Humanitarian intervention

Humanitarian intervention is the use or threat of military force by a state (or states) across borders with the intent of ending severe and widespread human rights violations in a state which has not given permission for the use of force.[1] Humanitarian interventions are aimed at ending human rights violations of individuals other than the citizens of the intervening state.[1] Humanitarian interventions are only intended to prevent human rights violations in extreme circumstances.[1] Attempts to establish institutions and political systems to achieve positive outcomes in the medium- to long-run, such as peacekeeping, peace-building and development aid, do not fall under this definition of a humanitarian intervention.[1]

There is not one standard or legal definition of humanitarian intervention; the field of analysis (such as law, ethics or politics) often influences the definition that is chosen. Differences in definition include variations in whether humanitarian intervention is limited to instances where there is an absence of consent from the host state; whether humanitarian intervention is limited to punishment actions; and whether humanitarian intervention is limited to cases where there has been explicit UN Security Council authorization for action.[2] Nonetheless, there is a general consensus on some of its essential characteristics:[3]

  1. Humanitarian intervention involves the threat and use of military forces as a central feature
  2. It is an intervention in the sense that it entails interfering in the internal affairs of a state by sending military forces into the territory or airspace of a sovereign state that has not committed an act of aggression against another state.
  3. The intervention is in response to situations that do not necessarily pose direct threats to states' strategic interests, but instead is motivated by humanitarian objectives.

The customary international law concept of humanitarian intervention dates back to Hugo Grotius and the European politics in the 17th century.[4][5] However, that customary law has been superseded by the UN Charter, which prohibits the use of force in international relations, subject to two exhaustive exceptions: UN Security Council action taken under Chapter VII, and self-defence against an armed attack.[6][7] The type and frequency of humanitarian interventions have changed drastically since the 19th century, with a massive increase in humanitarian interventions since the end of the Cold War.[8] Historically, humanitarian interventions were limited to rescuing one's own citizens in other states or to rescue ethnically or religiously similar groups (e.g. Christian countries intervening on behalf of Christians in non-Christian countries).[8] Over the course of the 20th century (in particular after the end of the Cold War), subjects perceived worthy of humanitarian intervention expanded beyond religiously and ethnically similar groups to encompass all peoples.[8]

The subject of humanitarian intervention has remained a compelling foreign policy issue, especially since NATO's intervention in Kosovo in 1999, as it highlights the tension between the principle of state sovereignty – a defining pillar of the UN system and international law – and evolving international norms related to human rights and the use of force.[9] Moreover, it has sparked normative and empirical debates over its legality, the ethics of using military force to respond to human rights violations, when it should occur, who should intervene,[10] and whether it is effective. To its proponents, it marks imperative action in the face of human rights abuses, over the rights of state sovereignty, while to its detractors it is often viewed as a pretext for military intervention often devoid of legal sanction (as indeed a new customary law norm would require sufficient state practice[11]) selectively deployed and achieving only ambiguous ends. Its frequent use following the end of the Cold War suggested to many that a new norm of military humanitarian intervention was emerging in international politics, although some[who?] now argue that the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the US "war on terror" have brought the era of humanitarian intervention to an end.[12]


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