The scholarly arguments on both sides- from those supporting and those against humanitarian intervention, have considerable weight, and the debate can go on for years.
With the Responsibility to Protect being endorsed in the World Summit, 2005, the importance of humanitarian intervention was amplified- if the international community has an obligation, a responsibility to protect, how else can they act on this responsibility, but by intervention? The “Responsibility to Protect” notes that sovereignty is not a privilege, but a responsibility. A state is obligated to take care of its people, and owes its people that. But when a state fails or refuses to do this, per the Responsibility to Protect, the state’s responsibility can be said to “devolve” on the international community. This makes the consideration of humanitarian intervention in terms of state sovereignty out of step with the realities of international relations and international law. However, reality warrants such a consideration, since, no matter how much one may say that sovereignty cannot be violated, there is a general consensus amongst most members of the international community that states do not have the right to do whatever they want to the humans living within their boundaries. Therefore, a state cannot simply subject its people to wanton human rights abuses, violence and massacre and lay claim that what it does is its own business. From a moral standpoint, side-stepping sovereignty itself is acceptable in the wake of a greater concern where people are subjected to gross human rights abuses.
As Noam Chomsky put it, The first thing about Humanitarian Intervention is that it exists.