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American Diplomacy
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July 2001

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According to Edmund Burke, "There is but one law for all …the law of humanity, justice, equity…" Maybe, in some fundamental sense, but the question in reality becomes complicated when looked at closely. And research into one aspect of fairly recent international efforts to enforce such a "law of humanity" has given rise to a new subdiscipline in the study of international relations—the study of humanitarian intervention.

Professor Ivan Shearer of the U. S. Naval War College notes that there are at least ten kinds of fairly unremarkable actions that can be termed outside intervention in a nation’s sovereignty short of out-and-out invasion (see his paper below). Sometimes called Military Operations Other than War, with the faintly droll acronym MOOTW, for the most part these intrusions do not directly involve the use of force against the government concerned and thus are not always notably controversial. Included under this heading would be disaster relief, peacekeeping, hostage rescue, counter-drug operations, humanitarian assistance, and the like.

Another type of foreign intervention for benevolent purposes definitely does occasion controversy. I refer to the kind of action that has come to be included under the rubric of ‘humanitarian intervention,’ the subject of the conference report and papers which we present below. The Foreign Policy Research Institute and Duke University each hosted gatherings in recent months this year to consider at length questions of legality and morality in humanitarian intervention. American Diplomacy is pleased to share with you, the reader, some of the findings made at those two important conferences.

We come to a crucial definition for the benefit of the nonspecialist like myself: In its most precise meaning humanitarian intervention, as I understand it from the literature I’ve seen, is the use of external military force against a sovereign state to stop its government from mistreating its own citizens. Using force to halt violations of human rights would be another way of putting it. Such contentious circumstances, those which involve fundamental issues of human rights vs. national sovereignty, obviously carry considerable potential for dispute and debate. Read on for a scholarly examination of those disagreements and complications.

The published literature on humanitarian intervention is of relatively recent vintage, but is already large and growing fast. For anyone interested, see the links to previously published related articles in American Diplomacy. Check out the search function on the electronic version of Foreign Affairs. Brown University has a Web site on the topic.

But as recently as 1995-1996, dictionaries in the fields of international relations and organizations, and even in multinational peacekeeping, did not include entries on humanitarian intervention as such. It has been only more recently that the phrase has become widely recognized and frequently included in the titles of scholarly studies.

A postscript of possible interest to those interested in the small details of history: American establishment figures Bernard Baruch and Walter Lippmann long vied for recognition as the coiner of the very familiar phrase, ‘the Cold War.’ It has long meant little to anyone else, however, which of those gentlemen used it first in public.

Who originated the humanitarian intervention phrase in its current meaning? Some sources give credit to Professor Mario Bettati of the University of Paris, along with French politician Bernard Kouchner, one of the founders of Médecins sans Frontières; they are said to have enunciated the concept in the late 1980’s. Professor Fernando Tesón published his Humanitarian Intervention: An Inquiry into Law and Morality in 1988. Are there others who could be cited before them? Let me know if you are aware of earlier claimants to the distinction of coining the phrase. I’m curious.


For more inforamtion on this volume, click 0941320804:Teson, Fernando Humanitarian Intervention: An Inquiry into Law and Morality.

See related articles in our archives on the topics of Humanitarian Aid, Human Rights, and Race, Ethnicity and Genocide. To browse the archives, click here.

Sean D. Murphy offers an early reference to the term here.


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