Markkula Center of Applied Ethics

Humanitarian Interventions: Asking the Right Questions

By Almaz Negash

As he did in so many cases, Mahatma Gandhi called us to the most fundamental of our ethical obligations: "All humanity is one undivided and indivisible family, and each one of us is responsible for the misdeeds of all the others. I cannot detach myself from the wickedest soul."

Every day, thousands of people die of hunger, HIV/AIDS, war, and genocide. The world community is witness to tremendous human suffering that often seems to have no end in sight. As you all know, the situation in the Darfur region of Western Sudan is grave. Innocent people are being massacred, raped, and displaced by the very government that is supposed to protect them. Yet, world leaders have not implemented an effective mechanism to intervene either by using existing measures or by creating new measures to halt atrocities such as genocide.

It was only 10 years ago that the world witnessed the genocide in Rwanda where more than 800,000 women, men, and children were massacred in just 100 days. The world community at the time did little to stop the massacres. Now, we are witnessing genocide in Darfur where more than 70,000 men, women and children have been murdered by the Janjaweed government-backed militia; more than 1.5 million have been displaced. Yet, once again, the efforts to stop the atrocities have so far failed.

The question of intervention in the affairs of a sovereign state by the international community has long been debated in international relations. Intervention as a tool to halt abuses and restore stability has risks as well as benefits.

Several critical considerations arise in regard to humanitarian intervention. It is, of course, the state's responsibility to protect its own citizens. The first and most essential consideration, therefore, is when is it appropriate for one country to intervene in another when the state is failing in this responsibility? There is so much evil in the world. It is impossible to intervene everywhere people are suffering. The second consideration deals with who should act, and under whose authority action should be taken. Thirdly, once it is determined that there should be an intervention, what obligation is there to see the intervention through to achieve peace, economic recovery, and even elections, as well as ensure safe settlement of refugees and displaced persons? How far does the humanitarian responsibility extend?

It is every generation's responsibility to do as much as possible to eliminate manmade epidemics and human suffering. Such crimes can not be abolished in a short time, and even if temporarily halted, there is always the possibility of their reemergence. It is a continual fight against humanity's capacity to do evil.

Again, the challenge for the world community is what justifies humanitarian intervention. We believe the United States must confront these critical ethical and moral questions:

  • When, if ever, is it appropriate for states to take coercive, and in particular, military, action against another nation for the purpose of protecting citizens at risk?
  • If there is a right of intervention, how and when should it be exercised and under whose authority? What should be done if this right is misused?
  • Does the Untied States, as the world's sole superpower bear a special responsibility to lead and fund interventions?
  • What should be done if and when the United Nations Security Council, to many the preferred authority for any intervention, fails to intervene?


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