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The Defence of Humanity and the Defence of Sovereignty: Which Should Prevail When They Conflict?

“Few would disagree that both the defence of humanity and the defence of sovereignty are principles that must be supported. Alas that does not tell us which principle should prevail when they are in conflict.” This statement made by Kofi Annan as Secretary General of the United Nations in the aftermath of Kosovo (1999) provides a platform to consider which principle prevails in the international arena: the principle of sovereignty or the doctrine of humanitarian intervention. In so far as the principle of sovereignty remains enshrined by Article 2(4) of the UN Charter and provides the impetus for the law against war, it will continue to prevail. State sovereignty is maintained in practice by the principle of non-intervention. The importance accorded to this, diminishes the possibility for a unilateral right of humanitarian intervention across state borders to come to fruition. This article seeks to extend the widely debated issue of which principle prevails, by considering whether the dominancy of state sovereignty can be reconciled with the concept of global justice. In the light of humanitarian crises such as Kosovo (1999), some attempts were made through the Responsibility to Protect doctrine to re-adjust the balance, with a re-interpretation of state sovereignty. Ultimately, more must be done to ensure the doctrine of humanitarian intervention resonates with modern sentiment towards human rights protection, as opposed to being overshadowed by the more historical factor of state sovereignty.

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