Fordham University            The Jesuit University of New York

A Call to Arms

Professor Considers the Realpolitik of Military Intervention and Humanitarian Action

Does the international community have an obligation to intervene if a sovereign state is unwilling or unable to prevent genocide, massive killings or other human rights violations within its own borders?

Not only does the international community have the obligation, it has a moral responsibility to do so, according to Melissa Labonte, Ph.D., assistant professor of political science at Fordham.

“In the past, a country’s foreign policy was shaped almost exclusively by narrow perceptions of the national interest,” said Labonte, who teaches a course at Fordham’s Graduate School of Arts and Sciences on conflict resolution. “The option to use force to protect and uphold human rights in other countries having little to no geo-strategic value was not usually considered.”

In recent years, though, concerns of human rights and human dignity have started to enter into the foreign policy debate. More than ever, there is pressure on states to protect civilians in countries other than their own.

“The contemporary debate about human rights has moved from the domestic realm to the international realm and, increasingly, states have shown support for a range of interventionist policies in response to mass atrocity crimes, including the possibility of using force to achieve humanitarian goals,” she said.

Labonte, who earned her master’s and doctoral degrees in political science at Brown University, points to the George H.W. Bush administration’s 1992 decision to send American troops to Somalia as the genesis of this new approach to foreign policy.

“This was a moment,” she said, “when it was generally recognized that there had been a fundamental sea change on how countries establish their national interest.”

Since then, and in response to the 1994 Rwandan genocide, international policymakers have taken steps to ensure that sovereignty does not serve as a shield against gross human rights violations.

In 2001, the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty, working under the authority of the Canadian government, released a report titled “The Responsibility to Protect.” If a sovereign state is unwilling or unable to prevent humanitarian abuses, the commission argued, the international community has the right to take action, either through diplomacy, sanctions or, as a last resort, military force.

“This is the pragmatic side to how peace takes shape, how it is supported and implemented, so that respect for human rights can become the norm,” said Labonte, who is working on a book about the politics of humanitarian action and the implementation of “The Responsibility to Protect.”

“At a certain level, one of the greatest ways of bringing more stability to the world is for individuals to really take to heart the notion that the one thing we all share in common is our human dignity,” she said. “If states aren’t prepared to protect human dignity and human rights, wherever they are under threat, then we don’t really live in an international community. We live in a system of individual atomistic states.”

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