Establish a Right to Intervene Against War, Oppression

Bernard Kouchner, the new U.N. governor of Kosovo, was one of the founders of Doctors Without Borders, which Friday was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. This commentary is from the current issue of New Perspectives Quarterly

Can we dream of a 21st century where the horrors of the 20th will not be repeated? Where Auschwitz or the mass exterminations that took place in Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge, and later in Rwanda, and the killings in Kosovo, cannot happen again? The answer is a hopeful yes--if, as part of the emergent world order, a new morality can be codified in the “right to intervention” against abuses of national sovereignty.

Talk of a “right to intervention” has naturally alarmed many people, especially those in the developing world who see it as another guise of the old imperialism. Let me assure those who accuse the emergent humanitarian army of acting on the basis that “might makes right.” On the contrary, we are trying to protect the weakest and the disinherited, not the strong.

The right to intervention arises in another era than the past one of colonial-style invasions. Humanitarian intervention will never be the action of a single country or of a national army playing policeman to the world, as the U.S. did in Latin America or France did in Africa. Humanitarian intervention will be carried out by an impartial, multinational force acting under the authority of international organizations and controlled by them.


The charge of “human rights imperialism” against local cultural norms is also not a valid argument against the right to intervene. Everywhere, human rights are human rights. Freedom is freedom. Suffering is suffering. Oppression is oppression.

If a Muslim woman in the Sudan opposes painful clitoral excision, or if a Chinese woman opposes the binding of her feet, her rights are being violated. She needs protection. To argue that such oppression is a part of some inviolable cultural identity is complete and utter nonsense. When a patient is suffering and desires care, he or she has the right to receive it. This principle also holds for human rights.

In a world aflame after the Cold War, we need to establish a forward-looking right of the world community to actively interfere in the affairs of sovereign nations to prevent an explosion of human rights violations.

All over the world today, people are fighting against each other. They have for too long been kept silent or under constraint. They have often lived separated from family and friends by borders drawn by the hands of dictators. Now they want everything, and they want it now. They are tired of waiting. As a result, many parts of Eastern Europe and central Asia and half of Africa are devastated by civil wars punctuated by massacres. The stream of refugees converges in a sea of humanity.

What can be done?

Since 1988, the United Nations has established that humanitarian volunteers, such as the Red Cross or Medecins sans Frontiers (Doctors Without Borders), should be guaranteed free access to victims through “humanitarian corridors” protected by the U.N., possibly by force.

However, in our brave new world, that is not enough. Now it is necessary to take the further step of using the right to intervention as a preventive measure to stop wars before they start and to stop murderers before they kill. The relevant U.N. resolutions clearly state that the world body has the right to interfere in the internal affairs of any country if it is the only way to stop murderers before they kill.

We knew what was likely to happen in Somalia, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo long before they exploded into war. But we didn’t act. If these experiences have taught us anything, it is that the time for a decisive evolution in international consciousness has arrived.

To that end, the decision-making processes of the U.N., now centered in the Security Council, must much more closely involve the less-developed nations so that interference is not seen as an imperious whim of the permanent members.

Laws and institutions are more perfectible than men. That is one of history’s undeniable lessons. When the right to intervention is at last established, then perhaps man himself will no longer be the worst enemy of humanitarianism.