Intervening for the Protection of Human Rights: is a military strategy necessary?

By Erin McGinty | 22 May 14

By Erin McGinty

This article is part of our April issue, Human Rights Critiques.

Australia played an integral role in the formation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on 10 December 1948. How nations interact with one another has been influenced by the formation of an international community of states and the codification of human rights. A key issue that nations grapple with on a domestic and international level is whether the international community has the right to intervene militarily, in breach of a nation’s sovereignty, to protect people from human rights violations.

Following the gross violations of human rights during the 1990s in Kosovo, Somalia, Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan reflected on the failure of the international community, particularly the UN Security Council, to react in a decisive manner. Annan asked the member states:

If humanitarian intervention is, indeed, an unacceptable assault on sovereignty, how should we respond to a Rwanda, to a Srebrenica – to gross and systematic violations of human rights that affect every precept of our common humanity?

In 2005, at the United Nations Headquarters in New York, world leaders affirmed unanimously that each nation “has the responsibility to protect its population from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity”. In light of this statement, the Canadian Government together with other organisations announced the establishment of an ad hoc commission called the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS). ICISS produced a report that formed the basis of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) principles, which includes the international community’s responsibility to use appropriate diplomatic, humanitarian and other necessary means to protect populations from crimes against humanity.

From principles to practice

According to the R2P principles each state is responsible for ensuring that it protects its own citizens from avoidable harm, and where a state fails, or is unwilling to implement necessary means of protection, the responsibility then falls upon the broader community of states. These principles have been used to justify a wide range of intervention strategies in response to human rights violations.

The UN Security Council, made up of five permanent member states, and ten non-permanent members (of which Australia is currently one), first referred to the R2P principles in 2006 when it authorised diplomatic intervention through the deployment of UN peacekeeping troops in Darfur, Sudan. In late 2011, resolutions were passed by the Security Council condemning human rights violations in South Sudan and Yemen, explicitly referring to each nation’s responsibility to protect its own citizens.

Earlier in 2011 the Security Council passed Resolution 1973 authorising member states to “take all necessary measures” to protect civilians in Libya, but did not permit foreign forces occupying Libyan territory. The resulting NATO air strikes against Gaddafi’s forces can be seen as a direct result of the R2P principles. While Australia was not an implementing party in this operation, the Australian government did adopt a pro-interventionist policy in relation to Libya.

The Syrian Conflict

Despite the importance of finding a solution to the crisis in Syria, the Security Council has failed to reach a unanimous decision on any type of intervention. Recently, resolutions were passed demanding the Syrian Regime permit humanitarian access across conflict lines and to destroy all chemical weapons in its possession. These directions are by no means equivalent to “all necessary measures”, as the UN member states were permitted to do in the Libyan conflict. The UN Human Rights Council has publicly condemned the extensive violation of human rights in Syria and has demanded Government forces cease all violence and to protect its population, but this has failed to have any practical effect.

Justifying military intervention on humanitarian grounds is a hotly contested issue amongst the international community. Over time the Australian government has expressed conflicting views on whether or not it will support military intervention in Syria. In mid 2013, in response to news of chemical weapons being used against civilians in Damascus, Bob Carr, Australia’s then-Foreign Minister, informed the media that Australian troops would not be sent to Syria if states were authorised to intervene. However earlier, in mid 2012 shortly after the conflict began, Mr Carr expressed Australia’s intention to support France’s call for consideration of military intervention in Syria.

In a submission to the BBC, Australian Geoffrey Robertson QC, a London based international human rights lawyer, argued that a UN resolution is not required to take action against Syria. Robertson argued that because the international community has a responsibility to stop Syria using chemical weapons against its own citizens, this may have grounding under the R2P principles because of Russia and China vetoing Security Council resolutions aiming to authorise intervention. He cites the intervention of NATO forces in Kosovo without UN authority in order to stop ethnic cleansing as precedent for sidestepping the Security Council requirement altogether. His argument presents a controversial alternative to the traditional channel used for authorising military intervention.

Russia and Ukraine

Whether this alternative approach proposed by Robertson would allow for a practical solution is unknown. Embarking upon a path that does not require international support for intervention could lead to powerful nations exploiting humanitarian “justifications”. For example, Vladimir Putin recently cited the need to protect Russian interests, including the human rights of its citizens, as justification for sending troops into the Ukrainian territory of Crimea. In response to the recent annexation of the region, 100 of the 193 members of the UN condemned Putin’s acts, indicating that a relatively small majority of the UN thought the protection of the ethnic Russian majority in Crimea was not sufficient to justify Russia’s unilateral decision to militarily intervene and annex Ukrainian territory.

Military intervention – a last resort

Where international diplomacy, sanctions and peacekeeping efforts fail, military intervention for the protection of a nation’s people from gross violations of human rights should be a last resort. Due to the difficulties involved in coordinating military efforts in foreign countries, military intervention for humanitarian purposes is dangerous for all involved. If the international community can find alternative ways to protect citizens in the event their own nation cannot, this would be much preferred to the use of military intervention.

Erin McGinty is a final year Juris Doctor student at the University of Sydney. She has a background in research, with a particular interest in Arabic and Islamic studies and international human rights.