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The Ethnic Conflict Research Digest

2001, Vol. 4 No. 2 .


Saving Strangers: Humanitarian Intervention in International Society
Nicholas J. Wheeler

Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000
336pp. Biblio. Index. Hb.: 30.00; ISBN 0-19-829621-5



This study examines the debates between pluralist and solidarist approaches to the complex and fraught issue of humanitarian intervention, the former seeking the preservation of sovereignty while the latter sees legitimacy in the distribution of justice. It presents the case for a solidarist approach to humanitarian intervention as an emergent norm of international society, though it also provides cogent argumentation for reasons why attaining this position has been so difficult in the post-war and post cold war environment. It provides an analytical overview and argumentation about the tension between the deployment of resources by states in instances of humanitarian abuse and, in particular, ethnic conflict, and the central tenet of the international system of non-intervention in the internal affairs of other states. This begs the question of whether non-intervention is desirable in every case in order to preserve the reciprocal protection that sovereignty provides, or whether humanitarian intervention may provide more stability in the long run for the international system. It may also be asked whether any of this matters and whether the key priority of the international system should be to protect its own structures in order to protect the majority of peoples, or whether consideration of the lives of strangers is more important in the short term and long term. As Wheeler points out, this throws into sharp relief the conflict between morality and legality in the international system (p.4.). Thus, this study examines how far states recognize the legitimacy of humanitarian intervention and how far the universal principles of international society are 'unconscious reflexions' of national policy (p.7.)- in other words, the conflict between justice and order.

The first part of this volume examines these questions, followed in the second part by a discussion of cold war cases where states sought justification for interventions, either using humanitarian grounds or avoiding them. India, Vietnam and Tanzania's arguments for the justification of their use of force against Pakistan, Cambodia, and Uganda in the 1970s provide the empirical focus of the second section. The third part examines the changing normative context for humanitarian intervention in the 1990s, and the way in which different perceptions of rights and roles for the UN was played out in the Security Council in this respect.

In Chapter 2, the justifications, motives and outcomes of Indian intervention against Pakistan in 1971 are discussed. The author assesses how far the international community accepted Indian intervention despite the fact that it was a violator of the UN Charter. Chapter 3 examines the heavy sanctioning of Vietnam because of its intervention against Pol Pot. Chapter 4 examines Tanzania's use of force against Idi Amin in Uganda which was received with almost 'tacit approval' (p.14.) With later post-Cold War intervention, there was a growing tendency to justify such uses of force on humanitarian grounds. Chapter 5 examines the UN mandated use of force against Iraq and then the process leading up to passing of UN Security Council Resolution 688. Chapter 6 then discusses how this increasingly humanitarian use of intervention led to US military involvement with Somalia in 1991. Chapter 7 examines how the debacle in Somalia was followed by genocide in Rwanda and asks whether this could have been prevented. Chapter 8 then moves to a discussion of NATO intervention in Kosovo in the light of earlier experiences in Croatia and Bosnia. The conclusion reflects upon how far humanitarian intervention has achieved legitimacy since the end of the Cold War, and argues that the caution vis--vis new approaches on the part of the international community underestimates the ability of humanitarian intervention to reconcile order and justice.

This volume provides an excellent analysis of a crucial area of international relations affecting ethnic relations. Is the society of states now developing a capacity for the minimal enforcement of human rights? Some progress has been made in a complex task, though it is still far from certain that success can be achieved. States are both enforcers (albeit reluctantly) and violators, and so it seems fairly obvious that states as entities will have great difficulty in enforcing anything against other states without being open to charges of self interest. If violators of human rights are to forfeit their right of sovereignty, this still needs to be enforced and widely agreed by other states. Meanwhile, during the time it takes to establish agreement and procedures, people begin to move on a large scale to escape violence. Wheeler's study seems to be based upon a calculation that lives need to be saved, but then focuses on a high-level state-centric view in which states are the only actors able to implement such action- in both pluralist or solidarist guise. This tends to ignore the many activities that occur on the ground in a private capacity in which humanitarian decisions are made. In an age in which the means of violence is widely dispersed, can states effectively deploy against all of them? It seems unlikely. Thus, it would have been useful if the role of strangers- not just as strangers to the major players on the international stage- but also at a communal and identity level could have been considered further. This might have emphasized further the growing legitimacy of the solidarist approach the author favours, by emphasizing the impact on and need for intervention not just to reflect on the legitimacy of the international system, but also on the requirements of human security, rather than merely state security. The author has identified a crucial dilemma afflicting the society of states, but rather emphasizes the role of states in responding to demands which might be argued also arise from growing pressures and awareness in civil societies. Part of the problem may well be that states' instinct for self-preservation cannot allow for policymaking derived from such a level of analysis and therefore that solidarism may continue the pluralist line of a weak accommodation of justice with order and interests. That said, this is an empirically and theoretically rich and important study which provides opportunities for further exploration of these many dilemmas.


Dr. Oliver Richmond
Department of International Relations




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