Alexander Moseley and Richard Norman (eds), 'Human Rights and Military Intervention'

IssueSeptember - November 2003
Review by Trevor Curnow

The essays in this volume address the tension between two widely held principles. The first is that a nation's borders should be respected, the second is that human rights should be protected.

The tension obviously arises when it is thought that in order to uphold the latter, it is necessary to override the former. The individual contributions to this debate (all originally conference papers) approach this central issue in a number of ways, with different emphases and varying degrees of directness.

As is the way with such collections, some of the essays are of greater interest and value than others, but it is notable that no identifiable consensus emerges from them. In particular, there are significant differences of opinion concerning the extent to which “humanitarian intervention” has become legitimised in the contemporary world. There are several useful historical discussions, and frequent references to specific twentieth century cases.

To my mind, the most impressive contribution is Paul Robinson's

”Humanitarian Intervention and the Logic of War”. Drawing substantially on the insights of Clausewitz, he persuasively argues that even when intervention may be morally justifiable, the use of force tends to generate a dynamic of its own and “its results are almost always uncontrollable and worse than expected” (p. 95). Good intentions are no guarantee against bad outcomes.

Indeed, wars fought for avowedly moral purposes are often the most difficult to end, since any resolution of them short of total victory smacks of unacceptable compromise, while their objectives are often too vague for anyone to be clear as to when they have been achieved. Furthermore, preferred modern methods of waging war (bombs rather than battles) tend to inflict disproportionate damage on the very civilians humanitarian interventions are meant to benefit. The book is worth reading for this essay alone.

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