Repressive governments have long used the mantle of sovereignty to prevent life-saving assistance from reaching citizens ravaged by armed conflict, famine, and human rights violations within their own countries. Trapped inside sovereign borders, these victims remain vulnerable to the very regimes responsible for their plight. The international community finds it difficult to provide aid and protection when governments deny access to relief efforts, or where, as in Somalia, no functioning government exists.
Principles of sovereignty as set forth in the Charter of the United Nations protect states from outside interference, posing a formidable obstacle to humanitarian intervention. The Charter prohibits intervention in a state's domestic affairs, forbids the use of force by one state against another, and allows U.N.-sanctioned force only in instances where the Security Council determines there is a threat to international peace and security.
The citadel of sovereignty, however, is beginning to crack. Human rights law has begun to make governments accountable to citizens and has made the rights of individuals a legitimate subject of international attention. Recent U.N. Security Council resolutions recognize the need to override recalcitrant governments when armed conflict, massive human rights abuses, displacement, and starvation place countless lives at risk.
Respect for sovereignty must yield to concern for human rights. Linking massive human rights abuses and other large-scale tragedies to threats to international peace and security currently provides the only legal vehicle for overcoming sovereignty in order to authorize collective humanitarian intervention under the U.N. Charter. Sole reliance on this linkage, however, raises practical and ethical concerns.