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Humanitarian intervention: neither right, nor responsibility, but necessity?

Published on May 5, 2009        Author: 

I’d like to offer a small “think piece” contribution to a bigger debate, in which I try and tease out a question that has troubled me: do we need a positive right of humanitarian intervention? What would happen if we conceded it was prima facie an unlawful use of force, but was legally (not just morally) justifiable or excusable in a particular case? My tentative conclusion is that the defence of necessity might prima facie be available to justify a use of force in an humanitarian intervention but would face some significant problems on close scrutiny.

We’re all by now familiar with a certain account of the development of the idea of humanitarian intervention. Let me offer a stylised version of this narrative, with its inevitable oversimplifications by way of introduction.

On one account humanitarian intervention begins as an idea supported by academics, is then invoked (not always consistently) by a small handful of States in concrete cases from the 1990s onwards, is opposed by the 170 member States of the Group of 77 and has now been at least partially supplanted by the “responsibility to protect” (R2P). Paragraph 139 of the World Summit Outcomes Document, however, would appear to reduce R2P to an agreement that the UN is the only legitimate forum for authorising intervention and that the Security Council should act in cases of humanitarian catastrophe. There is very little sign, though, of UN practice in support of this vision of R2P as a collective, institutional responsibility. On this stylised account, what began as an attempt to modify the positive rules on the use of force and non-intervention appears to have been folded back in to the status quo ante. (Albeit that a caveat might have to be entered regarding interventions endorsed or carried out by regional organisations.)

What has always puzzled me about the debate over forceful humanitarian intervention is that proponents and critics have invariably cast it being either a right or a duty. Are there any obstacles to conceptualising it as a justification or excuse for an otherwise illegal use of force? After all, the “right” of self-defence is easily considered such a “circumstance precluding wrongfulness” (i.e. a defence), and is categorised as such in the ILC Articles on State Responsibility.   Read the rest of this entry…

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