This House Would Go to War for Human Rights

19/11/2012 11:36 | Updated 16 January 2013

On Thursday evening, the topic for discussion at the Cambridge Union Society was the justification for humanitarian military intervention. Edward Delman and Mark Nelson, both postgraduate students and Cambridge University, argue in proposition and in opposition of the motion respectively.

Edward writes:

It has now been exactly 20 months since the people of Syria began demonstrating against the corrupt and oppressive regime of President Bashar al-Assad. In that time, between 35,000 and 50,000 people, many of whom were civilians, have been killed, at least 335,000 people have been officially registered as refugees, and 1.2 million Syrians have been displaced so far. The refugees that are flooding across the borders into Jordan, Turkey, and Iraq have transformed the conflict from one of regional dimensions to one of international proportions. And yet, despite the absolute devastation that a United Nations member-state is wrecking on its own people, the international community has refused to intervene. This negligence has gone on long enough - the time to act is now.

Military intervention in support of human rights has international institutional support. The United Nations was founded with respect for human rights as one of its main tenets. This pillar of the UN has only been strengthened over the past two decades by the evolution of Responsibility to Protect, which puts into the hands of both sovereign nations and the international community at large the responsibility to protect peoples against genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing, and crimes against humanity. There also exists a strong precedent through the UN of nations undertaking humanitarian intervention - Somalia, Kosovo, and Libya stand out as examples. Going to war over human rights, then, has the support of international establishments and history.

The consequences of human rights violations don't end at national boundaries - they spread outwards and can destabilise entire regions. The consequences of an increasing number of Syrian refugees fleeing the country cannot be underestimated. Turkey's southern areas are already embroiled in a conflict between the government and militant Kurdish separatists, Jordan is already the home of hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees, and Iraq's problems speak for themselves. If you add to these countries a sudden influx of Syrian refugees, you have a recipe for disaster. In these situations, humanitarian intervention is necessary for wider geopolitical stability.

Finally, there is an undeniable moral responsibility to go to war for human rights. The modern nation-state is built on the belief that sovereignty derives from the people. A government that mercilessly kills its own people and provokes civil war has clearly lost the consent of its people to rule. When a government has explicitly forfeited its responsibility to protect its citizens and has implicitly forfeited its sovereignty, it is the duty of the international community to step in. The advanced nations of the world possess powerful militaries, all of which stand idle as the death toll rises in Syria. If these militaries, which ostensibly exist to protect against the shrinking possibility of inter-state warfare, are to exist, should they not be used to uphold the beliefs of the international community and the fundamental rights of humankind? In order to help those who cannot help themselves, and in order to preserve peace on a larger scale, the answer must be yes.

Mark contends:

This motion, like all good Cambridge Union motions, cries out for immediate clarification. I think we might reasonably assume that the human rights violations under consideration are dire indeed - the threat of actual occurrence of genocide, for example, or perhaps the mass eviction of some minority population. And I think it safe to assume that the 'going to war' in question is the act being considered by a third party not under threat itself - this shouldn't be a debate about self-defense. Imagine going to war for human rights in a military strategist's perfect world: the aggressors are clearly defined and identifiable, the victims clearly defined and identifiable, and a peaceable and stable political configuration for the stricken society would be just a few decisive military incursions from reality. The intervening force will be operating strictly and selflessly in the interests of human rights; with no conflicts of interest, there will be no barrier to all parties enjoying a crystalline clarity about the purpose, scale, and duration of any military operations. And this ideal excursion, of course, will represent an unequivocal net gain for human rights with respect to any non-military option.

Now, I certainly don't believe that the proposition will attempt to couch their argument in this world of dreams. But outlining this best-of-all-possible human rights wars helps illustrate the sheer improbability of a good outcome for the humans whose rights are in question. The number of times 'human rights' has been proclaimed as a defense of war greatly outweighs the number of times it had any basis in fact, which itself outweighs any success in defending
human rights. The two years of increased stability of humanitarian aid in Somalia as a result of military action comprise one of the few examples I can think of for the final category, and whether this was impossible to achieve any other way is debatable. It certainly didn't lead to a stable political situation. As pointed out by vice-admiral Charles Style, formerly the commandant of the Royal War College, an operation striving for these ideals cannot be considered 'going to war'. The example he gave after a speech to the Trinity Politics Society on Tuesday was the British intervention in Sierra Leone, in which he was a participant. Vice-admiral
style, having served commands aboard multiple ships in war and peace, and having participated of military intervention, strongly rejected this motion when put to the question, and added that war must always be an instrument of absolute last resort. War, as it unfolds, as it metastases, has its own brutal logic. Its logic is independent of any human rights logic, and usually acts in opposition. I would suggest, risking the accusation of idealism, that if a political outcome desired by the proposition's suggested act of war is in fact possible at all, it should be possible to achieve without the destructive degeneration war entails. The motion represents a most dangerous and potentially destructive approach towards a commendable goal, and I must support the opposition.