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Managing Director, Pegasus Strategies

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Is it possible for governments to intervene in human rights and humanitarian crises when there is no direct interest to do so?

Interventions usually involve a nation somehow already tied to the crisis zone - the US in Haiti, for example, by virtue of proximity, or groups that share ethnic, political or religious linkages. Granted, often governments send aid and responders to earthquake zones and other disaster areas, but the level of response is not approaching "intervention."

Could there be a circumstance in the future where one nation intervenes in another purely on principle and moral grounds? The interventions of World War I and II were often based on a nation's own security and alliances, and thus, involved some self-interest. What if the second nation does not invite them in - the situation of the Burmese government refusing international aid after Cyclone Nargis, or the North Korean government refusing to allow NGOs to travel freely to areas of greatest need, even when amidst famine costing up to a million lives. And do nations, particularly democracies, have an obligation to subvert dictatorships or totalitarian regimes, regardless of where they're based? Or ought nations simply "live and let live"?

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    Feb 26 2011: if there is no interest , I don't think that any government would intervene.
  • Feb 16 2011: Governments are (and should be) accountable to the people, so intervention should always be driven by the direct or indirect interests of the citizens. In Canada, lots of expat Haitians meant a significant intervention after the Haitian earthquake. Not many Congolese in Canada means that the DRC is mostly on its own (even thought the problems there could be more severe than those in Haiti). That's democracy, isn't it?
  • Feb 16 2011: With Somalia, I don't see the US had any strategic interest to get involved, and arguably its interests were against messing with Milosevic/Yugoslavia, as this risked endangering a critical and fragile relationship with Russia. But the visceral impact of the images, starvation on the one hand and ethnic cleansing on the other, was too powerful to ignore. That said, looking into the future it becomes harder to see the US or any other country engaging in similar endeavors. Intervention in Burma and North Korea has become trickier because a more powerful/assertive China sees them as within their sphere of influence, ditto for the former Soviet states and Russia. Intervening in a predominantly Muslim state risks turning the entire Muslim world against you. Latin America won't countenance any foreign intervention. The bulk of what remains is subsaharan Africa. I'd like to think that were another Rwanda type situation to occur, nations would intervene quickly and decisively this time around. But I doubt they will. "Live and let live" is just a sorry euphemism for "am I my brother's keeper?" but it's a convenient euphemism nonetheless for those in need of a rusty nail to hang their hat on.
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    Feb 16 2011: The (largely unwritten) rules of international diplomacy seem to state that a country A shouldn't interfere in another country B's business unless B's practices directly negatively impact A. Of course this hasn't always been followed, but it seems reasonable on face value.

    However two literary sources may provide inspiration for diverging from that default approach in certain circumstances.

    First, Thoreau's "[On the Duty of] Civil Disobedience" argues that people should not permit governments to overrule or atrophy their consciences, and that people have a duty to avoid allowing such acquiescence to enable the government to make them the agents of injustice. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Civil_Disobedience_(Thoreau) As we head into a globalized society when borders mean less and less, it would be easy to argue that this duty to our conscience transcends cultural and national barriers.

    Second, John Donne's meditation is chilling in the context of your question: "No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less . . . any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind"
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    Feb 16 2011: The main reason this isn't happening is cost... war, as well as any form of "intervention" costs money. Even aid costs money, but the difference with aid is that it's financed by NGOs, or in other words - not directly by taxpayers' money.

    Because it costs, think of the consequence of the country being intervened resisting or simply having the intervention fail - a lot of taxpayers' money lost, "And for what?" many taxpayers will say. "For something they might have done themselves?!? Hey, unemployment is still high and education sucks. Government officials, mind fixing OUR problems first?!".

    No politican wants to hear this, because that's not a point that can be argued... to help a country assumes the helping country doesn't have enough problems on its own. When there's an interest involved, you can at least use it as an excuse for the intervention, even if said intervention fails. "Yes taxpayers, I know, I know... but at least I got us some cheap foreign oil in the process, eh? How about that?".