One day, a great friend of mine asked me what the international community should do regarding the crisis between Hong Kong and China (the former being a semi-independent state from the latter). At first, I gave him a personal and emotional answer, but then I realized that passionate responses are mostly useless in these kinds of discussions. I should have based my arguments on a more solid foundation and considered the principles of international law. There is, however, an enormous vacuum in this context. International law is in fact unable to define the role of the international community in conflicts that are limited within the borders of sovereign states. Hence, when we approach the topic, we are confronted with opinion-based debates rather than fixed rules.
Nevertheless, I wanted to provide a more sophisticated answer to my friend and thus, I decided to do some further research. I structured my investigation around one main question that represented the starting point for the entire analysis. The question was: which international agency should play the role of representing the international community amid a border-limited dispute? The most intuitive answer is: the United Nations.
The United Nations
According to the liberal theory of international relations (which argues that international institutions play a key role in cooperation among states), the United Nations is the international body requested to intervene on behalf of the international community in case of border-confined conflicts. Because of its global recognition, the UN is arguably the only organization legitimized to play a role during an internal dispute.
Even though this perspective seems promising, there are evident structural problems inside the UN which prevent it from ever becoming an institution allowed to intervene in national confrontations on a legal basis. The UN unifies hundreds of countries in one institution, but its security council is governed only by five of them, the well-known veto-powers: China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States. Through the veto power, these countries can block any UN intervention if it challenges their political interests. The UN has faced the possibility of becoming a rule-based institution with the ability to play a significant role in national issues many times, but every attempt has failed miserably because of these dynamics.
For instance, Russia used its veto power against an intervention during the 1999 war in Kosovo. Regardless of the evident violations of human rights in this conflict, Russia blocked any intervention possibility merely because of its political alliance with the Milosevic regime, which was at the head of the Yugoslavian Republic and included Kosovo at the time.
Acknowledging that the actions of the UN are largely limited by structural problems, raises the question as to who is legitimized to represent the international community in these cases. Theoretical and empirical evidence on this topic suggests two possible alternatives: coalitions of the states that have the largest military and economic power or regional actors. Both arguments are based on the assumption that these groups of states may be able to offer the best intervention in different ways. Powerful states have the economic and military power to pressure the country in question. However, many argue that this approach sustains the dominant position of the most powerful countries and maintains a global hierarchy, rather than addressing the real causes of many conflicts. Neighbouring countries, on the other hand, can exercise a stronger political and social influence on the critical country because of their strategic geographical position.
Even though these lines of thinking have their logic, they both fail to provide any kind of legitimacy to these exclusive groups of states that should theoretically represent the international community. Furthermore, the interventions of powerful or neighbouring states that have happened in the past (without a legal basis) have demonstrated that these options can be extremely dangerous. The ongoing crisis in Libya (where the involvement of powerful states such as Russia and France as well as regional actors such as Turkey, Egypt and Jordan is evident) represents a very unfortunate case.
Need for a new perspective
Taking everything into account, it seems that there are many issues related to the presence and activity of the international community in national conflicts. If institutions such as the UN are paralized because of internal, structural tensions, who has the legitimacy to get involved in a national conflict? Should foreign countries have the right to intervene in these disputes and if so based on what? We have seen that the intervention of the most powerful countries can actually cause more harm than good. Regional involvement can also be problematic, considering that neighbouring countries will always have their own agenda and are likely to seek to expand their influence in the area. Recent scholarship argues that there is a need for a more local approach to internal conflicts. However, in many cases the actors involved do not have sufficient resources or an efficient institutional framework to regulate internal conflict.
It seems that the dilemma of who should intervene is far from being solved. Perhaps the most ideal solution is a hybrid approach: the engagement of international institutions with local actors based on equality and collaboration. However, in order to avoid power imbalances one very important thing has to change: international institutions need to be reformed in a way that is inclusive, so that each member has the same amount of power, starting with the UN security council. By redefining the members and the role of the international community hopefully we will be able to find better solutions to global issues.
Nardin, Terry (2013): From Right to Intervene to Duty to Protect: Michael Walzer on Humanitarian Intervention. European Journal of International Law 24(1), 67-82.
Pape, Robert A. (2012): When Duty Calls: A Pragmatic Standard of Humanitarian Intervention. International Security 37(1), 41-80.
Pattison, James (2010): Humanitarian Intervention and the Responsibility to Protect. Oxford, U.K.: Oxford University Press.