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  • Print publication year: 2008
  • Online publication date: June 2012

5 - Responding to Humanitarian Crises



Everyone agrees that the international community must develop better mechanisms for responding to humanitarian crises. The best mechanism for responding is simply to intervene to prevent a crisis from developing in the first place. However, because the principle of sovereignty imposes strict constraints on action across state borders, international actors are often unwilling or unable to interpose themselves until after conditions have escalated into a full-blown crisis, by which time it has usually become a matter of managing human misery rather than ending or averting it.

Respect for sovereignty is an organizing principle of the existing international legal system, and so abandoning it would fundamentally change how the units of international politics are constituted and relate to one another. The strongest argument against abandoning sovereignty is the potential for unintended consequences with respect to peace, political stability, and the effective protection and promotion of human rights. Sovereignty as we now know it is one of the few bulwarks in the international system against naked imperialism, and it plays an important role in regulating competition for influence among powerful states. There is a real worry that in developing principles that allow us to prevent massive suffering and need in one part of the world, we will produce equal or greater suffering elsewhere by facilitating imperial projects and destabilizing relations between competitors.

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