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Essay: Humanitarian intervention: the invasion of the United states in Iraq

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The invasion of the United States in Iraq in 2003 has been the focus of an ongoing debate. Although many motivations were put forward for starting this war, the most controversial reason was that it was stipulated as a humanitarian intervention. Ever since, academics confer what situation calls for a humanitarian intervention and whether this is applicable to the invasion in Iraq. Currently, there are only a few proponents stating that Iraq was a legitimate humanitarian intervention. The liberal theorist Fernando Tesón can be seen as the frontrunner of this opinion. He strongly advocates that the human rights of subjects prevail over the sovereignty of states. When these human rights are in jeopardy the concept known as the Responsibility to Protect comes into play. Essentially, it denotes that when authorities are facing an overwhelming humanitarian disaster in their country and the government is apparently unwilling or unable to prevent it or when the government is actively promoting the breach of human rights, the international community should intervene. Additionally, Tesón states that when a regime is tyrannical towards its subjects, there is a moral obligation to intervene and end the tyranny. However, the counter-argument denotes that the character of a regime is not a ground for intervention, as it implies to lower the threshold for humanitarian intervention. Consequently, the discussion is relentless and of great significance regarding the future and the general position of humanitarian intervention. Therefore, a light will be shed on this issue, focusing only on the moral legitimacy of intervention when overthrowing a tyrannical government. The overall question is: to what extent is the American invasion in Iraq in 2003 sustainable as humanitarian intervention as expounded by the liberal theorist Fernando Tesón through his ‘ending tyranny’ criteria? This will be discussed first, by asking to what extent Saddam Hussein’s Iraq was a tyrannical regime. Next, it will be analyzed to what extent ousting a tyrant a legitimate reason is for humanitarian intervention. Finally, it will be delineated to what extent replacing a tyrannical regime with a democracy is permissible and feasible, in light of humanitarian intervention in Iraq.

1. Saddam Hussein’s tyrannical Iraq

In order to determine whether Saddam Hussein’s regime can be stipulated as a tyranny, one must find out how a tyranny is defined. The global order consists of sovereign states with self-determination rights, entailing the right that a government itself can determine how it will govern its subjects within its territory.[1] However, a political regime has only value to the extent that it respects the status of its subjects.[2] Consequently, when a regime turns savagely upon its own people it will be denoted as a tyranny. If the government pursues considerable breaches of human rights, it will be disloyal to the purpose of its existence. Moreover, it can be seen as too much government and an abuse of power. It uses state coercion excessively in pursuing their autonomous projects. For a regime to be a tyranny, Fernando Tesón states that the human rights violations should be methodical, not occurring secluded or irregular.[3] Additionally, one should ask whether the government is not representative, or whether it permits and commits torture and does not allow political opponents. Furthermore, it should be investigated whether the subjects are imprisoned without fair trial. When these questions are answered positively, there is a tyranny and one could speak of an oppressive regime.[4]

Taking all of the above into consideration, the question to what extent Saddam Hussein’s Iraq was a tyranny can be answered. During Hussein’s reign at least 100.000 Kurdish people were assassinated in 1988, an additional 300.000 Shia were murdered after the war in 1991 and followed by another 40.000 marsh Arabs . There are single mass graves containing the bodies of 30.000 people, discovered in the Iraqi dessert.[5] In addition, millions of people were displaced and between 1968 and 2003, the figures are not precise, a further millions of people were executed. However, it should be noted that at the time of the invasion in 2003 Hussein did not appear to commit any novel atrocities.[6] Unquestionably, Hussein’s regime can be stipulated as a tyranny. His oppressive rule led to the suffering of millions of innocent lives. Even though, every government will without doubt incidentally treat somebody incorrectly, Saddam Hussein’s injustice is grave to such an extent that only tyranny is the correct term here.

2. Overthrowing a tyrant versus protecting human rights

The horrors of tyranny are abundantly clear, nevertheless does it then qualify for humanitarian intervention? The bar is currently set high and tight entailing only genocide, mass killings, crimes against humanity and other impending or ongoing atrocities. The threshold, as universally agreed on,[7] is set at this, since intervention is purely aimed at halting current or preventing imminent violence and guaranteeing the human rights of the victims. Even though Tesón claims this requirement is too strict,[8] there are two distinctive claims stating otherwise: foremost, as the principle of non-intervention, originating from the sovereignty of a state, constrains countries to interfere in another state’s affairs. The United Nations is a strong proponent of the principle of non-intervention and with that a limited doctrine of humanitarian intervention. Therefore, it is unlikely to find consent for humanitarian intervention when the bar is lowered.[9] The existence of a threat to international peace and security and of the imminence of humanitarian disaster is essential to establish a credible case that if states are using force, they are carrying out the will of the international community. Second, only the most rigorous crimes are worth the high costs of military force.[10] Every war will bring about casualties and perhaps even injustice, but even in this understanding genocide is clearly demanding intervention.

The question at stake is however, is military intervention aimed at ending both tyranny human rights abuses, as put forward by Tesón, also a justification? To put it differently, is it legitimate to topple a regime based on its character and stipulate it as humanitarian intervention? The matter is severely complex, yet somehow simple as well. Ending a tyranny leaves hardly any room for rescuing those in need. Instead of relieving the victims of the harm inflicted, the intervener wages a long war in which it topples the oppressive regime and replaces it with a new regime. Subsequently, it is concentrating on the character of the regime to be removed from power. Albeit, Teson’s claim that the crimes a government commits is delineating its regime, Nardin asserts that ending a tyranny is merely a way to neutralize an enemy, especially in the case of Iraq.[11] When a war is waged primarily for advancing own interests and subordinately for saving Iraqi people, one doubts the pure humanitarian motivation that the intervening state comes to the aid of the people to reinforce their human rights.

Applying the former to the war in Iraq in 2003, it is obvious why. The first example is Abu Graib, where prisoners were tortured by the American ‘liberators’. Unfortunately, there is disdain for the, dignity of, Iraqi lives and property.[12] When the humanitarian intervention is counterproductive to the intention of the action it would be a breach of international humanitarian law. Surprisingly, both Jan Narveson and Fernando Tesón claim, that this loss of life was worth these violations of international humanitarian law. However, there is no morality in humanitarian intervention when torture is permissible, because following Tesón’s own definition suggests that the United States is a tyrant when allowing these infringements on the human rights of the Iraqi’s and is no better than Saddam Hussein himself.[13] Tesón defends his argument by stating that in every war, war crimes will always be committed. In spite of this, there are limits as to what is permissible; especially in a case of humanitarian intervention, where the intervener should solely come to the aid of the people. Evidently, this indicates that the war was not sustained by humanitarian intentions. When the bar would be lowered to Tesón’s ending tyranny criteria, Gareth Evans argues that arguments for military action could be made for quite a few other countries; leading to a strain of the humanitarian intervention principle and possibly an advancement of other interests.[14] Likewise, even though a democratic regime might look down on authoritarian regimes as all being tyrannical, this not necessarily needs to be the case. The absence of democracy does not imply a tyrant is ruling the country. Wheeler and Morris add that military force should be the last remedy, as the use of force will inevitably inflict harm; it should be less than the harm to be alleviated.[15] Therefore, it should be the lesser of two evils: the greatest evil is domination of a regime with no regard to humanitarian values and which tolerates the massacre of innocent people.

Fernando Tesón also pushes forward that Hussein has committed many horrific crimes in the past.[16] Wheeler and Morris affirm that no one would ever advocate that removing Saddam Hussein was not a victory; when Hussein was left in power, that would have been inhumane.[17] Nevertheless, can we punish for the past? If yes, Tesón claims, all Hussein had to do to remain in power was to stop assassinating.[18] However, Tesón completely neglects that if Hussein stopped, there would be no case for humanitarian intervention any longer. In any case, humanitarian intervention denotes that there should be a probable and imminent case of both ability and intent to inflict harm.[19] Moreover, Human Rights Watch issued a report in 2004 stating that the crimes committed by Hussein, at the time of the intervention, were not of such a atrociousness nature that humanitarian intervention was legitimate.[20] Instead, a humanitarian intervention would be better suited in 1991 after the horrendous war. Although, Tesón is right to say that Hussein after 20 years of fierce rule he should be brought to justice, humanitarian intervention is not the answer here.

Obviously, when a tyrant ruthlessly abuses human rights, it would pose an strong case for humanitarian intervention, but to push the boundaries of humanitarian intervention to such an extent to include ending a tyranny, will only end in the dismissal of the entire principle of humanitarian intervention.

3. Establishing democracy in the name of humanitarian intervention

Evidently, ending a tyranny is not a sufficient criteria permissible to conduct humanitarian intervention as it will not focus on the humanitarian relief, except on toppling the regime; However, there is another reason Tesón mentions for lowering the threshold to include ending a tyranny, which is replacing the brutal regime with a democratic one.[21] In his view, establishing a democracy is warranted if the intended state is situated in a region where democracy is a preserved principle for the region. Even in regions were democracy is less salient it is still permissible. Tesón exemplifies stating that when the subjects of a certain state, where democracy is absent, favour a democratic system, humanitarian intervention is the tool that is justified to be used. He strongly advocates the spread of the democratic system throughout the world, with the ultimate aim of halting tyrannical regimes in the world; a policy of the United States as well which was used as a motive for the Iraq war. Additionally, to secure the endurance of liberty in the United States, all countries must be liberal democracies.[22] However, Tesón starts to contradict himself, by stating the democracy is in the best interest of everyone in the West. Should we then ignore the large part of the world which is not integrated in the West? The answer is contingent on two claims: first, Narveson states that it might not always be in the best interest of a country to establish a democratic regime there.[23] This is exactly the case in Iraq; The country has principally differentiating minority groups, the Kurdish people, the Sunni and the largest group the Shiite. The former two fear domination of the latter. If a democracy is imposed on these people, giving everybody the right to cast a vote is comparable to provoking a civil war. Therefore, the right solution is liberty, and no more than that. An authoritarian regime does not necessarily need to be a tyrannical regime. Secondly, Nardin states that the focus of the war is now on the interest and security of the intervening state. In other words, instead of protecting the human rights, it is protecting the interests of the intervening state and establishes a system under the supervision of that state.[24] No one will then be able to detect the humanitarian part in the intervention.

There are some lessons from the past that should have shown us, why humanitarian intervention does explicitly exclude ending a tyranny. Look at Cuba (1898-1934) which was supervised and supposedly ‘liberated’ by the United States or even the Vietnam war. Nardin stretches to designate humanitarian intervention aimed at establishing a liberated regime as a new form of imperialism.[25] Humanitarian intervention is supposed to be a remedy not to provoke a revolution or suspend the existence of a state. The values of the United States are not universally valid and cannot be imposed on every country.[26] All in all, to overthrow a tyrant and replace him with a liberal democracy is an imperial strategy which not by far can be hailed as humanitarian intervention, since nowhere in that strategy is the consideration for protecting the human rights of those impaired.


By and large, the focus was to what extent the American invasion in Iraq in 2003 was sustainable as humanitarian intervention as expounded by Fernando Tesón through his ‘ending tyranny’ criteria? During Saddam’s reign, appalling events occurred in Iraq, millions of innocent lives were lost. Saddam Hussein can without a doubt be dubbed a tyrant. Nevertheless, to conduct humanitarian intervention aimed at ending a tyranny is not the right approach and it implies that the point of conducting humanitarian intervention is missed. Given that, humanitarian intervention is a state providing assistance and protection to victims whose human rights are impaired. Ending a tyranny is a war of a completely different order and is not a humanitarian intervention. This argument rests on two claims: first, humanitarian intervention has a high threshold, implying that only in cases of an imminent and possible massacre it is justified to intervene; it seeks to pre-empt upcoming aggression. The norm of non-intervention should be valued in this respect. Secondly, in Tesón’s view ending a tyranny is equivalent to replacing it with a democratic regime. This is unacceptable as the focus of the intervention will be on establishing a democracy and not the humanitarian relief that is supposed to be the sole intention of the intervention.

To broaden the principle of humanitarian intervention to such an extent that ending tyranny is included, will inevitably lead to weakening of the position of humanitarian intervention. Lowering the threshold would allow for a series of interventions that could allege to be humanitarian; ending with a new era of imperialism, where the strong dominate the weak, in this case every non-democratic regime. If the Iraq war, which was aimed at overthrowing a tyrant, is concluded to be a humanitarian intervention, it will undermine the progress of the establishment of the current norm of humanitarian intervention. A norm much needed because the international community cannot be indifferent towards grave violations of the right to live.


  • Cushman, Thomas. 2005. The liberal-humanitarian case for war in Iraq. In A matter of principle: humanitarian arguments for war in Iraq, ed. Thomas Cushman, 1-26. Berkeley: University of California Press.
  • Evans, Gareth. 2004. When is it right to fight? Survival 46, no. 3: 59-82.
  • Nardin, Terry. 2005. Humanitarian imperialism: response to “ending tyranny in Iraq. Ethics and International Affairs 19, no. 2: 21-26.
  • Narveson, Jan. 2005. “Regime Change”: The Case of Iraq. In A matter of principle: humanitarian arguments for war in Iraq, ed. Thomas Cushman, 57-75. Berkeley: University of California Press.
  • Roth, Ken. 2004. “War in Iraq: not a humanitarian intervention” Human Rights Watch. http://www.hrw.org/legacy/wr2k4/3.htm#_Toc58744952 (20 March 2010).
  • Tesón, Fernando R. 2005. Humanitarian Intervention: An inquiry into law and morality, 3rd ed. Ardsley: Transnational Publishers.
  • Tesón, Fernando R. 2005. Ending tyranny in Iraq. Ethics and International Affairs 19, no. 2: 1-20.
  • Tesón, Fernando R. 2005. Of tyrants and empires: reply to Terry Nardin. Ethics and International Affairs 19, no. 2: 27-30.
  • Wheeler, Nicholas J. and Justin Morris. 2006. Justifying Iraq as a humanitarian intervention: the cure is worse than the disease. In The Iraq crisis and world order: structural, institutional and normative challenges, ed. Ramesh Thakur and Waheguru Pal Singh Sidhu, 444-463. Tokyo: United Nations University Press.


[1] Terry Nardin, “Humanitarian imperialism: response to ending tyranny in Iraq,” Ethics and International Affairs (2005, vol. 19, no. 2), 23-24.
[2] Jan Narveson, “Regime Change: The Case of Iraq,” in A matter of principle: humanitarian arguments for war in Iraq, ed. Thomas Cushman, (Berkeley: University of California Press 2005), 62-63.
[3] Fernando Tesón, Humanitarian intervention: An inquiry into law and morality, 3rd ed. (Ardsley: Transnational Publishers, 2005), 157-160.
[4] Fernando Tesón, “Of tyrants and empires: reply to Terry Nardin,” Ethics and International Affairs (2005, vol. 19, no. 2), 28.
[5] Fernando Tesón, “Ending tyranny in Iraq,” Ethics and International Affairs (2005, vol. 19, no. 2), 14.
[6] Tesón, Humanitarian intervention 395-396; Nicolas J. Wheeler and Justin Morris, “Justifying Iraq as a humanitarian intervention: the cure is worse than the disease,” in The Iraq crisis and world order: structural, institutional and normative challenges, ed. Ramesh Thakur and Waheguru Pal Singh Sidhu, (Tokyo: United Nations University Press, 2006), 456.
[7] Gareth Evans, “When is it right to fight?” Survival (2004, vol. 46, no. 3), 75-76.
[8] Tesón 2005, Humanitarian intervention, 150-151.
[9] Wheeler and Morris 2006, 445-447.
[10] Nardin 2005, 22-23.
[11] Tesón 2005, 28.
[12] Nardin 2005, 23-24.
[13] Thomas Cushman, “The liberal-humanitarian case for war in Iraq,” in A matter of principle: humanitarian arguments for war in Iraq, ed. Thomas Cushman, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005), 2. Cushman adds that the claim that the United States was toppling a tyrant, fails utterly seeing that they supported Saddam Hussein in his vicious war against Iran.
[14] Evans 2004, 67-71.
[15] Wheeler and Morris 2006, 455-456.
[16] Tesón 2005, Ending tyranny, 14-15.
[17] Wheeler and Morris 2006, 448-449.
[18] Tesón 2005, Ending tyranny, 15.
[19] Evans 2004, 77.
[20] Ken Roth, “War in Iraq: not a humanitarian intervention” Human Rights Watch. 2004. http://www.hrw.org/legacy/wr2k4/3.htm#_Toc58744952 (20 March 2010).
[21] Tesón 2005, Humanitarian Intervention, 157-160.
[22] Tesón 2005, Ending tyranny, 11-12.
[23] Narveson 2005, 63-65
[24] Nardin 2005, 21-23.
[25] Ibid 25.
[26] Wheeler and Morris 2006, 450-452.

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