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The Challenge of Humanitarian Intervention Since Rwanda

Author: Fred Aja Agwu, Associate Research Professor, Nigerian Institute of International Affairs
Aug 6, 2014

African Union Expert Brief Pictures of victims of the Rwandan genocide inside the Gisozi memorial in Kigali, which depicts the country's 1994 genocide in which 800,000 Tutsi and politically moderate Hutus died (Radu Sigheti/Courtesy Reuters).

Humanitarian intervention is intervention forced upon a sovereign state. It is either arbitrarily undertaken by one state or collectively by a group of states (at times under the platform of an international organization like the United Nations) with the express purpose of protecting civilians from human rights abuses, war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide, among other humanitarian imperatives.

Before the emergence of the United Nations, any nation could arbitrarily embark on "intervention" into another state (though most interventions were justified in terms of the intervening state's obligation through a formal alliance or national security, rather than humanitarian reasons). But since the foundation of the UN Charter in 1945, humanitarian intervention has become the exclusive and statutory prerogative of the "international community," primarily through the authority of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC). However, this is if and only if the precipitating circumstances pass the "shock-the-conscience" test; that is, if the circumstances involve the existence of an immediate and extensive violation of humanitarian principles, in the form of mass atrocities.

Thus, humanitarian intervention is undertaken to prevent horrendous crimes, such as widespread slaughter, and other serious violence that puts citizens of a given state at risk. Such forcible intervention, authorized by the UNSC under Chapter VII of the UN Charter and undertaken by the UN or even a regional organization, trumps the sovereignty of the state that has either committed or failed to prevent atrocities against its citizens.

Limits and accountability in humanitarian intervention

Although humanitarian intervention is the statutory preserve of the United Nations or any other regional organization acting at the behest or under authorization of the UNSC, there are limits to be strictly observed. Furthermore, some accountability should be rendered during and after the intervention. This includes: the obligation to use proportionate force that does not destroy more human lives than the intervention was undertaken to protect; prompt discontinuation of the intervention once atrocities are halted and relevant structures are put into place to ensure they do not recur; and the obligation to render accounts to the authorizing body (the Security Council) with respect to the actions taken.

In addition, interventions should, where possible, attempt to stop the government from committing atrocities but should simultaneously minimize destabilizing effects on the country's fundamental political structures. This is in accordance with Article 2, paragraph 7 of the UN Charter, which prohibits intervention in the domestic affairs of sovereign states. Despite this limitation on humanitarian intervention, the UN became involved in electoral disputes in the Ivory Coast and was part of regime change in Libya under the auspices of humanitarian intervention. Unfortunately, by overstepping the bounds of a humanitarian operation and engaging in politics that look more like regime change, the UN has undermined its credibility for conducting authentic humanitarian interventions in the future. The point must be made here that the only exception to Article 2, paragraph 7 of the UN Charter is in an enforcement action under Chapter VII of the Charter. But here, the exception must be with an express mandate or authorization of the Security Council. Unfortunately, in Sierra Leone and Libya, this UN Security Council mandate was never given, which is why the UN can be said to have overstepped its bounds in those countries.

The Rwandan Genocide

From its inception the United Nations has undertaken several humanitarian interventions—ranging from its operation in the Arab-Israeli conflicts and the Korean War of the 1950s (1950 to 1953), to the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) crisis, the eviction of Iraq from Kuwait, and the Balkan crisis. But the Rwandan genocide of 1994 was a case that genuinely required a humanitarian intervention and did not receive one, irrespective of the fact that around eight-hundred thousand people (mainly the Tutsis and moderate Hutu population) were slaughtered in cold blood by Hutu extremists, the Interahamwe.

The inability to intervene in Rwanda truly scorched the conscience of the United Nations and its member states. In the aftermath of the Rwandan genocide, the international community ruefully made the historical declaration, "never again, not on our watch," and Kofi Annan, then secretary-general of the United Nations, asked the members of the UN General Assembly how the world should respond "to gross and systematic violations of human rights that offend every precept of our common humanity?" Answering the challenge, the Canadian government and a number of renowned global foundations, established the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS), which developed the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) doctrine.

Even though R2P was a mere semantic shift vis--vis the traditional practice of humanitarian intervention, it nonetheless introduced a civilian component into humanitarian intervention. The United Nations and civil society organizations are now charged with the task of sensitizing policymakers in fragile or failing states that are vulnerable to human rights violations; the goal is to train them in proactive good governance in order to prevent or forestall situations that may lead to the political and societal ruptures that precipitate humanitarian interventions.

Humanitarian intervention after Rwanda

Irrespective of the remorse over Rwanda, dire human rights violations that call for humanitarian intervention continue to occur around the world, with little or no response from the international community. The situations that readily come to mind include the crises in the Darfur region of Sudan, Syria, South Sudan (the Bentiu massacre), Central African Republic, the ever festering DRC, and, to some extent, Ukraine. The humanitarian situations in these conflict zones mandate intervention by the United Nations, but the organization, though in sight, is not doing much.

The United Nations' continued failure to live up to expectations after Rwanda is due, in part to the divergent interests of the permanent members of the Security Council, which can paralyze the decision-making body. Because of this paralysis, the Security Council does not act robustly; it deploys peace-keeping forces into crisis zones instead of mounting well-resourced and adequately mandated forced interventions.

But the persistence of mass atrocities also reflects that good governance is still not taken seriously in many fragile and failing developing nations around the world, and civil society has often become all but nonexistent. Efforts to address the underlying causes of mass atrocities and humanitarian crises have made little headway. The development of the institutions necessary to implement good governance is essential for preventing the outbreak or recurrence of such calamities. Advancing this goal will require more attention by the United Nations—and particularly its wealthier member states—to help vulnerable countries improve their capacities to prevent mass atrocities, as called for in the so-called "second pillar" of the R2P doctrine. Alternatively, the UNSC should help to promote the growth of institutions, and civil society organizations that can help build the necessary bases for good governance, particularly those in line with the principle of the Responsibility While Protecting (RWP).

What should be done?

At the global level, a number of steps could be taken to surmount the challenges to humanitarian intervention. One of the most important would be for the Security Council's permanent members to transcend their narrow national interests and, in fact, do away with the obsession with state sovereignty. Unfortunately, there is a very slim chance of this happening, particularly because UN Security Council permanent members like China and Russia have continued to exhibit obdurate behavior in addressing conflict zones like Syria and the Iranian nuclear program crisis. Any nation that fails in its obligation to uphold international law, particularly the protection of human lives, loses its right to sovereignty, political independence, and territorial inviolability. Thus, state sovereignty should be discarded in favor of human rights and humanitarian principles.

To that end, the Security Council should make the threshold for humanitarian intervention more explicit. State sovereignty should no longer be a barrier to humanitarian intervention because any claim to sovereignty that is not consistent with the protection of fundamental humanitarian principles should be null and void. As such, the Security Council should mandate an unambiguous enforcement action under Chapter VII of the United Nations Charter. As laid out in Article 45 and Article 43, this would require the Security Council to make a special agreement on such issues as "armed forces, assistance, and facilities, including rights of passage." The members of the Security Council should therefore seek to design an agreement that lays out the elements of this enforcement action with an explicit threshold for humanitarian intervention, and limits to prevent this humanitarian intervention from becoming regime change.

Global Memos are briefs by the Council of Councils that gather opinions from global experts on major international developments.