Conor Foley on the limits of forcible and non-forcible humanitarian interventions and human rights

Humanitarian interventions are at best a necessary evil since by their very nature they cause harm to the societies they are trying to help. Even at their most benign, relief assistance operations, such as the one following the tsunami, lead to economic and social distortion, weaken local capacity and encourage dependence. Military interventions are even more destabilizing and result in significant costs for both the occupier and occupied. It is noticeable how few places where large-scale humanitarian interventions took place in recent years have succeded in making the transition to stability. Virtually all these countries remain deeply fractured societies with weak national authorities. Some are effectively still governed as international protectorates, to the increasing frustration of their own populations. […]
Many commentators have also noted striking similarities between today’s debates on humanitarian interventions and those that took place towards the end of the nineteenth century during the ’scramble for Africa‘. The missionaries, teachers and doctors who followed the soldiers of European armies presumably believed they were helping to spread the benefits of ‚civilization‘ to ‚backward races‘. Anti-slavery activists enthusiastically supported military action against the largely Arab-controlled slave trade. The British Navy’s decision to interdict slave ships flying foreign flags and liberate their victim was a humanitarian assault on the previously accepted international legal doctrine of respect for state sovereignty. The treaties enabling slave traders to be put on trial by any state that captured them also laid the basis for subsequent laws of universal jurisdiction. John Stuart Mill could be seen as one of the earliest advocates for the establishment of international protectorates, when he argued that‘ ‚Despotism is a legitimate form of government in dealing with barbarians, providing the end be their improvement.‘
Of course, the analogies can be overdone but they require western liberals to think more seriously about the supposed universal values they hope their interventions will promote. […] international human rights and humanitarian law were primarily drafted by western political leaders and the supporters of both movements remain overwhelmingly middle-class, liberal and western in their social backgrounds, yet the main focus of their efforts is in places where quite different conceptions of these notions prevail […]
This suggest the need to develop a rather different discourse on human rights interventionism, one which is more modest in recognizing its limitations, but more ambitious in recognizing what needs to be done. A useful starting point would be to acknowledge that the conception of human rights western liberals have created, refined and prepackaged for export, is not the only one in existence. A broader dialogue is needed for the ways in which respect for human dignity, personal freedom and individual autonomy can be located in discussions of how to address the injustices caused by the imbalances of wealth and power in the world today. Combating extreme equality are two of the most important underlying causes of conflict and humanitarian crises, human rights and humanitarian organizations haven an important role to play in the arguments for economic justice.

Conor Foley, The Thin Blue Line. How Humanitarianism Went to War (Verso 2008/2010), 233-5 (footnotes omitted) 

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