Letter: Intervention in the interests of suffering humanity

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The Independent Online
Sir: No doubt one should be cautious in defining a principle that permits troops of one state to enter the territory of another. But discussion of the doctrine of humanitarian intervention is not helped by Andrew Shacknove's tendentious account of the history of the doctrine (letter, 5 December).

In international law, a right of unilateral humanitarian intervention was largely developed in the 19th century. Both then, and among those leading jurists who have claimed that this right survived the creation of the United Nations, it was carefully restricted to apply only in extreme cases of exceptional humanitarian need.

Nor is it accurate to stigmatise the doctrine by suggesting that it is claimed as a 'Western' prerogative. When Indian troops entered East Pakistan in 1971 to halt the widespread rape and slaughter of East Bengalis by the Pakistan army, or when Tanzanian forces invaded Uganda in 1979 to assist Ugandan exiles seeking to overthrow Idi Amin, who had inflicted mass atrocities on the Ugandan people, these interventions were not rejected as 'unwelcome' by the affected populations.

It is now recognised that human rights are not a purely domestic matter for independent states. A unilateral right of intevention is clearly open to abuse and its exercise invites careful scrutiny. But it would be a still more cynical world that denied even the UN any right to intervene to prevent widescale atrocities and extreme human suffering.

The resolution authorising the dispatch of troops to Somalia was supported by all 15 members of the Security Council, including China, which had hitherto consistently opposed a doctrine of humanitarian intervention. The need today is not to sacrifice that doctrine on the altar of a rigid concept of state sovereignty, but to develop the principles whereby a right of collective intervention on humanitarian grounds is defined and controlled within the framework of the UN and regional organisations.

Yours faithfully,


Gray's Inn

London, WC1

6 December