Why has the concept of humanitarian intervention provoked so much debate in political commentary?

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Murad Khalimov

Why has the concept of humanitarian intervention provoked so much debate in political commentary?

Humanitarian intervention encompasses the international community’s actions to assist the population of a state experiencing severe human suffering caused by political collapse, deliberate government policy or natural disaster. The principles that guide humanitarian intervention continue to be a matter of heated debate. The issue is not whether there exists a compelling need and moral obligation to express concerns about populations at risk of slaughter, starvation, or persecution; the issue is about how to craft a just response, when any response will comprise interference in the domestic affairs of a sovereign state. Humanitarian intervention is controversial because it pits the legal principle of territorial sovereignty against what some see as a moral duty to protect vulnerable populations from egregious violations of human rights.

While the construction of global human rights norms has made great strides over the past sixty years, the enforcement of human rights laws has lagged.

Within the UN, the OHCHR is responsible for implementing international human rights agreements, overseeing major human rights programs, and providing global leadership on the promotion and protection of human rights. It also supervises the HRC.

The HRC is a relatively new intergovernmental organization, having been created by the UN General Assembly on March 15, 2006, for the purpose of evaluating situations of human rights abuse and making recommendations about them. At that time, the US, the Marshall Islands, and Palau voted against the resolution; Iran, Venezuela, and Belarus did not vote. There were concerns that the UNHCR did not have the ability to prevent states with poor human rights records from membership on the Council and that the agency’s mission undermined the principle of nonintervention. In June 2008, the US relinquished its observer status and disengaged from the HRC, much to the disappointment and concern of human rights advocates who felt that this greatly diminished the role of the IGO and sent a negative message about the importance of human rights around the world. In May 2009, however the US sought and was elected to a three-year term on the HRC. “While we recognize that the Human Rights Council has been a flawed body that has lived up to its potential”, explained US ambassador to the UN Susan Rice, “ we believe that working from within, we can make the council a more effective forum to promote and protect human rights”.

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Studies have shown that international organizations such as the United Nations “play an important role” in punishing human rights violators and “that seemingly symbolic resolutions of a politically motivated IO can carry tangible consequences”. Nonetheless, despite the significant efforts to monitor human rights and enforce norms and agreements, the effectiveness of the UN and other intergovernmental organizations is constrained, as they can exercise only the authority that member states delegate to them.

In response to these limitations, nongovernmental organizations have assumed an important role in promoting human rights. They have developed an array of transnational advocacy networks ...

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