A thief to catch thief: Reid-Henry explores in paper the tensions of humanitarian interventions perpetrated in the name of human rights

‘Protest in Minnesota, Minneapolis on April 2, 2011 against US military intervention in Libya’ by Fibonacci Blue under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

In paper entitled Genealogies of liberal violence: human rights, state violence, and the police and published at the Environment and Planning D: Society and Space  journal, PRIO and NCHS Senior Researcher Simon Reid-Henry presents a genealogical analysis of what is sometimes referred to as ‘humanitarian war’. He addresses the relationship between liberal state violence and the contemporary liberal will-to-care, contending that the notion of human rights has been increasingly regarded as an instrument of liberal police power. In this light, Reid-Henry discusses the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) doctrine in particular as one of the many instances when state military power is deployed in the name of humanity.

Human rights and state violence

In the article’s first part, more than simply declaring human rights to be human, Reid-Henry calls attention to the historical conflation of human rights with a politics of international security. According to the author, this reflects a form of legal and political discourse that, in many ways, underpins the expansion of a liberal international authority. It is mainly claimed how the global take-up of modern human rights went from being seen as a limit upon the state and its untrammeled sovereignty to becoming a vehicle of and for state power. Pointing at NATO’s intervention in Kosovo as the real turning point, Reid-Henry builds an argument that human rights create in advance the necessary conditions for the rollout of a distinctively muscular liberal political morality.

Humanitarian force

In the second part, the author explores how the military and human rights link come together in the R2P doctrine. Endorsed as an ’emerging norm’ of international practice by the UN and carrying the rationale that state-sovereignty should not be used as a shield in the face of mass atrocity crimes, it is however far from clear how individuals are necessarily protected through the machinations of these human rights, argues Reid-Henry. He further contends that, from enabling regime change to providing grounds for intervention rather than prevention, the human rights that sustain the R2P serve to consolidate Western new juridical-political realities. Hence, through human rights, “military and humanitarian reason seep together into the cracks and whorls of international law”. Reid-Henry thus suggests that human rights become a sort of thief to catch thief as they outlaw the political violence of some by replacing it with the ordering violence of others. Furthermore, they are often cast as legitimate irrespective of their consistency with international law and regardless of how much suffering it is produced. By exploring Focault’s concept of ‘police’, it is argued that military humanitarian interventions today, such as those sustained by the R2P, renders a sort of international police power to those sponsoring them and promises the return of ‘lost souls’ to a liberal international order.

Concluding remarks

Conclusively, based on Mason and Wheeler (1996), the author asserts that there are no humanitarian interventions that are not also something else. Accordingly, human rights have become part of a form of international politics that advances through the normative role of the law in search of citizens and states conducive to liberal ends and, hence, aimed at sustaining and ordering a system marked by commitment to these ends (including, for instance, those of capitalist profitability).

Reid-Henry’s full article can be found here. The reading provides insightful views into international norms linked to humanitarian interventions and protection of human rights and can be of particular relevance to students, scholars and others interested on the topic.