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August 2018: Revisiting Norms for (Non)Intervention and Humanitarian Rescue

Our August 2018 newsletter features the Spring 2018 issue of Social Research on "Changing Social Norms" and explores articles from past issues that also address this theme. In “Expanding Military Intervention: Promise or Peril?” (Vol. 62, No. 1, Summer 1995), J. Bryan Hehir notes that

Social Research 62 [1] Spring 1995

“[t]he erosion of the classical notion of state sovereignty has been a pervasive aspect of world politics” since the 1960s. "A combination of forces, political, economic, ethnic, and environmental, all work—in different ways—to set limits on a state’s control of its destiny and policy .… The formal principle of sovereignty remains the basic norm of international relations, but the context of the principle has shifted. Sovereign control exists within tighter limits: challenged horizontally by increasing interdependence, challenged vertically by claims for self-determination and/or ethnic autonomy, and challenged normatively by human rights criteria. In contemporary world politics, sovereignty has real but relative weight."

Hehir discusses how the Westphalian order of international politics “made nonintervention virtually absolute in status; only the case of genocide provided an exception to the rule. Shockingly,” he continues, “genocide is with us again in the 1990s, but so are other situations in which enormous human suffering is occurring in situations short of genocide. The invocation of the Westphalian norm without some detailed testing of its impact on world politics is not a responsible use of the tradition. There may be ways for the society of states to respond to injustice, repression and ethnic cleansing without inciting the war of all against all which the nonintervention norm was designed to prevent.”

“Revisiting the norm of intervention,” Hehir posits, “means locating it within the broader framework of the Just War ethic,” a medieval model in which “intervention was a corollary to a moral doctrine on the use of force.” How to reframe the discussion and change international norms of intervention and rescue are the subject of this article.

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