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Rights and justice in international relations
Rights and justice in international relations

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6.5 Military and humanitarian interventionism

While the ICC may be the most radical cosmopolitan effort at global justice institution-building so far, it is not the only one. The move towards cosmopolitan global institutions that extend beyond the UN's original goals and values has speeded up during the 1990s. Cosmopolitans would contend that international institution-building does not necessarily lead to more interventionism. Communitarians such as Chandler see as significant that in the field of international human rights interventionism, ‘the shift in policy practices has been institutionalised on an ad hoc manner through the UN Security Council, which since 1990 has empowered itself to consider humanitarian emergencies as a threat to international peace and security’ (Chandler, 2002, p. 5). The Gulf War to ‘liberate’ Kuwait in 1991 was followed by the international community's attempt to set up a ‘safe haven’ policy to protect the human rights of the Kurds and Marsh Arabs. The international regulation of Iraq, through the establishment of ‘no fly’ zones and UN provisions to prevent Iraq from developing weapons of mass destruction and limiting trade with other states, represented a crucially significant legal precedent whereby a state's sovereignty was subordinated to human rights concerns. This legal precedent for universal human rights-based intervention was invoked in 1992 with the UN authorisation of unilateral US intervention to protect humanitarian food conveys in Somalia.

The precedent was also used in 1993 when the UN authorised a multilateral military intervention in Bosnia to protect humanitarian aid, and again two years later when a NATO force was mandated to impose a peace settlement. In 1999, international military action against Yugoslavia over the Kosovo crisis was widely regarded as the first international military intervention against a sovereign state for purely human rights reasons. The language of human rights was also used by the USA and the UK as a framework for the ‘war on terrorism’ after the events of 11 September 2001.

Cosmopolitan advocates of universal human rights applaud what they see as the radical extension of the competence of the UN. From being charged with standard setting, monitoring and exerting pressure on states to comply, the UN is now very much in the game of intervention. Chandler is critical of the enhanced role of the UN Security Council and argues that it ‘has been fundamentally transformed from being a policeman of international security, concerned with the welfare of states, to a supranational “government and administration body” supporting the human rights of citizens in situations of complex political emergencies’. A primary example is that of ‘a number of international institutions acquiring powers of long-term administration over Bosnia in the Dayton peace settlement’. Those administrative powers ‘were later extended on an indefinite basis and, in 1999, the UN acquired further powers of administrative regulation in Kosovo and East Timor’ (Chandler, 2002, p. 8).

Activity 3

Can these tensions between the claims of sovereign states to national self-determination and the claims of universal human rights be reconciled? If not, how can they best be managed?


If all states uphold universal human rights, there is no tension between the claims of sovereign states to national self-determination and universal human rights. If some states do not uphold such rights, the claims cannot be reconciled. How competing claims can best be managed depends on one's evaluation of the weight of the respective claims. See the answer given to Activity 2.