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Comments from a reader.

To the editor:

I would like to make the following comments on Dr. Penelope Simons' thoughtful and illuminating paper on "humanitarian intervention" in which she counterposes the conflict between sovereignty and human rights [see the December 2000 Monitor].

In principle, I do not object to breaking laws, including those protecting sovereignty, for moral reasons. Laws are not made in Heaven but on earth by fallible human beings. Legal systems, by and large, represent the interests of the most powerful elements in society, who both write the laws and have the ability to enforce them The less powerful groups often defy these laws and, if successful, change them. Some of our greatest heroes, like Nelson Mandela, are such law breakers.

Nevertheless I am concerned when powerful nations violate sovereignty on the grounds of "humanitarian intervention" for two reasons. First, such an intervention may prove counterproductive if it transforms a domestic conflict into an international one. The only way to prevent this is if all the powerful nations agree on backing the same side in a local conflict. If the powerful nations back different sides, they may wind up fighting each other. Since many of the powerful nations possess nuclear weapons, intervention opens up the possibility that they will be deployed. This is why the veto in the UN Charter makes sense. It prevents the major powers from taking actions which might result in a nuclear exchange. It is also why it is very dangerous for any major power to bypass the UN in order to launch a military operation on any grounds whatsoever. If nations insist on ignoring the UN, we may as well abolish it.

Second, the doctrine of "humanitarian intervention" must be viewed in the context of the drive for globalization. The main benefits of globalization will flow to the richest nations, namely the members of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), who are the major source of investment capital. Globalization, by breaking down national barriers to the free flow of capital, will provide them with new investment opportunities. The rich nations may use the slogan of "humanitarian intervention" to justify military action against those nations resisting globalization. The Western powers in the 19th century used such pretexts as "converting the heathens to Christianity" or "bringing civilization to the savages or "assuming the White Man's burden" to justify their violations of national sovereignty. "Humanitarian intervention" may well be the 21st century's euphemism for imperialism.

The best way to insure true "humanitarian intervention" is for the most powerful nations to intervene against their own arms manufacturers, who are reaping huge profits from existing conflicts and would reap even greater profits from new interventions. Banning all arms exports is a far more effective tool than military engagements.

Edward H. Shaffer PhD

Professor Emeritus

Department of Economics

University of Alberta
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Publication:Ploughshares Monitor
Article Type:Letter to the Editor
Date:Jun 1, 2001
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