Global Policy Forum

The Dilemma of Humanitarian Intervention


By Jayshree Bajoria

Council on Foreign Relations
June 12, 2008


The Myanmar regime's resistance to international aid following a devastating cyclone in May 2008 spurred a debate about whether forced humanitarian intervention was warranted. Opposition from several countries in Asia and Africa spotlighted the sensitive nature of the issue. States, especially former colonies, have long seen intervention of any kind as a threat to their sovereignty. Humanitarian intervention is no different. There have been some instances in the recent past where countries have opened up to outside aid in the aftermath of natural disasters, but sovereignty remains a sticking point.

Responsibility vs. Sovereignty

The United Nations, formed in the aftermath of World War II to promote peace and stability, recognizes the importance of sovereignty, especially for newly independent nations or those seeking independence from colonizers. The UN Charter says: "Nothing contained in the present Charter shall authorize the United Nations to intervene in matters which are essentially within the domestic jurisdiction of any state." The principle does not rule out the application of enforcement measures in case of a threat to peace, a breach of peace, or acts of aggression on the part of the state. The Genocide Convention of 1948 also overrode the nonintervention principle to lay down the commitment of the world community to prevent and punish. Yet inaction in response to the Rwanda genocide in 1994 and failure to halt the 1995 Srebrenica massacre in Bosnia highlight the complexities of international responses to crimes against humanity.

In 2000, the Canadian government and several other actors announced the establishment of the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS) to address the challenge of the international community's responsibility to act in the face of the gravest of human rights violations while respecting the sovereignty of states. It sought to bridge these two concepts with the 2001 Responsibility to Protect (R2P) report. A year later, the co-chairs of the commission, Gareth Evans of the International Crisis Group and Algerian diplomat Mohamed Sahnoun, wrote in Foreign Affairs: "If the international community is to respond to this challenge, the whole debate must be turned on its head. The issue must be reframed not as an argument about the 'right to intervene' but about the 'responsibility to protect.'"

The commission included environmental or natural disasters as possible events after which the international community could intervene if the state failed in its responsibility to protect its population. But in 2005, when the responsibility to protect doctrine was incorporated into a UN outcome document, environmental disasters had been dropped as a reason for intervention. The document did say it was every state's responsibility to protect its citizens from "genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity." If a state fails to do so, the document says, it then becomes the responsibility of the international community to protect that state's population. The document was unanimously adopted by all member states but is not legally binding.

The doctrine was hailed by international affairs specialists as a new dawn for peace and security. In a 2007 Council Special Report, former CFR Senior Fellow Lee Feinstein wrote that the adoption of R2P was a watershed, "marking the end of a 350-year period in which the inviolability of borders and the monopoly of force within one's own borders were sovereignty's formal hallmarks." He says the doctrine's adoption begins to resolve the historic tension between human rights and states' rights in favor of the individual.

Failure to Address Humanitarian Intervention

Following Myanmar's cyclone in May 2008, some experts say the spirit of the R2P doctrine, if not its letter, was tested. The country's regime was incapable of providing relief to millions of affected citizens and it refused to let in international aid and aid workers for several days.French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner suggested the United Nations invoke the R2P doctrine as the basis for a resolution to allow the delivery of international aid even without the junta's permission. But the French proposal faced opposition from Security Council members Russia, China, and South Africa. China's UN ambassador, Liu Zhenmin, argued it was not an issue for the Security Council. "The current issue of Myanmar is a natural disaster," and the situation should not be politicized, he said. Experts warned that Southeast Asian nations and India might also take exception to intervention in Myanmar.

In identifying one possible case for the application of military force, the 2001 R2P report had included "overwhelming natural or environmental catastrophes, where the state concerned is either unwilling or unable to cope, or call for assistance, and significant loss of life is occurring or threatened." But Ramesh Thakur, one of the original R2P commissioners, says politically, "we cannot ignore the significance of the exclusion of natural and environmental disasters between 2001 and 2005." To attempt to reintroduce it today, he writes, "would strengthen suspicion of western motivations and reinforce cynicism of western tactics." Former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright writes in a New York Times op-ed that the "notion of national sovereignty as sacred" has gained ground after the U.S. invasion of Iraq. "And despite recent efforts to enshrine the doctrine of a 'responsibility to protect' in international law, the concept of humanitarian intervention has lost momentum," she says.

Proponents of the doctrine say another way to raise pressure for action in Myanmar is to focus on rebuilding the country. Those who helped write the 2001 report emphasized that R2P embraced not just the "responsibility to react" but the "responsibility to prevent" and the "responsibility to rebuild" as well. Evans and Sahnoun argued in Foreign Affairs: "Both of these dimensions have been much neglected in the traditional humanitarian-intervention debate. Bringing them back to center stage should help make the concept of reaction itself more palatable." The 2005 UN document also emphasized prevention. It noted: "We also intend to commit ourselves, as necessary and appropriate, to helping States build capacity to protect their populations. and to assisting those which are under stress before crises and conflicts break out."

But David Rieff, a journalist who specializes in humanitarian issues, writes in the New York Times Magazine: "Use any euphemism you wish, but in the end these interventions have to be about regime change if they are to have any chance of accomplishing their stated goal." He points out that the Myanmar government is unlikely to handle reconstruction responsibly given its lack of concern over immediate assistance for cyclone victims.

A Positive Shift?

Though sovereignty concerns linger, especially in Asia, some instances in the recent past have suggested countries in the region might be warming to humanitarian aid intervention. In the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, one of the worst-hit areas was Indonesia's Aceh Province, where the government had been fighting a secessionist movement for more than four decades. The province, under martial law, was off-limits for most international human rights groups, aid organizations, and reporters. But after initial hesitation, the Indonesian government allowed international aid in what Elizabeth Ferris and Lex Rieffel of the Brookings Institution call "one of the largest disaster recovery and reconstruction efforts in modern times, as well as the peace agreement which led to the election of a former secessionist leader as governor of the province."

Similarly, after a powerful 2005earthquake rocked the long-disputed Kashmir region dividing India and Pakistan, the Pakistani government decided to give access to international relief agencies. Moreover, it accepted food and relief aid from neighboring India, with which it has fought three wars over Kashmir. The move was significant enough for regional experts to ask if this could lead to peace. More recently, an earthquake in China's Sichuan Province in May 2008 led Beijing to make unprecedented moves to open up. The Chinese government, which in the past has spurned foreign aid, accepted international aid publicly, opened a hotline for the U.S. military to have increased communication with its Chinese counterparts, and eased media restrictions.

India, by contrast, refused international aid both after the 2004 tsunami and after the 2005 earthquake in Kashmir. Experts say isolationist governments spurn assistance because they seek to retain complete control over their populations, but other countries may reject foreign aid as a matter of international prestige. Pratap Bhanu Mehta, director of the New-Delhi based Center for Policy Research, saw India's decision to refuse aid after the 2005 earthquake as a reflection of its desire to be seen as an emerging global power.

A Worrying Future

In the past two decades, more than 200 million people per year have been affected by natural disasters, according to Ferris and Rieffel of Brookings. "As the earth's population increases and its atmosphere warms, floods, typhoons and hurricanes will undoubtedly occur more often, and will certainly have political consequences," they write. At present the world community has limited options for responding to these humanitarian crises. UN General Assembly Resolution 46/182 formed guiding principles for the international community's response to humanitarian disasters and was central to the establishment of the office of the UN emergency relief coordinator and the development of the Inter-Agency Standing Committee. Rachel Davis, who manages the R2P program at the New York-based International Peace Institute, says this is significant because it seeks to coordinate the UN response with the activity of nongovernmental organizations as well as national and international bodies. She believes the committee works well. "There isn't a clear body of law, but there is this clear multilateral framework for operations," she says.

But the General Assembly resolution reiterates that "the sovereignty, territorial integrity and national unity of States must be fully respected in accordance with the Charter of the United Nations," which makes it difficult to operate in situations where the affected country denies access. In such cases, Davis says "the role of regional actors and neighbors becomes extremely critical." The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) played a very active role in changing the minds of Myanmar's regime to let in international aid after the initial refusal, experts say. But "if our methods short of armed force have no impact and we are not willing to threaten to use military action, there are no good options," says Stewart M. Patrick, CFR senior fellow and director of the program on international institutions and global governance.

At the same time, Patrick says, forced humanitarian intervention is a difficult choice to make. "The crime that the government is guilty of may be a crime of omission rather than commission, so that the level of culpability appears to be less than a government actively making war against its people, for instance in the case of a genocide," says Patrick. Davis calls this reluctance on the part of the world community to intervene "sensible." In matters of humanitarian disasters, she says, "everyone's first concern is for the victims" and if one chooses to force assistance, "the first thing you would trigger is a military response from the government." This, she says, would only make the victims worse off as they then wait for aid. The willingness to use armed force in such circumstances is also inevitably influenced not only by the desperation of the affected population but also by geopolitical factors, including the relevance of the country to the world community, regional stability, and the attitudes of other major players, say experts.

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