Human Rights Intervention – A CASE STUDY: US, ISIS & Iraq vs. NATO, the Serbian Regime & Kosovo


In 1999, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), led by the US, carried out a bombing campaign in the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia in response to perceived human rights abuses committed  by the Serb dominated government on the minority ethnic population of Kosovo Albanians. Although none of the NATO nations were directly under attack and the Security Council did not grant authority, NATO justified its actions on the basis of egregious human rights violations.

Similarly, in Iraq, it has been estimated that roughly 5,500 civilians have died only this week because of ISIS. Thousands of women have been detained; many of them have been sold to ISIS fighters where they have been repeatedly raped. Moreover, the Iraqi population is constantly subjected to beheadings, crucifixions and amputations.

What responsibility do we have to protect innocent civilians from egregious and horrific human rights violations? Realistically, the international machinery to authorize the use of force, as described in the U.N. Charter, has yet to materialize. The Security Counsel rarely grants authority for a universal coalition to stop the prosecution of innocent civilians. Since atrocities still continue to happen, states have justified their invasion of another country based on humanitarian intervention (i.e. Nigeria’s role in Sierra Leone and Liberia; although extremely late, the role of the French & the Dutch in the Rwandan genocide). Many fear that the use of force on the basis of humanitarian intervention will become a norm, which will free countries of liability. For example, let’s take a closer look at US foreign policy in Latin America during the Cold War. The United States consistently argued that their influence (military and aid to rebel groups) in Latin America was to stop the social regimes from committing atrocities against their own citizens. It can be easily argued that the US was simply promoting their national interest abroad: stopping the spread of communism and promoting democracy. So my primary question is this: what draws the distinction between a state’s political and economic interests and moral principles?

I am not one to promote armed conflict; however, the US and the International Community should be exercising the use of armed force and taking action in Iraq. As seen numerous times in history, extremists will not stop until their views and opinions are carried out. The size of the issue is no longer contained in Iraq; thus, it has a huge potential to spread throughout the world (if it has not done so already). But, where do we draw the line? How many times will we use the excuse of human rights violations to invade a country? To what extend does the international community pick and choose “whom” to save? What draws the distinction between Iraq, Kosovo, Rwanda or Armenia?

Sources: Antonio Cassese, Ex iniuria ius oritur: are we moving towards international legitimation of forcible humanitarian countermeasures in the world community? (1999)“Isis Fast Facts” (CNN)

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  1. Every country in the international community has the responsibility to protect human rights; however, there is a balance to not impede on the jurisdiction of other countries. Most of the time the line is blurry between the state’s political interests and humanitarian responsibilities. Humanitarian interests should take precedent, especially when it is a matter of global security. The threat such as ISIS is one that needs to be removed before it gains anymore power. It is a legitimate fear that the “excuse” of humanitarian interests will become the norm for invading another country. While I agree with this fear, when there is a global security or human rights issue that it rises to such a severe level, the international community must react and put all other political and economical interests aside.

  2. I cannot deny that this type of intervention should be permitted in exceptional, or extraordinary circumstances like the ISIS issues Ms. Abihabib has mentioned. Intervention may be necessary, as the international community cannot just stand by and allow gross and egregious crimes against humanity to continue. I also agree, however, that it may be a slippery slope in allowing powerful countries to invade States (with force) in the name of human rights. It is like being stuck between a rock and a hard place; the UN Charter requires States to respect the sovereignty of one another, but one of its major objectives is to protect human rights. There is no simple answer, in fact I feel that allowing States to intervene might be just as unlawful as preventing them to do so. The Cassese framework, proposes stringent elements that must be satisfied before military or armed force is initiated in attempts to halt grave crimes against humanity. I wonder if this type of intervention will become customary international law, but I also recognize how dangerous a custom like this might be.

  3. Two of Judge Cassese’s watchwords stand out as being of key importance to this issue: “Anarchy” and “proportionality.”

    To “anarchy” first: The anarchic situation in the wake of the breakup of the former Yugoslavia, coupled with brazen human rights violations including mass executions, justified intervention by a regional power (in that case, NATO) in Kosovo. The fractious nature of the conflict in Syria and ISIS’ mass executions and other human rights violations is an echo of the Yugoslavian conflict, and the intervention of a broad coalition headed by the U.S. likewise echoes NATO’s in 1999.

    To “proportionality” second: The involvement of coalition forces must be “exclusively used for the limited purpose of stopping the atrocities and restoring respect for human rights, not for any goal going beyond this limited purpose.” Cassese, supra, 10 EJIL 23 at 27. Defeating ISIS, the human rights violator, supports such a “limited purpose.” Further acts in either American or coalition self-interest would likely not support that purpose.

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