The ‘humanitarian intervention’ heresy and its perils
In a Guardian article on 25 May 2005 (unguardedly headed ‘We must not give up on intervention’), Professor Brian Brivati, Professor of Contemporary History at Kingston University, appealed to the UK and other countries to bind themselves by their own laws to intervene militarily in other countries to stop or prevent mass killing, wherever it might be happening or likely to happen. “It is time,” wrote the professor, —
that the logic of the promotion and protection of rights through domestic legal codes be extended to the victims of state-perpetrated mass murder. The answer to the question of when Britain should go to war is contained in the text of the genocide convention: it should go to war to stop mass killing. Therefore, the genocide convention should be incorporated into UK law.
And if the Security Council could not be persuaded to authorise the use of force in the particular circumstances of the time, or was prevented from doing so by a veto or threat of a veto by one or more of its permanent members? No problem, says the Professor:
In Rwanda, the French and other powers blocked the UN security council from intervening. Today, China and Russia are blocking a proper response in Darfur. In such circumstances this act would force states to intervene.
A somewhat truncated version of my reply to this article was published in the Guardian on 27 May. Here, for the record, is the full text as I submitted it:
Professor Brivati's appeal to the UK and others to incorporate the genocide convention in our domestic law so that it "would force states to intervene… to stop mass killing" wherever it occurs, or seems about to occur, anywhere in the world (We must not give up on intervention, May 25, p.24), performs a useful service by exposing the fallacies and dangers in the neo-cons' and New Labour's proposed doctrine of humanitarian intervention, invented mainly to provide a fig-leaf of legitimacy for the NATO attack on Yugoslavia over Kosovo. The professor implies that the doctrine could and should be used to override a Security Council veto, or the likelihood of one, but there is nothing in the UN Charter to permit this: the use of force without the Council's explicit authority is legal only in self-defence, which doesn't arise here.
Once we try to by-pass the UN, we're in the jungle: who decides what constitutes 'mass killing' in each specific case, or whether the use of force is the only way to prevent or stop it, and at what stage of a crisis, and which countries should launch the pre-emptive attack? Unless there is a single international body responsible for making these grave judgements and decisions, on which thousands of lives may depend, the interventionist doctrine will inevitably be exploited by strong countries to justify intervening in the internal affairs of the weak. The only body capable of performing this supervisory function is the Security Council, whose authority all UN member states agreed to accept by signing the Charter. Those who seek to circumvent it, however idealistic their motives, are helping to undermine the rule of law and the indispensable rules governing the use of force in international affairs on which we all ultimately depend for our security.