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An Ethical Analysis of Forcible Humanitarian Intervention

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An Ethical Analysis of Forcible Humanitarian Intervention

  1. 1. Interdisciplinary, unpaid research opportunities are available. Various academic specialties are required. If interested, email me at dr.freedom@hotmail.ca. An Ethical Analysis of Forcible Humanitarian Intervention By Oleg Nekrassovski Forcible humanitarian intervention is a military intervention, which interferes coercively in the domestic affairs of another state for the purpose of reducing the suffering of some or all people within that state’s borders. The legality as well as the morality of forcible humanitarian intervention is disputed because the modern international society is built on principles of sovereignty, non-intervention, and the non-use of force (Bellamy and Wheeler, 2011). In fact, in order to protect state sovereignty, international law traditionally prohibited states from interfering into each other’s internal affairs, especially with military force (Feinstein and Slaughter, 2004). The present paper will assess and counter the arguments against legitimizing the practice of forcible humanitarian intervention. In particular, it will be argued that it is our moral duty to stop a humanitarian crisis in another country; state leaders have every moral right to risk the lives of their military personnel to stop a humanitarian crisis in another country, if this risk and especially the collateral damage caused by the intervention will be outweighed by the total reduction in human suffering that it brings about; if forcible humanitarian intervention is legitimized, subject to such rules and restrictions, there is little need to fear that this right will be abused; the fact that states may only engage in humanitarian interventions in order to promote their national interest, is a misguided objection to legitimizing forcible humanitarian intervention. One argument against legitimizing forcible humanitarian intervention states that any violation of human rights (for example), within a particular state, is a problem, the responsibility for fixing which falls solely on the shoulders of that state’s citizens and political leaders. Outsiders have no moral duty to intervene even if they can fix it (Bellamy and Wheeler, 2011). This moral argument does not seem to be particularly convincing, as it suggests that altruism is not a positive moral value. In fact, according to classical utilitarianism, the morally right thing to always do is to seek to bring welfare or happiness to the greatest number of people (Heinze, 2005). Consequently, if there is a humanitarian crisis in a particular state and we can stop it by forcibly intervening, than it is our moral duty to do so. Another argument against legitimizing forcible humanitarian intervention, argues that state leaders do not have the moral right to risk the lives of their military personnel merely in order to reduce human suffering (Bellamy and Wheeler, 2011). Or as Samuel P. Huntington put it, more bluntly, in reference to a specific case of a forcible humanitarian intervention: “it is morally unjustifiable and politically indefensible that members of the [U.S.] armed forces should be killed to prevent Somalis from killing one another” (Smith, 1998). However, Huntington has not usually been known to be a moralist (Smith, 1998), and Smith (1998) himself does not find this argument convincing; nor does the author of the present paper.
  2. 2. Interdisciplinary, unpaid research opportunities are available. Various academic specialties are required. If interested, email me at dr.freedom@hotmail.ca. After all, state leaders have the moral right to sacrifice the lives of their military personnel in order to protect their country from foreign threats – a practice which solely benefits the state’s leaders (in terms of greater public support, etc.) and citizens (in terms of greater security), and hence is completely selfish, at least from the point of view of citizens of other nations. On the other hand, societies that allow their leaders to risk the lives of their military personnel in order to reduce human suffering in foreign lands are far more altruistic, and hence morally superior, than those societies that do not allow such a practice. Moreover, military personnel who have joined the armed forces voluntary (as tends to be the case for most armed forces that take part in forcible humanitarian interventions) have consented to any and all risk to their lives that may come from their service in the military. Hence, it is unclear how risking their lives can be immoral. Also, according to utilitarianism, the morally right thing to do is any action that will lead to the greatest total amount of happiness or welfare. Hence, it is permissible to reduce the welfare of some people if these actions will lead to a proportionate, per person increase in welfare of a larger number of other people (Heinze, 2005). Hence, state leaders have every moral right to risk the lives of their military personnel for the sake of a humanitarian intervention, if they are confident that the total human suffering incurred in the process will be outweighed by the total reduction in human suffering that this intervention will bring. But how can states, that may want to intervene, be reasonably sure that they do more good than harm? After all, forcible humanitarian intervention is similar to a military attack; hence it is inevitable that it will harm and even kill some innocent people in the process (Heinze, 2005). Consequently, a humanitarian intervention should only be permissible when there are sufficiently large scale abuses of people that result in sufficiently severe suffering (e. g. large scale massacre, genocide, or ethnic cleansing). While it would not make any humanitarian sense to attempt deposing a regime which engages in “smaller-scale or less severe abuses such as political repression and intimidation” (Heinze, 2005). Also, along the same lines, it is important to note that the state or an international organization, which is considering a specific, forcible humanitarian intervention, must have sufficient military capabilities (and be willing to use them for this intervention) to easily overpower any military opposition that its intervention may encounter in that specific case (Heinze, 2005). If this is not so, and the intervening force is likely to be defeated, than the intervention will only create more suffering for the citizens of the country in a humanitarian crisis and the members of the intervening force. But even if the interveners are likely to win, but the opponent is too strong, intervening would still be unreasonable because a powerful military opposition is likely to lead to great destruction, and hence, more harm than good (Heinze, 2005). All of the above considerations for a morally justifiable intervention are confirmed by the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS), according to which
  3. 3. Interdisciplinary, unpaid research opportunities are available. Various academic specialties are required. If interested, email me at dr.freedom@hotmail.ca. forcible humanitarian intervention should only take place when a large-scale loss of life or ethnic cleansing are taking place or are anticipated (Weiss, 2004). Moreover, such an intervention should have ‘right’ intentions, be done only as a last resort, should use proportional means, and have reasonable prospects of success. Finally, for the sake of greater neutrality, the Security Council of the United Nations should be the preferred decision maker in such cases (Weiss, 2004). According to Realists, states only act out of selfish motives. Hence, it is argued that there is a risk that if forcible humanitarian intervention is legitimized, states will start using the right to engage in humanitarian interventions as an excuse and a convenient, noble-sounding cover for engaging in additional selfish pursuits of national interest. In other words, the right to engage in humanitarian interventions is open to abuse (Bellamy and Wheeler, 2011). However, given the rules, described above, for distinguishing between morally justifiable and unjustifiable humanitarian interventions, only those humanitarian interventions that follow such rules can be legitimized and all the others forbidden, making it hard, if not impossible, to abuse the right to engage in humanitarian intervention. Moreover, there is little reason to believe that all humanitarian interventions that do happen, are done out of selfish motives. Sometimes states engage in forcible humanitarian interventions out of a combination of a desire to appease the humanitarian sentiments of domestic publics and some genuine moral concerns (Bellamy and Wheeler, 2011). Also, it is argued that because states act only in order to pursue national interest, they engage in humanitarian interventions only, or at least primarily, when they believe that their national interest is at stake. This practice of selecting which humanitarian crises to solve through intervention, based on national interests rather than moral concerns, is deemed as being immoral by its opponents (Bellamy and Wheeler, 2011). Though this practice may indeed be immoral, it is unclear how it can be used as an objection to legitimizing humanitarian intervention. First, because the resources of all states are limited, it would be unrealistic to expect even a hypothetical, morally pure state to attempt to solve all humanitarian crises that arise around the world. Second, even a hypothetical state with unlimited resources, which engages only in those humanitarian interventions which benefit its national interest, still reduces some human suffering in the world. While preventing such a state from engaging in any humanitarian intervention, will mean that it will not be reducing any human suffering at all. Thus, we have seen that intervening into the affairs of another state, in order to solve a humanitarian crisis, is a morally right thing to do. Also, there are several reasons why state leaders have a moral right to risk the lives of their military personnel in order to reduce human suffering in another country. However, forcible humanitarian intervention is only justified when the human suffering, which it will inevitably bring about as a side effect, is smaller than the total amount of human suffering that it will eliminate. This can happen only when the humanitarian crisis is sufficiently severe and when the intervening forces will easily overpower
  4. 4. Interdisciplinary, unpaid research opportunities are available. Various academic specialties are required. If interested, email me at dr.freedom@hotmail.ca. all military opposition. Hence, legitimizing forcible humanitarian intervention, subject to these and related rules and restrictions, greatly reduces the risk of this right being abused. Finally, there are several reasons why the fact that states may only engage in humanitarian interventions in order to promote their national interest, is a misguided objection to legitimizing forcible humanitarian intervention. References Bellamy, A. and Wheeler, N. (2011). “Humanitarian Intervention in World Politics.” In J. Baylis, S. Smith and P. Owens (Eds.), Globalization of World Politics 5th Edition. New York: Oxford University Press. Feinstein, L. and Slaughter, A.M. (2004). “A Duty to Prevent.” Foreign Affairs. Vol. 83(1), p. 136- 150. Heinz, E. A. (2005). “Commonsense Morality and the Consequentialist Ethics of Humanitarian Intervention.” Journal of Military Ethics. Vol. 4(3), p. 168-182. Smith, M. (1998). “Humanitarian Intervention: An Overview of the Ethical Issues.” Ethics and International Affairs. Vol. 12, p. 63-79. Weiss, T. G. (2004). “The Sunset of Humanitarian Intervention: The Responsibility to Protect in a Unipolar Era.” Security Dialogue. Vol. 35(2), p. 135-153.

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