International Law, Human Rights & Humanitarian Intervention

World Human Rights DayThe Universal Declaration of Human Rights outlines 30 rights.

There are those who do not accept the concept of universal human rights and there are those who see them as fundamental.   If we accept the concept that there are basic human rights and that they are universal there are certain implications.

The UN has agreed on certain ‘responsibility to protect’ principles.  These give circumstances in which humanitarian intervention is justified.

In part, these principles were agreed because of what happened in Rwanda and Kosovo

However, there are also many examples of unsuccessful humanitarian interventions.  This debate over the rights and wrongs of humanitarian intervention can be applied to what is happening in Libya

There have also been attempts to establish International Courts.

The European Court of Human Rights.

Most international courts are established in the context of war, with a view to trying war crimes.  Examples are the International Court of Justice, the International Criminal Court and the tribunals set up to deal with former Yugoslovia and Rwanda.

Is a double standard being applied?

What is the role of NGOs, such as Amnesty International?

Human Rights

Key themes:

Human rights

Nature of human rights (fundamental, universal and absolute rights; rooted in liberal individualism and idea of foundational equality); 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights; 1950 European Convention for Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms; types or ‘generations’ of human rights (political and civil rights; economic and social rights and cultural or solidarity rights); tensions between and among rights (are economic rights human rights?; positive and negative rights; can human rights be collective?; the status of ‘special’ rights and women’s rights, etc).

International/global implications of human rights (demands of humanity on all humanity; obligation of government to comply with, and further realization of, human rights; setting standards for governments, e.g. in terms of aid and trade policies and possibly intervention); strengthening of human rights regime during post-Cold War era, etc.

Protecting human rights – tension between norm of sovereignty and norm of universal domestic standards; capacity of states, particularly major states (China, Russia, etc) to resist international pressure; role of international law (war crimes. crimes against humanity, genocide,; Hague and Geneva Conventions, etc); performance of international courts (International Court of Justice, International Criminal Court); human rights and the ‘war on terror’ (Guantanamo; use of torture; ‘extraordinary rendition’; etc; balance between public safety and human rights; violation of human rights a ‘lesser evil’?, etc). impact of human rights NGOs (Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, etc); effectiveness of the UN’s human rights regime, double-standards in protection of human rights, etc.

Universal rights challenged – western criticisms of human rights (realist, communitarian, feminist critiques); post-colonial criticisms of human rights (Islam and cultural critique of human rights; Asian values as alternative to human rights; human rights and ‘clash of civilizations’, etc.

Humanitarian intervention

Rise of humanitarian intervention – nature of humanitarian intervention; early examples of humanitarian intervention (Bangladesh; Cambodia, etc); growth of humanitarian intervention in the 1990s (‘new world order’; role of the media and public opinion; growth in civil strife and ethnic conflict in post-Cold War world; successful and unsuccessful humanitarian interventions (Northern Iraq, Somalia, Haiti, Kosovo, Sierra Leone, etc); impact of ‘non-interventions’ (impact of Rwanda and Bosnia on global public opinion); humanitarian intervention and the ‘war on terror’ (Afghanistan and Iraq).

Basis for humanitarian intervention – novel version of ‘just war’ theory (protect others (‘save strangers’) rather than self-defence); human rights trump state sovereignty (liberal interventionism); circumstances in which intervention is justified (‘responsibility to protect’ principles, prevention of genocide, war crimes and ethnic cleansing; role of UN Security Council); regional stability; democracy promotion, etc.

Criticisms of humanitarian intervention – realist critique (states are, and should be, self- interested; humanitarianism a pretext for pursuit of national interests); no basis in international law; prudential concerns (making things worse not better; inconsistent application of humanitarian principles (double-standards), etc.

The Legal basis for intervention

R2P, Humanitarian Intervention, War Crimes, CHemical Weapons, United Nations, NATO

International Law

Human Rights

Kenyan Leaders tried by ICC

Politics Review Resources

Volume 22, Number 2, November 2012

Global politics

How effectively are human rights upheld?

Owen Moelwyn-Hughes

This article, for students of the Edexcel A2 global politics option, is followed by some activities that you can complete individually, or as a class.

‘Human rights’ refer to rights that people are entitled to by virtue of being human. These rights are supposedly universal, fundamental and absolute, meaning that people everywhere should enjoy the same moral status and entitlements. Key to the idea is that they are ‘the rights of human beings against certain abuses of their own governments’. The ‘International Human Rights Regime’ is regarded as an established feature of world society. Protection for human rights is provided in a variety of ways through an expanding body of international humanitarian law, international courts and the activity of non-governmental organisations (NGOs).

However, states are also the greatest human rights abusers, reflecting an inherent tension between human rights and the ‘right’ of states to exercise sovereignty. Thus, when analysing how effectively rights are upheld in practice on the global stage, difficult questions have to be asked in relation to problems of compliance and enforcement.

Human rights in international law

There is a growing body of international law that seeks to promote and protect human rights globally. Since 1945, major international human rights documents have enhanced an awareness of human rights worldwide and exerted moral and diplomatic pressure on states to improve protection for human beings. This stems from the 1948 UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), which clearly sets out universalist human rights norms regarding behaviour by governments towards their own citizens and foreigners alike, proclaiming ‘All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights’. The UDHR ‘establishes a broad range of civil and political rights, including freedom of assembly, freedom of thought and expression, and the right to participate in government. It also proclaims that social and economic rights are indispensable, including the right to education, the right to work, and the right to participate in the cultural life of the community. In addition the preamble boldly asserts that ‘it is essential, if man is not to be compelled to have recourse, as a last resort, to rebellion against tyranny and oppression, that human rights should be protected by the rule of law’. Therefore, the international community has attempted to define a comprehensive code for the internal government of its members, which has given rise to a new norm of ‘universal domestic standards’.

Post-1945 human rights law, if taken at face value, should create a situation where all states would be obliged to conform to a quite rigid template that dictates most aspects of their political, social, and economic structures and policies. According to Heywood, the UDHR — by establishing that states could no longer violate human rights without the risk that their actions would come onto the agenda of the principle organs of the UN — challenged states’ exclusive jurisdiction over their own citizens and weakened the principle of non-interference in domestic affairs. Furthermore, the incorporation of the UDHR into a legally binding codification of human rights — in effect a de facto ‘International Bill of Human Rights’ — was achieved 1966 with the adoption of two covenants: the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights [ICCPR] and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights [ICESCR]. The lexicon of international human rights documents has had other major additions such as the Genocide Convention (1951), the Convention against Torture (1984), the Convention on the Rights of the Child (1990), the Vienna Convention on Human Rights (1993) and the Geneva Convention and its subsequent protocols.

There have been further regional initiatives aimed at promoting the protection of human rights, most notably in Europe with the European Convention on Human Rights, which has been given teeth with the active European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. Other regional attempts to see that rights are respected are the Inter-American Court of Human Rights in Latin America and the African Human Rights Commission.

What has been the impact on human rights of NGOs?

NGOs play a key role in bolstering the human rights regime and have campaigned successfully to expose abuses and encourage states to improve their protection for human rights and rectify glaring abuses. They have helped win basic political rights in authoritarian countries — including a halt on torture, execution, and imprisonment of those expressing political or religious beliefs. NGOs have contributed to a human rights culture through advocacy and using media coverage to influence global actors such as governments and transnational corporations (e.g. Nike had to respond to allegations of ‘sweatshop’ labour).

Amnesty International (AI) has achieved a high profile and garnered a reputation for impartiality and rigour. AI’s stated aims are to ‘conduct research and generate action to prevent and end grave abuses of human rights, and to demand justice for those whose rights have been violated’. AI places particular emphasis on ‘prisoners of conscience’, and their campaigns have included human rights in China, refugees and asylum, arms control, women’s rights, terrorism and security and criticism of US President George Bush. Equally important is Human Rights Watch, which works in a similar way but often with a more regional or national focus — recently they have highlighted the use of cluster bombs on civilians in the Sudan, atrocities committed by all sides in the Libyan revolution and the treatment of women in Afghanistan.

NGOs provide information and advocacy and serve as a bridge between global or regional organisations and efforts to promote human rights ‘on the ground’. NGOs have also played a role in framing resolutions, such as the 1975 Declaration on Torture, the 1990 Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Land Mine Treaty of 1997. Global action is rare unless public opinion is engaged and in this regard the role of NGOs can be vital in highlighting and publicising the abuse of human rights and prompting states to act.

Limitations of NGOs

However, NGOs are open to criticism and subject to limitations, as they cannot force governments to rectify human rights abuses, as proven by China, Burma, North Korea and Russia who seem to be impervious to international pressure. Furthermore, in the case of economically significant countries, such as China and Russia, diplomatic efforts to improve their human rights records has been weakened by a fear of damaging economic relations. Moreover, the impact of NGOs on the UN Security Council is minimal — yet it is here, ultimately, that UN decisions are enforced.

NGOs have also been criticised for jumping on media-led ‘bandwagons’ in the hope of enhancing their profile and support. A case in point is AI being burned for its link to Cage Prisoners — who campaign for Muslim detainees held as part of the ‘war on terror’, such as at Guantanamo Bay — whose chief proponent Moazzam Begg’s hard line Islamist views are at odds with wider human rights issues, such as the rights of women. With regard to this affair, Salman Rushdie asserted Amnesty… has done its reputation incalculable damage…. It looks very much as if Amnesty’s leadership is suffering from a kind of moral bankruptcy, and has lost the ability to distinguish right from wrong’.

What role have the international courts played in upholding human rights?

International criminal courts and tribunals have been increasingly active in the area of human rights, and have been willing to prosecute senior political and military leaders for ‘crimes against humanity’, ‘genocide’ and other enormities. Their purpose is to clearly identify behaviour that is so beyond the acceptable range that international legal structures start to take an interest and to unravel the culture of impunity that allows appalling acts to go unchallenged and unpunished and so hopefully make international society less brutal. In 1995, in convicting a lowly camp guard, Dusko Tadic (who was held to personify the ‘banality of evil’), the tribunal for former Yugoslavia established that individuals should bear criminal responsibility and made it clear that criminal responsibility existed at all levels of the chain of command. Thus, judgements serve as a deterrent against future atrocities and also provide independent affirmation of victim’s suffering. According to Toby Fenwick, hopefully figures, such as Charles Taylor have been forced to ‘reflect on the fact that they will have justice administered through fair trials supported by the international community and overseen by impartial observers — something they consistently denied their victims’.

Supporters of the international courts insist that the system has proved itself. ‘The system works’, declares Sir Geoffrey Nice QC, who prosecuted former Yugoslav strongman Slobodan Milosevic, ‘there is a family of international courts, they are developing law in their judgments, which is they build on each other. If you view these courts as a mechanical device, then you can say the machine works’.

The International Criminal Court (ICC), founded in 2002, has just handed down its first benchmark ruling, convicting the Congolese warlord Thomas Lubanga Dyilo of ‘war crimes’ including the recruitment of child soldiers. The guilty verdict and 50 year gaol sentence of the Special Court for Sierra Leone against Liberia’s former president Charles Taylor, constitutes the first conviction of a former head of state before an international tribunal since the conviction of Karl Doenitz (the 23-day president following Hitler’s suicide) at the Nuremberg Tribunal in 1946. Both cases are seen to constitute significant milestones in upholding and enforcing international justice and the ‘worldwide struggle against impunity for grave crimes’.

What is the verdict on international justice?

Many argue, however, that as a mechanism for curtailing barbaric campaigns, the ICC has been a distinct disappointment and it has been lambasted for its slowness and expense, and some critics have accused it of bias too. Some of the ICC’s troubles are longstanding. There is a problem of political support with big countries, such as China, India and Russia, not signing up to its founding Rome Statute, and the US have not ratified it (even if cooperating quietly) — meaning that of the permanent members of the Security Council, only Britain and France are members. This is a court without a police force and lacking any kind of enforcement mechanism. As Toby Fenwick asserts ‘with a hundred member states, this jurisdictional mosaic means the Court covers many potential conflict zones. However, there are gaps, and the court needs the active support of the largest and most powerful states to fulfil its potential’. This is further compounded by the USA’s ‘double standard’ that ‘what is good for others is not good for us’. Whether or not an indictment leads to an arrest is most often down to the convenience for the states concerned. Richard Goldstone, who prosecuted war criminals from the former Yugoslavia in the first international court in The Hague, famously said that the international community were his ‘arms and legs’. Without those arms and legs, a prosecutor can issue indictments, but will have little power to actually get suspects to court. In Joseph Kony’s case, there is no national interest in allowing him to continue roaming the forests of Central Africa, however, the balance of convenience is not tipping in favour of his apprehension as the richer nations grapple with the consequences of the Arab Spring and the euro crisis.

But some troubles are new. There are problems investigating crimes in a conflict zone (e.g. Darfur). Another issue in relation to conflict resolution is the tension between pursuing peace or justice. As Elizabeth Wilmshurst observes ‘it is often said that without justice there will be no lasting peace and security. But justice may seem to get in the way of the peace if a conflict is ongoing’. An example of this is President Bashir of the Sudan, who — although allegedly culpable for his role in the Darfur atrocities — is a vital cog in brokering political settlements in a fragile region. In President Bashir’s case, the court is further undermined since Sudan has not placed itself within the court’s jurisdiction and the African Union has specifically ordered its 54 members not to cooperate with the allegedly pro-Western ICC’s arrest warrant. Furthermore, the huge profits from Sudanese oil also mitigate against concerted attention. Thus, the courts are seen by some to be fatally flawed, threatening state sovereignty, having an unhelpful obsession with personal culpability, having a Western bias and even damaging the prospects of peace settlements.

How has the global ‘war on terror’ been problematic and controversial for human rights?

In the 1990s the general assumption was that classical, political rights, such as the right to a fair trial or the right not to be tortured, were firmly established. 9/11 and the ensuing global ‘war on terror’ changed all that. 9/11 itself was itself a major rights violation. Yet, the reaction of the USA and its allies, including the UK, to the terrorist threat has been equally problematic with military interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq resulting in high numbers of civilian deaths, and also human rights failures such as the Abu Ghraib outrage. A glaring human rights issue is ‘Gitmo’ — the US internment camp at Guantanamo Bay — in a jurisdictional black hole beyond the reach of the US Supreme Court and other international bodies, where hundreds have been interned without trial. A ‘free pass’ has been issued to regimes with poor human rights records but who are on the right side of the global ‘war on terror’, such as Pakistan. ‘Enhanced torture techniques’, such as waterboarding, have been used and the US policy of ‘extraordinary rendition’ has seen prisoners moved to ‘black sites’, where human rights are more easily violated.

The reaction of Western European states has been less dramatic but still controversial, such as the UK government attempting to introduce extended periods of detention without charge and bringing in the draconian ‘Terrorism Act’. A further feature of the ‘war on terror’ has been the controversial practice of ‘extra-judicial’ or ‘targeted killings’, such as the killing of Osama Bin Laden in Pakistan and the increasing use of ‘drone strikes’, which killed Anwar al-Awlaki, the head of AQAP in Yemen and most recently Al-Qaeda’s No. 2, Abu Yahya al-Libi in Pakistan. Apart from issues of violating sovereignty, these attacks represent ‘frontier justice’ and states taking the law into their own hands at the expense of recourse to any system of international justice


So, how effectively are human rights upheld and enforced on the global stage? Although well established, the ‘international human rights regime’ is still a work in progress but it may be that the glass is half full given that the global community is committed to expanding the international rule of law and developing institutions and mechanisms that can see rights enforced. In a world where states still tend to pursue their own interests under the cloak of sovereignty, this seems a long way off. Yet, hopefully the process of globalisation will exert a gentle, continuous, upward pressure on human rights practices worldwide.


(1)            Fill in the ‘Types of rights’ table below, outlining the three main categories of international rights. Consider whether these rights might be ‘negative’ or ‘positive’. For ‘Key documents’, give examples of where these rights are located in international law, e.g. for first generation civic and political rights, refer to the UN Declaration Articles 3 to 21 and the International Convention on Civic and Political Rights. For help, you could refer to Andrew Heywood’s Global Politics (2011, Palgrave Macmillan), Chapter 13 (especially pp. 306–309).

Types of rights


Type of rights


Key documents

First generation

Civic and political


Second generation

Economic and social


Third generation



(2)            Fill in a table like the one shown below. Identify important NGOs that protect human rights — these could include Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, Medecin Sans Frontiers, Red Cross, Oxfam and groups such as Invisible Children or War Child. Make sure that examples of the chosen NGOs activities are included as case studies. Members of the class could be allocated a particular NGO to research and they could report back on their findings.

The role of NGOs in protecting human rights


Nature and role of NGO

Case studies

Amnesty International


Human Rights Watch


(3)   You could have a class debate on the motion: ‘This house believes that the International Criminal Court is an effective means of upholding human rights and justice’. In preparation, the class could make notes, or a table using the headings ‘YES’ and ‘NO’. For reference, Andrew Heywood’s Global Politics, Chapter 14 would be helpful (p. 349 in particular).

Owen Moelwyn-Hughes is head of politics at The King’s School, Canterbury

Human Rights


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Politics Review Resources Volume 22, Number 1, September 2012

Global politics

Is humanitarian intervention dead?

Owen Moelwyn-Hughes

This article is for students of the Edexcel A2 Global politics option. It considers the dilemma that the international community faces over intervention in Syria

The bleak situation in Syria, in particular the unending slaughter, including the massacres of civilians in Houla and Qubair, is calling into question the idea of humanitarian intervention and its accompanying doctrine, the ‘responsibility to protect’ (R2P). After the 2003 intervention in Iraq by the US, some argued that humanitarian intervention was dead, and that we had killed it. However, subsequent interventions in Cote d’Ivoire and Libya seemed to breathe life back into the doctrine, and more importantly its practice. The Syrian situation poses the international community with the dilemma of matching tough anti-atrocities rhetoric with practical action. In Syria the stakes are high: the regime is entrenched and international positions and opinion are split. So has the doctrine of the R2P met its end?

What is the R2P?

What is the R2P? At the World Summit in 2005, world leaders unanimously endorsed a new international principle, the ‘responsibility to protect’. This argues that ‘sovereignty is conditional on the state’s ability to protect its own citizens’ fundamental rights. Thus, states have primary responsibility for protecting their own citizens. However, when a regime fails to do this (or commits atrocities itself), the responsibility to end humanitarian outrages is transferred to the wider international community, which may take a series of measures including armed intervention to protect the country’s inhabitants.

The advocates of R2P argue that it will play an important role in building consensus about humanitarian action while making it harder for states to abuse human rights. That, at least, is the theory. The deteriorating situation in Syria, where the Assad regime’s atrocities continue unabated, shows just how challenging it is to translate this principle into practice. Indeed, Security Council deadlock and cold feet among UN member states have led some to suggest that R2P is dead. This obituary is premature. But the bleak situation in Syria underscores just how difficult it can be to vindicate the principle when the world’s great powers are deadlocked over the merits of armed intervention.

Criteria for intervention

In August 2011 President Obama declared that ‘preventing mass atrocities and genocide is a core national security interest and a core moral responsibility of the United States.’ One could think that this might give the US carte blanche to intervene in Syria. However, R2P is a political and ethical principle rather than a legal obligation. Thus, any leader, including President Obama, must weigh humanitarian imperatives against other considerations of statecraft.

Given that any military intervention entails inherent risks and uncertainties, it is imperative that certain ‘prudential criteria’ are met:

  • The depredations the intervention is responding to must meet the threshold of atrocity crimes.
  • The intervention must be undertaken with ‘right intent’, with its primary motivation to be protecting innocent lives.
  • It should generally be a last resort, after more peaceable alternatives have been exhausted (or when delay would have fatal humanitarian consequences).
  • The response should be proportional to the crimes being committed.
  • The consequences of the intervention should do more good than harm.
  • The intervention should be taken under ‘right authority’, ideally with the approval of the UN Security Council.

In the case of recent interventions, such as in Libya and Cote d’Ivoire, these criteria were temporarily aligned.

What happened in Libya?

In Libya the NATO-led, UN authorised intervention was helped by a few critical abstentions (by China, Russia, India, and Germany) which meant that the so called P3 (the US, France and the UK) were able to secure Security Council Resolution 1973, authorising ‘all necessary means’ to protect civilians. But misgivings soon rose among UN member states, as the Western powers dismissed regional mediation efforts and the goal of regime change became increasingly apparent. ‘Stop the killing’ seemed to quickly convert to ‘Kill Gaddafi’. Despite such complications, Gaddafi’s beleaguered tribal clique was toppled with one concerted push. The Gaddafi regime had no major power allies, lacked major strategic importance or significant military capabilities, and had a small, concentrated population. Also, Libya had a congenial terrain which allowed NATO to flex its muscle.


In Syria the situation is far more complicated. Syria’s regime is entrenched. It represents a minority group which fears for its future under Sunni majority rule. It also has a well-armed and capable military, is located at the heart of the Arab world, is rife with sectarian divisions (the minority Alawite-Shia’s and the majority Sunnis), is adjacent to the tinderboxes of Lebanon (where there are already reports of violence) and Iraq, and enjoys the active sponsorship of P5 member Russia, as well as Iran. As such, it presents extraordinary risks and would undoubtedly be a long campaign. So when it comes to Syria, how do the ‘prudential criteria’ for intervention stack up? I would suggest not easily.

Some argue that interventionist ideas have been counter-productive. Lord Malloch Brown, a former UN Deputy Secretary General, in his article ‘Kofi Annan can do it’ (World Today), advocates a diplomatic solution in Syria, asserting that: “Diplomacy can do what NATO, arms supplies, intervention or outside bluster cannot do’. However, he argues that the ‘two sloppy’ doctrines of the “War on Terror” and “Liberal interventionism” have led to the unintended consequence of actually making it harder to negotiate the compromises need to end conflicts. He asserts:

This is in part because these two concepts encourage all sides to dig in and resist compromise. Kofi Annan’s new diplomatic mission appears to be bumping up against this. Encouraged by NATO support to Libyan rebels, Syria’s opposition, despite being on the losing end of a military struggle with the Assad regime, continues to anticipate outside support to reverse that. So no need to negotiate with a regime that had ruthlessly killed thousands of civilians.”

On the other hand, President Bashar Al-Assad has trundled out the stock response of Arab regimes post 9/11 from Cairo to Bahrain, that his opponents are terrorists, who are not to be negotiated with (cynically mirroring post-2001 US claims) and that therefore oppression is justified. Thus, military intervention under the guise of being ‘humanitarian’ has actually created a minefield on which diplomatic attempts to broker peace and stop the violence are foundering.

It is clear it is crunch time for Syria. The UN assertion that Syria is headed towards ‘all-out civil war’ suggests that the international community’s major players either need to come up with a credible plan to end the killings in Syria — whether by arming the opposition or by mobilising a ‘coalition of the willing’ — or it needs to drop its high-minded rhetoric and let the R2P and the Syrian victims rest in peace.


1            Research the state of affairs in Syria and then conduct a debate on Does the Syrian situation justify intervention?’ In preparation fill in the table below and analyse the extent to which the ‘prudential criteria’ for intervention stack up over Syria?


Atrocity threshold

Assad’s regime’s depredations are considerable: 11,000 dead and counting, including innocent woman and children (reference events in Homs and Houla)


Right intent

A problem here is that many international observers will see this just as another effort at regime change and a US effort to eliminate Iran’s last major regional ally — and given US rhetoric, it may be impossible to avoid


Last resort

Despite the assortment of UN and regional condemnations of Syria’s actions, the UN Security Council has yet to pass a resolution invoking specifically Chapter VII of the UN Charter, which addresses threats to ‘international peace and security’. Other than military action, this could include the imposition of tough, cross-cutting sanctions. There are rumours of another alternative diplomatic route — involving reaching out to Russia and Iran — but this seems impractical given the geopolitics involved



Supporters of military intervention may point to the fact that NATO’s intervention in Libya was light in civilian casualties (apparently less than 100). While even one civilian death is noteworthy, it still must be weighed against the daily killings and massacres taking place in Syria


Consequences of intervention

This is the huge uncertainty. Armed intervention could be regionally explosive, as Syria’s various communities appeal to diasporas and co-religionists across borders. Moreover, Syrian rebels are only beginning to coalesce, lack a clear stronghold, have had shaky leadership, and may not be able to capitalise on the benefits of an R2P intervention. Still, the status quo is getting pretty close to meeting — if not exceeding — the potential risks of an intervention.


‘Right authority’

Without UNSC endorsement, any collective intervention mobilised by the USA would be technically illegal but — as in Kosovo — arguably legitimate. High-level UN officials, including the UN secretary general, have accused the Assad regime of potential crimes against humanity, and the Arab League has repeatedly called for additional action. But who would join a collective military effort?

2            Outline the respective arguments both for and against intervention in Syria. Or alternatively take a broader view and outline the arguments for and against humanitarian intervention in general. The table below should facilitate this:

Is humanitarian intervention justified in Syria?











Owen Moelwyn-Hughes is head of politics at The King’s School, Canterbury.

Short Answer Questions

How effective are the judicial institutions that attempt to uphold international law? (15 marks)

International Law is usually defined as the rules that govern the conduct of states in their relations with one another.

Because of the fundamental right of sovereignty, world politics is legally dependant on what governments choose to do and what rules they voluntarily support.

Therefore the international legal system is flawed because it depends on states being willing to participate (see the US withdrawal from the World Court’s jurisdiction in 1984).

In world politics no legislative body exists which is capable of making binding laws. Rules are made only when states willingly observe or embrace them in the treaties to which they voluntarily subscribe.

No judicial body exists which can identify violations to rules, or for interpreting when and how the rules apply. Instead states do this themselves.

The World Court does not have the power to perform these functions without a state’s consent.

The UN has recently claimed the right to make quasi -judicial authoritative interpretations of global laws, however there is no executive body capable of enforcing the rules.

No centralised enforcement procedure exists, and compliance is voluntary.

The whole system rests on states willingness to abide by the rule to which they consent, and the ability of each to enforce the rules of behaviour they value through retaliation.

Consequently states themselves, not a higher authority, determine what the rules are, when they are applied and how they are enforced.

Analysis of the International Criminal Court, the European Court and the ‘ad hoc’ Hague war crimes tribunal is required.

How is the protection of human rights becoming more significant in global politics? (15 marks)

Human rights protection is concerned with the development of universal rights of humans against abuse by their own government.

However the most important principle of international relations has arguably been the supremacy of state sovereignty.

Clearly, human rights challenge state sovereignty. States that have been criticised for human rights violations typically argue that other international actors have no right to interfere in their domestic affairs.

Certainly, human rights law has little authority. However, human rights legislation and norms continue to develop.

The world is increasingly interconnected and abuses in one state can spill over into neighbouring states, or even distant states.

Ethnic conflicts can result, or at least the stability of the international community can be threatened.

Thus human rights, it can be argued, are a legitimate topic of international law.

leaders, such as Clinton and Blair, argued that the international community can no longer ignore the plight of groups suffering abuse at the hands of their government.

Bush has argued that promoting democracy, and thereby respect for human rights, is a worthy foreign policy aim.

Good answers will note that punishment for crimes against humanity began with the Nuremberg trials, and continued in 1994-95 when the tribunal for the former Yugoslavia issued indictments for genocide.

Answers which suggest that there is evidence of double- standards will be given credit; such as the US criticising China for torturing political prisoners and prohibiting free speech, yet itself being accused of torture in Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib prison.

Mention of the UN Commission on Human Rights and the position of High Commissioner for Human Rights also deserve credit.

What are human rights, and why do they have implications for global politics? (15 marks)

Human rights are rights to which people are entitled by virtue of being human; they are a modern and secular version of ‘natural’ rights, which were believed to be God-given. Human rights are therefore universal, fundamental and absolute.

They are universal in the sense that they belong to all humans everywhere regardless of nationality, ethnic or racial origin, social background and so on. They are fundamental in that they are inalienable: human rights can be denied or violated but a human being’s entitlement to them cannot be removed. They are absolute in that, as the basic grounds for living a genuinely human life, they cannot be qualified.

The chief implication of human rights for global politics is that they establish a framework of standards to which all states and other bodies should conform and which has higher moral authority than national legal systems.

As such, the doctrine of human rights has profound implications for the principle of state sovereignty.

The most authoritative attempt to outline human rights is found in the 1948 UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which has implications for international law and bodies such as the International Court of Justice and the International Criminal Court.

Human rights also impose obligations on states in their dealings with other states, implying that a concern to pursue self-interest should be balanced against a duty to protect and uphold human rights.

This has been reflected in demands that trade relations and membership of intergovernmental bodies should be conditional upon a state’s human-rights record.

Perhaps the most controversial implication of the doctrine is in the trend towards humanitarian intervention, whereby states or international bodies intervene militarily in the affairs of another state in order to uphold human rights.

Distinguish between different types of international human rights. (15 marks)

Human rights are rights that supposedly belong to people by virtue of being human. They are universal, absolute and fundamental rights. Distinctions are nevertheless made between three kinds or ‘generations’ of human rights:

The earliest human rights to be established were civil and political rights. These rights are often viewed as ‘negative’ rights in the sense that they imply restrictions or constraints on government power; many of them are also seen as civil liberties.

Civil and political rights are strongly associated with liberal individualism. Articles 2-21 of the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights cover civil and political rights, including the right to life, liberty and the security of the person.

These rights nevertheless include ‘positive’ rights that they may require affirmative government action, such as the right to a fair and public trial and to free elections.

Economic, social and cultural rights are often based, by contrast on socialist philosophy.

These rights are designed to protect people from poverty and economic injustice and they are ‘positive’ in the sense that they require intervention on the part of government rather than its constraint.

Articles 22-27 of the UN Declaration cover a range of economic and social rights, including the right to social security, the right to education and the right to work and to protection against unemployment.

A third kind of rights are so-called solidarity rights.

These are rights that help particular groups to protect their identities, interests or culture. They include the right to political, economic, social and cultural self-determination on the part of national minorities or countries subjected to neo-colonialism. Solidarity rights may also include so-called ‘special’ rights which belong to particular groups within a society, examples including women’s rights and minority rights.

Why has the idea of universal human rights been criticised? (15 marks)

Human rights are rights to which people are entitled by virtue of being human.

Human rights are universal in the sense that they supposedly belong to all humans rather than to members of any particular country, religion, race, gender or other group.

The idea of universal human rights has been criticised on a number of grounds. These include the following:

Realists have argued that the doctrine of universal human rights should not guide state policy because states should prioritise the well-being of their own citizens over others, their primary concern being to pursue the national interest.

The doctrine of human rights has been criticised as being culturally biased, reflecting an essentially western, liberal model of human nature that emphasises rights and entitlements over obligations and social belonging.

Post- colonialism portrays universal human rights as a form of cultural imperialism. Such views have been advanced most clearly by Muslim thinkers who believe that human well-being is divinely ordained, and by some Asian politicians who champion the notion of ‘Asian values’.

Explain the tensions between human rights and state sovereignty. (15 marks)

Human rights are the rights to which people are supposedly entitled by virtue of being human.

These rights are universal, fundamental, indivisible and absolute.

Tensions exist between human rights and state sovereignty because the former has cosmopolitan implications that conflict with the latter.

Human rights imply that there are standards of conduct that should apply in all countries and in all parts of the world, regardless of nationality, religion, ethnicity and so forth.

State sovereignty, by contrast, implies that each state should be regarded as an independent and autonomous entity, solely responsible for determining the conditions of life within their borders.

States’ rights therefore conflict with human rights, a tension that is particularly evident in the case of humanitarian intervention which may be carried out in furtherance of human rights but amounts to a violation of state sovereignty.

What is humanitarian intervention and why did it increase in the 1990s? (15 marks)

Humanitarian intervention is military intervention that is carried out in pursuit of humanitarian rather than strategic objectives. It is sometimes called humanitarian military intervention.

The growth in humanitarian intervention in the 1990s reflected various developments, including the following:

The end of the Cold War and the fall of the Soviet Union led to greater agreement on the UN Security Council over issues of humanitarian intervention.

The growth in humanitarian intervention reflected the wider acceptance of universalist doctrines such as human rights.

The trend towards humanitarian intervention followed from the fact that democratic support for warfare can increasingly be mobilised only on the basis of a moral cause.

Humanitarian interventions occurred in part through an increase in civil wars and state collapse which stemmed from developments such as an increase in ethnic consciousness and the collapse of communism.

An awareness of human rights issues as a consequence of globalisation.

Essay Questions

To what extent is countering terrorism compatible with upholding human rights? (45 marks)

The relationship between human rights and terrorism has become a major issue of debate as a result of the ‘war on terror’.

While some argue that the infringement of human rights is a necessary ‘lesser evil’ compared to the ‘greater evil’ of terrorism, others argue that infringements of human rights are simply unacceptable and may also be counter- productive in terms of countering terrorism.

Infringements of human rights as part of the larger campaign to contain the threat of terrorism can be justified on both practical and ethical grounds.

In practical terms, terrorism poses particular difficulties, in that it is a covert military threat posed by people who often have fanatical views and beliefs.

Unconventional threats require unconventional responses. This is why the USA created an internment camp at Guantanamo Bay, where it interned hundreds of people without trial, subjecting some of them to forms of torture such as ‘waterboarding’ (simulated drowning).

The practice of ‘extraordinary rendition’ also allowed for the easier violation of human rights. Detention without trial has also been introduced by other states fighting terrorism; for example, through a number of anti-terrorist laws in the UK.

Sensitivity to issues of human rights would put governments at a grave disadvantage in confronting an enemy that has no concern itself for human rights.

The moral argument supporting this view is based on the balance of the suffering cause. For example, the murder of 3,000 innocent civilians in the 9/11 attacks was itself a major human rights violation.

Restrictions of terrorist suspects’ political and civil rights can, by contrast, be regarded as a ‘lesser evil’ (Ignatieff).

On the other hand, abuses of human rights in such circumstances can be seen to make no moral or practical sense.

Human rights groups such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have condemned Guantanamo, the use of torture and detention without trial on the grounds that human rights are inviolable.

Human rights cannot be ignored or set aside for matters of political convenience, as human rights establish absolute moral values.

The ‘war on terror’ is therefore not a ‘just war’ as it has not been fought using just means.

The practical argument against violating human rights in the cause of anti- terrorism is based on the damage done to a state’s moral authority and global influence.

The USA’s ‘war on terror’ has been more difficult to win because its own behaviour has weakened global support, particularly in Moslem countries damaging the USA’s ‘soft’ power.

This helps to explain the Obama administration’s decision, for example, to close Guantanamo Bay.

Is humanitarian intervention ever justified? (45 marks)

Humanitarian intervention is military intervention that is carried out in pursuit of humanitarian rather than strategic objectives. Examples include northern Iraq (1991), Somalia (1992) and Kosovo (1999). However, the issue of humanitarian intervention has been fiercely debated.

Supporters of humanitarian intervention advance a number of arguments in its defence. Basic to this is a belief that common humanity, the idea that people’s moral responsibilities extend to the whole of humankind, meaning that we have an obligation to ‘save strangers’.

Humanitarian intervention is therefore associated with an acceptance of human rights as a universal principle. However, those who favour humanitarian intervention tend to argue that it is justified in more specific cases.

The ICISS, for example, holds that military intervention in the affairs of another state is justified in order to prevent either a large-scale loss of life, with genocidal intent or not, or a large- scale ethnic cleansing, whether carried out by killing, forcible expulsion or acts of terrorism or rape.

The authority of international law for such interventions can be gained through a Security Council mandate, by the UN General Assembly meeting in emergency special session or by the endorsement of a regional or sub-regional body.

Humanitarian intervention can also be justified on the grounds that in an interdependent world all states may be affected by slaughter and unrest happening elsewhere, by the desire to maintain regional stability, and by the task of promoting democracy.

However, humanitarian intervention has been criticised for a variety of reasons. First, it has been ruled out on the basis of international law, notably, that it clashes with the principle of state sovereignty and thereby weakens the established rules of world order.

Second, realists warn against the dangers of states failing to prioritise the interests of their own citizens, also often arguing that humanitarian intervention is an example of political mendacity.

The humanitarian justification for the use of force is therefore regularly abused by states that are in fact acting in their own interests. This has widely been alleged in relation to the ‘war on terror’.

Third, the doctrine of humanitarian intervention has been morally confused as it leads to inevitable double standards; for example, however pressing the case for intervention in Tibet may be, it is not a feasible objective.

Fourth, some question the very basis for humanitarian intervention, arguing that human rights are not applicable across the world but are, in fact, an example of western cultural imperialism.

To what extent are human rights effectively protected in the modern world? (45 marks)

Human rights refer to rights to which people are entitled by virtue of being human. These rights are supposedly universal, fundamental and absolute. Protection for human rights in the modern world is provided in a variety of ways. These include the following.

There is a growing body of human rights international law. This stems from the 1948 UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights, subsequently expanded into a so-called ‘International Bill of Human Rights’, the European Convention on Human Rights and so on. Major international human rights documents have enhanced an awareness of human rights worldwide and exert moral pressure on states to improve protection for human rights.

NGOs such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have campaigned successfully to expose abuses of human rights and encourage states to improve their protections for human rights.

Notable improvements have been made, for example, in protections for workers’ rights in factories owned by western transnational corporation.

International courts have been increasingly active in the area of human rights, being willing to prosecute political leaders and other figures for violations of human rights, crimes against humanity and genocide.

The European Court of Human Rights has been particularly active in addressing such issues within Europe.

However, protection for human rights has been limited due to a number of factors. These include the following:

It is difficult to protect human rights in a world of states, in which sovereignty enables states still to treat their populations regardless of concerns about human rights or civil liberties.

Human rights abuses in countries such as China, Burma, North Korea and Russia have been very difficult to rectify as these states have not been susceptible to pressure form the international community.

In the case of economically significant countries, such as China and Russia, diplomatic pressure to improve human rights records has been weakened by a fear of damaging economic relations.

Human rights law is, in the main, ‘soft’ law that exerts only moral pressure on states to conform and lacks enforceability.

Modern developments such as the ‘war on terror’ and the imposition in the USA, the UK and elsewhere of anti-terrorism laws and policies has, allegedly, led to a catalogue of human rights and civil liberties abuses.

In part, this has reduced the ability of western states to exert pressure on other states to improve their human rights records.

To what extent is humanitarian intervention an abandoned project? (45 marks)

Humanitarian intervention refers to forcible intervention in the affairs of another state motivated by humanitarian considerations.

Many argue that the vogue for humanitarian intervention was confined for the 1990s and that it is now, effectively, an abandoned project.

This is based on the belief that humanitarian intervention occurred because of highly exceptional international circumstances during the 1990s, linked to the emergence of the USA as the sole superpower and a temporary willingness of other major powers, notably Russia and China to accept US leadership over such matters.

By the early 2000s, the global balance of power had changed in such a way as to make it more difficult to get UNSC support for humanitarian intervention.

As important has been the difficulties associated with many humanitarian interventions, and the difficulty, highlighted by Iraq and Afghanistan, of achieving political or humanitarian goals through intervention in a context of insurrection and civil strife.

However, others argue that there has been a permanent shift in terms of the responsibilities of the international community, which now extend to intervening, albeit selectively, in order to prevent large scale atrocities or violations of human rights.

Although humanitarian interventions have declined in frequency, they have still continued, if only because of the impact of non-interventions, such as in Bosnia and Rwanda.


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