The Dilemma of Intervention

Filed in Case Studies by on 24th Mar 2009

Should outsiders such as the United Nations and the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation intervene in internal wars? The U.N. mission to end wars and promote peace is still an illusory goal that remains as out-of-reach as an ever-shifting mirage in the desert. During the years of the Cold War, the U.N. could not do what it set out to do because of a contest of wills between East and West, with each wanting its system to dominate at the expense of the other. The euphoria at the end of the Cold War gave multi-lateral diplomacy a new thrust. However, the respite from 1991 to 2003 was cut short by the Iraq war. Forman (2005) puts it succinctly: “The United Nations has become the target of attacks at the core of its mission – maintaining peace and protecting civilians from genocide” (Forman, 2005, p. 349).  Since the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648, the notion of state sovereignty has been the underlying principle of international relations. To violate national sovereignty was to go beyond the boundaries of international law. However, since the end of the Cold War, the notion of state sovereignty as a protection against external intervention is now subject to a range of international concerns based on the defence of human rights in cases of ethnic cleansing, genocide or overwhelming brutality against a civilian population. Realists argue that “the pursuit of such altruistic aims contradicts the very logic of international relations” (Hoffmann, 2006, p. 276). Critics see national sovereignty as a sacred principle which forms “the cornerstone of the post-Westphalian world order and of its corollary, the principle of non-intervention” (Hoffman, 2006, p. 277). The support of this principle is based on such underlying beliefs as the necessity of the state to protect its own interests on one side of the realist’s political spectrum to “our vestigial uneasiness about crossing the sovereignty line and getting into other people’s business. Not only are outsiders not necessarily best-equipped to do these things; they have no self-evident mandate to do them” (Crocker, 2003, p. 231). Notwithstanding such beliefs, it is notable that as the Cold War was nearing its end in the early 1990’s, the United Nations was expanding its agenda for peace and security.

A Shift in Focus

In 1992, U.N. Secretary-General Boutros Boutros Ghali issued his Agenda for Peace in which he outlined five interconnected roles to deal with post war international relations, namely: preventive diplomacy, peace enforcement, peace making, peace keeping and post-conflict peace-building. By 1994, the United Nations had tripled its peacekeeping missions, quadrupled the number of resolutions it passed, and increased its peacekeeping budget from 230-million to 3.6-Billion dollars (Doyle, 2003, p. 530). That’s roughly three times the United Nations regular operating budget. Although Doyle presents this as a testament to the new role that the international community wanted the United Nations to take on and enforce, what we see is a subtle shift in approach from what once constituted acceptable U.N. activity to a more active stance in which “gross violations of global standards of human rights were seen to override domestic sovereignty, becoming a defining issue for what was a legitimate matter of international attention” (Doyle, 2003, p. 531). This more engaged approach has led to considerable debate as to what outsiders such as the United Nations or NATO should do during an internal conflict. Concern over the question of intervention in internal conflicts ranges from such realist questions as ‘what level of brutality constitutes grounds for intervention’ to ‘will the notion of human rights violations be used as a pretext to intervene for geopolitical interests rather than to rescue civilians’? They also include idealists’ questions such as how many more will die if no protective action is taken?

In 1998, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan stated that one of the roles of the United Nations was “to intervene to prevent conflict where we can, to put a stop to it when it has broken out, or – when neither of those things is possible – at least to contain it and prevent it from spreading” (Doyle, 2006a, p. 28). On the surface, such a statement reflects the same sort of good intentions that were expressed when the U.N. was founded. However, it also raises the moral and controversial issue of whether national sovereignty eclipses human rights or whether human rights trumps national sovereignty. Does the age-old dictum “Do no harm!” mean the state should fear outside intervention if it enacts policies with which external states disagree, or for outsiders such as the U.N. or NATO, does it mean that not intervening will result in less harm? In the terms of cost/benefit calculus, will an intervention cost more in lives, expense and energy expended than the number of lives saved?

NATO intervenes in Kosovo

During the civil war which broke out in the Serb autonomous region of Kosovo in 1999, the United Nations did not intervene, deciding to respect the national sovereignty of what by then constituted Yugoslavia. The decision came after Russia and China vetoed intervention on the grounds of Serbia’s sovereignty. However, another outsider, NATO, intervened instead of the U.N. This occurred after President Bill Clinton once again raised the moral issue of humanitarianism in announcing what Doyle refers to as “a Clinton Doctrine”. “Never forget if we can do it here, and if we can say to the people of the world, whether you live in Africa, or Central Europe, or any other place, if somebody comes after innocent civilians and tries to kill them en masse because of their race, their ethnic background, or their religion, and it’s within our power to stop it, we will stop it” (Clinton as cited by Doyle, 2006a, p. 29). While endorsing the principle of humanitarian intervention three months after Mr. Clinton’s declaration, Secretary-General Annan pointed out that NATO’s intervention in Kosovo involved no authorisation on the grounds of collective self-defence, no state or individual consent, and no authorisation by the Security Council. This is a further reflection of the shift away from international law as it has been practiced since the Treaty of Westphalia toward a greater commitment to humanitarian concerns. This shift took place step by step over the past several years from military interventions in East Timor, to action to protect Kurds in northern Iraq, to the rescue of the Somali people from starvation despite the presence of warlords who regularly hi-jacked international food aid for their own supporters. This shift also includes what Doyle (2006a) calls “heavily-induced mediations” which resulted in an end to civil wars in Cambodia, El Salvador, Croatia and Bosnia. Such interventions once led to moralist arguments that international practice was being ignored at the risk of weakening international law.  “Now failures to intervene or to intervene adequately in places such as Rwanda or Sierra Leone or today (2005), in Dafur do” (Doyle, 2006a, p. 30). The major difference appears to be that because these interventions were not self-serving as many who opposed them feared they might be, the perception in the western world is that the United Nations acted on behalf of the international community. It now appears, in other words, that collective intervention is acceptable whereas a unilateral intervention is not. However, this perception still clashes with reality as seen through the eyes of various U.N. member states which see inherent dangers in the conduct of international affairs based solely on humanitarian concerns.

When Kofi Annan raised the question of whether NATO’s use of force without a U.N. mandate was legitimate or whether the world should turn a blind eye to a systematic violation of human rights, he asked how future Kosovo’s should be avoided. This could be taken to mean, how do we prevent future humanitarian catastrophes or what changes can be made in U.N. regulations to enable it to intervene quickly in such cases? This seems to be a question, then, aimed at the rules governing the Security Council. “Unless the Security Council decides under Chapter VII that a situation creates a threat to peace and security and orders a country to accept the stationing of an international force, the need for that country’s consent can thwart the effort at prevention- as we saw in Kosovo” (Hoffmann, 2003, p. 280).

The Vatican is considered a special observer of the United Nations, and as such does not have the power of regular members. However, its statement appearing to also hone in on the rules of the Security Council was noteworthy. In calling for changes at the U.N., the Vatican Secretary of State asked for institutional reform “that is attentive to the demands of our peoples rather than to the balance of power” (Vaticancalls for U.N. Reform, peace-building, 2005, p.6). An independent panel known as the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS), and partially funded by the government of Canada, looked into the question. One of its tasks was to find a way to allow the U.N. to legally use force when individual states don’t want to or are unable to protect their citizens. Archbishop Celestino Migliore, the Vatican’s permanent observer at the United Nations, says the ICISS discussed and examined criteria “in the light of an emerging conviction that there exists a responsibility to protect not only the stability of a country, but first and foremost the population threatened by man-made catastrophes like genocide, mass killings, serious human rights violations, the starvations of entire populations and so on” (Migliore, 2005, p. 10). In a report in 2002 entitled The Responsibility to Protect, the ICISS sets out two strategies to encourage intervention in humanitarian emergencies and to prevent humanitarian arguments from being used to justify the use of force for political reasons: “The ICISS proposed two just-cause thresholds (mass killing and ethnic cleansing), and insisted that when the host state was either unwilling or unable to prevent or halt these wrongs, the responsibility for doing so would fall on international society generally and the Security Council in particular” (Bellamy, 2006, p. 146). The ICISS also suggested that when such humanitarian cases arose, the five members of the Security Council commit themselves to not using their veto rights. This was aimed at persuading the members of the Security Council to think more in terms of responsibility and less in terms of sovereignty. This was a clear shift away from the centuries-old practice of international law as upheld by the United Nations. This also placed members of the United Nations in the position that if they disagreed with supporting a humanitarian action, they would have to publicly justify why they did not want to live up to their responsibility. The Responsibility to Protect concluded that the “primary responsibility for protecting civilians lay with the host state and that outside intervention could only be considered if the host state was unable or unwilling to live up to its responsibilities” (Bellamy, 2006, p. 143).

The U.N. Security Council

After The Responsibility to Protect came out, the Security Council held its annual retreat in May 2002 to discuss the implications of the report. The five members of the Security Council, whose responsibility it is to make the final decision whether to proceed with an intervention, were sharply divided on the report’s recommendations. Opinions ranged from outright rejection on the part of China, which had steadfastly opposed the process leading to the report, to a qualified endorsement by Britain and France. London and Paris were concerned that agreeing with the report’s criteria was no guarantee that the necessary political will and consensus needed to respond to a humanitarian catastrophe could be attained. Indeed, Britain had already been looking into whether to draw up criteria to guide U.N. members in making decisions regarding humanitarian interventions since NATO’s intervention in Kosovo in 1999. The United States did not endorse the report so much as decide to keep its options open: “The United States rejected the idea of criteria on the grounds that it could not offer pre-commitments to engage its military forces where it had no national interests, and that it would not bind itself to criteria that would constrain its right to decide when and where to use force” (Bellamy, 2006, p. 151). Russia generally agreed with the humanitarian sentiments expressed in the report but, like China, felt that questions on the use of force should remain the responsibility of the Security Council.

The 2005 World Summit

From 2002, when the ICISS report came out, to the 2005 World Summit, the international community debated the implications of humanitarian intervention. The Responsibility to Protect was well received by several states ranging from Argentina, Australia, Canada, Colombia, Croatia, Ireland, New Zealand, Norway, Rwanda, Sweden and Tanzania to name but a few. Other states liked the general tenor of the ICISS report but wanted more precise definitions and rules to govern humanitarian interventions. One such state, South Korea, “argued that the UN should create clear mechanisms and modalities to limit the extent to which responsibility could be invoked to override sovereignty” (Bellamy, 2006, p. 151). Other states such as India argued that the Security Council already had enough power to respond to a humanitarian crisis. Malaysia disagreed with the report on the grounds that there was no basis for humanitarian intervention under international law.

The majority of United Nations member states attending the 2005 World Summit agreed with the general concept of The Responsibility to Protect, and adopted it in their final document. The document includes the individual responsibility of each state to protect its various populations from harm whether from crimes against humanity, ethnic cleansing or genocide, but also makes it clear that the United Nations is responsible for taking “collective action, in a timely and decisive manner, through the Security Council, on a case-by-case basis and in cooperation with relevant regional organisations as appropriate, should peaceful means be inadequate and national authorities are manifestly failing to protect their populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity” (Bellamy, 2006, p. 144). This suggests that a more idealist strain of thought was gaining acceptance in the United Nations. However, as if in a concession to the validity of realism, and in a move that revealed the depth of division over the issue, participants of the 2005 World Summit did not include a provision to restrict the veto rights of the Security Council.

Realism versus Idealism or East versus West

One argument raised with the ICISS report was the concern over whether its provisions served the interests of already powerful western states by granting them more power. This was countered with the argument that limiting the use of military force to just-cause thresholds was already a barrier to abuse of power. An important argument concerns moral authority and whether governments can be persuaded to take action based on international opinion. Another argument was whether accepting the tenants set out by The Responsibility to Protect, meant that  U.N. member states could be held accountable to their own populations, and to other member states if they failed to intervene?  Bellamy (2006) presents several cases, including the American decision to intervene in Somalia in 1992, which on the surface suggests that this assumption is true. Evidence in the case of Somalia, however, revealed that although the U.S. administration and Congress responded to media images of starving people, their response came at the same time that the Pentagon was already advising a relatively risk-free intervention. Other cases include Kosovo where Bellamy (2006) says governments created the necessary perception in favour of intervention, not the other way around. Bellamy (2006) concludes that there was little evidence to suggest that states undertake foreign interventions because they are morally shamed into doing so. This conflicts with Regan (1998) who places a greater emphasis on the role played by domestic populations in influencing foreign policy. He says that civil conflict can create a sense of moral outrage which is then translated into greater pressure on a people’s respective government to intervene. “When conflicts result in large numbers of casualties, or lead to large social dislocations, we would expect third parties to face increased pressure from domestic constituencies to take some form of remedial action, even if there is no apparent geopolitical interest” (Regan, 1998, p. 763). Regan (1998) goes on to say that the likelihood of outside intervention increases when a country in conflict shares a border with another state, and there are ideological differences “consistent with a security-based notion of foreign policymaking” (Regan, 1998, p. 763). However, he says this is also true for humanitarian reasons which are “more consistent with an idealist view of foreign policy” (Regan, 1998, p. 763). Another factor affecting the decision on whether to intervene involves the intensity of a conflict. “On the one hand, highly intense conflicts tend to be associated with the humanitarian concerns of an idealist, and on the other, highly intense conflicts may pose severe threats to regional stability–of paramount importance to the realist”(Regan, 1998, p. 763). According to Regan (1998), an intense conflict makes an intervention less likely while “the humanitarian concerns generally associated with such conflicts make an intervention alternative more compelling” (Regan, 1998, p. 765).  This reveals both the high level of uncertainty involved in a decision to intervene, as well as the often close relationship between realist and idealist positions.

Chojnacki (2006) sees internal conflicts as changing patterns of violence in the contemporary international system which have led to more interventionist behaviour. He says not only do violent conflicts within states result in higher casualties than conflict between states, but that “wars within states contain a higher risk of violence perpetuating itself” (Chojnacki, 2006, p. 28). As internal violence has increased, inter-state wars, especially between the great powers, have decreased, giving way to a trend on the part of democracies to intervene. Bosnia, Kosovo and Afghanistan are examples where “military interventionism has become a tool for foreign policy” arising from “the explicit claim of democratic states to enforce human rights universally and spread democracy in the international system” (Chojnacki, 2006, p. 27). Rather than the United Nations or NATO sanctioning the use of force in interventions for geopolitical or defence reasons, human rights and democratisation have become the new norm for intervention. The question then is how well this new norm functions when applied in the real world.

In trying to determine why the United Nations has failed in so many humanitarian situations in spite of new norms and accepting new criteria, Jentleson (2007) reminds us of the words spoken by Secretary-General Annan in referring to the U.N. Charter as being “issued in the name of the people, not the governments. It was never meant as a license for governments to trample on human rights and human dignity” (Annan, cited by Jentleson, 2007, p. 19). Jentleson (2007) says the question therefore is not really one of intervention but one of responsibility. “In reality, it was not so much that other states had a right to intervene, but rather that the international community had a responsibility to protect” (Jentleson, 2007, p. 19). Jentleson (2007) maintains that since internal clashes “have become the dominant and most lethal form of conflict, the international community cannot continue to readily accept invocations of state sovereignty as a barrier behind which aggression can hide” (Jentleson, 2007, p. 19). In stepping away from traditional norms and recent rhetoric, Jentleson (2007) suggests that rather than the traditional use of force as a last resort, it may be time to consider it as an early option. “Until force can be used as something more than a last resort, we will continue to consign ourselves to picking up pieces of societies that have been torn asunder by mass deaths and other devastating destruction” (Jentleson, 2007, p. 23). However, in asking who should decide on the use of force in applying this new norm for intervention, Jentleson (2007) suggests that the Security Council should be the favoured but not the exclusive source of legitimate authority. This goes against the majority of U.N. member states who, when they accepted the tenants of The Responsibility to Protect, also maintained the right of veto for members of the Security Council. Jentleson (2007), however, points out that Russia and Chinaused Serbia’s sovereignty as a pretext when they vetoed a decisive humanitarian intervention in Kosovo because of their concern that it would set a precedent which could one day be used in Chechnya, Taiwan and Tibet. The track record of the remaining members of the Security Council, the United States, Britain and France, is no less sterling for their lack of political will, and current inability to take swift, decisive action to end humanitarian suffering in such places as Rwanda or Darfur. In 1999, Secretary-General Annan said the United Nations dragged its feet in Rwanda because of “the reluctance of Member States to place their forces in harm’s way where no perceived vital interests are at stake, a concern over costs, and doubts – in the wake of Somalia – that intervention could succeed” (Annan, cited in Miskel, 2000, p. 1). In calling for new tools to deal with humanitarian intervention, Miskel (2000) points to the 1999-2000 crisis in Congo and other crises, which suggested that “the United Nations and its leading members seem disinclined towards intervening later or intervening early” (Miskel, 2000, p. 6). Since military intervention to protect aid deliveries and aid workers are often more expensive than the aid itself, one way to reduce costs might be to develop a strategy that does not rely on the armed force of the U.N.’s leading members. Miskel (2000), like Jentleson(2007), suggests that regional peacekeepers might be the answer. However, unlike Jentleson (2007), Miskel (2000) does not include NATO or U.N. units made up of West European and North American forces due to their “expensive overhead and political baggage” (Miskel, 2000, p. 6). In calling for an increase in the U.N.’s  credibility and military capacity to deal with humanitarian intervention, Jentleson (2007) suggests that “the only way to make such improvement  is to take up the long-delayed issue of creating a standing U N military force that is geared toward peace operations” (Jentleson, 2007, p. 23). The United States appeared to be moving in this general direction by increasing military capacity to deal with humanitarian issues but the idea was reversed during the Bush administration. The issue has not really risen again since the U.S.military action in Iraq.

The case of Darfur

Until recently, Africa’s regional peacekeeping organisation, the African Union, received little support from the United Nations or the European Union. Despite four years of rhetoric about the need to act in Darfur, the efforts of the Security Council reveal little substance to the much-vaulted new rules of humanitarian intervention. The decisions of the Security Council, whether to respect state sovereignty while the slaughter of Kosovo’s ethnic Albanian population continued at the hands of the Serbs, or the painfully slow response to the situation in Darfur, where an estimated 200-thousand people have died, show no short supply of rhetoric or thinking focused more on economic and strategic interests than on the humanitarian condition of whatever population happens to be in the way of aggressors.

Lischer (2007) discusses the situation in Sudan’s western region of Darfur in terms of Khartoum’s actions against not only the inhabitants ofDarfur, but also against international aid workers. He describes how the Sudanese army and police repeatedly raided and brutalised the residents of camps for internally-displaced civilians, preventing aid groups from helping or documenting human rights abuses, and even taking aid workers hostage in exchange for a greater share of relief supplies ranging from fuel to food. Even though international aid organisations are officially classified as neutral, and maintain their independence from the military, “it is the humanitarian groups that have pressed for greater political and military action” (Lischer, 2007, p. 114). The director of Oxfam in Sudan was even thrown out of the country for saying that the Security Council was not taking strong enough action to help.

In September 2004, the U.S. Secretary of State, Colin Powell, used the word genocide in speaking of Arab forces he said were involved in a campaign to decimate the region’s black, African inhabitants. The United Nations called Darfur the ‘world’s worst humanitarian crisis. Yet, “the UN Security Council declined to enforce sanctions against the Sudanese government and the General Assembly refused to condemn human rights abuses in Sudan” (Lischer, 2007, p. 113).  Jentleson (2007) maintains that Darfur “could have been a test case for turning ‘never again’ from rhetoric into reality” (Jentleson, 2007, p. 20).  It is no secret that Russia sold Sudan the military planes it used to bomb and attack villages in Darfur. China has invested three-billion dollars in Sudan’s oil wells which currently supply China with six per cent of its quickly-growing oil needs. Once again, Russia and China revealed “Kosovo-like concerns over state sovereignty and economic interests” (Jentleson, 2006, p. 21). The question then is not whether outsiders such as the U.N. and NATO should intervene in internal conflicts on humanitarian grounds but, according to Jentleson (2007), whether the international community should continue to support a Security Council that demonstrably did nothing to launch a humanitarian intervention when it had the chance in Kosovo. It also did not act to stop genocide inRwanda and is doing little in Darfur. The other option is to choose a regional alternative such as NATO which, as its actions in Kosovo showed, was far more efficient in acting on humanitarian grounds than the United Nations whose professed task it is to protect people. Given the prevalence of humanitarian catastrophe in the world since the end of the Cold War, and the tendency of the Security Council to look at situations according to the tenants of realism, and strategic and economic interests, decisions in favour of a humanitarian intervention are less likely than the rhetoric surrounding such cases. The question of a standing force devoted to resolving humanitarian conflicts may be an idea whose time has not only come but is past due.

Aggestam (2003) says one reason why more attention has been paid to conflict prevention in the last ten years is the increasing number of internal conflicts compared with interstate wars. She asks if a greater emphasis on conflict prevention reflects any major change in how conflict is practiced or managed. “The major challenge for the international community is…how to manage communal, ethnic and internal conflicts, which tend to be more intractable than interstate conflicts” (Aggestam,2003, p. 14).  Aggestam (2003) says another reason for greater emphasis on conflict prevention is the 1992 Agenda for Peace issued by former U.N. Secretary-General Boutros Boutros Ghali, as referred to in more detail on page 2 of this paper. However, she says that research since then has contributed little to greater in-depth understanding of the concept. “If the research is supposed to be of policy relevance this becomes particularly troublesome since it is unable to establish a causal chain of variables and predict conflict escalation” (Aggestam, 2003, p. 20). She contends that traditional diplomatic strategies have a tendency to be renamed with no real change or content, concluding that conflict prevention is a problematic analytical concept which resembles a new label with old content. However, Aggestam (2003) says that conflict prevention should nevertheless be viewed as “an expression of engagement in promoting a normative agenda and an international culture of conflict prevention” (Aggestam, 2003, p. 21).

Conclusion – Back to the Source

The United Nation’s new focus on humanitarian concerns over the past few years has generated considerable debate but not necessarily resulted in a string of successful interventions: “On too many occasions the international community as represented in the Security Council has chosen to authorise less than adequate missions” (Doyle, 2006a, p. 46). The genocide in Rwanda in 1994, Bosnia before 1995, the U.N. safe-haven of Srebrenica in 1995, and Dafur today all easily come to mind as landmarks of humanitarian failure. However, Doyle (2006a) maintains, that a revived Security Council after the end of the Cold War did manage to check many of the dangers of unilateral intervention and exploitation, and learned, albeit slowly, how to build self-sustaining and self-determining peace.  John Hamre, the president of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies at the end of the Second World War, noted that it was a need to resurrect the values of internationalism that led the United States to create the United Nations: “America took the lead to create a series of institutions, centered (on) the UN, that enshrined Western values – representative governments, due process, public accountability, liberal values, economic growth, and social development. All were values inherently favourable to the West and corrosive to the communist system” (Forman, 2005, p. 357). One of the members of the Security Council, Russia, is no longer governed by communism, but, as we have seen in both Kosovo and Darfur, its focus, like China’s, is clearly on strategic rather than humanitarian interests. Two of the five permanent members of the Security Council fear hidden motives and therefore continue to resist humanitarian changes. The more recent efforts to reform the United Nations have resulted in considerable change, including increased accountability, but new procedures, guidelines, or even statements about ‘just causes” have yet to allow the world body to act unanimously on its western humanitarian impulses as was originally intended. Even though the United Nations is still learning, the lessons of such heavy failures and isolated cases of success are clear and point to the continued need for outside intervention by the United Nations or NATO in internal conflicts.


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