Human Rights Violation: When Is the International Intervention Necessary?


In the recent past, the world has witnessed several successive wars between nations. The most prominent ones being World War II, War in Korea, Vietnam War, and Wars in Iraq. As expected, the wars have generated divergent opinions as to what motivates a nation to go to war. Several questions have also emerged in relation to nations’ rights to launch weapons that may be catastrophic to human wellbeing. For these wars, and particularly the most recent War on Terror, issues have been raised in relation to human rights consideration as far as wars are concerned.

Before the United States spearheaded the war on terror and invaded Iraq, public opinion did favor the war, as far as the then public opinions’ report indicated. Ordinarily, this was not surprising considering the September 11 terror attack that is believed to have shifted public opinion. I would clearly understand the pain and anger that came with such a brutal act of terror. It would definitely provoke anybody to go for the blood of a terror suspect and their accomplices.

However, the change of public opinion in the later time after witnessing the impact of the war has led many people, especially scholars to question the people’s understanding of human rights before the war. They have attempted to understand and extrapolate what motivates a nation to go to war despite the imminent human rights violation. Probably to make it clearer, do Americans favor unilateral or multilateral foreign policy? Do ordinary Americans understand what their foreign policy states as far as international human rights are concerned?

States have proclaimed that they have a right to protect their territory and their people (Coogan, 1993). States have claimed sovereignty and dispelled calls for international intervention in cases where it is believed there is a human rights violation. This paper seeks to explore the concept of human rights, and public opinion, and policy conflict in the context of wars. Do states have rights? Or is it the rights of individuals that matter? In order to answer these questions appropriately, I will briefly give the highlights that led to Iraq Wars spearheaded by the United States.

Iraq War (Occupation of Iraq)

The War in Iraq began in March 2003, when the United States and the United Kingdom sent their troops to invade Iraq in search of the alleged weapons of mass destruction. The war which was to be popularly known by many names such as the Second Gulf War, Operation Iraq Freedom, or simply Iraq War was allegedly meant to dispossess the Saddam Hussein government of its weapons of mass destruction, together with that of their regional allies (Center for American Progress, 2004).

Before the invasion, the United Nations Security Council, through Resolution 1441, embarked on an inspection to ascertain if Iraq had weapons of mass destruction (Dunne, 2009). However, there was no evidence found to prove the claim whether Iraq was in possession of the said weapons, even though the overall conclusion was that they were not able to verify the weapon-free declaration by Iraq (Dunne, 2009).

The United States commissioned a group of surveyors who came up with the result that “Iraq had ended its nuclear, chemical, and biological programs in 1991” and did not possess any active program when the invasion occurred (Center for American Progress 2). However, the report also indicated that Iraq had plans to resume the manufacturing of these weapons immediately after the sanctions put for them were lifted (Nelson, 2004; Baker & White, 2005). Other reasons for the invasion were claims that Iraq supported the Al-Qaeda, supporting the families of Palestinian suicide bombers, the Iraqi government’s abuse of human rights, and failure to adhere to the democratic principles that the West advocates for.

The US-led troops captured Saddam Hussein, and he was handed over to the Iraqi authority where he was later tried in courts and found guilty of numerous charges, including atrocities committed in the 1990s, and finally executed (Baker & White, 2005). This became the beginning of the Iraqi insurgency, where different groups along with the Islam religion, the Sunni and Shia, emerged and fought against each other. The UNHCR estimates as per 2008 indicated that about 4.7 million people had been turned into refugees, representing about 16% of the total population (Bruch, 2007).

International Legal Frameworks in the Context of Human Rights

The recent military activities have re-ignited a long-standing debate relating to the effectiveness of international, regional, and national legal instruments designed to protect human rights, with the popular belief that these laws are never adequate to handle the concerns appropriately (Kantowicz, 1999; Hulme, 2004). The existing legal frameworks have given many optional provisions meant to protect the environment of humans, either directly or indirectly during armed conflicts.

However, the provisions have proved to be ineffective on a number of occasions as far as enforcement and implementation are concerned. While the international community under the umbrella of the United Nations has sought to make countries and individuals accountable for their activities during the war, the result of this effort has been visibly poor (Preston, 1998). There is only one notable case that somewhat proved successful; that of Iraq being put to task to account for the damages caused during the Persian Gulf War. This case led to Iraq being forced to compensate for the damages it caused to the human environment, which was worth billions of dollars (Preston, 1998).

Several laws, treaties, and agreements have been made to ensure the outer space is protected from harm due to these military activities. At the national level, the United States has approached the monitoring of its combat capability through its “Air Force Weather Agency” which helps it to deliver accurately, reliable, and timely state of the environment the world over (Salin, 2001, P.19). This helps its Air Force, the Army, joint fighters, national intelligence group, and Defense Secretary to monitor their activities, including the state of the human environment (Salin, 2001). But have these legal provisions assisted in the protection of human rights as far as intervention is concerned?

There are significant restrictions on the application of military activities for example in the outer space, particularly in the article three and four of the United Nations Outer Space Treaty of 1967 (Brody, 1999). In article three, it is stated that nations must only conduct space activities when they intend to bring peace and security around the world. The article is more categorical on the space weapons, stating that no nations should place any weapon of mass destruction within the space objects, as these objects should only be used for peaceful activities and for the benefit of all humankind (Salin, 2001, P.21). In essence, this prohibits even testing of any weapon on to the outer space, thus leaving purposefully for ‘scientific research’ only (Salin, 2001, P. 21).

Principally, there are two areas to note in these statutes. The first being the meaning of ‘peaceful purpose’ that only restricts such activities on the moon and other celestial bodies. In fact, US’s interpretation of article four clearly states that a nation can engage on a space activity as long as it is not carried out on a celestial body (Salin, 2001). But logically, the limitation of the space activity does clearly indicate that it is not broad enough to justify its usage.

The second is the interpretation of the term ‘peaceful purposes’. Basically, this phrase is not easy to interpret. Many have voiced their interpretation to extend it to the outer space, to mean that any form of military activity in the space may still be in violation of the treaty. However, the official interpretation means that the outer space cannot be used to launch full-scale warfare especially that which involve nuclear weapons (Salin, 2001). This leaves other areas such as the use of military space to target other issues like communication, collecting of intelligence matters, and the targeting of precision, which are mainly considered peaceful as they are assumed not to interfere with other international laws that govern the outer space operations and human rights issues.

This may mean that as long as operations are peaceful, and do not involve any form of aggression, the outer space still open for usage as a channel for warfare activities, and any nation has a right to make use of it. It’s thus critical to note that the treaty does not prohibit the use of both anti-satellite (ASAT) and nuclear weapons. Consequently, deployment of any weapon into the space can be carried out as long as it does not entail weapon of mass destruction, and that self defense is permitted as long as they do not interfere with other sections of the international treaty.

The Concept of Human Rights and Public Opinion on Wars

Traditionally, human rights have been perceived as the moral rights of the highest order. In some context, it has been viewed in terms of international, national or regional perspective. In fact, many states have human rights statutes, stated as a basic human need in the legal system. For example, United States, like many other countries, protection against racial discrimination on the job is available in all areas of paper work.

But does the inclusion of human rights in the legal system all that is required? According to Donnelly (2002) human rights involve freedom to access equal rights, without subjecting it to the confines of the law. This view may have been influenced by atrocities that have been committed in the name of protecting a nation’s sovereignty- atrocities supported by the legal provisions of the respective state.

It is known by everyone that US invasion of Iraq defied the United Nations stand. However, there were divided opinions among the American people and the world as a whole. Todorov conducted a study to find out the multilateral public opinion that is normally perceived to be unilateral. In his findings, he concluded that public opinion is normally linked with the belief that it’s legitimate with the current foreign policy of the United States.

In reality, the implication of such perception on the policy implementation is critical in many aspects. First, it is important to note that public opinion do have a critical role in the policy decisions. However, as Todorov (2003) found out, there is likelihood of a big gap separating the actual perception and the perceived public opinion. He observes that as per the attitudes concerning foreign policy, “perceived public opinion serves a unilateral agenda” (p.39).

That is to say, if particular groups who represent a minority section of the public are vocal enough to favor and support a unilateralist or liberalist American foreign policy- as represented by beliefs and opinions of major political actors with the support of the media, then it is likely to be easily misperceived by the public opinion. With such misperceptions, the public may find themselves supporting particular unilateral policies, against the provisions of human rights.

The Divided Opinions

The launching of Iraq war took place in 19 March 2003, with the first strike taking place at a location where Iraq President Saddam Hussein and his top lieutenants were believed to be hiding. Two days before the strike, President Bush had warned Iraq to leave the country or face military action. The UN Security Council had also warned Iraq to corporate with the weapon inspectors or else they will face the consequences of their refusal (Baker & White, 2005). With the support of UK’s Premier Tony Blair, President Bush indicated that Iraq had little time to corporate UN weapons inspectors. However, France, Russia, Germany and China were more reluctant to support the speedy action and urged US and UK to give Iraq more time to comply.

There is a historical aspect of debate on wars and their causes. World War II was successively followed by Cold War. The events led to the two view points. The first viewpoint, mostly referred to as the official viewpoint is surrounded by the reasons that the responsibility for the outbreak and intensification of Cold War was solely on the Soviet Union and specifically on the then leader Stalin due to the policies he spearheaded during and immediately after World War II (Shaw, 2000). Proponents of this view point see Stalin as a person whose style of leadership was so rigid for the international communism that required more flexibility.

The other school of thought is based on the orthodox view. It states that two nations can be sharply divided in relation to their policies (Shaw, 2000). Principally, the two opposing views pitted the pro- American supported by Truman Doctrine against the pro- Soviet Union, with their leader Stalin. Several questions have emerged with many claiming that there is a similarity between Iraq War and World War II.

President Bush, while addressing Marines and Sailors at the 60th anniversary of the Victory over Japan, equated the Iraq war to the World War II. In fact, he stated that the Iraq War was “the modern day moral equivalent of the struggle against Nazi fascism and Japanese imperialism in the World War II”, in support of their intention not to retreat as that would come with disastrous consequences for the United States and the World as a whole (Baker & White, 2005). Other people have seen two completely different wars.

However, to clearly understand perspectives of these two wars, it is important to first understand some aspects of theories to enable us explain the differences. As a common practice, leaders would always give answers that are not convincing enough to justify their actions, always trying to defend such actions even though they are aware of its adverse human rights action or justifying their actions with policy constructs. Again the world itself is a complex environment, where a leader may act or support an act without knowing exactly why he or she is doing so (Baylis & Smith, 2002). This could be fundamentally to justify intuitively what is “right” or what the world feels is “right” to initiate or support an act such as war.

Theoretical Constructs

It has become more of a necessity to explain war phenomenon in the wider context of theory, which in most cases may face opposition from the actors, but will give us wider options in relations to the events of wars and their wars. If these leaders proclaim that every human being a fundamental right to life, then why go to war when they know such an act will adversely violate human rights? Ironically, the same leaders would go ahead and support humanitarian initiatives to support to the affected population.

Political Realism

Realism as a theory has been in existence for quite a long time and has inherently dominated the theory of politics in the modern world (Donnelly, 2002). Traditional perspectives of realism is based on the idea of antiwar as manifested in the eve of World War II, where most of the realists felt that the perpetrators of the war (notably Germany) had not been guided by the practical thinking of idealism (Donnelly, 2002).

However in the recent past, especially during and after the Cold War, the modern realists way of thinking have been re-modified, but with the same principle that the lack of central power to control interstate association is the cause of conflicts (Donnelly, 2002). By the time World War II took place, there was no single central power as every nation was a power on its own. In other words, a country’s power was invested in its ability to marshal stronger troops, with support of other allies. The League of Nations was not any stronger to unite the nations.

Presently, the modern realists have come together to share some core aspects of international relations. First, realism is built on the premise of what causes war between the nations and what makes peace prevail, with public opinion and opinions of the political leaders playing central roles in the process. The other central view is that international relations can only work if there is a central authority that ensures that interstate relationship work, and that the absence of such a central power is the beginning of interstate anarchy which leads to confusion on interstate security matters (Brown, 2005).

For instance if one nation state is in search for security, the potential adversaries are left with the impression that they are being targeted hence become continuously insecure. This has been attributed to the increased conflict between nations in relation to race to acquire deadly weapons, commonly known as arms race (Brown, 2005). This subsequently leads to one question: who has more “relative capability” (Brown, 2005, p.173). One issue emerge from this point of view: a nation’s right to protect itself is a human right. But then another question may arise; if the war affects other humans in other regions, why engage in it yet every human being has a right to live, knowing clearly that wars lead to human death, displaces people, has economic impact and other social effect to the ordinary people.

In the Iraq war, the US used their position as world superpower to control and direct the central authority that unites the world, the United Nations. Since the then government had the impression that it was being targeted, they had to do something to halt the perceived action by Saddam Hussein government. Such aspects of perception by the leaders can be directly passed to the public through the use of media, hence widening the belief that something is actually wrong that needs urgent action. Attempts by nations to associate with this perception are the reason behind the formation of international units of corporation or global unions. Such is normally provoked with the unity of common enemies as seen in the World War II.


Liberalism is built on the premise that other states should be ready to intervene in cases of other states violating human rights of their own people. This sometimes explains why some states treat international issues with a lot of interest, always basing their arguments that sovereign states should not dwell on their ‘sovereign’ status as away of covering their human rights weaknesses (Dunne, 2009).

For instance, some could argue that the Iraqi problems that were perpetuated by dictatorial regime of Saddam Hussein should be internal matters of Iraq and thus should never be associated with other states. To the liberalists, this kind of argument may be a shocker as the spill over effects of such wars may go past the borders of that nation at war, thus calling for an international intervention. Furthermore, Saddam’s regime was accused of brutality against its own people; going against universal human rights requirements. This is why the perception of the America and its allies was that Iraq was basically dangerous both to the world and its own people.

Communitarians’ Point of View

The war in Iraq attracted so many attentions from all over the world. Humanitarians were critical of the issue as they saw it as a way of interfering with another state’s internal matters. According to Holzgrefe & Keohane (2003) humanitarian intervention is wrong since freedom itself has no value unless the victims themselves decide to fight for liberation. That people cannot be free if foreigners fight for their liberation. Communitarians believe that it is not right for a foreign nation to intervene, as no one should impose their values on other societies, but rather should recognize their legitimate existence.

In essence, one would argue that the invasion of Iraq by the United States and his allies’ invasion of Iraq was a pure violation of the Iraqi people’s rights, thus causing an unprecedented violation of international community’s human rights. Goodin & Pettit (2005) observe that there is a crucial distinction between domestic and international legitimacy. That is, a government may be regarded as illegitimate internally, but that does not give a foreign state an express permission to intervene so as to restore the legitimacy. Thompson (1991) claims that in many cases “there’s enough evidence that or ‘fit’ between people and government to make injustice a purely domestic matter from which foreigners are excluded” (p.139)

It therefore means that it was only fit for the Iraqi people to overthrow their own Saddam. However, Donnelly (2002) argues that the only situations that may require international intervention is when there is no fit between the government and the people of that nation, and when the situation has become so tyrant and brutally radical to its people, committing genocide, enslavement, or mass deportation. In his point of argument, he believes that “nations have histories and loyalties that define their political process and that process should be protected as such, even if some of its outcomes are repulsive to liberal philosophers” in what he refers to as communal integrity” (Donnelly, 2002, p.49).

But how can one measure the level of integrity needed for the people to enjoy their human rights as individuals, not as a communal setting? How can one argue out a case to be fit for external intervention? We know that communitarians do not prohibit intervention in cases of human rights violations that “shock the conscience of humankind.” But who would decide that this case has actually shocked the human conscience? This brings us to one important aspect of wars and human rights protections- The will of the people whose rights are to be protected.

Liberty and Interventional Wars

In the perspective of communitarians, the Iraqi people had the responsibility to help put a tyrant in the Saddam Hussein to justice. The country that intervened, United States and its allies had the responsibility to seek reasonable cooperation to put an end to the tyrannical government, shouldering the moral and material costs of intervention, and building democratic institutions. One would therefore say, it is their government, and their society, and foreign efforts to help them depend on their cooperation and willingness to build or restore the types of democratic institutions they desire.

One Hakim (1995) argues that the most important thing is for the victims of the specific anarchy or tyranny to accept and welcome the intervention from foreigners. This is because in some cases, the victims do not want to be liberated by the foreigners, and that they would rather endure the tyranny than see their nation turned into a battle field. In this view, it is important to note that the theory contends that liberty too is a human right and anybody going against it is violating human rights of individual victims. So were the rights of Iraqi people violated? If yes, how were the measures of disagreement carried out to confirm that the Iraqi people did not want to be librated? The opinions of the people of Iraqi are still debatable.


Basically, the international legal framework that limits unnecessary militarization of has several weaknesses, and that human right in itself cannot be bounded by legal restriction, the will to give a free for all human rights lies in the understanding of the intervening parties and the victim of human rights violation. That is, the need to protect a particular population should never be based on the legal frameworks but should be based on the morals of human rights basics.

While it may be easy for a leader to compare express an opinion on the Iraq Wars, it is apparent that the leader may not know the actual features of the wars in question. This is because most of the judgments are purely based on their perception and fear of the unforeseen problems. The two theories of international relations reveal that the reasons are deeper and rooted on the ideologies of the state, as defined by the present leader of that state. It is thus possible to conclude that Iraq Wars and any other war that involved nations of geographical and ideological differences is the war of consciences.

While it is possible to argue from this perspective that Iraqi people’s liberty rights were violated, or from the perspective of liberals that the action was worth it, how did the public opinion measured to ascertain this disagreement or agreement with the invasion? But one must take this into consideration: in a tyrannical government or regime, the population may be divided in opinions in terms of whether a foreign intervention is necessary or not. But where the real victims become the target against any foreign aid, it becomes the responsibility of international community to come in and identify the need and intervention procedure.

According to my view, the democratic leader must ensure they have the very support of the victim he or she wants to rescue. If this support is lacking, it becomes violation of that nation’s rights in a communal perspective. But caution must be taken to differentiate the supporters of the tyrant and from the real victims, as the former is known to speak loudest in dismissing humanitarian intervention.

Reference List

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Brody, K. (1999). The Avoidable War: Pierre Laval and the Politics of Reality, 1935 1936. Transaction Publishers.

Brown, C. (2005). Understanding International Relations. London. Palgrave,.

Bruch, C. (2007). Constitutional environmental law: Giving force to fundamental principles in Africa. Washington, DC. Environmental Law Institute.

Center for American Progress. (2004). In their Own Words: Iraq’s Imminent Threat. American Progress.

Coogan, A. (1993). The Volunteer Armies of Northeast China. History Today. p.43. Web.

Donnelly, J. (2002). Universal Human Rights in Theory and Practice. New York. Cornel University Press.

Dunne, T. (2009). International Relations Theories: Discipline and Diversity. Oxford, Oxford University Press.

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Hakim, J. (1995). A History of Us: War, Peace and all that Jazz. New York: Oxford University Press.

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Todorov, A. (2003). Public Opinion on Foreign Policy: The Multilateral Public that Perceives Itself as Unilateral. Princeton. Princeton University Press.

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