Simon Jenkins is right that “moral imperialism” has long been a motivating factor in military interventions by Britain and other western nations (The west’s nation-building fantasy is to blame for the mess in Afghanistan, 20 August). Afghanistan and Iraq are contemporary examples.
But concern about motive does not detract from the need to support and strengthen the international protection of human rights. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948 and the framework of international humanitarian law which followed it were endorsed by almost every nation. The absence of an international police force – a weakness in the structure – increases the need for individual states to share responsibility for enforcement, particularly of international criminal law. The development of a “responsibility to protect”, dismissed by Jenkins, gives legitimacy to necessary humanitarian intervention. Military action should be a last resort, but it cannot be ruled out of every situation where lives are at stake.
Jenkins’ cynicism towards collective action to defend the oppressed and the vulnerable, with military support where necessary, suggests an affinity with a dangerous isolationist tendency in current political thinking. When global warming and violent ideologies pose threats which can only be met by international collaboration, we need more support for the maintenance of universal values. The Jenkins recipe – “individual nations best serve humanity by example or charity” – is too little, too late.