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1999 In Review: Global Debate Over Humanitarian Intervention

By Susan Caskie

With the bombing of Yugoslavia in the Spring of 1999, NATO broke new ground in international law -- some say it transgressed international law. The attack on a sovereign nation was not to guard national interests but to protect the human rights of some of that nation's own citizens. RFE/RL's Susan Caskie looks at the evolving debate over humanitarian intervention.

Prague, 23 December 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Human rights is more important than sovereignty. That is the lesson the world should draw from NATO's bombing of Serbia, and from the UN intervention in East Timor. Or is it?

At the opening address of the UN General Assembly in September this year, UN Secretary General Kofi Annan told the world that the old idea of sovereignty was changing. Annan spoke of a new vision for interaction among nations. Human rights would be primary, and oppressors could not hide behind borders.

"Nothing in the [UN] charter precludes a recognition that there are rights beyond borders. Indeed, its very letter and spirit are affirmation of those fundamental human rights. In short, it is not the deficiencies of the Charter which have brought us to this juncture, but our difficulties in applying its principles to a new era; an era when strictly traditional notions of sovereignty can no longer do justice to the aspirations of peoples everywhere to attain their fundamental freedoms."

Annan seemed to be calling for a new era of humanitarian intervention, heralded by two major international interventions this year. NATO bombed Serbia to protect Kosovar Albanians, and an Australian-led peacekeeping force entered the Indonesian province of East Timor to protect the populace from the Indonesian military.

Ivo Daalder is an analyst with the Brookings Institution in Washington. He tells RFE/RL that the UN is limited by the will of its members regarding whether or not to intervene.

"So the question of when and how and whether to intervene in particular situations for humanitarian purposes is not one that's going to be guided by the aspirations of Kofi Annan but by the real interests and policies of the major powers. Most importantly the United States."

Daalder's colleague at the Brookings Institution, Michael O'Hanlon, says Annan's new vision will be difficult to implement.

"I think 1999 showed us as much as anything how hard it is to do humanitarian interventions, both in terms of getting the operation right, and in terms of just the politics of getting a country, getting one's own country behind an effort, getting the international community behind an effort. We had to manage so many problems with Russia and China vis a vis Kosovo, obviously with Indonesia itself vis a vis East Timor."

After more than two months of NATO bombing forced the withdrawal of the Serbian forces from Kosovo in June, U.S. President Bill Clinton hailed the action as a precedent, a message to oppressed peoples that the world would stand up for human rights.

Many analysts, however, say the bombing of Yugoslavia reversed the accepted international norms of the decades since World War Two. The principle of sovereignty is one of the foundations of the United Nations Charter. And it goes back much further.

Most political scientists trace the underpinnings for our modern-day definition of sovereignty to the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648, which ended the Thirty Years' War by giving independence to the European nations of the Holy Roman Empire. Wars between nations were all too common, but a civil conflict within a sovereign state was generally considered to be the concern of that state.

Yet some analysts say our notion of Westphalian sovereignty is mistaken. Stephen Krasner is a historian at Stanford University in the U.S. and the author of a book called "Sovereignty: Organized Hypocrisy." He says nations have long accepted limits on sovereignty.

"That is, even if you look at the peace of Westphalia in 1648, the actual provisions of the treaty which most people associate with the beginnings of the modern state system, the provisions of the treaty are filled with stipulations about the protection of religious minorities in Germany."

Similarly, the UN Charter speaks of the need to uphold human rights as well as to respect sovereignty. Chapter Seven of the UN Charter says that nations may act collectively against what the charter calls "threats to international peace and security." That chapter provides international legal justification for a group of nations to intervene to keep the peace.

However, among the permanent members of the UN Security Council, there is a fundamental split over the idea of humanitarian intervention. The United States and Britain, both NATO members, increasingly favor such interventions to protect human rights. Russia and China, two large countries with restive ethnic minorities and whose observance of human rights is often criticized, oppose intervention. France, a NATO member, favors intervention only when blessed by the Security Council.

Ivo Daalder says the split means humanitarian interventions will increasingly be conducted outside the UN Security Council.

"The question that these countries face is, do we let a Russia and a China veto the ability for countries to act in these situations, and therefore prevent us from acting, or do we in fact act even against the wishes of Russia and China -- even if that means that there is no UN Security Council authorization. In many cases, as we saw even in Kosovo, the answer will be that there will be action."

And in other cases, nations can be pressured to accept intervention on their territory. If a nation invites intervention, the action can be supported even by Russia and China, as was the case in East Timor. In that Indonesian province this summer, citizens voted in a UN-sponsored referendum for self-determination. When the Indonesian military rampaged across East Timor the international community responded with heavy diplomatic pressure, strong-arming the Indonesian government into accepting a UN peacekeeping force.

Daalder says East Timor is an example of how humanitarian intervention can work without bombing a sovereign nation.

"It shows that concerted pressure on a country to abide by the accepted international legal norms with regard to how one treats people can in fact work. Even though the United States and Australia and other countries ruled out the possibility of intervention without it being sanctioned by the UN Security Council, the fact was they intervened [in East Timor] short of military force, by pressing politically, diplomatically and pressing economic sanctions. It worked, and worked within a framework that was fully and wholly consistent with the UN Charter."

Analysts say that Chechnya is an example of a humanitarian intervention that will not take place. Serbia could be attacked because it could not retaliate in a way that would harm NATO. That is not true of Russia, armed with nuclear warheads.

Sovereignty expert Stephen Krasner sums up:

"And what's at stake in Serbia, and one could argue in Chechnya, is the clash between human rights on the one hand and claims about Westphalian and international legal sovereignty on the other. There's no court that decides among these competing claims. They've always existed in the international system in one form or another, even going back to the 17th century."

Many analysts agree with Michael O'Hanlon, who says that the events of this past year do not herald a sudden proliferation of humanitarian interventions.

"I think what we'll see is that the world's conscience will continue to be a force in favor of intervention in extreme circumstances, but a lot of other political and military realities will make it tough. And that will mean that we don't do a lot of these things in the future."

As 1999 ends, the question of which takes precedence -- human rights or state sovereignty -- is still evolving.