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17 April 2000

"Humanitarian Intervention":
An ethical dilemma

by Miriam Reidy Prost

A new term for a not-so-new phenomenon, "humanitarian intervention" is understood by many as multilateral military intervention in the internal affairs of a state when its goal is to protect civilian populations from grave human rights violations. Others understand "humanitarian intervention" in much broader terms, including coercive economic means such as sanctions.

Whether or not such intervention is justified has long been debated by Christians committed to restorative justice, peace-making and non-violent responses to conflict and human need, as well as those who see national sovereignty as the cornerstone of international law.

The broader question is: what is the appropriate response of the international community to situations in which populations are at risk and their governments are either unwilling or unable to protect them?

Public debate on the rights and wrongs of humanitarian intervention hotted up to boiling point recently when NATO bombed the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. When the World Council of Churches (WCC) Central Committee discussed the issue in August 1999, it decided to mandate a study on the ethics of so-called "humanitarian intervention" which would help it adopt ethical guidelines on such intervention.

In this context, some 35 people from all regions and many disciplines - international lawyers, ethicists, theologians, representatives of churches and other faith communities, staff of the WCC, Lutheran World Federation and Geneva-based humanitarian organizations, as well as people from Sierra Leone, Haiti and Kosovo - met at the Bossey Ecumenical Institute outside Geneva from 6-8 April.

They came to reflect on the topic of "humanitarian intervention" at the invitation of the WCC International Relations Team. Their reflections would then feed into a paper going to the next, January 2001, meeting of the Central Committee.

Should they decide that "humanitarian intervention" is justified, they might suggest criteria for when and how it should happen. If they came to the opposite conclusion, they should propose an alternative response by the international community to populations whose states are unable or unwilling to protect them.

Many dilemmas
Short presentations on ethical, theological, moral and regional perspectives in a discussion moderated by former permanent secretary in Kenya's Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Bethuel Kiplagat, helped pinpoint diverse aspects of what many acknowledge is an extremely complex issue.

One dilemma is the tension between, on the one hand, the responsibility of the international community to protect civilian populations whose human rights are being gravely and massively violated and, on the other, an imperative to avoid the use of violence - which implies giving priority to all other available means which might prevent a human rights crisis from erupting.

Elizabeth Arcinegas from Colombia said that the history of her country is a long one of intervention, most lately by the USA in the so-called war on drugs. Such intervention has rarely been "humanitarian". "They provide the technology and we provide the dead bodies," she commented. A more appropriate response to Colombia's economic and political problems would be global solidarity by the churches, an international campaign to pressure the international institutions on foreign debt, commercial exchanges and new support to popular movements, Arcinegas said.

Another dilemma is related to the intention behind such interventions. "Humanitarian intervention" is perceived as being highly selective. Why intervene in some cases and not in others? Participants pointed out that the label "humanitarian" often cloaks less worthy objectives relating to the economic and geopolitical interests of powerful nations. But while an inconsistent, selective response to human suffering is a moral failure, does it follow that the international community should refrain from acting in those instances when the political will to act is present?

Reviewing the situation in the Middle East, WCC International Relations staff member Salpy Eskidjian from Cyprus suggested that how "humanitarian intervention" is viewed depends very much on "where you're coming from"! In the Middle East politics, religion and cultures are intertwined and the distant past is still present in people's minds. "They link the crusades with 19th century colonialism," she said. All Middle Eastern borders were created by interventions, and there is a general perception that intervention today is a tool of the USA. This view is fuelled by the growth of religious fundamentalism, Eskidjian reported.

Effectiveness is another issue. Will human rights be better protected after a "humanitarian intervention"? Will intervention allow a return to legitimacy or at least to the negotiating table?

Claudette Werle, former foreign minister in the Aristide government, explained that even though UN-sanctioned forces intervened in Haiti at the request of the people as well as of the legitimate government in exile, and even though Aristide was reinstated, her country is now more politically and economically dependent than before.

In the case of Kosovo on the other hand, Editha Tahiri, a Foreign Relations advisor to the Democratic League of Kosovo, argued that NATO had "successfully saved a nation threatened with extinction".

Alimamy Koromo of the Christian Council of Sierra Leone insisted that ECOMOG's armed intervention in his country's "war without a cause" was "an absolute necessity". With the additional interventions of ECOWAS and a UN peace-keeping force, a peace agreement was signed, and "it is now time to switch to the political negotiation process", he said.

National sovereignty and the UN
National sovereignty poses another dilemma. On the one hand, nation states are the guarantors of international law, the effectiveness of the United Nations and the principles of human rights protection. On the other, many nation states are getting weaker and weaker. National sovereignty can seem an outdated notion in relation to the globalized economic power of transnational companies and "proxy agencies" like the World Trade Organization, World Bank and International Monetary Fund. Many states have completely lost their capacity to function through "self-dismantlement and corruption".

In these circumstances, participants said, UN authority becomes indispensable. But the fact that powerful nations dominate the UN Security Council is a problem. The UN needs to be made more democratic and impartial. It needs reform and strengthening. Several participants noted that changes in international law sometimes follow those in customary law, and that breaches in international law are needed before it can be reformed.

The need to come to people's aid in a timely fashion may mean that the decision to intervene has sometimes to be taken without UN sanction. But to act outside established international law can contribute to growing disregard for the law that, in the longer tem, might foster an international lawlessness in which people are deprived of legal protection.

Who requests intervention and who intervenes?
Related to the issue of national sovereignty as opposed to UN authority is the question of who requests intervention. Consultation participants emphasized the need to consult the populations most directly concerned by human rights violations (as well as the importance of strengthening civil society after the strictly military phase of an intervention ends.

Yet another related question is that of who intervenes. Noting the UN principle of subsidiarity, many participants saw an important role here for regional bodies.

Universal rights?
The question of whether or not human rights are universal, indivisible and interrelated raises yet another dilemma. If "humanitarian intervention" addresses gross violations of human rights, which rights are we talking about? Is military intervention justified only where political and civil rights are being violated? What about violations of economic, social and cultural rights? "If the Security Council recognized violations of economic and social rights," commented one participant, "they might pay more attention to warnings coming from grassroots channels" and thereby prevent crises from erupting.

Looking at Asia as a whole, Yoshikazu Sakamoto of the University of Tokyo noted that some Asian societies, particularly those with authoritarian regimes, reject the notion of universal rights. For them, political and civil rights are individualistic and "western". Asian values emphasise collective harmony and social cohesion. "Asian leaders are worried that civil and political rights standards, including workers' right to strike, will be invoked as conditionalities in trade and aid agreements," judged Lopeti Senituli of Fiji's Pacific Concerns Resource Center.

Most participants felt that human life is sacred and that human rights violations deny this principle. But how seriously must human rights be violated to warrant "humanitarian intervention"? Is not the taking of one life sufficient?

Vsevolod Chaplin of the Russian Orthodox Church Moscow Patriarchate suggested that human life is not the supreme value for Orthodox believers. In Orthodox tradition and culture, he said, earthly life is a preparation for eternity and thus of limited value. Salvation is possible only within the church; the national group is understood as one people with a holy mission. Intervention is equated with conversion, protecting sacred objects or sites and preserving territorial integrity is more important than earthly life. Thus national sovereignty and territorial identity must be protected at all costs.

For all these reasons, the consultation participants felt uncomfortable with the term "humanitarian intervention". People may confuse it with "humanitarian assistance" they warned. Kirsi Madi from UNICEF confirmed that attacks on UN and NGO relief workers are increasing because humanitarian assistance has so often been associated with military intervention.

Lack of clarity on how "humanitarian intervention" is understood in international law and practice is another problem. It is sometimes identified with unilateral actions - the US intervention in Grenada and Panama being cases in point - or with multilateral military action without express UN Security Council approval as in Kosovo; sometimes it has been understood to refer to economic and diplomatic forms of multilateral intervention.

Participants noted that "the exercise of lethal military force is not a humanitarian act" since humanitarian action implies "values such as humanity, neutrality, impartiality and universality and is aimed at helping people in peril" while "the use of lethal military force, even when in support of these aims, must by definition include attacks on persons, the destruction of property and other acts of mandated violence."

In the end, the consultation rejected the term "humanitarian intervention" outright. Participants agreed that what they were talking was "the use of military force in support of humanitarian objectives in crisis situations resulting form massive human rights violations".

Despite the complexity of the issue and the limited time at its disposal, the consultation seemed to be moving towards a consensus in favour of "the use of military force in support of humanitarian objectives in crisis situations resulting from massive human rights violations".

This outcome was based on the conviction that "All human beings are created in the image of God with sacred dignity and worth. This fundamental theological affirmation is expressed through advocacy for the human rights of all persons."

"Economic factors, especially blatant inequities and poverty - underlie many of these crises... Economic exploitation has been occurring over long periods of time and continues today... Attention needs to be given to how the policies of international financial and trade institutions and practices of transnational corporations affect the conditions that lead to the eventual need for intervention," they suggested.

"Sin - as a violation of what God intends - is an ever-present reality," participants acknowledged. "It is on such blatant manifestations of sin and evil - human rights violations that are massive, systematic and reasonably forseeable - that we focus." Ruling authorities either generate such violations, or they lack the capacity to counter them. "Some kind of outside intervention then becomes necessary to protect and save lives...".

And thus, "Recognizing that military intervention signals our (the international community's) failure to prevent conflict, and that it will inevitably be marked by sin and incomplete knowledge, we must now act out of love and support the actions of others, including military action, in seeking to bring peace and justice...".

As far as criteria were concerned, participants found many of those provisionally proposed in a February 2000 WCC discussion paper on "The ethics of so-called 'humanitarian intervention'" useful. Many important criteria were implicitly mentioned in the consultation's intense and wide-ranging discussion of and their insistance on the need to limit the use of military force in pursuit of humanitarian objectives.

The rich insights from the consultation, together with comments and reflections by others, will be used to draft a policy statement for the consideration of the WCC's Central Committee in January 2001. Among other challenges, the drafters will need to find a more concise term for "the use of military force in support of humanitarian objectives in crisis situations resulting from massive human rights violations".

The WCC discussion paper on "The ethics of so-called 'humanitarian intervention' is available from Elizabeth Ferris of the WCC International Relations Team. A report on the consultation will also be available shortly.
For further information, contact Ms Ferris at WCC Contact.

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The World Council of Churches is a fellowship of churches, now 337, in more than 100 countries in all continents from virtually all Christian traditions. The Roman Catholic Church is not a member church but works cooperatively with the WCC. The highest governing body is the assembly, which meets approximately every seven years. The WCC was formally inaugurated in 1948 in Amsterdam, Netherlands. Its staff is headed by general secretary Konrad Raiser from the Evangelical Church in Germany.