“Should strong states have a duty to intervene in a country whose government is inflicting violence against its own citizens?” (Macmillan Prize Runner-Up 2022)


By Grey G.

It may seem obvious that a strong state has a duty and should have a duty to intervene in a country whose government is inflicting violence against its own citizens. Surely when a government is, or is planning on committing a genocide, a strong state should intervene as, being “strong”, it has the ability to intervene with a potentially successful outcome that would save lives. However, the issue is more complicated than that. For example, an intervention risks violating the principle of sovereignty or having unintentional, negative effects on the country in question. There is then also a difference between a state having the right to intervene, a state having a duty to intervene and whether a state should have a duty to intervene. Governments today are still struggling with these issues when determining whether or not they should intervene when human rights are compromised in distant countries. This essay will argue that strong states should intervene in a country whose government is inflicting violence against its own citizens but only when certain conditions are met. In this essay any references to violence are referring only to actual bodily harm (and not simply the reduction of welfare of citizens for example).


One of the main arguments against intervention is due to the principle of sovereignty which has emerged as a concept from the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648 . The principle of sovereign equality is a key part of the UN Charter as shown in Article 2.1: “The Organisation is based on the principle of the sovereign equality of all its Members” . As a result of the principle of sovereignty, countries generally also believe in the principle of non-interference: it is legitimate for a state to be internally sovereign, i.e. to have absolute authority within their state. These principles dictate that it is not legitimate for one state to intervene in another state’s elections for example. In theory, this can be extended to interference by strong states in another country to safeguard the wellbeing of the citizens who are being inflicted with violence by their own government. By interfering, the strong state, albeit with the aim to maintain the welfare of citizens, is violating the principle of sovereignty. The state’s action is thus illegitimate.


However, I reject this argument due to the theory of contractarianism which is derived from Hobbes’ take on the social contract . Hobbes argued that political sovereignty may come about in one of either two ways: “sovereignty by institution” and “sovereignty by acquisition”. But regardless of which of these two ways a government comes to power, Hobbes argues that political legitimacy is dependent only on whether the government can effectively protect its citizens who have consented to obey it . From this comes the principle of reciprocal obligations in which, broadly speaking, the state has responsibilities towards its citizens, such as protecting them, and citizens also have responsibilities towards the state. In exchange for fulfilling these obligations, the state has the monopoly over the legitimate use of violence. Indeed, the state can be defined as a political entity that claims successfully the monopoly on violence. However, once the state starts inflicting violence upon its own citizens, it is no longer fulfilling the responsibilities it has towards its citizens and has as such, broken the social contract. This then means that the state has lost its monopoly allowing for an intervention to be legal. As an intervention is thus legal when a state is no longer fulfilling its obligations due to inflicting violence on its citizens, strong states have a right to intervene.
The Doctrine of The Responsibility to Protect, which was unanimously adopted at the UN World Summit in 2005, explains why then the international community has a duty to intervene. In this doctrine there are three pillars of responsibility: “Every state has the Responsibility to Protect its populations from four mass atrocity crimes: genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing”, “The wider international community has the responsibility to encourage and assist individual states in meeting that responsibility” and “If a state is manifestly failing to protect its populations, the international community must be prepared to take appropriate collective action, in a timely and decisive manner and in accordance with the UN Charter” . Pillar One in particular directly links back to the social contractionary law in that each state has a “responsibility to protect its populations”. Pillar Three then explains that when a state has broken its contract, the international community has a duty to then take “appropriate collective action”.


There are, then, three main reasons why this duty to act has arisen. The first is the duty to rescue: let’s say there is a person walking alongside a lake, Person A, and there is another, Person B, drowning in that lake. Person A is able to save Person B by jumping in at no danger to himself. However, in doing so, Person A will ruin his clothes. There is surely a moral obligation for Person A to save Person B as the cost of the clothes being ruined is insignificant compared to the consequence of letting Person B drown . This idea can then be extended to the question at hand. Strong states (Person A) are able to intervene in a country that is inflicting violence on its citizens (Person B) without having any significant cost in comparison to the positive outcome of reducing or preventing the infliction of violence. As a result, strong states have a duty to rescue. The second is consequentialism: the view that actions should be dependent only on consequences . The consequences of intervention are improved welfare and lives being saved. Therefore, from a consequentialist point of view, as the only thing an action should be dependent on is its consequences, strong states should have a duty to intervene as that intervention will have positive effects. The third reason is other special obligations. Here I am referring to when one strong state has an obligation to another state due to historical actions. For example, Britain and France’s colonial actions have resulted in the instability that exists in many countries today. As a result, they are partly responsible when the government of one of these countries inflicts violence on its own citizens. Britain and France should then have a moral duty to intervene as they are partly responsible for causing the problem and they have the ability potentially to fix it.


The duty of intervention should fall upon strong states, as opposed to small states. A smaller, weaker state is less likely than a stronger state to be able to successfully intervene and overthrow a regime. If a weak state is not going to be able to reduce or prevent the inflicted violence, then it should not have a duty to intervene. A strong state, however, is much more likely to be successful and therefore should have the duty. There is then an argument that surely the UN, as it represents the whole international community, is better placed to intervene and as a result it instead should bear the duty. It is arguably stronger than any strong state and is more likely to be intervening solely to prevent the infliction of violence rather than for self-interest. However, the UN also faces its weaknesses. Often, due to its size, it is very slow to act and there is sometimes difficulty passing a resolution through the UN Security Council. Taking a recent example, Russia, using its status as a permanent member on the UNSC, vetoed a Security Council resolution on the 25th February. Although Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is not directly relevant to the question at hand, it is still evidence of the UN’s frequent inability to act. A more relevant example is the UN’s failure to act in Kosovo in 1999 as the Security Council members were divided over the issue . As a result of this, NATO (controversially) intervened instead. I, therefore, argue that it should be the duty of the international community to intervene; however, if the UN is unable to act for whatever reason, strong states then should have a duty to intervene because of this failure by the international community.


There are, however, two significant criticisms of Responsibility to Protect. Firstly, it is often very unclear whether military intervention would be successful either during the intervention or afterwards. For example, if the intervention is short-lived, it can result in failure and if the intervention removes a bad but stable government, creating instability, it can also result in failure. If there is a likelihood that intervention would be unsuccessful, there is then an argument that strong states should not have a duty to intervene. For example, the intervention in Libya in 2011 was largely unsuccessful as, after NATO forces left the country, order very quickly broke down. Since then, there have been various human rights abuses and in 2014 a civil war broke out that lasted until 2020. In 2016, US General David Rodriguez declared Libya ‘a failed state’ . This, one of many examples, shows that intervention can be unsuccessful. However, there is then a counterfactual argument in that had the intervention been successful, one would not have known what the alternative would have been. Regardless of what the outcome of the intervention is, though, before the intervention the moral duty to intervene and at least try and save lives remains the same. In the case of Libya, there was a threat that President Gaffadi would carry out a massacre in the town of Benghazi where there had been an uprising against the government. If no intervention had taken place, there would have been the suffering and deaths of the citizens of that town. Strong states in cases like this should have a moral duty to at least try and intervene to reduce the inflicted violence, even if it is not completely effective or successful. The second criticism of Responsibility to Protect is the potential negative impact on national sovereignty. However, as mentioned earlier, the intervention is only taking place when a government is planning to or has inflicted violence against its own citizens. Once the government has done this, it is no longer fulfilling its sovereign obligations. Ban Ki Moon, UN Secretary General (2007-2016) argued that “RtoP [Responsibility to Protect] seeks to strengthen sovereignty, not weaken it” .


Therefore, in this increasingly post-Westphalian system, strong states should have a duty to intervene when a country is inflicting violence against its own. However, this intervention should only take place if two conditions are met. The first is that the international community must have already failed to act successfully. The second is that the violence inflicted by the country on its citizens must constitute an extreme harm in order for there to be a duty for the strong state to intervene. This goes back to the duty to rescue; Person A should only intervene if Person B is drowning. If Person B is not drowning, Person A should not have a duty to intervene and as such strong states should not have a duty to intervene.

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