The Use of Force and Humanitarian Intervention

Subject: Politics & Government
Pages: 10
Words: 2481
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Study level: Master


Humanitarian intervention has increasingly become a contentious issue in legal, political, social and ethical discourses. According to Brunnée and Toope (2010), the United Nations Charter prohibits states from subjugating the sovereignty of other countries under the provisions of Article 2(4). This Article requires nation-states to refrain from taking actions that contravene the objectives of the United Nations (Pape 2012). The Security Council has the ultimate power to sanction the use of force to safeguard international security and peace (Massingham 2009). Despite this prohibition, states have continued to interfere, even militarily, in the affairs of other sovereign nations on humanitarian grounds.

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The recent developments in Ukraine, Syria, Libya, and other countries indicate clearly that humanitarian assistance is becoming an exception to the rules of Article 2(4). The United Nations defines humanitarian intervention as the “legitimate use of force by states against another state for the purpose of alleviating human suffering in the latter” (Hurd 2011 p. 294). The international community uses force in countries that perpetrate flagrant human rights violations (Kuperman 2013). This essay will discuss how nation-states interpret the legality of humanitarian intervention, as well as the rationale behind the use of force.

The Use of Force in International Law

The doctrine of international law is to regulate war and conflict between nation-states. The international community has formulated a raft of legal measures to govern the conduct of states during war and the use of force (Howse & Teitel 2010). The United Nations Charter is the most significant piece of legal instrument that establishes the legality of military intervention based on two provisions (Van Steenberghe 2011). First, the UN Charter outlaw’s states from using force against other sovereign nations. Second, this agreement mandates the Security Council to make all the decisions regarding the employment of military force (Hurd 2011).

Article 2(4) prohibits member states from either using or threatening to apply force against other sovereign states (Pape 2012). Bellamy (2010) has asserted that this prohibition safeguards political independence and territorial integrity of nation-states. Secondary to Article 2(4) is Article 2(3), which requires UN member states to pursue “peaceful means” to resolve interstate conflicts. Article 2(4) negates the power to use force by states and transfers it to the Security Council through Articles 24, 39, 42 and others (Massingham 2009). For example, Bellamy has noted that Article 24 grants the Council the ultimate authority to maintain international security and peace.

Although these statutes are fundamental to maintain international order, their application brings to question the legality of humanitarian intervention (Barnett & Weiss 2011). The recent events in Ukraine, Libya, Syria, and onward have refocused attention on the contestation between sovereignty and humanitarianism. Ongoing debates are revealing divergent and radical views on each side of the spectrum (Williams, Ulbrick & Worboys 2012). Kuperman (2013) has argued that these disagreements have emerged because of the differing interpretations of international treaties. Pape (2013) has asserted that humanitarian intervention will complicate the ambiguities inherent in the definition of sovereignty.

The protection of human rights and liberties has now become the core of democratic governance (Barnett & Weiss 2011). Nonetheless, widespread violence continues to expose global populations to immense suffering. For instance, the actions of Syria and other aggressive countries are an affront to the consciousness of humanity (Stahn 2013). The international community can intervene militarily because the use of force is permissible to protect and preserve human rights (Bellamy 2010). Conversely, some nation-states have contravened this principle to pursue political gains. The question that begs is the extent to which the international community should interfere with the internal politics of sovereign states (Brunnée & Toope 2010).

The Legality of Humanitarian Assistance

The main objection to the legality of Article 2(4) of the UN Charter has been the controversial interpretation of using force against the “territorial integrity or political independence of any State” (Brunnée & Toope 2010 p. 14). The point of argument is that this Charter does not prohibit humanitarian intervention expressly (Pape 2012). In practice, two imperative forces in the international politics have assimilated humanitarian intervention into the framework of international law. First, the evolution of the concept of human rights provides moral grounds for nation-states to respond to despicable acts with force (Hurd 2011). Second, Bellamy (2010) has found out that states are increasingly using humanitarianism as a justification for their military interventions.

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The international community did not interfere with the internal affairs of sovereign states after 1945 even in cases of widespread violations of human rights (Van Steenberghe 2011). For instance, the genocide in Rwanda, Southern Sudan, Kashmir, and Burundi warranted humanitarian intervention. Nonetheless, the international community chose to reaffirm the existing doctrine of non-interference (Brunnée & Toope 2010). On the other hand, nation-states intervened only to protect their nationals living abroad rather than mitigating a humanitarian crisis affecting the local population (Grima & Melling 2011). Howse and Teitel (2010) have indicated that the end of the cold war and the various rulings by the International Court of Justice has demystified the scope of non-intervention.

The international community has demonstrated the willingness to intervene collectively in the internal affairs of other states on the grounds of humanitarian assistance (Hurd 2011). The Security Council redefined the use of force to facilitate humanitarian relief operations in Somalia, Iraq, Kosovo, and other countries. The Council did not only condemn the grievous humanitarian conditions in these countries but also sanctioned the use of every necessary means to restore security and peace (Grima & Melling 2011). Although the Security Council does not authorize the use of force explicitly, Pape (2012) has demonstrated that the UN does not reject military intervention either.

The significance of the previous actions by the Security Council is that they have redefined the permissibility of humanitarian intervention in international law (Kuperman 2013). The Council has also acknowledged the fact that the failure to observe human rights constitutes an affront to international security and peace. Consequently, the international community carries the mandate of using all necessary means, including the mobilization of military resources, to protect humanity (Hurd 2011). Conversely, the Security Council has to approve humanitarian intervention to ensure the legitimacy of military action (Bellamy 2010). Thus, Pape (2012) has opined that the unilateral choice of humanitarian intervention is unlawful because it lacks opinio juris and state practice to modify the appropriate international law.

Three conditions influence the application of humanitarian intervention. First, nation-states should only intervene after all the available non-combative actions fail to bear fruits. Article 33 of the UN Charter requires the international community to impose sanctions, pursue negotiations, and apply other diplomatic means exhaustively prior to using force (Brunnée & Toope 2010). Secondly, the Council is the only organization mandated with monitoring the situation and controlling the actions of international players to limit the chances of abuses. Humanitarian intervention becomes legitimate once the Security Council authorizes the employment of force (Massingham 2009). Thirdly, the General Assembly responds appropriately if the Security Council fails to act decisively (Howse & Teitel 2010).

The Application and Interpretation of Humanitarian Assistance by Nation-States

The preceding discussions have underscored the essentiality of the Security Council in sanctioning the use of force on the grounds of humanitarian assistance. The central question that emerges regards the legality of states intervening militarily to prevent human rights violations without the authorization of the Council (Kuperman 2013). The invasion of Iraq by the U.S and its allied forces has continued to elicit controversy because the Security Council did not authorize this action. The overriding concern is that states may pursue the use of military force using the pretext of humanitarian intervention to accomplish ulterior motives (Bellamy 2010). President Bush argued then that diplomacy had failed in Iraq, and mobilized support from willing partners to pursue a military objective (Brunnée & Toope 2010).

The Iraqi war was not a humanitarian intervention for two reasons. First, the Iraqi people were not suffering from egregious human rights violations to warrant international interference (Howse & Teitel 2010). Second, there was no proof of mass slaughter or genocide before the period of invasion (Hurd 2011). The United States had argued that the situation in Iraq would improve after using force to overthrow Saddam Hussein. In addition, the US authorities justified the use of force to destroy weapons of mass destruction, which portended to undermine international security and safety significantly (Pape 2012). The current situation in Iraq has brought into question the legality of humanitarian intervention in Iraq. In fact, political commentators are blaming the escalation of insecurity in the region on the U.S invasion (Barnett & Weiss 2011).

The longstanding conflict in Syria has also brought to the fore the legality of using force to stop the blatant violation of human rights (Stahn 2013). The Security Council has adopted a unanimous resolution on Syria, which includes the destruction of chemical weapons. Despite these measures, the Assad regime and rebel forces have continued to kill innocent citizens unabated (Schmitt 2014). The humanitarian situation in Syria calls for a collective action within the international community, including the use of military force (Williams, Ulbrick & Worboys 2012). Schmitt has reiterated that legitimate states are responsible for protecting their citizens from acts that violate fundamental human rights. The UN Charter allows international actors to intervene under the provisions of Chapter VII in cases where nation-states fail to fulfil this mandate (Bellamy 2010).

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Although the current situation in Syria necessitates humanitarian intervention, the Security Council is yet to reach a conclusive decision over the use of force. The point of argument is whether the international community should intervene militarily for humanitarian purposes without the approval of the Security Council (Stahn 2013). The United Kingdom has indicated that humanitarian intervention is legally justified in cases that meet three conditions. The first requirement is the availability of convincing evidence of extreme humanitarian distress that requires urgent and immediate relief. Secondly, the lack of practical alternatives should support the use of force. Third, the humanitarian intervention should maintain the scope and time of its aim (Schmitt 2014).

The present situation in Syria has met the conditions outlined above, especially after the country used chemical weapons in eastern Damascus in 2013 (Stahn 2013). Humanitarian intervention would be justified to disrupt and deter the Syrian regime from using chemical weapons against its citizens in the future (Schmitt 2014). The United States and the United Kingdom had threatened to use force, an action that prompted the Security Council to pass the 2118(2013) resolution. The threat of using force may have stopped Syria from using chemical weapons but the humanitarian crisis persists (Williams, Ulbrick & Worboys 2012). The issue now is whether international law should permit the international community to implement humanitarian intervention unilaterally (Achmitt 2014).

The Security Council has been incapable of authorizing the use of force to deescalate the mass atrocities that are continuing in the Syrian Civil War. This failure has motivated concerned nations to advocate unilateral military operations using the legality of humanitarian intervention (Kuperman 2013). The international community has demanded the use of progressive force in Syria based on the doctrine of moral authority. Nonetheless, this principle raises pertinent legal questions. For example, political analysts have queried the use force in Syria considering that there was no military intervention in Darfur, North Korea, and other parts of the world where similar murders took place (Hurd 2011). Another fundamental concern is that aggressive states might invade other nations under the pretence of humanitarian intervention, as was the case in Crimea (Reeves 2014).

States have continued to take advantage of the humanitarian exception to validate military aggression and invasion. Russia’s military activities in Eastern Ukraine and the annexation of Crimea have exemplified the use of humanitarian intervention as an excuse to foster political ambitions (Reeves 2014). The Kremlin has often argued that its actions were legitimate to protect its nationals living in the region. In fact, the Kremlin has indicated that the people of Crimea requested Russia to protect them from Ukrainian forces. By contrast, the international community has criticized Russia for two reasons. First, Russia did not conduct a proper evaluation to determine whether the Ukrainian government was violating human rights. Second, Russia has challenged the independence and sovereignty of Ukraine by annexing part of its legitimate territory (Henderson 2013).

The events in Crimea and other parts Eastern Ukraine exemplify the scope of misusing humanitarian intervention for political purposes. Russia perpetrated violence against a sovereign country intentionally with full disregard of the international law. On the other hand, political commentators have argued that the events in Crimea do not meet the legal threshold of aggression (Schmitt 2014). Disregarding these conflicting opinions, Russia has been supplying weapons to pro-Russian gunmen, in addition to crossing the Ukrainian border to oversee the annexation of Crimea. The Kremlin has continued to provide support to the separatists operating in Donetsk (Reeves 2014). Russian authorities have countered these claims by arguing that other states have also supported the opposition and other non-state organizations (Henderson 2013).

The United States and other countries have admitted to the potential or actual provision of weapons to opposition forces in Libya and Syria. More recently, western forces have been arming the Kurds in Iraq to escalate the war against ISIS (Henderson 2013). NATO has asserted that the provision of weapons to rebels and other non-state actors is legally permissible to protect civilians, and it does not constitute interference with the internal affairs of sovereign states (Schmitt 2014). Russia has used Syria as an established jurisprudence to support its actions in Crimea. The difference is that Russia has been arming rebels in Eastern Ukraine secretively (Reeves 2014).


The primary responsibility of the United Nations Security Council is to safeguard international peace, security, and order. Conflicts between states are imminent, which necessitate the formulation of an international law to provide recourse. Article 2(4) of the UN Charter prohibits states from threatening or using force against other sovereign nations. Nonetheless, the development of human rights and the practice of states have brought to the forefront the doctrine of humanitarian intervention. The purpose of this principle is to sanction the use of force to prevent the violation of human rights. Conversely, concerns have emerged over the possibility of aggressive nations to invade other countries as a pretext for international intervention.

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The UN Charter has limited the application of unilateral humanitarian intervention by requiring the Security Council to authorize the use of force. By contrast, divisions within the Council are reigniting debate over the legality of independent decisions regarding the employment of military force. Despite these contestations, it is imperative for the international community to intervene in situations where there is widespread violation of human rights. However, humanitarian intervention should be the last resort. States should avoid making autonomous decisions that violate international law and the supremacy of other states. Instead, international support and cooperation should supersede humanitarian intervention as an exception to the provisions of Article 2(4).


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