This afternoon, I will guest-teach a public policy seminar for a friend who’s in Venezuela on a Fulbright. The topic of the day is international intervention. When is it appropriate (or obligatory) to impose sanctions or invade another country to promote human rights? Click below if you want to read my whole class plan.
The reading for this seminar is:
Decisions about whether to intervene involve three conflicting principles: human rights, national self-determination, and state sovereignty. My strategy is to consider each principle in turn, as if it were our only guide. We will then be able to see the pros and cons clearly.
I. Human Rights
Imagine a principle like: “Honor human rights in foreign policy.” Or “Act in the interests of human rights.” Or, “Act to maximize human rights.” Or, “Human rights are the only important things in the world.”
Q. Why might one act according to these principles?
A. [“A’s” refer to answers that I hope to get from students]: Human beings have infinite intrinsic worth. States and other institutions have no intrinsic value.
Q. What are the implications for country A if there are human rights abuses in country B? What if the human rights abuses are minor?
Q. Would proportionality apply? (Proportionality is an idea from just war theory. It recognizes that the perpetrators of human rights abuses also have rights) Just war theory also provides other criteria listed by Amstutz on p. 188, including: right intentions; limited objectives; doctrine of double-effect. What do we think of these criteria?
Q. Would pragmatic considerations apply? How would one assess them?
Q. What are problems with acting only according to this principle?
A. #1: Cultural relativism
Human rights are only beliefs of particular cultures, not to be imposed on others.
Q. What does David Luban say about that?
Q. Is Luban right?
A. #2: Neo-Imperialism
Enforcement of human rights is likely to be conducted by “Western” countries. Why isn’t this imperialism, as when British imperialists intervened in India to prevent suttee?
A. # 3: Rights imply duties. But human rights cannot imply duties across borders.
If I have a right to life, then everyone must refrain from killing me–fair enough. If I have a right to education, someone has a duty to pay for it. Who? My parents? My local community? My country? The world? We generally say that Americans have a right to education, implying that other Americans have a duty-to-pay. But we don’t say that a Haitian child’s right to an education implies a duty for Americans to pay for it. Maybe we should.
Likewise, my right not to be tortured imposes a duty on everyone else not to torture me. But does it impose a duty on everyone else to rescue me from being tortured? Even if it puts them in danger?
A. #4: Rights, to be real, must be enforced
Q. Who should enforce them?
Q. Is Luban right?
Intervention abroad requires democratic consent at home.
Intervention may have to be violent, since sanctions don’t seem to work
Q. If human rights are unenforceable, then are they rights?
Luban prefers to argue from shame, rather than rights-and-duties. Shame is appropriate when we stand by as others suffer. One implication of his view: We don’t have to help everyone. If we are helping some appropriate victims, then we needn’t be ashamed.
II. National Self-Determination
Now the principle is not, “Honor human rights,” but rather, “Let nations govern themselves.”
Q. What does this mean?
Perhaps there are two theories …
A. #1: a nation (defined as some homogeneous identity group) ought to be independent
This need not require the consent of the majority, let alone of all individuals. Spain under Franco was an independent nation. All the Spanish people were part of a political entity that no one else governed. They had self-determination, according to this first definition, even if Franco was unpopular. He was one of them. (Q. does any state actually enjoy consent?)
Note: National self-determination is often an argument in favor of minority rights, when the minority in question lacks its own state. E.g, the Basques under Franco and under the new Spanish democracy.
A. #2: When a government is democratic, “the people” rule, so outsiders should not intervene. Here the emphasis is on democratic procedures
Then “the people” need not be homogeneous. They need not belong to one “nation.” Cf. Belgium?-one regime with two peoples?-or many African states with arbitrary borders, or the USA, which increasingly defines membership in legal rather than cultural terms. To be American is to have a vote in the USA.
But why should people within one geographical boundary determine their collective fate by voting? Why not draw the boundary differently? The democratic definition of self-determination usually relies on some sense of common nationhood, as in the US.
The democratic conception of national self-determination does not support minority group rights.
Q. why should we favor self-determination?
Consider the US. We have capital punishment and permit people to be sentenced to life imprisonment for cocaine possession. Others see these actions as barbarous.
Q. Would it be good if some foreign country with 10 times our military power invaded us and forced us to abolish the death penalty?
Q. What are some problems with self-determination?
Overrides human rights. Consider, for example, the case of Argentina (popular regime commits atrocities against unpopular minority.)
Overrides minority rights (unless we think that the minority is a nation, in which case we may invoke national self-determination in their defense).
The leaders of a state can bind their own people in ways that seem unjust, for example, by selling assets or borrowing deeply.
III. State Sovereignty
Here the principle is: There are 170 states that are members of the United Nations. No state is to make war on another, even for moral reasons. Regardless of whether states represent nations or peoples, they are entities that have rights to operate on their own territory.
Q. Why might one hold this view?
A. #1: A “romantic” view of the state
It’s hard for Americans and many other moderns to understand this view, because we have a social contract theory of the state. (It is an association formed to advance individual interests.) But many people have seen states as having intrinsic moral worth. They are not just contracts among citizens. If you have the opportunity to die for France, that is an honorable thing. You are not dying for all the people who belong to France, but for La Patrie. Do any Americans feel this way about the USA?
Note: identity is very important to politics, and it’s an analytical mistake to assume that we always have the identity of private individuals. We can and do adopt broader identities, and nations have often provided those.
A# 2: A pragmatic defense of sovereignty
Intervening in other UN members’ territory is a recipe for constant warfare. Cf. the Treaty of Westphalia. Reliably preventing all states from attacking all other states is the most pragmatic route to peace.
Q. What are some problems with state sovereignty?
IV. Where do we stand?
One answer might be: We care about human rights, but concerns about national delf-determination and sovereignty cause us to impose limiting conditions:
(cf. Amstutz, p. 135)
Perhaps it is self-evident that we should only intervene when the prospects of success are good. But the “last-resort” limitation only applies if we care about sovereignty or national self-determination
V. Other issues
Q. What is the morality of sending someone else (e.g., a soldier) to intervene in defense of human rights and not going oneself? What if there’s a draft? What if there isn’t?
Q. Should we try to have “clean hands”? For example, is it right to divest from a wicked country even if the effects are neutral, or negative, just so that we don’t trade with bad people?