Term Paper: Humanitarian Intervention the Arab Spring

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Humanitarian Intervention

The Arab Spring brought about regime change throughout the Middle East, and most of these regime changes occurred relatively quickly and relatively peacefully. In Syria, however, the uprising has become what is essentially a civil war. The conflict has been ongoing for 20 months and shows no sign of abating. Government forces are equipped with modern weapons include warplanes, and the rebel forces are strongly entrenched. The conflict has resulted in a massive humanitarian crisis. The United Nations has recently declared that the crisis is becoming "rapidly worse." Syrian refugees are fleeing into neighboring countries by the thousands, but the more significant humanitarian challenge lies within Syria's borders. It is estimated that there are 2.5 million people inside Syria who need humanitarian aid today, and there could be as many as 4 million by early 2013 (Weaver, 2012). There are immense challenges to dealing with the crisis inside Syria, not the least of which include the ongoing violence and the fact that such intervention would come at the expense of Syria's sovereignty.


Evans (2008) notes that in 2005 the United Nations embraced the concept of "the responsibility to protect." This idea holds that a sovereign state has an explicit responsibility to protect its own people from genocide and other crimes against humanity. When that state fails to do so, the responsibility falls to the international community to take whatever action is deemed appropriate. Military action under this doctrine, however, must be approved by the UN Security Council (Ibid). In the relevant World Summit Outcome document, item 138 notes that the UN should help states to "exercise this responsibility and support the United Nations in establishing an early warning capability." Line 139 states that "the international community, through the United Nations, also has the responsibility to use appropriate diplomatic, humanitarian and other peaceful means…to help protect populations from genocide." The document does not create a new mechanism for the implementation of this concept, but it authorizes the Security Council to take action by force "should peaceful means be inadequate and national authorities are manifestly failing to protect their populations."

This doctrine, known as R2P ("responsibility to protect") appears to lay the framework for limited intervention in Syria. Syria is a member of the UN General Assembly and therefore has bound itself to the principle of R2P. It is clear that, regardless of fault, the Syrian state is not capable of protecting its citizens from humanitarian crisis. However, the situation is complicated by the ongoing conflict. In order to implement a humanitarian intervention, some form of military intervention is likely to be required, in order to provide the conditions for humanitarian intervention. The UN Security Council has not authorized such an intervention, primarily because of the veto power of Russia, a nation with strong ties to the Syrian regime. Even if the Security Council did permit a military intervention, however, there remains the question of the ethics of humanitarian intervention under R2P, especially if such actions would necessitate a degree of military intervention as well.

Moral and Ethical Obligations

The issue of humanitarian intervention is typically framed in terms of ethics. Setting aside the United Nations for a moment, it is worth considering the ethical dilemmas of humanitarian intervention itself. The concept of the sovereign state is essential to the current international system. Philpott (2007) makes the point that sovereignty as an apparatus gained strength with the freedom of former colonies to control their own destinies in the 20th century. The apparatus of sovereignty allows for a "supreme political authority" -- whatever the source of its power -- to wield control over its given territory. There is strength in this apparatus, as evidenced by its spread across the planet. Sovereignty, Philpott points out, is the strongest principle in the history of political organization. He also sees that there are emergent threats to the notion of sovereignty, one of which is the United Nations and the doctrine of intervention.

The United Nations builds its philosophy loosely around the idea of deontology, with the belief that there is something approaching a universal right and wrong. The norms regarding the application of such a view to the concept of humanitarian intervention are, however, in a state of gradual but steady change (Finnemore, 2002). The belief is that when nations work together they can build a world where fewer problems -- be they social, political and economic -- exist. With this belief, the United Nations is working with an idealistic vision of deontology where it feels that its mandate supersedes that of sovereign states due to an inherent moral superiority that comes from global consensus about acceptable norms. R2P certainly expresses that when sovereign states are judged to have failed, the international community can and should intervene. Minimizing negative outcomes on innocent people takes priority over the preservation of sovereignty.

Holzgrefe (2003) notes that there are multiple ethical divides in the international community regarding the issue of humanitarian intervention. The issue pits individualist sentiments that emphasize the right of all humans to safety and security against collectivist sentiments that would view the state, and its sovereignty, as the primary concern. The other ethical divide that he outlines is that between universalism and particularism. The United Nations, as clearly expressed in 2005, falls on the individualist side of the first divide, and the universalist side of the second divide. Yet in practice humanitarian intervention that requires military action is almost always going to be particularist in nature. In Syria, it is clear that the international community views the Assad regime as the aggressor, and would target his forces first in order to bring about peace to the country. The United Nations does not appear to have reconciled this divide, and may well be comfortable with the fact that it must take sides in a conflict in order to bring about peace. There is little room for the application of universalism in Syria. The West has taken a clear stand against Assad, which Russia's stand for Assad is a stand against the Syrian people who are the victims of the government massacres.

Powers (2012) makes the point that there are problems inherent in the application of external judgment about the need for intervention. The first is that such an evaluation is by its nature incomplete. A situation like that in Syria is by its nature complex, and the nature and outcome of intervention is equally complex. Making the evaluation that intervention against the Assad regime is one thing, implementing that intervention is another. It is worth noting that R2P does not provide mechanisms for the implementation of intervention, only the authority for doing so. There is risk that the nations adjudging the need for intervention can abuse such a position. Self-interested states like Russia and the United States are already staking out their own interests, so any intervention would likely reflect those interests. Powers (2012) notes that while regional bodies like the Arab League can, by their assent, lend legitimacy to an intervention, they too may act out of self-interest.

A consequentialist perspective must also be taken into consideration. Intervention, when military forces are involved, can be messy. The objective of engaging the Syrian military may be noble and ethical at its heart, but the outcomes of such an intervention would be entirely unpredictable. The intervention could bring about more harm than good to the Syrian people, and worsen an already bad humanitarian crisis. Where there might be a moral case for an intervention, the practicalities of such action might provide a sobering counterargument.

The Supremacy of Sovereignty?

The ideal of the supremacy of sovereignty is being challenged by the United Nations, raising the question of whether modern nation states should be allowed such unchallenged rule over their territories. As power a concept as sovereignty is, one of its major weaknesses is that sovereign states can be subject to rule by tyrants. Syria is just one example of this -- history has many. The leadership of many such states is not subject to democratic election, either. The people therefore do not receive a government that reflects their needs and desires. There is an argument to make that the supremacy of sovereignty must also include an asterisk -- democracy is a requirement. When the modern concept of sovereignty was being developed in Europe, democracy soon followed and it is that model that has spread around the world (Philpott, 2008). The ending of colonial rule that brought about such a profound change to the concept of sovereignty was never intended to leave much of the world in the hands of despots. The people of Syria -- wherever they stand politically -- had no real say in the government they received. Morally, the right of a dictator to absolute authority over a territory is not entirely congruent with the vision of sovereignty that would demand outside nations respect that sovereignty. Sovereignty that extends to just one man is not true sovereignty at all. There does not appear to… [END OF PREVIEW]

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