Humanitarian Law

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By George Weigel

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This broad survey of the international scene, which has become traditional in the framework of our annual meeting, has above all highlighted the fact that the very heart of international life in not so much States as man. Here we take note of what is doubtless one of the more significant developments of the law of nations during the twentieth century. The emergence of the individual is the basis of what is called “humanitarian law.” There exist interests which transcend States: they are the interests of the human person, his rights. Today as in the past, despite the more or less compelling documents of international law, man and his needs unfortunately continue to be threatened, to such an extent that in recent months a new concept has emerged, that of “humanitarian intervention.”

This term says much about the precarious state of man and of the societies he has established. I myself have had occasion to speak on this subject of humanitarian assistance, during my visit to the headquarters of the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization on 5 December last. Once the possibilities afforded by diplomatic negotiations and the procedures provided for by international agreements and organizations have been put into effect, and yet, nevertheless, populations are succumbing to the attacks of an unjust aggressor. States no longer have a “right to indifference.” It seems clear that their duty is to disarm this aggressor, if all other means have proved ineffective. The principles of the sovereignty of States and of non-interference in their internal affairs—which retain all their value—cannot constitute a screen behind which torture and murder may be carried out. For this is what it means.

Jurists will still of course have to examine this new phenomenon and refine its contours. But, as the Holy See often seeks to remind the international bodies to which it belongs, the organization of society has no meaning unless the human dimension is made the principal concern, in a world made by man and for man.

George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and holds EPPC’s William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.