Is International Intervention Ethical? A Look At State Responsibility, Sovereignty & Global Commitment

What are the global obligations of international intervention, and under what circumstances is it ethical?

In his remarks on Monday, August 16, President Joe Biden offered a defiant defense on his decision to withdraw U.S. troops from Afghanistan, blaming the collapse of the Afghan government, and violent scenes at the Kabul airport, on the failure and refusal of the country’s government to stand and fight against the Taliban advancement.

President Biden further stated that he had no regrets about his decision to end one of the longest wars in U.S. history, but also lamented that the last two decades of U.S. support failed to turn the Afghan military and government into a force capable of protecting its own country, stating “We gave them every tool they could need…We gave them every chance to determine their own future.”

International intervention. UNSPLASH Andre Klimke
U.S. Military aid in Afghanistan. Photo by Andre Klimke on Unsplash

This multifaceted conflict happening in Afghanistan has not only shed light on the countless human rights violations in this area, but also made people aware and also ponder the convoluted question of whether or not international intervention is ethical, and if so, where does that responsibility fall?

Global Commitments

April 6 marks the International Day of Reflection on the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda. Hundreds of thousands of people perished as a result of systemic killing, and these unspeakable crimes pierced the conscience of the world.

I mention this, because in his speech reflecting and honoring the victims of the genocide, Tijjani Muhammad Bande, President of the 74th Session of the United Nations General Assembly, spoke on behalf of the UN, stating “We recommit to protecting civilians and preventing genocide from occurring ever again. It is our collective responsibility to guarantee the human rights and dignity of every person and uphold the rule of law.” 

In the years following the Rwandan genocide, similar global commitments have been made, including The Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC,) the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS,) and the United Nation’s Responsibility to Protect (RtoP.)

The United Nations, Genèrve, Suisse
The United Nations, Genèrve, Suisse. Photo by Mathias P.R. Reding on Unsplash

Given the current range, frequency, and intensity of humanitarian violations around the world; many feel compelled to say that these various international commitments have failed. At the same time, however, it is essential to note that there have been important advances in the development of the ethical principles and design of practical measures for implementation that provide a more optimistic picture.

It is unquestionable that despite progress being made, the world remains far from the objectives of international laws and treaties. There is a wide range of situations today in which populations are at risk of genocide, war crimes, crimes of aggression, and crimes against humanity, most recently in the news, China, Ethiopia, Myanmar, and Afghanistan.

According to the standards and customs set forth in the Rome Statute, ICISS, and RtoP; it is the responsibility of major liberal democracies to intervene, fight, and protect targeted groups.

The Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC)

Following years of negotiation aimed at establishing an international tribunal to prosecute individuals and states accused of serious international crimes, the United Nations General Assembly convened a five-week diplomatic conference in Rome, Italy in June 1988. By July, the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court was adopted and entered into force in 2002. As of April 2021, 123 countries have ratified the treaty, affirming their global commitment to international justice and human rights.

The Statute established four core international crimes: genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes, and the crime of aggression. Under this Statute, the ICC can only investigate and prosecute the four core international crimes in situations where states are “unwilling” or “unable” to do so themselves.

ICC event “Le Grand Tour de la Justice à Bangui”)
ICC event “Le Grand Tour de la Justice à Bangui.” Insert Instagram photo

In the Preamble, State Parties agree that all peoples are united by a common bond. Mindful of the women, men, and children who have been victims of unimaginable atrocities, and recognize that such grave crimes threaten the peace, security, and well-being of the world. State Parties further affirm that effective prosecution measures must be ensured by enhancing national and international cooperation.

There are serious challenges facing the ICC established by the Rome Statute. For starters, the Rome Statute has no enforcement mechanism against state parties who refuse to cooperate with the court. The ICC has the capacity to meet the expectations of the international community, but it needs a more independent, credible, and effective tribunal to end impunity for those who commit core international crimes.

Humanitarian Intervention and Sovereignty

The international community faces another issue on how and when to protect people when said acts stated are committed. Humanitarian intervention has been controversial in history, for both when it has failed to happen, as in Rwanda in 1994, and when it has happened, as in Kosovo in 1999.

Although there is an understanding that states should protect human rights, respect for the sovereign rights of states is a strong principle that governs relations between states.

International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS)

In his annual report to the United Nations General Assembly in 1999, Secretary-General, Kofi Annan, challenged the international community to address the dilemmas of intervention and sovereignty. To respond, the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS) was established by the Canadian government in September of 2000.

With its central theme of the “responsibility to protect,” the report underlines sovereign state’s primary responsibility to protect their own citizens from avoidable conflicts – from mass murder to starvation. When states are “unwilling” or “unable” to do so, that responsibility falls on and must be borne by the broader community of states.

United Nations Headquarters, New York, USA
United Nations Headquarters, New York, USA. Photo by Matthew TenBruggencate on Unsplash

The Responsibility to Protect principle reinforces sovereignty by helping states to meet their fundamental responsibilities. It offers opportunities for the United Nations system to assist states in preventing the core international crimes and violations and in protecting vulnerable populations through preventive and protective measures.

Are States Failing to Uphold Their Global Commitments?

Although there are a number of comprehensive global commitments for states to uphold, governments are failing to hold perpetrators of core international crimes accountable for their actions. Any honest assessment of these global commitments require people to face this grim reality.

People must also consider, however, other elements that point in a more positive direction as much has been achieved since the 2005 World Summit. It is clear that from the Rome Statute, ICISS, and RtoP; there is a consensus regarding many core elements on the principle of the responsibility to protect, as various intergovernmental bodies of the UN have deliberated and referred to the responsibility to protect and in some cases passed country-specific measures related to the principle.

International Criminal Court
International Criminal Court. Insert Instagram photo

The Security Council has referred to RtoP in more than 50 resolutions and statements, as well as the Human Rights Council referencing the principle most recently in the 2016 resolution on transitional justice. There has also been a development of regional and global networks on the responsibility to protect over the past decade that can support the development of a national practice needed to implement and encourage this principle.

It is clear that collective, comprehensive, and coordinated efforts can make a difference, but the next period of implementation of global commitments must continue to build on advances that have been made and learn from past efforts to move forward. These efforts will help ensure that the principles set forth in the Rome Statute, ICISS, and RtoP will continue to work as a catalyst and deliver more effective protection for all populations around the world.

Lily Adami

Content Editor Associate

Having a silly and hard-working personality, Lily loves getting to know people and is passionate about human rights around the world. She is enthusiastic about other cultures, history, and international affairs. Lily has a deep appreciation for traveling, her favorite places include: Amsterdam, Amalfi Coast, and South Africa.

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