International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to navigation Jump to search

The International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS) was an ad hoc commission of participants which in 2001 worked to popularize the concept of humanitarian intervention under the name of "Responsibility to protect".

The Commission was instigated by Lloyd Axworthy and the Government of Canada in September 2000 and co-chaired by Gareth Evans and Mohamed Sahnoun under the authority of the Canadian Government and consisted of members from the UN General Assembly. The purpose of the Committee was to arrive at an answer to the question posed by Kofi Annan: "if humanitarian intervention is, indeed, an unacceptable assault on sovereignty, how should we respond to a Rwanda, to a Srebrenica - to gross and systematic violations of human rights that affect every precept of our common humanity?" The question summarises the ongoing debate between those who value the norm of humanitarian intervention above state sovereignty and vice versa.

A state's sovereignty is also under question, in terms of legitimacy. Sovereignty is dependent upon the state's responsibility to its people; if not fulfilled, then the contract between the government and its citizen is void, thus the sovereignty is not legitimate.

Research conducted by the ICISS culminated in the ICISS Report,[1] which included recommendations to the international community on the normative debate of humanitarian intervention versus state sovereignty. The report, although long, fails to address many key issues that plague this debate. The report added to the existing confusion and several key recommendations are of legal concern.

For instance, Sections 4.18-4.21 of the Report show an eagerness to approach the issue of what scale of atrocity necessitates humanitarian intervention. However. the researchers shied away from committing to any concrete definition, with the impetus of the Commission showing through in Section 4.21 of their report:

In both the broad conditions we identified - loss of life and ethnic cleansing - we have described the action in question as needing to be "large scale" in order to justify military intervention. We make no attempt to quantify "large scale": opinions may differ in some marginal cases (for example, where a number of small scale incidents may build cumulatively into large scale atrocity), but most will not in practice generate major disagreement. What we do make clear, however, is that military action can be legitimate as an anticipatory measure in response to clear evidence of likely large scale killing. Without this possibility of anticipatory action, the international community would be placed in the morally untenable position of being required to wait until genocide begins, before being able to take action to stop it.

While the notion of preemptive defense can be supported by an individual state's foreign policy, it is not supported by international humanitarian law nor the UN Charter.[2] Exacting military intervention on the basis of evidence of a "likely 'large scale' killing" in which large scale is not defined) presents a problem if intent does not follow through with action. One may argue that the genocide (or similar atrocity) did not eventuate because of the military intervention; however, the genocide may have also not eventuated because of natural inaction or reduced support.

In 2003, two years after the ICISS Report was released, foreign policy action taken by the United States government against Iraq reflected the Report's theme of "just cause" for preemptive humanitarian intervention. President George W. Bush said:

The people of the United States and our friends and allies will not live at the mercy of an outlaw regime that threatens the peace with weapons of mass murder. We will meet that threat now, with our Army, Air Force, Navy, Coast Guard and Marines, so that we do not have to meet it later with armies of fire fighters and police and doctors on the streets of our cities.[3]

One of the aims of the Commission was to direct attention towards the needs of people affected by humanitarian disasters; and subsequently away from questions of whether respect for sovereignty is more important than a moral responsibility to intervene. The Commission stressed stronger reliance upon NGOs, such as the International Committee of the Red Cross, to help prevent humanitarian crisis through assistance.

Critics of the ICISS Report additionally highlight that ignoring governments that have been weakened by conflict or other disaster is only likely to increase the risk of crises. Political humanitarian crises, such as those exhibited in Rwanda, occur when civil society cannot properly function or repair itself if the government is unable to address key security issues.[4]


Gareth Evans (Australia) Mohamed Sahnoun (Algeria) Gisèle Côté-Harper (Canada) Lee Hamilton (United States) Michael Ignatieff (Canada) Vladimir Lukin (Russia) Klaus Naumann (Germany) Cyril Ramaphosa (South Africa) Fidel V. Ramos (Philippines) Cornelio Sommaruga (Switzerland) Eduardo Stein Barillas (Guatemala) Ramesh Thakur (India)

According to the Commission's website:

On release of its report in December 2001, the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS) completed its mandate. As such, there is no longer a direct point of contact for the Commission.
The Government of Canada continues to lead follow up efforts on the findings of the commission.

External links[edit]


  1. ^ Archived from the original on July 31, 2007. Retrieved February 29, 2008. Missing or empty |title= (help)
  2. ^ [1] Macrae, J & Harmer, A (eds.) 2003, "Humanitarian Action and the 'Global War on Terror': A Review of Trends and Issues", HPG Report 14
  3. ^ President Bush Addresses the Nation (March 19, 2003)
  4. ^ Weiss, Thomas 2004, 'The Sunset of Humanitarian Intervention: The Responsibility to Protect in a Unipolar Era', Security Dialogue, vol. 35, iss. 2.