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Balancing State Sovereignty with Intervention

By Owain Guinn
Published 2019-04-03

When a nation descends into the chaos of civil war, there is usually a clear line of action for the international community. When genocide and widespread political violence is committed within a sovereign nation, the general consensus among international bodies is that intervention is appropriate. Response to genocides such as those which occurred in Rwanda and Armenia was very slow, and many believe that there should be greater proactivity by bodies such as the UN to prevent such violence before it can escalate. This can take the form of deploying troops for military support, supervising elections, or ousting dictators. However, in the beginnings or aftermath of such events, a delicate balance must be struck as international bodies are faced with a significant challenge: If a country is on the brink of genocide, or has just ended one, these bodies must balance respect for the sovereignty of a nation while also deploying enough military force to ensure the country does not dissolve into violence. The Security Council of the UN has the right to restore peace through military force only in extreme cases, if peaceful solutions are not an option. Should the Council be presented with a report of potential violence within a country, they will begin an investigation. Special Representatives or the Secretary General will be appointed to investigate the situation, and then the Council will decide on measures, which will take the form of either economic sanctions, or in extreme cases, military action.

The potential problems and responsibilities that can arise from this situation were laid out by the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty, or the ICISS. This is an international body set up by the Canadian Government in December of 2001, in response to the problem posed by UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan: When it is appropriate for the international community to intervene for humanitarian purposes? The ICISS published a report on this topic, titled “The Responsibility to Protect.” The Report outlined the “Just Cause Threshold,” which states that for military intervention to be warranted, there must be “serious and irreparable harm occurring to human beings, or imminently likely to occur, of the following kind: Large scale loss of life…or large scale ethnic cleansing.” Further, the Report states that military intervention should only be used as a last resort, when every non-military option has been exhausted. However, equally recognized in the Report is the importance of sovereignty to a state. As it states, “Sovereignty is more than just a functional principle of international relations. For many states and peoples, it is also a recognition of their equal worth and dignity, a protection of their unique identities and their national freedom…” In the context of a single ruler or ruling class, sovereignty also becomes a responsibility; a commitment to protect their civilians from harm. When a single state fails to follow its duty to protect its civilians from atrocities, the UN then has the right to assume responsibility.

The problem that the UN and other international bodies has faced has been walking the delicate line of respecting this sovereignty, without ignoring the plight of those in violent countries. The Kosovo case exemplifies this very well. In 1998-99, ethnic Albanians went to war against the Serbs and the Yugoslavian government. The international community initially did little to help, and the Kosovo Liberation Army began vicious fighting against the Serbian police, forcing refugees the flee the country. A program of ethnic cleansing was initiated by the Yugoslavian government, and as a result, NATO began bombing campaigns. Bombing expanded to Belgrade, continuing until a peace accord was signed, at which point the UN deployed peacekeeping troops. The ICISS report highlights the problems in the international community’s response to this conflict. The report states that abuses threatened by Belgrade authorities may not have been sufficient to warrant outside action. It further states that not all other peaceful options were attempted, and finally, the intervention in fact worsened the conditions it sought to improve. This, alongside other failures of the UN, such as Bosnia and Somalia, are presented as important evidence of the delicacy of the responsibilities that international bodies must handle; they must carefully consider all options and all courses of action.

Genocide Watch is a website that keeps an active list on genocidal situations around the world, categorizing situations as Genocide Watches, Genocides Warnings, or Genocide Emergencies. Respectively, these refer to the early stages of a genocidal process, a stage of preparation marked by increased persecution, and finally, the execution of genocidal massacres. Genocide Watch currently lists ten Genocide Emergencies happening now. This list serves to emphasize the contemporary importance of the duties of the UN and the great challenge that faces them. Adherence to the goals of the ICISS report must be stressed now as much as ever so that the failures of Rwanda, Somalia, Bosnia, and Kosovo, might never be repeated.


Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia. “Kosovo Conflict.” Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 25 Feb. 2019. www.britannica.com/event/Kosovo-conflict.

Evans, Gareth. “The Responsibility to Protect: Report of the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty.” International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty. December, 2001.

United Nations Security Council. United Nations. www.un.org/securitycouncil/.

United Nations, “Peace and Security.” United Nations. www.un.org/en/sections/issues-depth/ peace-and-security/.

Stanton, Gregory A. “Genocide Watch- Countries at Risk.” Genocide Watch - Prevention, Analy sis, Advocacy and Action. www.genocidewatch.com/countries-at-risk.