The Big Question: National Sovereignty Vs. International Intervention


If I were to argue against intervention, I would use three arguments: Sovereignty, hypocrisy of intervening states, and for the particular case of Syria, the argument that the result of intervention may be counter-productive to the goal of increasing liberalism and democracy.

First of all, the sovereignty argument: to maintain the status quo, states need to respect each others’ sovereignty, otherwise, there would be no point in having the modern state system. The suppression of an insurgency in one’s own state should be allowed to take place without outside interference. The intervention in the Libyan civil war was essentially the UN taking sides in a conflict that should have been resolved domestically.

Secondly, the argument used by proponents of intervention, that of human rights abuse, is simply a convenient excuse used to justify the deposing of unfriendly or uncooperative regimes. The US, UK and France have all been guilty at some time of committing human rights violations such as the forced relocation of American Indians in the US, the suppression of Irish separatists in Northern Ireland by the UK, or the torture of “enemy combatants” by US military at Guantanamo Bay.

It is therefore hypocritical of them to now expect other nations to act according to their current principles when under similar circumstances they would have acted in a very similar manner. What gives a particular country the right to intervene in another’s domestic affairs? It’s a form of bullying of the weak by the strong. No one intervened in the Tibetan uprising of 2008, yet now when a similar situation occurs in Syria, they intervene. If the West is to use human rights violations as an excuse for intervention, they should at least be consistent about it.

Another argument that can be made is that Assad’s regime still continues to have popular support, especially from minority groups such as Christians and Kurds as well as in secular and business minded circles of the middle-classes who fear Islamic extremism far more than Assad. Given what happened in Afghanistan, it’s understandable that they would be afraid (Jim Muir, Feb 10, 2012. BBC news: Beirut).

Moreover, Assad is pushing forward his own reforms that will ensure a “multi-party democracy.” If these reports are to be believed, then what does “The West” hope to accomplish by interfering and deposing Assad? Could they be said to be defending human rights if they replace a regime that still enjoys a degree of popular legitimacy and is in the process of democratic reform with a Syrian version of the Taliban? I think not.

The arguments that Russia and China have given against intervention in the on-going Syrian civil-war are similar to the ones given above, only more precise. China argued that the proposed sanctions were “irresponsible protection,” no country should be able to use protection as an “excuse” to overthrow a regime, and that the draft resolution submitted by the UK and the US contradicted the idea of seeking a political solution to the crisis. The proposed sanctions amount to forced regime change and violate Syria’s sovereignty.

“It is a shameless lie to attribute the escalating tension in Syria to China and Russia. Without the West’s support, the small-scale conflict wouldn’t have turned into today’s bloody confrontation” (BBC news: China, July 20, 2012). It is very possible that the intervention in the form of economic sanctions against Assad and military aid to rebel forces has, far from preventing human rights abuses, led to their increase. Russia says that their position is based on opposition to regime change, particularly if it is caused by Western military intervention such as in Libya (The Wall Street Journal, July 20, 2012, p. 14).

China and Russia certainly have their own ulterior motives for supporting Assad’s regime, but in this case at least, I believe they are right to veto UN resolutions for further intervention. The arguments made for intervention by the US, UK and France based on human rights violations are ambiguous and inconsistent. Therefore, they do not justify the breaking of a fundamental principle of international law; that of non-intervention in domestic affairs.

The UN, therefore, should NOT intervene economically or militarily; such actions would be akin to meddling in a sovereign state’s domestic affairs. I am not by any means condoning human rights abuses, I am only saying that the selective punishment for states who commit these atrocities is unjust. Abiding by one’s principles only when convenient, is unprincipled.

~ Author: Masumi Shimonaka

Additional Reading:

The Ethics of Intervention — Human Rights, National Sovereignty and the Balance of Risk

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