In support of the latest of Simon Jenkins's endless string of columns aimed against 'the interventionist agenda', one Dr John Doherty writes in the letters column of today's Guardian that he (Jenkins) 'could have quoted John Stuart Mill's words in On Liberty: "I am not aware that any community has a right to force another to be civilised."' Doherty's suggestion is vitiated by the fact that this is a rare case where the phrase 'taken out of context' applies. But he raises an interesting question all the same - which is: how far do the moral rights of a community extend vis-à-vis those of the individuals who make it up?
First, though, the point about context; the context, that is to say, of John Stuart Mill's argument in On Liberty. Dr Doherty omits to note that Mill's statement 'I am not aware that any community has a right to force another to be civilised' concerns an issue (see the final paragraph of chapter 4 here) where the putatively uncivilized practice in question is said by him to be a voluntary one, and is also subject to the proviso that there is 'perfect freedom of departure to those who are dissatisfied'. Moreover, Mill writes, immediately after the statement quoted by Dr Doherty:
So long as the sufferers by the bad law do not invoke assistance from other communities [my italics], I cannot admit that persons entirely unconnected with them ought to step in and require that a condition of things with which all who are directly interested appear to be satisfied, should be put an end to because it is a scandal to persons some thousands of miles distant, who have no part or concern in it.
This puts rather a different complexion on Mill's line of thought.
However, leaving Mill aside, it has become a principle of the global collectivity of nations, as embodied in many and widely ratified instruments, that the moral authority of any particular national community is not unlimited. Among the things it is limited by are the basic rights of individuals: their rights not to be treated in certain vicious ways. This does not mean that military intervention is always justified; it may be impractical, threaten to make things worse. But it does mean that national sovereignty can sometimes be overridden to prevent or punish the commission by governments of acts that are in breach of civilized norms. To this extent the international community and particular national communities acting in its name do claim a right of compulsion against delinquent regimes.