The concept of intervention on humanitarian grounds in the affairs of other countries has been around a long time. It underlay the efforts led by the Royal Navy to stamp out the slave trade in the 19th century. John Stuart Mill puzzled over the question when the Hapsburg empire repressed revolts among its subjects in Hungary and Italy.
The virtual collapse of a justification based on self-defence for the attack on Iraq has led to a sharp switch back to the humanitarian argument. The Prime Minister has always found himself at home with the argument that whatever the truth about weapons, Saddam Hussein was an evil ruler and that Iraq and the world are better off without him.
Put simply like that, the statement cannot be denied. There can be no serious questioning of the evil nature of his regime or of the great harm he did to his own people and their neighbours. But such simplicity is not of this world. In the real world, two further questions fall to be answered - the question of authority and the question of aftermath.
Who is to decide that a ruler is so evil that on humanitarian grounds it is right to go to war to remove him? The answer is clear in the UN Charter: this judgement cannot be left to those who plan a war, but it is reserved to the Security Council. Having served four years in the British Mission to the UN, I have no illusions about the shortcomings of the Security Council. It is certainly not a gathering of democrats. But it does not follow that because the Security Council is flawed we should go back to the jungle and believe that we, because of our strong right arm (or that of the superpower), are the only valid judges in authorising war.
There is no precise remedy, which will fit all cases. But recent events show that the involvement of the UN, with all its faults, is indispensable. Without some form of UN legitimacy a major armed intervention is likely to run into trouble; without access to UN skills and resources, nation-building is unlikely to thrive.Reuse content