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Human Rights Intervention

Human Rights Intervention

As a leader of a country, what would you do if you saw the leaders of another country massacring their own citizens? What would you do if the people being massacred spoke your language, practised your religion, or were, perhaps, related to you? Would you stand by and watch? After all, that country has not declared war on your country, and the last thing you need is to be dragged into someone else's war. The questions of 'if' and 'when' to intervene - on humanitarian grounds, as a human rights or humanitarian intervention - are always thorny ones, regardless of whether your intentions are noble or questionable.

Human Rights and Humanitarian Intervention: Background

'Human rights intervention' and 'humanitarian intervention' can be used interchangeably. Each individual has a right to basic human rights. However, there can be much suffering when a government instigates, facilitates or ignores the abuse of any individual or group within its jurisdiction. This abuse is often a deliberate and systematic violation of such basic human rights, such as ethnic cleansing and genocide. When this happens, humanitarian intervention is needed so an organisation, mostly a state or coalition of states, step in to alleviate the suffering within the borders of that particular country or state.

The goals of stepping in when there are human rights violations are:

  • Protecting civilians
  • Establishing no-fly zones
  • Establishing naval blockades
  • Closing airspace/travel bans
  • Protecting humanitarian corridors to allow civilians to leave combat zones
  • Ceasefire/s
  • Freezing assets of non-cooperative parties
  • Sanctioning against non-cooperative officials

History

Using the suffering of a population as justification to invade a sovereign state is an ancient tactic. Prior to the post-World War II global order, even Adolf Hitler used it in reference to the protection of 'persecuted' Germans in the Sudetenland. Indeed, irredentism, which involves the protection of people 'trapped' in a foreign country and who are identical to those in the invading country (e.g., ethnic Russians in the Donbas), has been used again and again as an excuse.

Justifications

The five permanent members of the 15-member UN Security Council--the US, Russia, China, France, and the UK--have veto power over resolutions such as supporting the use of force in a humanitarian invasion of a sovereign nation. Because the UN has almost all countries in the world as its members, it is unlikely to support humanitarian interventions unless a government has truly 'gone rogue.' Though it voted for human rights interventions in some cases, such as in Libya in 2011, it has rejected them in others, such as in Kosovo in 1999.

Beyond the UN structure, defence alliances such as NATO have launched interventions with or without the UN's blessing, as have other actors, such as Russia (Ukraine 2022), Vietnam (Cambodia 1978), and many other examples.

The 'Responsibility to Protect' (R2P) doctrine advanced by the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS) in 2001 justifies intervention, though not just in a military sense, in a broader way than in foundational UN doctrines. Cases, where a state is not protecting its citizens, are:

  • genocide
  • war crimes
  • ethnic cleansing
  • crimes against humanity

Criticisms

At best, avowed humanitarian interventions since 1945 have had extremely limited success. At worst, they have advanced other agendas and/or led to the collapse of regimes and power vacuums, ending up creating more problems than they solve. Major criticisms are:

  • The racist legacy of Western colonialism.
  • Too many civilian casualties as 'collateral damage.'
  • Spillover to neighbouring countries.
  • Retaliations against civilians once the intervention has ended.
  • Regime change, creating a power vacuum and failed state conditions.
  • Environmental and health issues.
  • Flimsy justification for hidden agendas such as resource extraction and geopolitical objectives.

You can read through the following examples from the modern world and decide for yourself to what extent human rights interventions are valuable, necessary, or in good faith.

Human Rights and Government Intervention: Post-Cold War Examples

During the Cold War (1945-1991), interventions were circumscribed and limited by the power balance between the West and the USSR. After the fall of the Berlin Wall (1989) and the post-communist transition in eastern Europe, many declared the US the 'winner' of the Cold War, and this was underscored when the USSR collapsed in 1991. With Russia no longer seen as a threat, the West entered an era of frequent foreign interventions, often using humanitarian grounds as justifications. Russia concerned itself with interventions on its own borders as it rebuilt its forces toward an attempted reassertion of its great power status in the 2022 Ukraine invasion (see below).

Iraq War (1990-1991)

Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait sparked a massive response in the West and its allies in the Gulf, with a rapid 'Operation Desert Shield' military build-up that became 'Operation Desert Storm' as the US and its allies liberated Kuwait and entered Iraq, defeating it militarily. US President George HW Bush decided against toppling the Hussein regime at that time, and instead, opted for a 'humanitarian intervention' approach with the stated goal of protecting the Kurds in the north and the Shi'ites in the South, who had collaborated with Hussein's enemies and were thus his targets; he had committed genocidal acts against them in the past. A no-fly zone was enforced. This was a widely-supported intervention endorsed by the United Nations.

Somalia (1992-1993)

The collapse of longtime dictator Siad Barre's regime left a power vacuum filled by warring militias. Somalia became a failed state. The resultant humanitarian intervention was fully endorsed by the United Nations but had limited effectiveness. The withdrawal of foreign forces, following a humiliating attack of US Marines as portrayed in the movie 'Black Hawk Down,' was cited by al Qaeda as proof that the West was not invincible. Somalia was plunged into decades of chaos and famine and has still not emerged.

read our explanation on Failed States if you want to know more about it.

Rwanda (1990s)

The UN peacekeeping mission UNAMIR that intended to keep Hutu and Tutsi from massacring each other, failed miserably in 1994, and up to 800,000 Rwandans died. Planners of the genocide cited the Western withdrawal from Somalia as inspiration and used a similar tactic, massacring Belgian peacekeepers, with the idea that Europeans would not sacrifice more of their own to protect African lives. Seeing the withdrawal of the peacekeepers, the genocidaires felt vindicated and commenced their slaughter. Indeed, the genocide was ended not by the West but by the Tutsi-led Rwandan military-in-exile based in neighbouring DRC. Though the genocide was ended, an example of how destabilising interventions can be followed - elements of the RDF marched across the DRC, toppled the regime in Kinshasa, and all of central Africa was plunged into a regional war that continues in some form today, with many millions dead.

Former Yugoslavia (1990s) - Serbia, Kosovo

The transition to post-communism did not happen peacefully when Yugoslavia broke apart in the 1990s. The West sided with Muslims and other minorities suffering ethnic cleansing in areas dominated by Serbs. A 1995 NATO intervention in Serbia was given the blessing by the UN, but NATO's plea to the UN in 1999 to stop Serbia from ethnically cleansing Muslims in Kosovo was vetoed by Russia and China, close allies of Serbia. NATO bombed Serbia for 77 days, and eventually, Serbia withdrew from Kosovo. Kosovars themselves, as well as Serbs and both NATO and the Serbian military, killed civilians either through collateral damage or on purpose, and massive infrastructure damage also occurred. Kosovo came under the protection of the West and has been recognised as an independent state by the US and many allies. Russia mentioned Kosovo as a precedent in its own 2022 recognitions of Donetsk and Luhansk and invasion of Ukraine, as discussed below.

Libya (2011)

Libya was once one of Africa’s most developed countries, with free healthcare and education for men and women. It also had the highest GDP per capita in the continent, at US$24,000. Much of this can be attributed to its oil and gas exports.

Colonel Qaddafi was a longtime foe of the US and Israel, and despite cooperating in the War on Terror, was eventually eliminated under the guise of a 'humanitarian intervention' in 2011, using UN Security Council Resolution 1973. Air strikes carried out by NATO morphed into a war on the regime, leading Russia (which, along with China, had abstained from voting rather than vetoing the UN resolution) to state that it had been mistaken in not stopping the action and vowing to prevent something like this from happening again. This was indeed the case, most famously in Syria, where Russia intervened on the side of the Assad regime not long after the Libya debacle to stop its toppling by the West.

In another example of the problems with 'humanitarian' interventions, the once-wealthy oil-exporting nation has been crippled by civil war since Qaddafi's government collapsed. Its GDP per capita has dropped to US$7,350. Libya's substantial security presence in the Sahara has disappeared, and the region has seen the rise of numerous trafficking routes and new and rejuvenated terrorist groups.

Human rights intervention Libyan brigade StudySmarterFig. 1 - A Libyan brigade supported by the NATO intervention against the Gaddafi government

War on Terror and Human Rights

The rise of al Qaeda in the 1990s came from US support for proxy forces in Afghanistan in the 1980s. It was buoyed by Western failures to intervene effectively in Somalia, Rwanda, and elsewhere. Al Qaeda asserted that the West's racism led it only to support Western interests and protect Westerners through interventions in the Balkans, and the roots of al Qaeda in US support for jihadist militants in the first place puts this in doubt. The US and its allies quickly attacked and toppled the Taliban in Afghanistan. Though not initially a humanitarian intervention, it morphed into a 20-year-long occupation with humanitarian overtones that ended up leaving the country in the hands of the Taliban again.

Though also not billed as a 'humanitarian intervention,' the 2003 invasion of Iraq, launched under false pretences (Weapons of Mass Destruction and other issues), not only resulted in the near-collapse of the country but enabled the rise of ISIS. Worse for Iraq was the torture carried out by US and Coalition forces, most famously in the Abu Ghraib prison but also in secret 'rendition' sites across the globe. The George W. Bush government normalised the use of tortures such as waterboarding (the Obama government later overturned this) in what it claimed was an effective way to win an existential struggle.

The chaos resulting from what many called an illegal war had huge ramifications, including the continued growth of new Islamist militant groups from combatants who had fought the West in Iraq. The rise of ISIS was part of this chaos, and they were briefly able to carve out a sovereign territory, the 'Islamic State,' from parts of Iraq and Syria. Humanitarian intervention by various countries eventually stopped ISIS from religious and ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine (2022)

Russia fought its own war on terror in 1990s Chechnya, eventually defeating Chechen rebels linked to al Qaeda and the Taliban. Outside its own boundaries, Russia also engaged in limited interventions in Georgia to aid Russia-friendly areas that sought autonomy, such as Abkhazia and South Ossetia (2008). However, Russia's main concern was protecting ethnic Russians living in Crimea and the Donbas in eastern Ukraine, who were at odds with the central Ukrainian government. In 2014, Russians in the Crimea voted to secede from Ukraine and quickly joined Russia. At the same time, the separatist, self-declared republics of Donetsk and Luhansk in the Donbas came under attack from the Ukrainian military, a conflict that lasted until 2022.

Russia massed its forces on Ukraine's border in early 2022 in response to Ukraine's war on the Donbas. It then began what it called a 'special military action' to 'denazify' the Ukraine, support independence for the Donbas, and otherwise stop Western forces, particularly NATO, from penetrating its sphere of influence. This was directly informed by Western actions in Kosovo and Libya, as mentioned above, and thus Russia also characterised its invasion as a humanitarian intervention to save the people of the Donbas.

Human rights and humanitarian intervention

The people who interventions purport to help are often at risk of starvation-linked diseases such as kwashiorkor, and their health conditions, in general, are poor, so humanitarian missions typically have a health component. However, paradoxically, human rights interventions can worsen human health conditions. Some of these include:

  • Water-borne diseases, particularly diarrhoea, because bombing campaigns destroy critical infrastructure (e.g., Kosovo 1999), so people have to use contaminated water supplies.
  • Casualties from unexploded munitions.
  • Poisoning from depleted uranium and other controversial munitions.
  • Starvation (Somalia), as post-intervention governments are ineffective in failed states.
  • Ebola (DRC) is one of many diseases to thrive in central Africa in the power vacuum created by a catastrophic UN response (or non-response) in 1990s Rwanda.

Human Rights interventions Depleted uranium StudySmarterFig. 2 - Depleted uranium is one of the after-effects of humanitarian intervention

Conclusion: humanitarian intervention for the protection of human rights?

The above examples suggest that 'humanitarian' intervention is a contested strategy whereby great powers such as the US and Russia are able to establish a justification for invasions that have other goals. These may include access to resources such as oil and long-term geopolitical aims or prerogatives that are starkly different between East and West. They may also include many other motives, such as distractions from domestic problems and gaining new markets for defence industries. Though it is certainly the case that human rights issues are important as well, it is difficult for neutral analysts to state that humanitarian interventions are for this sole purpose.

Human Rights Intervention - Key takeaways

  • These are defined as military actions whereby a foreign actor invades a sovereign state avowedly to protect civilians at risk or targeted by the government and/or other local actors.
  • The United Nations Security Council has condoned several humanitarian interventions since 1945 but has blocked others. In cases such as Kosovo, interventions are carried out without the blessing of the UN.
  • Interventions often cause more problems than they solve, as they can lead to regime change, power vacuums, failed states, and regional conflicts.
  • Both Russia's and the West's foreign interventions have been widely criticised as thinly-veiled excuses to invade sovereign nations for other aims such as resource extraction and geopolitical goals.
  • Health situations in intervened countries are often worsened as a result of infrastructure damage and lack of governance, leading to starvation, waterborne diseases, and even Ebola.

Frequently Asked Questions about Human Rights Intervention

Humanitarian intervention leads to the protection of human rights, which is essential in saving people and societies from persecution.

The legitimacy of humanitarian intervention depends on the proportion and justification. If excessive military force is used, it can lead to further violation of human rights.

Humanitarian Intervention is when a third party involves itself to actively prevent the gross violations of human rights and persecution of people in another country. The government of the persecuted people is either unable to protect them or is actively participating in the persecution.

Many interventions are believed to include ulterior motives, using human rights as a justification. Furthermore, poorly-executed interventions can result in many more problems than solutions, and lead to great human suffering in the long term.

Humanitarian Intervention is when a third party involves itself to actively prevent the gross violations of human rights and persecution of people in another country. The government of the persecuted people is either unable to protect them or is actively participating in the persecution.

Final Human Rights Intervention Quiz

Question

What are human rights interventions also known as?

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Answer

Humanitarian interventions

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Question

What is a human rights intervention?

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Answer

When a foreign actor invades a sovereign country with the avowed aim of stopping human rights violations. The government of the persecuted people is either unable to protect them or is actively participating in the persecution


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Question

How can an intervention be deemed illegitimate?

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Answer

If the intervention is not justified or not proportionate, the intervention will face controversy and may be seen as having ulterior motives such as resource extraction or geopolitical aims.

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Question

What changed in Libya after the 2011 NATO intervention?

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Answer

Libya is now crippled by civil war with a power vacuum of competing political powers. Libya’s GDP per capita plummeted from US$24,000 (the highest in Africa) to US$7,350.

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Question

Who intervened in Libya in 2011?

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Answer

NATO

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Question

Why was there a human rights intervention in Libya 2011?

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Answer

The UN approved the use of force to topple Gaddafi’s government, alleging that it was committing human rights violations.

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Question

What country intervened in Cambodia in 1978 to stop a genocide?

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Answer

Vietnam

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Question

The US presence in Somalia in 1993 was sanctioned by the UN (True or False)

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Answer

True

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Question

What two former Yugoslavian areas were subject to humanitarian interventions in the 1990s?

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Answer

Kosovo and Serbia

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Question

What is NOT a goal of UN-supported humanitarian interventions?

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Answer

Regime change

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Question

The following was NOT cited by Russia as a justification for its 2022 Ukraine invasion?

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Answer

Nuclear war against the US

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(True or False) The Rwandan genocide was prevented by the United Nations

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Answer

False

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Question

NATO and the UN intervene to protect people of what religion in the former Yugoslavia?

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Answer

Muslims

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