International Law Commission Session on Humanitarian Intervention Commences

By Alex Wilde for The Washington Post

The ILC today will begin talks on potential codification of international legal norms
that would provide the United Nations with a clear framework on how to respond to
humanitarian crises. With the failure of the international community to address the ongoing
crisis in Syria, this session comes at an urgent time in human history.

The state’s “responsibility to protect” their own citizens from human rights abuses
has been commonly accepted as a norm justifying humanitarian intervention since the 2005
World Summit. In operation, this norm allows the rights of humans to be prioritised over the
state’s right to maintain its sovereignty, effectively allowing external bodies to intervene to
restore protection of threatened peoples. Article 139 of the World Summit Outcome
recommends the UN Security Council to enforce such a response.

Various controversies are evident however. The WSO does not provide thorough
criteria from which intervention can be authorised. The ILC will need to make sure this
threshold is strong enough to prevent nations from pursuing strategic conflicts for their own
self-interest. The Bush Administration invaded Iraq on humanitarian grounds, though the
outcomes of that conflict were anything but. The ILC’s resolution should be carefully drafted
to prevent such arbitrary exercise of state power from being permitted in the future.

Reliance on the SC to enforce intervention is also a matter of concern. The SC is
routinely criticised for its ineffectiveness in responding to humanitarian threats, a result of
its lack of adequate representation and lack of transparency. These criticisms were
accentuated when Saudi Arabia refused a SC seat in protest to the multilateral body’s
alleged ‘impotence’ in responding to the Syrian conflict. Any codified grounds for
intervention will be inadequate if the SC itself doesn’t undergo reform.

The ILC has been handed a heavy task which must be addressed with care. Members
must place the rights of humans at the centre of debate. A resolution that prioritises the
functions of the state will remove any element of compassion from its provisions. After all, a
military response cannot be humanitarian if it is not conducted with humanity as its primary
concern.

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