Baha'i News -- Rethinking Humanitarian Intervention

Rethinking Humanitarian Intervention: A Fresh Legal Approach Based on Fundamental Ethical Principles in International Law and World Religions

Source: Ethics & International Affairs
Publication date: 2002-01-01
Arrival time: 2002-10-16

Rethinking Humanitarian Intervention: A Fresh Legal Approach Based on Fundamental Ethical Principles in International Law and World Religions, Brian D. Lepard (University Park: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2002), 528 pp., $55 cloth.

After the Cold War, as the resistance of powerful states to redefining sovereignty weakened, and as the traditional political obstacles to the Security Council's authorization of humanitarian interventions waned, many activists, politicians, and scholars took a greater interest in reinventing the existing infrastructure for addressing humanitarian crises. It is in this context-the period between the Gulf War and the terrible events of September 11, a time some might characterize as a golden age for humanitarians-that we should view Brian Lepard's Rethinking Humanitarian Intervention. Lepard adopts the predominant sentiment of the post-Cold War world that, in cases of massive human rights violations, the international community has a right to intervene. From Lepard's perspective, the ethical frameworks of many of the world's religious traditions provide the necessary moral grounding and support for the right and duty of humanitarian intervention.

Lepard's "fresh approach" consists in categorizing ethical principles from Christianity, Bahai faith, Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Confucianism, and Chinese "folk" religions and developing connections between these principles and the legal means provided under the UN Charter and international law. Essentially, he illustrates the congruence among these diverse faiths in their approach to humanitarian intervention. For example, in identifying universal rights and duties to respect the human rights of others, Lepard cites not only the Bhagavad Gita, the Book of Proverbs, Buddhist scripture, the Analects of Confucius, the Qur'an, and Bahai Writings, but also the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the UN Charter (pp. 55-57). Lepard thus makes two important contributions to the debate on humanitarian intervention: he emphasizes how an attention to ethics and morals should play an important role in international relations, and he builds compelling bridges between these foundations and current legal mechanisms.

Lepard finds that the preeminent ethic for grounding humanitarian intervention in international law is to be found in the principle of "unity in diversity" (p. 33). For him, a classification of rights that recognizes and celebrates the uniqueness of individual, national, ethnic, or religious identities provides key philosophical foundations to constructing contemporary international order (pp. 58-59).

This lays the foundation for the book's ethico-legal prism, which Lepard uses to review current dilemmas plaguing the potential for UN authorization of humanitarian intervention, particularly those stemming from the vagueness of the UN Charter. In addressing the difficulties in utilizing the standards of a "threat to" or "breach of" peace to enable humanitarian intervention (chapter 4), he begins with an analysis of relevant provisions in the UN Charter and evaluates past and present debates. Then he applies his framework to make the case that ethical foundations allow for broadening definitions of peace, as well as what constitutes a "threat to" or "breach of" peace, and establish the legality of humanitarian intervention. He similarly surveys the problems of consent (chapter 5), impartiality (chapter 6), the use of force (chapter 7), obligations to intervene (chapter 8), command and composition of multinational forces (chapter 9), and the Security Council's decisionmaking process (chapter 10). Lepard also goes a step further by discussing the legality of humanitarian intervention undertaken without Security Council authorization (chapter 11).

The book ends with a hopeful synopsis of the trends, both positive and negative, that affect the prospects for his fresh approach to materialize. In Lepard's estimation, five signs show promise of a "rethinking" of humanitarian intervention: a growing acceptance of ethical principles; an increasing understanding of interdependence; the potentially positive role religion can play in influencing law; a renewed interest in promoting moral education; and the capacity for democratic leadership to subscribe to the principles that underlie humanitarian intervention. On the flip side, five other portents cloud these prospects: states uphold UN Charter norms that contravene humanitarian intervention; many states behave in ways that challenge norms associated with humanitarian intervention; states are unwilling to commit resources consistently to situations warranting humanitarian intervention; NATO's failure to seek UN Security Council authorization in Kosovo demonstrates an unwillingness to comply fully with the UN Charter; and some members of the Security Council continue to invoke claims of sovereignty in the face of calls for humanitarian intervention.

The optimism that permeates the earlier chapters is overshadowed, in the end, by Lepard's caveat that "unless and until government leaders accept and pursue fundamental ethical principles in their policies, the prospects...will be dim" (p. 374). Lepard is not alone in feeling this mix of hope and despair; several other recent books on humanitarian intervention have also noted that the most problematic bottleneck remains the willingness of national leaders to act in times of humanitarian crisis. Perhaps the most comprehensive of these statements is The Responsibility to Protect, released last year by the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS). While both Lepard and the ICISS agree that the will of political leaders is instrumental in realizing humanitarian interventions, they differ on their strategy for overcoming this hurdle-Lepard looks for answers in religion and ethical traditions, whereas the KISS reckons with the tenuous grounds and language for forging the requisite political compromises.

Not to detract from Lepard's monumental accomplishment, for he has given us a wonderful bird's-eye view of the ethical and legal landscape, but he does not tell us enough about the respective power of the players or the context in which conflicts are played out. It is not that Lepard denies that politics affects the enforcement of international law, but that he weights his account toward ethical dimensions. For instance, Lepard does an admirable job highlighting the moral quandaries and quagmires surrounding NATO's action in Kosovo, such as explaining the philosophy behind the Independent International Commission on Kosovo's conclusion that the intervention was illegal, but legitimate. This gives us a view of the humanitarian imperative (legitimacy questions), but does not fully recognize the mechanics of international law (the politics of designating legality) and the dearth of capacities for engaging in humanitarian interventions (the politics of commitment and will).

Moreover, in his eagerness to trumpet the story of humanitarianism since the end of the Cold War, Lepard ignores the alternative story of increasing disengagement from humanitarian concerns on the part of the world's greatest power. Lepard's book presents us with a blueprint for ethically grounding humanitarian intervention in international law, but in light of current U.S. policy and volatile world politics, it would seem these plans are destined to remain on the drawing board.

The strength of the book, then, is Lepard's analysis of ethical and religious traditions, and his meticulous connection of these traditions' imperatives to key provisions in the UN Charter. Though Lepard goes to great, often successful, lengths to pinpoint significant ideas and morals in the vast array of diverse religions presented, he does not sufficiently explain how the ethics he identifies could be institutionalized at the decisive political level. For me, determining who has which power is the key to realizing human rights in international politics. Only through an accurate depiction of what is possible can we begin to actualize what we desire. Lepard dares us to dream of a world where humanitarian intervention is an accepted part of the responses available to the international community when states violate the rights of their own citizens. But by not showing how to make this a reality, we may well wake up to find that, indeed, politics matter.

-PETER J. HOFFMAN City University of New York, Graduate Center


©Copyright 2002, Carnegie Council on Ethics and International Affairs

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