John Donne famously declared, “[n]o man is an island.” Similarly, “no state is an island,” as states are inevitably impacted by the actions of others. But does this mean that any connection, however attenuated, justifies one state’s interference with another? Is this kind of interference ever justified? Is there ever an obligation on states to commit just this sort of interference?
Historically, the line that divided benevolent intervention from tyrannous interference was the consideration of whether such interference was necessary to protect a state’s “vital interests.” While the standard of “vital interests” is itself an amorphous concept, the greater concern is whether it is an appropriate standard in the first place. Might not atrocity permit, and perhaps even require, those states with the ability to interfere to do so?
As early as 1933, the Montevideo Convention on the Rights and Duties of States illustrated the efforts of the international community to establish limits on the extent to which countries could interfere with one another. Article XI explicitly provides that “[t]he territory of a state is inviolable and may not be the object of military occupation nor of other measures of force imposed by another state directly or indirectly or for any motive whatever even temporarily.” Similarly, Article II of the United Nations Charter, passed in 1945, states that “[n]othing contained in the present Charter shall authorize the United Nations to intervene in matters which are essentially within the domestic jurisdiction of [a] state.” The general trend at this time appeared to favor non-interference, considering the sovereignty of a state to be absolute.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), adopted in 1948, suggests a divergence from this mode of thinking. In its prohibition of genocide and war crimes, the UDHR proclaims that it is the responsibility of nations to ensure the “universal and effective recognition and observance” of human rights. However, the implications of this agreement remain abstruse. Is it the responsibility of each state to guarantee these rights only within their own borders, or is it incumbent upon each state to ensure that all other states also adhere to the UDHR? By what guiding principle is a state to adjudicate this dilemma born out of ambiguity and vacillating standards?
The difficulty lies in the collision of sovereignty with the prevention of atrocity. Interference constitutes a breach of sovereignty and it seems that any subsequent agreement made due to such interference would fail to be legitimate. An additional concern therefore is that it would be no mark against the state which violates an agreement made under such duress. But perhaps such a violation of sovereignty is required in the face of large-scale violence. In this context, the question of how many lives a state’s sovereignty is worth remains a haunting question.
While the United States has established that amongst their citizens there is no legal duty to rescue, perhaps a different standard is called for in the international arena. Current international law appears to leave both options open: vigorously protect human rights within one’s own borders only, or unequivocally engage atrocities both foreign and domestic. The burden of this decision rests with the various states as they determine their own statuses in a multifarious world, as there does not appear to be a clear legal answer.
As states struggle to determine precisely what influence they wish to exert, perhaps a guiding principle can be discerned from the Declaration of Independence signed at the birth of the United States: “when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same object evinces a design to reduce [the people] under absolute despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such government.” If the United States, or any other state, truly believes all people possess a duty to oppose a certain kind of cruelty, it would seem that the answer is clear: violations of human rights are intolerable. Yet the burden remains with each state individually to determine when and how to intervene, as the legal question of whether interference constitutes benevolence or tyranny remains an open one.
Cameron Hunter is a 3L law student and second year master’s student at the University of Denver and is the Survey Editor of the Denver Journal of International Law and Policy.