Inside the glass house: by Thalif Deen

24th September 2000

Dilemma of intervention

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NEW YORK: Sri Lanka has joined two other Asian nations China and India in taking a vociferous stand against one of the most sensitive political issues vexing the United Nations: humanitarian intervention.

Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar told a UN press briefing last week that there is a large body of opinion in the General Assembly which believes that "there should be no erosion of the concept of sovereignty upon which the UN charter itself is based."

These countries, mostly developing nations, are intent on safeguarding their sovereign rights and do not want any outside interference in their domestic affairs. "They are both jealous and apprehensive," he noted.

Having established that fundamental principle, Mr. Kadirgamar argued, there may be times justifying humanitarian intervention particularly if there is "a massive violation of human rights, clear cases of genocide or continuous unmitigated savagery".

Sometimes this line may be difficult to draw, he cautioned, and in other cases politics may come into play. The international community could decide to intervene in such cases, but even here it should not be done on an adhoc basis or by one or two states arbitrarily.

Kadirgamar said that even under such circumstances, intervention is permissible, but not just by a decision of the 15-member Security Council, but by the entire 189-member General Assembly, which really reflects the views of the international community.

"Yes, humanitarian intervention in exceptional circumstances," he summed up, "but only under certain conditions."

Ambassador Satyabrata Pal of India also singled out the primacy of the General Assembly over the Security Council in any form of intervention.

Addressing a meeting of the Security Council early this year, he made the forceful argument that the veto-wielding Council, which usually authorises humanitarian action on behalf of the "international community", does not really represent the wider global community.

The Council's membership is unrepresentative, he said, and in its methods of work it does not welcome or accept the views of the wider membership.

"There would be well-founded fears that the Council would act, not for humanitarian, but for less lofty, reasons," he added.

Since all societies, Pal said, agree that rights and duties go hand in hand, there must be then, a duty to take humanitarian action, and not just in the Security Council.

China, on the other hand, takes an even more hardline position on the question of humanitarian intervention.

Wang Yingfan of China says that "no one should interfere with the internal affairs of a sovereign state in the name of humanitarian assistance, nor should humanitarian responses be used as a pretext to use force against a State."

The debate has taken added importance at a time when the Canadian government has decided to set up an international commission to study the concept of humanitarian intervention.

The study is expected to provide guidelines on the terms and conditions under which either the Security Council or the international community could justifiably intervene in the domestic affairs of a sovereign nation state.

The arguments adduced by most Western states, including the US and Britain, is that the international communmity has the right to take "humanitarian action" to save lives and relieve suffering.

Canadian Foreign Minister Lloyd Axworthy told reporters last week that the "International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty" was a response to Secretary-General Kofi Annan's challenge to the international community to address "the highly complex problem of state sovereignty and international responsibility."

The 10-member commission will be co-chaired by Gareth Evans, a former Australian foreign minister, and Mohamed Sahnoun of Algeria, a UN Special Adviser on the Horn of Africa.

"The right or responsibility of countries to intervene in other countries where human rights appear to be massively at risk has been perhaps the most troubling and difficult issue on the international policy agenda," Mr. Evans told reporters.

Mr. Axworthy said the purpose of the commission is to contribute to building a broader understanding of issues relating to sovereignty, and to foster a global political consensus.

A series of meetings and roundtable discussions are to be held in the US, Europe, Africa, Asia and Latin America to discuss the subject at length. The commission is expected to produce a report by late next year.

Addressing the Millennium Summit in early September, US President Bill Clinton said that even though there are fewer wars between nations, there are more wars within them.

"Such internal conflicts, often driven by ethnic and religious differences, took five million lives in the last decade, most of them completely innocent victims," he added.

"These conflicts", he said, "present us with a stark challenge: are they part of the scourge the UN was established to prevent? If so, we must respect sovereignty and territorial integrity, but still find a way to protect people as well as borders."

"The last century has taught us that there are times when the international community must take a side, not merely stand between the sides or on the sidelines," he added.

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