Global Politics

by Andrew Heywood

Chapter 13 Notes: Human Rights and Humanitarian Intervention

  • What are human rights, and on what basis can they be claimed?
  • How, and how effectively, have international human rights been protected?
  • On what grounds has the doctrine of human rights been criticized?
  • What explains the growth of humanitarian intervention, and its subsequent decline?
  • Under what circumstances is it right to intervene in the affairs of another state?
  • Why has humanitarian intervention been criticized?

Moral and ethical questions have always been important in international politics. However, since the end of the Cold War they have attracted intensified interest, as issues of global justice have come to vie with more traditional concerns, such as power, order and security. Moreover, when matters of justice and morality are raised, this is increasingly done through a doctrine of human rights that emphasizes that people everywhere enjoy the same moral status and entitlements. Human rights have come to compete with state sovereignty as the dominant normative language of international affairs and human development. This has created tension between human rights and states' rights, as the former implies that justice should extend beyond, as well as within, national borders. Difficult questions have nevertheless been raised about human rights. Not the least of these are about the nature of, and justifications for, human rights. In what sense are these rights 'human' rights, and which rights do they cover? Other debates concern the extent to which human rights are protected in practice, and whether they are genuinely universal, applying to all peoples and all societies. How far are human rights applied in practice, and how far should they be applied? Tensions between states' rights and human rights have become particularly acute since the 1990s through the growth of so-called 'humanitarian intervention'. Major states have assumed the right to intervene militarily in the affairs of other states to protect their citizens from abuse and possibly death, often at the hands of their own government. How, and to what extent, is such intervention linked to human rights? Can intervention ever be genuinely 'humanitarian'? And, regardless of its motives, does humanitarian intervention actually work?

  • Human rights are supposedly universal, fundamental, indivisible and absolute. Distinctions are nevertheless drawn between civil and political rights, economic, social and cultural rights, and solidarity rights. Human rights imply that national governments have significant foreign domestic obligations, and that justice has acquired a cosmopolitan character.
  • Human rights are protected by an elaborate regime that involves an expanding array of international human rights documents, with supporting UN bodies, a wide range of human rights NGOs and states committed to advancing human rights. Nevertheless, states are also the greatest human rights abusers, reflecting an inherent tension between human rights and states' rights.
  • Since the 1970s, the universalist assumptions that underpin human rights have come under growing pressure. Communitarians and postmodernists argue that human rights are philosophically unsound because morality is always relative. Postcolonial theorists often view the doctrine of human rights as an example of western cultural imperialism, even though they may accept the broad notion.
  • Humanitarian intervention is military intervention carried out in pursuit of humanitarian rather than strategic objectives. It flourished in the 1990s due to the liberal expectations linked to the prospect of a 'new world order' and the (temporary) hegemony of the USA. However, deep concerns have been thrown up about humanitarian intervention by US military involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq.
  • The R2P has laid down conditions for humanitarian intervention, based on a large-scale loss of life, possibly due to ethnic cleansing, where the state in question is unwilling or unable to act itself. Such thinking has often involved attempts to reconceptualize sovereignty, particularly through the idea of 'responsible sovereignty'.
  • Humanitarian intervention works when its benefits exceed its costs, in terms of lives lost and human suffering. Although this calculation is difficult to make in objective terms, there have clearly been examples of successful intervention. Other interventions, however, have possibly done more harm than good, sometimes because of the intractable nature of underlying economic and political problems.