Before one discusses the necessity for interventions, before one considers the scope and legality of interventions and before one even turns to international law to discuss the circumstances when interventions are permitted; the primary question is of the greater and the lesser evil.
This moral dilemma looms large before us — is the intervention too much or is there not enough of it? Will there not be more deaths due to inaction than the direct action of intervention? The Operation Restore Hope in Somalia in 1992-93 in accordance with provisions under Chapter VII of the UN Charter did not fulfil the expectations of effective and emphatic collective action and came under severe criticism from the international community. Similarly, the interventions by external military forces in 1995 in Bosnia and 1999 in Kosovo were controversial. In case of Rwanda in 1994, however, it was felt that the Security Council had failed to take necessary actions resulting in great human tragedy and it underscored the dangers of delaying timely action. Therefore, it is clear that the basic question in the matter of interventions is: Is the use of military force entirely justifiable to enforce the obligation and responsibility to protect human lives and individual rights?
In the above context, it is important to note that around the world there is an emerging demand for efficient action for the protection of the rights of an individual when it comes in conflict with the use of the powers invested in the sovereign state. The general assumption that the political independence of a state will lead to a naturally heightened improvement in the lives of its citizens assuring them of political and personal freedoms has come to naught. Events around the world have shown that the conflict of state sovereignty and individual freedoms has led to the evolving of political and social crises resulting in the deepening of human tragedy and loss of lives. Errant states, therefore, have to be reconstructed as instruments that serve the interest of its citizens for in the converse, the state turns into the instrument that destroys the rights of its own people. Citizens today are well-informed and empowered and expect their governments to work towards securing them their individual freedoms and rights; they also expect their governments to be conscious that a duty is cast upon the state to ensure that those freedoms and rights are preserved.
The Westphalian concept of sovereignty of the nation state in which there is no role for external agents in domestic structures is irrelevant today. Many support interventions on humanitarian grounds as the only available means of power to secure human rights. The interfacing of Chapter VII and XII of the UN Charter reveals the integration of the international system into the process of taking pre-emptive action for freedom from violation of human rights.
A military strike by a state on another is always regarded as an act of aggression but to be free from obscurity of pre-emptive action in case of interventions, such actions have to be sanctioned and concerted. The UN Security Council has supported state-backed interventions in situations where action is not a choice offered to the international community. A major purpose of interventions is to ensure that they help contain those acts that have required such interventions in the first place. Further, interventions should not only ensure that they do not make way for subsequent interventions in the state but also reduce the likelihood of further interventions in the region. That is to say, an intervention backed by a consortium of the “willing and able” should not become the norm in every international crisis or result in a continuous action that affects other states in the region as a result of the initial intervention. For those arguing in favour of international intervention to resolve the crisis in Syria and complaining of inaction by the US, it should be noted that a reluctant hegemon is preferable to an overeager one. The US, therefore, has to consider its role within the international institution’s agenda and eschew initiatives which fall outside the UN for unequivocal support.
Though there is continuing support from the international community for the norm of non-intervention, one also observes an urgent, rising demand for action to prevent human disasters. The Canadian government in September 2000 set up an independent International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty to study the juxtaposition of the two concepts of international law. In international law under the theory of just war (bellum iustum) — ruled by the principles of right causes to go to war — it is accepted that the principles justifying war is not restricted in cases of humanitarian interventions. The will of the international community thus can be translated as the desire not only to contain, restrict and prevent the actions that threaten the human rights of the people living in that particular state or region but also to prohibit the rise of all other kinds of interventions that may escalate into civil wars and enduring conflicts.
Therefore, to use military forces with the sanction of an international institution like the UN and under the auspices of the Security Council, to quell forces that threaten human rights and lives within the territorial jurisdiction of a state is not only permitted by international law but also endorsed as a means of ending conflicts and civil wars. The use of military force and action has to be proportionate to the threat perceived that demands intervention. There is, of course, always the danger that the “rebel” forces may create situations that seek international intervention to push for their own political power and both the international community and the military forces in action in such interventions have to very carefully study and assess the situation to prevent being used as a means to any private ends. The narrow confines imposed by the UN Charter’s Article 2(4), preventing member states from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state, has now been expanded by international consensus to permit humanitarian interventions and to secure to all people their rights. When conflicts cannot be contained and threaten human existence and dignity it is incumbent upon all others to ensure order is restored, massacres stopped and further deaths prevented.
The writer is an expert in international law and founding member of Centre for Security Analysis, Chennai.