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When is intervention to protect human rights under oppressive governments justified?

Question submitted by Jake Mazeitis, from National Forensic League, September 3, 2013

Answered by: Mark P. Lagon, Centennial Fellow and Distinguished Senior Scholar, Georgetown University School of Foreign Service


A government's legitimacy and sovereignty are not sacrosanct if it abuses its own citizens. Norms and values are even more important than international law to justify intervention to protect human rights.

While the UN Security Council (UNSC) is arguably the one body able to create international law outside of treaties, it is inaccurate to say intervention is justified simply when the UNSC says so. The UN's failure to act has led to other agglomerations of states intervening, such as NATO's action in Kosovo in 1999. Unfortunate inconsistency was also evident during the UNSC's paralysis on Rwanda in 1994 following the failed intervention in Somalia in 1992, and in Syria, today, following second thoughts surrounding Libya in 2010 and costs of occupying Iraq.

Still, there is a norm, the Responsibility to Protect—formulated in the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty's 2001 Report and incorporated into the communiqué of the 2005 UN World Summit—that suggests that states must protect their populations from atrocities and humanitarian calamities, and if they do not, others will intervene.

The nature and scale of human rights abuses heighten the justification for intervention. Mass murder, war crimes, ethnic cleansing, mass rape, and relocation of a particular group also justify intervention. Abuses short of that list, including discrimination or limiting political expression, may still justify involvement in another country's internal affairs short of sending in troops—actions including bolstering civil society groups and uncensored media and instating sanctions—are appropriate in such instances.

Any intervention's legitimacy depends on clear harm being done to the population, intervention not compounding that harm, and a reasonable chance of success is essential. Moreover, if rights-respecting, open governance is a premise for action, then decision-making on and implementation of intervention should be transparent to demonstrate legitimacy too.