Unveiling the Illusion: The Paradox of Humanitarian Intervention and its Implications in Afghanistan

The post-Cold War era has brought to forefront the pressing questions surrounding humanitarian intervention which refers to military action taken to protect innocent people from severe human rights abuses. When severe human rights abuses occur within a state that claims immunity based on national sovereignty, what should the international community do? When is it appropriate for states to use force to protect their citizens in danger abroad? These questions have gained significant relevance and have sparked debates among scholars, decision-makers, and the wider public. The concept raises important questions and tensions regarding the balance between preserving human life and respecting national sovereignty.

Liberals generally support interventions in exceptional cases, even without UN consent, if the intervention has gained broad international legitimacy and the situation is dire enough that global humanitarian interests outweigh narrowly defined national interests. They argue that sovereignty should not be used as a shield by those who grossly violate human rights. Proponents of humanitarian intervention, such as Fernando R. Teson, define it as a proportionate international use or threat of military force aimed at ending tyranny or anarchy, welcomed by the victims, and consistent with the doctrine of double effect.

On the other hand, realists assert that governments primarily pursue their survival-related national objectives and resist pursuing universal goals, such as forcibly overthrowing all governments and establishing liberal democracies. Realist thinkers, including Stanley Hoffmann and Hans Morgenthau, question the use of moral and political concepts in different contexts and argue that humanitarian intervention often leads to conflicts between states with differing commitments.

1.2 Evolution of the concept of Humanitarian Intervention

There has been a lot of evolution that has taken place in terms of setting up framework and policies around humanitarian intervention however unfortunately international responses to crimes against humanity have been inconsistent until today. This was evident in the inaction during the Rwanda genocide and the Srebrenica massacre.

To name out few policies and frameworks: The Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948 introduced a moral framework for humanitarian intervention. The Genocide Convention in the same year provided justification for intervention to stop genocide. 

In 2000, the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS) was established to address the dilemma of balancing human rights with respect for national sovereignty. The Responsibility to Protect (R2P) report in 2001 aimed to reconcile these two ideas, stating that states have a duty to protect their citizens, but the international community becomes responsible when a state fails to do so.

Legal and Ethical Challenges: Paradox of Humanitarian Intervention

Humanitarian intervention faces legal and ethical challenges. Under international law, the use of force is strictly regulated, and some argue that the UN Security Council should authorize any military action. The tension arises between UN Charter Article 51, which allows self-defence, and Chapter VII, which grants the Security Council authority to restore peace. This legal contention creates uncertainty about the legality of interventions. Furthermore, the ethical dimension highlights the issue of selective response, as states often intervene based on their perceived national interests rather than consistent moral standards.

The lack of agreement on the principles governing humanitarian intervention allows powerful nations to impose their own moral norms on weaker states. This bubbled up in the US intervention in Afghanistan, where the justification of promoting democracy became a pretext for pursuing geopolitical interests. The outcome of such interventions can be devastating, as seen in the complete destruction of Afghanistan’s political, cultural, and economic institutions.

The paradox of humanitarian intervention lies in the tension between using force to protect human rights and the potential negative consequences. While the intention is to safeguard civilians and promote human rights, interventions can escalate violence, cause civilian casualties, and erode the rule of law. There is also the risk of interventions being used for ulterior motives, such as pursuing regime change or geopolitical interests.

Case of Afghanistan

The 9/11 attacks and the subsequent war on terror reshaped the perception of humanitarian intervention. Although the Afghan War and the Iraq War were primarily motivated by self-defence, they were also presented as humanitarian endeavours. However, these wars violated the notion of purely altruistic intervention. The invasion of Afghanistan bypassed UN authorization and was justified under the guise of preventing future terrorist attacks. The attempt to establish American-style democracy in Afghanistan proved to be ambitious and unsustainable, leading to corruption and ultimately the return of the Taliban.

The case of Afghanistan raises questions about the effectiveness of humanitarian intervention in defending human rights. The protracted intervention, tactics employed during the war on terror, reports of war crimes, and the outcome of the Taliban’s return have prompted scepticism about the concept. The abuse of humanitarian intervention in the game of global power raises concerns about the accountability of stronger nations

The US intervention in Afghanistan, launched in 2001, was initially portrayed as a humanitarian intervention to combat terrorism and bring stability and democracy to the country. However, the reality of the situation tells a different story. Human rights abuses, including torture, extrajudicial killings, and arbitrary detention, have been prevalent throughout the conflict. There is credible evidence of beatings and other physical assaults on detainees, as well as evidence that the United States has used shackling, exposure to cold, and sleep deprivation amounting to torture or other mistreatment in violation of international law.

Contradictory to the notion of intervention corruption increased, and a significant increase in civilian casualties was seen in Afghanistan despite the provision of humanitarian assistance. As per SIGAR Analysis of UNAMA civilian casualty data, there has been a 75% increase in civilian casualties from 2009 to 2019.

The intervention lacked a clear understanding of the Afghan context and failed to differentiate between terrorists and civilians. It transformed from a self-defence mission into a nation-building project, with the establishment of democracy seen as the solution to all problems. However, the US influenced the decision-making process in Afghanistan, denying the Afghan people the ability to determine their own future. Even, bribes were given to promote the US position on human rights and women’s rights.

Subsequent administrations, such as President Obama’s, faced challenges in achieving their objectives. Despite efforts to reduce troop levels, the Afghan army was unable to ensure the country’s security, corruption persisted, and Taliban leaders found safe havens in Pakistan. To maintain public support and avoid admitting failure, an illusion was created, announcing non-combat roles for US and NATO forces while the reality remained a combat zone.

President Trump expanded military operations but later recognized the need for complete withdrawal to save Americans from the ongoing conflict. Negotiations with the Taliban led to the signing of an agreement in 2020, but it was seen as a diktat imposed upon the Afghan people, as they were excluded from the negotiating table.

The return of the Taliban in Afghanistan in August 2021 has raised concerns about the effectiveness of the humanitarian intervention that began in 2001. The Taliban’s swift takeover has been seen as a failure of international efforts to promote human rights and establish a stable democracy in the country. In the tragic paradox of the US war on terror, the effectiveness of humanitarian intervention as a counterterrorism strategy is called into question due to the significant increase in civilian fatalities since the campaign began. The statistics fail to differentiate between civilian and military deaths, blurring the line between fatalities caused by terrorism and those caused by war. This highlights the problematic nature of foreign interference and the failure to achieve the primary objective of eradicating terrorism. Additionally, the promise of humanitarian protection remains unfulfilled when large populations are devastated. Women, who were already suffering under the Taliban, faced additional challenges and hardships due to the impacts of war. Efforts to improve access to healthcare, education, and legal protection for women faced significant challenges due to cultural, institutional, and security barriers. The need for a more nuanced approach to achieving lasting change and upholding human rights is emphasized, as the cost paid by Afghans over 20 years far outweighs the marginal gains achieved.

The Afghan situation emphasises the difficulties and limitations of humanitarian assistance. Driven by its own political purposes, the US invasion of Afghanistan did not result in the anticipated reform and instead left the nation in ruins. Who determines when to intervene and weigh the repercussions is a concern given the inconsistent way the “responsibility to protect” idea is applied. Intervention frequently puts regime change ahead of human rights, with unsatisfactory results. It is crucial to understand that foreign involvement does not always solve problems because violence and wars worsen violations of human rights. Instead, avoiding abuses of human rights requires global collaboration and coordinated action. In order to discern between infractions caused by society and cultural norms and those initiated by the state, the emphasis should be on credible activities, monitoring, and evaluation. Humanitarian intervention should always be the last resort, with careful consideration of alternative options. Moreover, the influence of more powerful nations need to be addressed. The decision-making process should not be swayed by strong countries, and the emphasis should not solely be on figures and eccentric.

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