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Senator McCain and Senator Obama on humanitarian intervention

With hardly one month until the 2008 presidential election in the US, yesterday’s second debate between Senator McCain and Senator Obama was a rather unspectacular event, at least from a substantive political point of view. There was little the average follower of the presidential election hadn’t heard already. However, from the perspective of international law there was one part where the candidates did give us something to think about. It was the moderator’s question regarding the possible future “Obama doctrine” and “McCain Doctrine” meaning the use of “United States combat forces in situations where there’s a humanitarian crisis, but it does not affect our national security”. Now, obviously, after Governor Palin had some difficulty in a recent interview with ABC News anchor Charles Gibson in answering a question regarding the “Bush doctrine” (a term under which a variety of different perceptions may be subsumed, such as unilateralism, attacking countries that harbor terrorists, preventive strikes and democratic regime change) it seemed as if both candidates where somewhat anticipating a similar question. Considering the moderator’s clarifying remarks where he highlighted the situations in the Congo (“… where 4.5 million people have died since 1998…”), Rwanda (“… in the earlier dreadful days …”) and Somalia, and where he put an emphasis on situations where the US doesn’t have “national security issues at stake” what he was obviously referring to was the question of humanitarian intervention. This is something different than what the Bush doctrine, which usually seems to center around some sort of national security interest, is about. At least to my knowledge, the Bush doctrine has never been about what is regularly subsumed under the notion of humanitarian intervention (for more on the Bush doctrine, see the post “What Is – Was – the Bush Doctrine?” on Opinio Juris).

The answers Senator Obama and Senator McCain gave were quite similar, at least in essence (a transcript of the entire debate can be found here): both were fundamentally in support of intervening where there was felt a moral obligation to do so. According to Senator Obama the US “may not always have national security issues at stake, but [the US has] moral issues at stake.” He further stated:

So when genocide is happening, when ethnic cleansing is happening somewhere around the world and we stand idly by, that diminishes us. And so I do believe that we have to consider it as part of our interests, our national interests, in intervening where possible. 

Senator McCain also supported intervening in cases where there was felt a moral obligation.

And we must do whatever we can to prevent genocide, whatever we can to prevent these terrible calamities that we have said never again.

The two candidates’ approach is certainly not new and revolutionary but is nevertheless encouraging from the perspective of human rights protection, which in some cases is relying on the commitment of powerful States that have the resources and influence to actually make a difference. The only variation in the two candidates’ approaches seemed to be that Senator Obama was a bit more willing to commit to concrete measures (“providing logistical support, setting up a no-fly zone” in Darfur) whereas Senator McCain was slightly more cautious and pointed out that any decision to intervene “has to be tempered with our ability to beneficially affect the situation”. I guess one can safely say that none of the candidates would go down in history as a president that revolutionized the concept of humanitarian intervention by forcefully pushing for military intervention where gross and systematic violations of human rights occur; although both would probably turn out to be strong supporters of the idea.

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