Intervention, Right of

By Michel Deyra 

State humanitarian aid under the protection of the military is a new chapter in foreign relations. A new departure, and one that is a priori surprising for some states, cold monsters more concerned with sovereignty than with compassion. From Somalia to Mozambique and from Cambodia to Kosovo, the military have begun to learn … humanitarianism! That is one of the by-products of the so-called Right of Intervention, which some circles – uniquely French circles – talk so much about, in an effort, no doubt, to persuade themselves that there is in fact such a right. Having failed upstream, in the prevention of conflict, states intervene downstream, and humanitarian action becomes the extension of diplomacy by another name. It is either a sad acknowledgement of impotence, or a dangerous lust for power! Which entails three critical risks.

The retreat of public international law. International sovereignty cannot be conceived as the sum of positive powers which a Nation might have to intervene in a third-party state on humanitarian grounds. On the contrary, the principle of non-intervention in internal affairs rather represents a negative restriction. This retreat of law started with the intervention in Iraq after the war over Kuwait, and grew with the refusal to seek UN authority for NATO aerial strikes in Yugoslavia. Does it now become necessary, in the name of that intervention on humanitarian grounds which some now consider morally superior to every other consideration, to breach the two fundamental principles of international relations, that of national sovereignty and the Charter of the United Nations? Indeed, can morality and should morality contravene the law?

Inconsistency of application:
the cases where the indignation of the outside world has led to intervention have been selective and carefully chosen, namely Iraq (the country had been destroyed beforehand), Somalia (which was in anarchy), ex-Yugoslavia (had imploded). But there are many more cases where the humanitarian cry has not arisen: Myanmar (Burma) and Tibet (where the crisis is now half a century old!), Burundi, Sudan, Chechnya, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Mozambique, Colombia, Algeria, and so many others that the media were not able, or willing, to bring to public attention. The strong feeling aroused by the destruction of a few Buddhist statues even overshadowed the intolerable suffering of women in Afghanistan or slavery in Sudan.

Confusion of the fields of law: By which the law of war (in other words the law that applies during war) becomes the law allowing the right to use force – forgetting the prohibitions against war in international law – as if some wars might be justified, even if not just, and that there might even be such a thing as a humanitarian war! This chaos gets worse when humanitarian values are discounted in order to justify such interventions, as Western states normalise relations with totalitarian regimes in China or Iran – on behalf of whose peoples or minorities no-one begins to advocate a comparable intervention. Resigning oneself to the systematic use of military means to underpin humanitarian action is to abandon all hope of persuading warring parties to respect humanitarian needs and above all to protect the civilian population, whose only effective weapon is the law.

One cannot get around the illegality of outside intervention by invoking a variety of legitimating factors, for these insistent allusions to legitimacy do no more than to crudely and vainly mask the illegality of such interventions. There are only two legal ways to bring help to those beyond one’s boundaries: humanitarian initiatives under treaty law, or humanitarian aid, through resolution of the United Nations. Law and interference are fundamentally opposed: if there’s law, then it is not intervention; if there is intervention, law has been abandoned.

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