The Paradoxical Game between Humanitarian Intervention and Territorial Sovereignty

An intervention that liberates the state's nationals from gross human rights violations is called humanitarian intervention.

“It might be best for the world to let minor wars burn themselves out. Policy elites should resist the emotional impulse to intervene in other people’s wars–not because they are indifferent to suffering,  but  precisely  because  they  care  about  it,”  Luttwak (1999) argued. The topic was territorial sovereignty and how it was considered absolute, meaning states were absolute in their territories. No one is more powerful than the sovereign. Territorial sovereignty allows states to conduct business freely within their territory without interference (Stilz, 2021). States are then free to be independent of any other nation-state. This principle is upheld by international law and treaties. However, with globalization and the interdependence of nation-states, this law is under criticism. Should the world sit back and watch as states are in chaos? This creates a dilemma: are interventions for good causes still considered a violation of territorial sovereignty? Especially since both principles are crucial for international law.

Enabulele mentioned three significant points in his article: the importance of territorial sovereignty, humanitarian intervention, and the dilemmas. In his first point, he explained that, under international law, all states are equal and responsible for their territories. Every state must be able to stand independently without hands-on influence from outside parties. As stated in the Charter of the United Nations (UN):

“All members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any State or in any other manner inconsistent with the purpose of the United Nations” (United Nations, 1945).

Therefore, as Enabulele (2010) mentioned, is there a particular intervention that falls within excusable limits? Enabulele elaborated that sovereign states’ absoluteness began to thin out with the highlight of international human rights. This means that states cannot be the single determinant of their people’s rights. This writer finds it crucial to remember that even though states are obliged to uphold rights, failure to maintain them does not give outer parties the right to intervene immediately. This is where the topic of intervention comes along.

An intervention that liberates the state’s nationals from gross human rights violations is called humanitarian intervention (Enabulele, 2010). Humanitarian intervention encompasses armed responses to certain acts that shock the moral conscience. This includes genocide, ethnic cleansing,  war  crimes,  and  crimes  against  humanity.  Humanitarian  intervention  could  be unilateral or collective. It is considered unilateral intervention when one or more states intervene without the UN Security Council (UNSC). And on the other hand, collective intervention is carried out with the authorization of the UN.

Collective intervention only allows the UN to intervene under the Charter, which states:

“The Security Council shall determine the existence of any threat to the peace, breach of the peace, or act of aggression and shall make recommendations, or decide what measures shall be taken in accordance with the provisions of article 41 and 42, to maintain or restore inter- national peace and security. . .” (United Nations, 1945).

Such intervention could indeed be used to order a ceasefire under the UN. However, it is duly  noted  that  the  UNSC  lacks  rights.  UNSC is unable to intervene in a sovereign state’s internal affairs unless it’s a constitution of breach of peace and threats to peace. Therefore, the tricky part comes: the UN must resist temptation. The UN must still be an independent international organization without being puppeteered to intervene in the internal affairs of a state, except if it arises from explicit provisions of Chapter VII of the UN charter. Even so, the use of force is mentioned as a last resort, and such use of force must be under the UN (Enabulele,2010).

Enabulele also mentioned the few instances in which unilateral intervention could be seen.  One  of  which  was  India’s 1971 intervention in Bangladesh, following allegations that Pakistan was violating standards of human rights in Bengal (Murshid, 2011). However, almost all cases of unilateral interventions are controversial due to their legality.

This  then creates a dilemma. It is as if the choice between absolute sovereignty and humanitarian intervention cannot be made without sacrificing another. This writer honestly could not imagine a state being able to hide under absolute sovereignty to violate humanitarian law. However, just as worse, superpowers are able to use intervention as a justification to influence the structures of weaker states. Therefore, according to Enabulele (2010), the legalization of intervention is not the highlighted topic, nor should it be needed. Instead, it is the genuineness of states to commit to humanitarian concerns.

This writer agrees with Enabulele’s article that this paradigm has created a dilemma for states, as they must balance their sovereignty with their responsibility to protect their citizens and uphold international human rights law. This balance might be idealistic as these two principles’ natures are conflicting.

Therefore,  from  a  more  realist  perspective, sovereignty is a crucial international law principle that should not be violated. Even if that means merely watching as other states are not obliging to humanitarian law. This writer sees Enabulele’s (2010) arguments on humanitarian intervention, whether unilateral or collective, as a threat to state sovereignty and a potential source of conflict between states. And especially unilateral intervention.

This writer believes that unilateral intervention is unfair. Unilateral humanitarian intervention involves disregarding the authority of the UNSC to sanction the use of force in international relations (Wheeler, 2000). It is clear from the Charter’s provisions that the UNSC has the primary responsibility to maintain international peace and security. And so, an effort to enforce action to be taken under regional arrangements must be with their authorization. Without the UNSC, there is a fear of major superpowers and an alliance of developing countries misusing unilateral intervention to truly intervene with another state’s political, economic, and military conditions.  This  then  supports  the  moral  argument  that  permitting unilateral acts in a legal system undermines the authority of international law, specifically territorial sovereignty.

And   so,   to   conclude,   Enabulele’s   (2010)   article   on   territorial   sovereignty   and humanitarian intervention highlighted the question, should intervention be excusable under conditions where the humanitarian law was violated? To answer, this writer argued that humanitarian intervention is controversial even for the right reasons and should not have been done  unilaterally  without  authorisation  from  a  higher power and institution, specifically the United Nations. It needs to be remembered that with the push towards human rights, another crucial principle under international law is the highlight for state equality and freedom. This is then, truly, a game of paradoxes.

Jasmine Naurah Sabrina
Jasmine Naurah Sabrina
Jasmine Naurah Sabrina is undergoing her undergraduate studies at Universitas Gadjah Mada. Jasmine is a lifelong learner of global politics and international relations. She is incredibly passionate about film and literature. She is, therefore, dedicated to further exploring and expressing opinions through writing.