"Humanitarian intervention, which is ruled out by realism and the morality of states, can only be justified by a cosmopolitan morality." Discuss.

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Lucy White

War, Peace and International Ethics

Tutor: Mr. Barry Holden

Spring 2001

Essay 2:

“Humanitarian intervention, which is ruled out by realism and the morality of states, can only be justified by a cosmopolitan morality.” Discuss.

The concept of humanitarian intervention has been an issue in world politics ever since the Cold War. Since the Gulf War it has been argued that there is a need for increased thought about when humanitarian intervention is justifiable. One of the main arguments against the idea of humanitarian intervention is that it contradicts the concept of the sovereignty of states. The leading characteristic of the world political scene in recent centuries is the place of the sovereign  as its chief component. By definition,  denotes complete exclusion of other states from a state's domestic affairs. Intervention by other states into those affairs thus challenges the essential nature of a state and has consequently always been regarded as a hostile act. Nevertheless intervention has in practice been a common feature of international politics. This essay will discuss whether humanitarian intervention can be justified in relation to the morality of states, realism and cosmopolitan morality.

It is widely accepted that there is a clear overlap between human rights and the justification of humanitarian intervention. Most say that, where there is gross infringement of human rights, humanitarian intervention is justified. Humanitarian intervention is characterized typically by military intervention in order to diminish human suffering. It can be argued that military intervention is indeed less severe than economic sanctions, as sanctions can affect a larger number of people. Mason and Wheeler provide an excellent definition of humanitarian intervention:

        “…Humanitarian intervention only occurs when one or more states intervene with military force, or the threat of such force, in a territory that is beyond their jurisdiction, where a weighty and non-instrumental part of their doing so is to end the suffering or oppression of some group who live in it. In order for intervention to count as humanitarian, at least part of the basic reason for intervening must be to end suffering or oppression, though there might be other reasons which also motivate, for example national interest.”

However, humanitarian intervention, as suggested by the title of this essay, is ruled out by the morality of states. But which should have greater priority, humanitarian intervention or the morality of states? To demonstrate the rule of the sovereignty of states, it is useful to cite J. S. Mill’s Liberty Principle. His view was that individuals should be free from regulations, that they should be able to do what they like as long as it only affects themselves. When it involves others, the individual is subject to regulation in the interest of preventing harm to others. Mill also constructed a liberal defence of intervention in cases where the destruction of the target population could be shown to the responsibility of the intervening power. However, the analogy between states and individuals can be pushed too far. Simply being a state involves acceptance of being a part of a body of rules. The most important moral rules become part of international law, which subsequently incorporates the morality of states. However, there is no international authority to enforce these rules, whereas a government has the authority within its state to enforce the rule against murder. One would hence be inclined to agree with Hobbes who upheld the view that where there is no regulation, there are no rules, not many people abide by rules which are totally unregulated. With regards to humanitarian intervention, if sovereign states are subject to international rules, and hence intervention in affairs within that state, how is the state sovereign? It is argued that the state remains internally sovereign, but this still rules out humanitarian intervention by the morality of states. The morality of states concludes that the states, like individuals, have a right of autonomy, which protects them from external moral criticism and political interference.

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Realism does not rule out intervention completely, but does rule out humanitarian intervention, as an outside state should not have any personal interest when employing humanitarian intervention. But this point is arguable, as there can be mixed motives in the use of humanitarian intervention. It is a widely held belief that, had there not been any oil in Kuwait, the international community would not have acted as decisively as they did. Yet international law dictates that a state cannot pursue actions which may benefit its citizens if these actions infringe upon the sovereignty of another state. There is, of course, ...

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