In 2000, United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan posed a question to the Millennium Summit of the UN: “If humanitarian intervention is, indeed, an unacceptable assault on sovereignty, how should we respond to a Rwanda, to a Srebrenica–to gross and systematic violations of human rights that affect every precept of our common humanity?”
In fact, many people are quite surprised to discover that until quite recently it was unequivocally “against” international law to intervene in another state’s affairs, no matter how brutally its rulers abused its subjects. The old concept of state sovereignty was enshrined in the UN Charter, which, despite its opening invocation of “We the peoples of the United Nations,” was actually a mutual insurance pact among states, which left their peoples at their mercy.
George W. Bush’s September 12 speech to the United Nations manifested both the seductions and the dangers of “humanitarian intervention.” Carefully researched for its audience impact, it invoked the plight of the Iraqi people to justify enforced regime change, knowing that there was a growing constituency, nationally and internationally, for such a notion. However, the record of his own Administration and its predecessors betrays at best a very limited interest in the welfare of any of the Iraqi people.
It is precisely such expedient invocations of humanitarianism that breed genuine worry across the world, and not just from the guys protecting their sovereign rights to massacre or imprison Chechens, Uighurs or whomever. Indeed, when the issue of using military force to protect the Kurds in Iraq first arose in 1991, lawyers at the UN told me the only existing precedent for “humanitarian intervention” was Hitler’s invocation of the plight of the Sudeten Germans against Czechoslovakia. Unsurprisingly, none of the states that provided air cover for the Kurds cited that precedent.
However, the move to protect the Kurds (at least from the Iraqis–no one stopped the Turks even when they raided the protected zone later) revived what is still a far from generally accepted concept in international law. When, later in the 1990s, humanitarian reasons were cited for interventions in Haiti and Kosovo, the more acceptable and solid legal cause of threats to international peace and security was always thrown in. In Haiti, of course, that was a bit of a stretch. Haitian boat people landing on the beaches of a swing state like Florida does not quite fill the bill–unless it is the President of the United States making the argument. But outside Washington, the Haitian military had few fans, so there was little opposition to intervention.
The application of this interventionist rationale may be new, but the principle itself has been around for much longer. In the 1940s the UN took up the issue of apartheid in South Africa, and the international conventions against apartheid and genocide both chipped away at the notion of absolute sovereignty. Since the UN passed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, followed shortly afterward by the Geneva Conventions, it could be argued that states have made binding promises to observe the rules and should be held to account for not doing so.