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The Right of the International Community to Intervene

(With some comments on the morality of economic sanctions)


« ...if humanitarian  intervention is, indeed, an unacceptable assault on sovereignty, how should we respond to a Rwanda, to a Srebrenica — to gross and systematic violations of human rights that affect every precept of our common humanity ? »(Koffi Annan, 2000 Millennium Assembly of the United Nations)


In the present world, foreign intervention in a country’s domestic affairs is normally not acceptable. Recent events in Iraq and elsewhere seem, however, to require that we take a new look at this basic principle of the current international order.  I first want briefly to recall why intervention — using military force or other means — still is a major taboo.  I will then explain why, in my view, there is a need for loosening the constraints on legal foreign intervention .Finally, I will suggest some of the conditions under which a new legal set up for foreign intervention could be incorporated into a new world order.


1)  Nations have long resented distant imperial authorities claiming to work for the common good. France and other European countries were born when Barbarian tribes victoriously challenged the power of the Roman emperors.  A new Roman Empire was set up under Charlemagne but lawyers in Paris established, as early as the thirteenth century, that “the king of France is the emperor in his kingdom”. In 1776, British subjects living in North America asserted that “they are and of right ought to be independent”. The Spanish and Portuguese colonists in Latin America similarly broke away from Madrid and Lisbon. The Holy Germanic Roman Empire based in Vienna, Austria, disappeared when the King of Prussia was crowned as a rival emperor. In the past two hundred years, the world has seen new sovereign states arise from the wreckage of the Ottoman Empire, the colonial empires of Britain, France and others and, finally, the Soviet Union. Every one of these newly emancipated countries was from the start extremely jealous of its independence. Many went to war in order to defend it.  “Sovereignist” sentiment, as the French call it, is strong in France and other countries, and also in the US in the form of unilateralism and distaste for international obligations. In addition, many governments still have to deal with ethnic rebellions in such places as Northern Ireland, the Basque provinces of Spain, Corsica, Georgian Abkhazia and, in a much worse form, occupied Palestine, Chechnya, the Tibet, Southern Philippines, etc. It should not come as a surprise that newly liberated Iraqis nevertheless resent American occupation. Nationalism is a strong and universal feeling which cannot be ignored.

Meanwhile, World War II demonstrated that joint action could be needed against such régimes as those of Nazi Germany, Imperial Japan and their allies. When the war was over and the United Nations was established, it was given authority to organize the resumption of military cooperation among the victors to deal with renewed threats of armed aggression. But the UN Charter sets out conditions which make it extremely difficult to take effective legal action against states which are felt to endanger world peace and security or otherwise behave in an unacceptable manner. (I prefer not to call them “rogue states”, a phrase badly in need of legal clarification.) First of all, coercive measures against a member state must be authorized by the Security Council with the consent of its five permanent members, a clause which provides these five countries with impunity and enables them to shield their respective client governments from UN sponsored military intervention. Secondly, the use of force is permitted only in the case of actual threats to international peace. The Charter specifically provides that the UN cannot interfere in what falls under the domestic sovereignty of member sates. It makes clear that in matters such as human rights, a subject to which it rightly gives prominence, but also in economic governance or the environment, the Security Council has no competence, while the General Assembly, as well as specialized agencies, can issue only non-binding recommendations.


2)  I believe that such a sweeping interpretation of national sovereignty can no longer serve as a basis for a satisfactory world order. It is incompatible, in my opinion, with the progress of globalization in recent decades, one effect of which is that domestic policies now affect the vital interests of foreign countries like they never did before. Nuclear arms development in North Korea is a major concern for the Japanese, but so is the fact that every year, upwind from them, China burns one billion tons of coal in inefficient power plants. Another non-military example of the case for making it possible to compel states to act responsibly is the way in which, in the late nineteen eighties, the lack of proper supervision of banks in Thailand contributed to a major economic crisis affecting all of South-East Asia. A second, major aspect of globalization is that while people everywhere have become more sensitive about human rights, they are also better informed about the hardships some populations suffer under dictatorial or ineffective governments. World public opinion increasingly demands that the international community do something to put an end to gross violations of human rights or set into motion needed humanitarian programs, even against the will of the local government. Whether permitted or not by the UN Charter, forcibly removing abominable despots like Pol Pot, Bokassa or Saddam Hussein is now seen by many as the inescapable duty of civilized countries in the outside world.  The need for appropriate machinery to oblige individual governments to conform with universally accepted norms was resoundly affirmed as early as 1963 by Pope John XXIII in his famous encyclical “Pacem in Terris”, a document of lasting value, well worth reading again today. The present state of mankind, he said, and the moral order itself require that a world authority be established, with universal competence. No doubt he was thinking about the confrontation between East and West which had reached an alarming level just a few months before at the time of the Cuban missile crisis. But he also had in mind other problems in need of attention, many of which are listed in his letter, in particular disarmament, human rights and the development of poorer countries. John XXIII saw the United Nations as a commendable first step in the direction he advocated. He mentioned it with appreciation. But he stressed the need to go much further on the way to the creation of a global authority with actual powers to deal with worldwide issues of various kinds. Nothing in the history of the last forty years deters from this vision which, at the time, was received with considerable interest, even by such people as presidents Brezhnev and John F. Kennedy. May I note, in this connection, that the American Conference of Roman Catholic bishops has stated that the US must submit to the jurisdiction of international organisations. To sum up, the ideology of unfettered independence does not seem fitting for the world of the twenty-first century.


3)  The indisputable need for a way to force governments to behave and the no less inescapable need to respect the national pride of their citizens will often run counter to one another. May I recall conversations I had in Africa at the time when French paratroopers made a quick and bloodless raid to Bangui, Central African Republic, to remove self-appointed Emperor Jean-Bedel Bokassa. This was clearly illegal. France was not acting in self-defense. No authorization had been sought or received from the United Nations. Bokassa was a threat to no one except his own subjects. President Giscard d’Estaing argued at the time, as Mr. Tony Blair now tends to do in the case of Iraq, that removing a cruel, clearly discredited dictator was justification enough. All the political leaders with whom I talked were delighted that Bokassa’s reign had come to an end. But all considered the military action by France which had produced this result totally unacceptable. Self respecting countries who treasure their independence cannot accept unconditionally that they or others be subject to irresistible pressure from foreign powers, however justified. Facing this dilemma requires looking into these questions:


a) who is empowered to decide that intervention is necessary, i.e. under whose authority may force be engaged and/or other coercive measures taken;    

b) how fair will be the selection of countries to which pressure is applied;    

c) what will be expected of them; and    

d) what forms and degree of coercion may legitimately be used.   In other words, what will be the legal framework for intervention? I am not so naive as to think that just setting out what the law must be solves all problems. In any case, the use of force and other forms of pressure will always be needed, if only to discipline states which disregard the agreed norms of behaviour. But an international order worthy of the name requires that this be done legally. International law is “a way to peace”, as the Pope intends to explain in his next New Year’s Day message.


        a) The decision to use coercive measures against a sovereign government cannot be left to a single state if it is to command respect from all parties concerned and be free from suspicions of hidden motives or selfish national political or economic interests. I can understand Ms. Condolezza Rice’s argument against a multipolar world and her preference for the unity of the free world around common values, but this unity must be reached, in each case, after free and open debate. Mr. Schroeder, the German Chancellor, made this point very well when he said that “Germany does not recognize or seek a multipolar world, but a multilateral one in which issues of international importance are decided through discussion and on the basis of international law.” May I add that exposing the promoters of forceful intervention to sobering advice from other quarters may often be useful. When, for example, the French government deployed its armed forces in Indochina and later Algeria, it would have done well seriously to consider the negative views expressed in Washington at the time. This does not mean that one should stick with the decision-making system now in force at the United Nations. New procedures must be devised to ensure that the use of force, if found necessary, is authorized by a reasonably representative and responsible group of countries, a group not necessarily made up of the five permanent members of the Security Council or a majority of the General Assembly. The experience of regional organization must also be considered in this regard, including the useful precedent set by NATO in Kosovo.       

b) If intervention — preferably by non-military means — is to become more frequent under generally agreed procedures and be accepted as legitimate, all countries should be exposed to it. The case for removing a dictator who preys on his own people is weakened if other tyrants, though just as bad, are left unchallenged. Genocide must be stopped whatever the race, color or religion of its victims. The illegal possession of weapons of mass destruction cannot be invoked selectively. Double standards are particularly shocking in the economic and financial domains when, for example, Third World countries are obliged to balance their budgets and abolish subsidies to poor farmers under penalty of losing vital financial support, while governments, my own included, who are responsible for these prescriptions by the World Bank and International Monetary Fund build up huge fiscal deficits and maintain protectionist schemes in favor of domestic producers.

        c) May I dwell for a moment on another aspect of this form of foreign interference in the domestic policies of poor countries. I refer to aid “conditionality”, the effects of which can be just as devastating as those of armed intervention if, for examples, funds allocated to health and education have to be reduced. I am not saying that the IMF and World Bank are wrong to put pressure on borrowing countries in order to induce them to develop a more efficient economic system. Intervention through “structural adjustment programs” is widely practiced and perfectly justified. But there is a need to ensure that the measures prescribed are the best under the circumstances, not simply the automatic and immediate application of the free market norms currently in force in richer countries. Incidentally, this is a case where acting preventively is much preferable to the far more painful treatment of open financial crises. Similarly, when seeking to replace authoritarian regimes with democracy, interveners must keep in mind that free elections imprudently organized may well bring back oppression by one man, one clan or one ethnic group. Pressing for the respect of human rights must deal only with those listed in the Universal Declaration and refrain from imposing on unwilling nations alleged new rights for which there is, as yet, no international consensus. On the other hand, if the need for all countries to act in a certain way becomes manifest rather than just ideology, if, for example, science gives proof of the disastrous global effects of inconsiderate consumption of hydrocarbons, the international community has the right and duty to draft obligatory norms and, if need be, force recalcitrant governments to respect them. All these examples emphasize that intervention should not be seen as necessarily undertaken with military forces, and even less always conceived as a war against this or that evil.

        d) Obviously, military means will not be used if there is a legal decision by the international community to compel the US government to raise taxes on petroleum and limit the use of sports utility vehicles. Other forms of pressure are available for this and other circumstances where forceful foreign intervention short of war is felt to be in order. The use of diplomatic channels, both bilateral and multilateral, the wide distribution of critical reports by authoritative international commissions, the request for regular progress reports to be publicly discussed are among the many measures that can be put to use. Economic sanctions must also be mentioned in this context. Import restrictions, trade boycotts, demands for political counterparts to the granting of financial aid all are widely practiced and even more widely used as threats. Under present international trade agreements, countries able to establish that decisions of another government have harmed them can retaliate in kind. It seems to me that the well known criteria for the legitimate use of force — the so-called “just war” doctrine — should also apply to these other types of international pressure. The decision should be taken by an appropriate authority and for a legitimate cause; other, less violent forms of action should have been attempted and found wanting; the damage inflicted should be commensurate with the damage suffered; there must be a reasonable chance of success. The economic sanctions applied to Iraq after the first Gulf war did not conform to these rules, except for the first one. As applied, they caused enormous hardship to the Iraqi people who had no way to influence Saddam Hussein’s armament policies and could not oblige him to liberalize his regime. It seems even more difficult morally to justify the Iraq boycott than the military invasion which came later.




The coming years will tell what kind of international order will emerge from the complex and often contradictory requirements of the present world. One thing is certain: the United States will have a major influence on its development.


To its many friends in other lands — and I am one of them —, America appears as both the champion of democracy, freedom and the rule of law, and an unrivalled, possibly threatening military power. Fifty years ago, the United Nations and the Marshall plan were universally acclaimed bold initiatives from visionary Americans wishing that their country’s immense strength and economic wealth serve the installation of a cooperative world order. The present American tendency to put national interests first, claim a right to decide from Washington on the use of military force and ignore international obligations has become a cause for concern for nearly every inhabitant of the planet. The discussions around the armed intervention in Iraq emphasized the opposition between these two facets of American power. We can only hope and pray that the citizens of the United States will find a way to tilt the scale in favor of military moderation, international cooperation and the rule of law at global level.



Michel Rougé