There is no question that forceful humanitarian intervention violates state sovereignty. Debates on international law and philosophy focus on this problem. Do human rights inhere only in states, which reflect particular cultures, or are there universal rights that supersede the laws of states? Statists argue that human rights can only be guaranteed by the state, not by an international community. International law is between states, not individuals. If a state violates a people's rights or restricts their liberty, it is up to the people to make the necessary changes. Liberty, by its very nature, cannot be won by outsiders. Supporters of intervention argue that states which fail to protect citizens' rights forfeit their international rights. They point to the weakness of many oppressed peoples, who have no recourse to advance their own liberty without assistance. Moreover, some proponents of humanitarian intervention argue that not only does the international community have a right to intervene, but a duty to do so. The history of genocide in the twentieth century, from the massacres of Armenians to Jews to Cambodians, has impacted both interventionists and noninterventionists, with even many of the latter supporting intervention in the case of massacre or genocide. The problem is more complex when it is asked what rights so violate international norms that states should intervene. What if a state engages in torture or kills its opponents? Is one such death enough for intervention or thousands or more? If parts of the population are denied basic needs or rights like free speech and the right to organize, should other states intervene? Most interventionists argue for proportionality, the idea that the response of the international community should be proportional to the nature of the violations. This includes calculations of the damage to property and loss of life that will occur when force is applied as well as the extent of the violations.
While there has been much discussion on these points in recent years, the underlying tension between these positions has a long history. Statesmen like George Washington and John Quincy Adams warned of the dangers of intervention and advocated a position akin to the Puritans, that the republic of liberty should stand as a beacon, living by its example rather than seeking to mold other peoples. As the United States emerged as a world power in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, such a limited view became increasingly unpopular—but, ironically, largely because of a similar underlying premise, that the United States should use its power to advance human progress. In the late twentieth century, U.S. policy reflected ambivalence and competing perspectives. Confidence in American values and institutions and the seeming convergence of liberal values in the world seemed reason enough to assert American power to protect human rights. On the other hand, historical experience seemed to suggest that nation building was a complicated task and that well-intentioned intervention could lead to unhappy consequences. Another factor at century's end was that in many ways the United States not only led, but followed, as international nongovernmental human rights organizations and intergovernmental organizations like the United Nations also set agendas. In the 1990s Pope John Paul II and UN Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali both pressed for humanitarian intervention in certain cases as not merely a right, but a duty.
Humanitarian assistance (as opposed to intervention) is designed to relieve suffering and prevent imminent loss of life that results from natural or human-made disasters. Despite growing dissatisfaction with the limited scope of humanitarian relief, its short-term duration, and its inability to promote fundamental structural changes in societies, relief efforts will continue so long as humans respond as humans. The American-led international relief network reflects historic continuities. Despite institutionalization and pressures toward self-preservation and bureaucratization, U.S. nongovernmental institutions for humanitarian relief reflect diverse segments of American society, experience wide success at raising funds, and offer compassionate service to ameliorate human distress in crisis situations.