Eric A. Heinze. Waging Humanitarian War: The Ethics, Law, and Politics of Humanitarian Intervention. Albany: SUNY Press, 2009. xi + 207 pp. $65.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-7914-7695-6.
Reviewed by Aidan Hehir (University of Westminster)
Published on H-Diplo (February, 2010)
Commissioned by Christopher L. Ball (DePaul University)
When, How, Who? The Perennial Dilemmas of Humanitarian Intervention
Humanitarian intervention is an issue that periodically explodes onto the international political agenda precipitating a cascade of contrasting images of huddled victims, grim-faced perpetrators, and obfuscating politicians. In the interim between these eruptions, the debate continually simmers within academia across a wide range of disciplines. While many contemporary accounts suggest that the post-Cold War era is unique in its focus on humanitarian intervention, the issue has been discussed--albeit in altered guises--for centuries. It was not until the emergence of the sovereign state in the seventeenth century and the tentative steps toward codifying international law in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, however, that the contours of the contemporary debate became readily apparent. Indeed, humanitarian intervention is today controversial not so much because there are opposing views about the very idea of helping the suffering, though of course such discussion exists, but rather because the debate is necessarily framed by the system of sovereign states and the body of international law established to regulate their interactions. Humanitarian intervention is an ethical question the answer to which is framed--and possibly ultimately constrained--by positive law and the political machinations of states. Eric A. Heinze’s subtitle--The Ethics, Law, and Politics of Humanitarian Intervention--thus succinctly captures the seminal components of the issue.
Heinze outlines an ambitious aim, “to develop theoretical prescriptions about humanitarian intervention with an eye towards reconciling the often competing claims of morality, international law and political possibility” (p. ix). While this is certainly a noble aspiration, the feasibility of achieving this goal is questionable, not just because it is unlikely that one 175-page book could ever do so, but because it is not at all clear that these issues can ever be reconciled. Morality, law, and politics are each sources of endless contestation--indeed, that is arguably what makes them so interesting--and the issue of humanitarian intervention is itself prey to shifts, both glacial and sudden, in prevailing norms, and hence any consensus is necessarily temporal and transitory. Nonetheless, the manifestly unsatisfactory international reaction to the slaughter in Darfur illustrates the need for ambitious proposals and innovative prescriptions, and Heinze is to be congratulated for at least aiming to transcend the circular debates that predominantly characterize academic enquiry into humanitarian intervention.
Heinze seeks to clarify three major issues: When should humanitarian intervention take place? Is there any legal basis for humanitarian intervention? And finally who should intervene? With respect to the first question, Heinze bases his prescription on consequentialist reasoning. Essentially, humanitarian intervention is only justifiable, he argues, if it does less harm than not intervening. He takes issue with two competing perspectives and the writings of a key proponent of each, namely, statism as espoused by Michael Walzer and cosmopolitanism as advocated by Charles Beitz. While Walzer outlined a defense of nonintervention, his thesis did contain the proviso that intervention was justified if the actions of the state shocked the conscience of mankind. Heinze offers a persuasive critique of this, noting that this is an inherently subjective and transitory benchmark that is curiously lacking in a principled moral foundation. Beitz’s cosmopolitanism, by contrast, though based on the principle of universal morality, is, Heinze argues, too permissive and could potentially lead to widespread instability and war. The better perspective is to evaluate any given situation according to consequentialism, which “concerns itself with only aggregate enjoyment of human rights” (p. 27). Heinze’s basis for determining the nature of the plight that may trigger intervention--only if such action would result in less suffering than inaction--is human security, which includes threats to life as well as “abject poverty, famine, disease, and even crime” (p. 34). Yet, while Heinze seeks to clarify the grey areas ostensibly left by others, his own prescriptions are necessarily based on highly subjective judgments and speculations.
He discusses “human security” as though it is clear what the term means; granted he uses a particular definition but it is not at all clear that there is global consensus on such terms as “rights,” “quality of life,” and “well-being of individuals” used therein. Yet Heinze suggests “positing human security as the paramount goal for international pursuits forces states to consider the consequences of their actions or omissions for the well-being of individuals and not just for the well-being of the state” (pp. 36-37). So much of this sentence is contested: Who does this forcing? What does this forcing involve--a threat? Even accepting that states could be forced to radically change their foreign policy priorities, is there consensus on what the “well-being of individuals” is?
The basis for Heinze’s prescription that humanitarian intervention should only be used in certain extreme cases is that “humanitarian intervention entails the use of deadly military force that, by its very nature, undermines human security” (p. 39). He accepts that human security encompasses a broad spectrum of rights, and thus, if it were possible to contrive a means of executing a humanitarian intervention that did not undermine human security--or at least only the human security of the rights-abusers--then Heinze’s concerns would be assuaged and we must conclude that intervention would be permissible for low-level human security abuses. Thus the consquentialism that is the basis of Heinze’s threshold is not a constant but rather dependent on the capacity of intervening actors to minimize casualties, and it is, therefore, contingent on extant military technology, which by definition is fluid.
Heinze argues that humanitarian intervention is only morally permissible when threats to human security involve the depravation of basic human goods, are large scale, are deliberately perpetrated, and are “imminent or ongoing’ (p. 43). Yet, given that Heinze’s basic premise is based on consequentialist reasoning, determining when to intervene is necessarily speculative. He notes that judging when to intervene “requires that the consequentialist standard not be the actual consequences of humanitarian intervention, but rather its expected or foreseeable results weighed against the likely outcome of not intervening at the precise time that intervention is considered” (p. 45). This ultimately amounts to speculating about future fatalities and retrospectively counting people who did not die, both of which are clearly dubious.
Heinze’s examination of international law and humanitarian intervention is arguably the strongest section of the book and constitutes a refreshing analysis of potentially great utility. Heinze initially proves that humanitarian intervention is not legal, but he argues that it cannot be satisfactory to have such a disjuncture between law and morality. He examines, therefore, whether there are any provisions or principles within existing international law that could serve as the basis for a law on humanitarian intervention and concludes, “the law of universal jurisdiction is an appropriate normative legal framework in which humanitarian intervention can potentially be grounded” (p. 86). Looking to identify a way out of the legal dilemma, Heinze argues that humanitarian intervention “could find a legal basis within the normative framework of the international law relevant to universal jurisdiction for certain severe international crimes,” though he rightly cautions, “not all crimes subject to universal jurisdiction also morally permit humanitarian intervention” (pp. 107, 109).
Heinze’s perspective on the appropriate agent of intervention is also informed by consequentialism and thus the nature of the intervening actor is less important than the consequence of the intervention. Nonetheless, he accepts that nondemocratic states with a poor record of human rights are not especially attractive saviours and serious doubts will justifiably exist about any putative humanitarian intervention they undertake.
In his conclusion, Heinze claims, “this book not only addresses fundamental concerns about the ethics, law, and politics of humanitarian intervention, but does so in a way that alleviates some of the inherent conflict among these different dimensions of the subject” (pp. 137-138). Aside from the somewhat disconcerting immodesty of this boast, it is debatable whether Heinze has in fact achieved these aims. The idea that intervention should only take place if the negative consequences of intervening do not outweigh those of not intervening is not new--the just war tradition goes back over two millennia and has always included a provision related to proportionality of ends--and articulating this principle does not in itself advance the debate or point us toward a resolution of this issue. Additionally, while the link between universal jurisdiction and humanitarian intervention is well made, Heinze fails to outline a clear prescription on how to adapt the principles of universal jurisdiction to humanitarian intervention. While Heinze does discuss the role of the Security Council and his perspective evidently supports unilateral intervention, this obviously creates a problem, namely, how to maintain (or not) the primacy of the Security Council while allowing for unilateral intervention. Heinze seems keen to reconcile legality with legitimacy but curiously fails to adequately tackle the role of the Security Council.
There are many parts of this book that constitute a restatement of well-known debates and prescriptions, though Heinze is hardly unique in this respect. The consequentialist basis for Heinze’s thesis is, to my mind at least, occasionally flawed especially when taken to its logical conclusion. Nonetheless, in contrast to most of the contemporary literature on humanitarian intervention, Waging Humanitarian War is ambitious, occasionally provocative and insightful, and ultimately a welcome addition to the existing literature.
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-diplo.
Aidan Hehir. Review of Heinze, Eric A., Waging Humanitarian War: The Ethics, Law, and Politics of Humanitarian Intervention.
H-Diplo, H-Net Reviews.
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