Ethical Issues in Humanitarian Intervention

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  • 0:01 What Is Humanitarianism?
  • 0:33 Humanitarian Intervention
  • 1:23 Ethical Concerns
  • 4:38 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Humanitarian intervention may seem like it's always a good thing, but really there are quite a few ethical concerns that come along with it. Explore these, then test your understanding with a brief quiz.

What Is Humanitarianism?

Well, well, looks like we've got quite the humanitarian here! What is that? Well, humanitarianism is an active concern with human welfare. And you look like you're ready to go off and save the world. That's great, but have you made sure to think about the ethical issues of doing that? Oh yeah, even in something as seemingly altruistic as humanitarian work, there are ethical concerns. Here, let me buy you a cup of organic, fair-trade coffee, and we'll talk about it.

Humanitarian Intervention

Now, about that humanitarianism. You care about something happening, you want to make a difference around the world, and that means eventually supporting humanitarian intervention, the interference with the sovereignty of another state in order to protect human rights. Some people define humanitarian intervention only by military actions, like sending an army in to depose a dictator, but more broadly this term applies to non-military intervention as well, say through government-supported economic sanctions, organizations like the Peace Corps or political pressure. There really is no single definition of this term, but everyone agrees that the focus is on protecting human rights in areas where they may be in danger.

Ethical Concerns

So far, this sounds pretty nice, right? Is this really an area for ethical concerns? Well, yeah. Let's start with defining human rights, the basic fundamental liberties entitled to all people. While we all acknowledge that human rights exist, there is disagreement about what they are. For example, some Islamic nations don't support the freedom of religion, while others do. Okay, so who decides which one is right? As an international community, we often look to the United Nations, the international peace-keeping organization to define human rights, but even this body isn't recognized by everyone. Now, once a nation agrees to join the UN, they are expected to uphold the UN's definition of human rights, since they have agreed to those terms. But in cases like a lack of religious freedom, at what point is foreign intervention acceptable? After all, you are directly interfering with the right of a nation to run itself, or its sovereignty, and this can be somewhat morally gray.

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