On the Concept of Humanitarian Intervention

Essays | Shahana Bilalova | 24-01-2017, 10:20

On the Concept of Humanitarian InterventionToday, the Syrian events with their casualties instigate a thorny debate over the necessity of humanitarian military intervention by the global community as well as the problems brought about by the similar moves in the past. While some academicians support the concept of humanitarian intervention mostly on moral and ethical grounds, others view this notion problematic in many aspects. Throughout the paper, various problems of humanitarian intervention will be analyzed, arguments for and against being weighed and compared.

First and foremost, it is quintessential to point out to the first problem with humanitarian intervention when the two main principles of international law, which are the concepts of sovereignty and responsibility to protect, clash. It is crystal clear that most of the states highlight casualties and pressing human rights issues when they try to use the right to protect by totally ignoring another significant principle, the state sovereignty. According to the UN Charter’s Article 2(7), United Nations’ intervention into domestic matters of another country is contained and not allowed. However, Evans (2006) mentions that during the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS) meeting, it was agreed by the UN member states that state sovereignty is linked to individual sovereignty and in the case of a state’s failure to meet its obligations to the citizens, international parties have a right to intervene and protect the victims primarily through the UN channels by taking special measures, which is most of the time interpreted as military intervention (p.709). Consequently, the Westphalian supremacy of the state sovereignty was undermined by the concept of responsibility to protect and humanitarian intervention. Ayoob (2011) adds to this point that both Kofi Annan and his successor during their turns as UN Secretary-Generals many times claimed the sovereignty not to be exclusive and supreme, and moreover justified the idea that in some cases sovereignty can be ignored (p.83). So, we can conclude that it gives a chance to many states to misuse the right to protect by ignoring the right of state sovereignty, putting this very notion in danger.

The second essential problem with humanitarian intervention is the debate over the moral intention of humanitarian intervention since it is undeniable that state interest is the major factor in decision-making. Ayoob (2002) in his paper “Humanitarian Intervention and State Sovereignty” makes a point that while states taking decisions on the international arena, especially when military usage is demanded, act according to their national interest rather than common altruistic motives and ethical reasons (p.85). Despite the fact that these decisions affect the international community, states cannot ignore their national interest during this process. Even most of the time, they try to achieve more advantages through negotiations and compromising with other member states even if this may cause humanitarian causalities. For instance, Ayoob (2011) mentions divides in the Security Council about Rwanda, Haiti and Georgia due to France, the U.S., and Russia respectively which shed light on the fact that states bargain over the votes for theintervention of them in return for support to favourite action of other party (p.87). This once more demonstrated that material interest rather than moral ground is more valuable to the member states of Security Council while deciding on humanitarian intervention.

Ayoob further adds that even if the state acts merely on ethical and moral grounds without any material interest, and if during the intervention, they encounter human and material costs, they will face harsh public opposition (p.85). This reason always makes states think twice before interfering. There are mainly two factors that are in the interest of their nationals which should be preserved by the state to prevent a further escalation of opposition at the domestic level. Firstly, most of the states try to prevent human costs since they are afraid of the chaos within the state. Massive opposition movement by the U.S. citizens against the failed intervention to Vietnam canbe a good example for that. An intervention also necessarily demands a huge amount of money from the state budget. Valentino (2011) states in his article “The true Costs of Humanitarian Intervention” that during the Libya operation, the U.S. fired more than 220 Tomahawk missiles worth about 1.4 million dollars, whereas in the case of Somalia, the U.S. spent approximately 7 billion dollars in total (pp.66-67). If the cost of an intervention is not justifiable among nationals, people will likely feel hostile to this policy. As a result, due to these two factors, states try to abstain from interventions which promise little or no benefit for them.

It is also essential to mention how state interest conflicts with the two criteria of humanitarian intervention which are a just cause and a right intention. Massingham (2009) asserts in her article “Military Intervention for Humanitarian Purposes” that six major criteria should be satisfied to make a case for an intervention: just cause, right authority, right intention, last resort, proportional means, and reasonable prospects. It is obvious that from the definition provided, just cause which is the seriousness of harm to people and right intention, which is the aim to end human suffering seem to be outweighed by the concept of state interest. The best examples in this regard could be Kosovo and Rwanda. Kuperus (1999) states in “Kosovo and Rwanda” that in 1994 during the Rwanda massive killing, about 800,000 Tutsis, as well as a great number of Hutus, were slaughtered, while many people became displaced due to the conflict which was similar to the Kosovo case’s outcome; still, the UN intervened to Kosovo and left Rwanda to its own fate. Kuperus (1999) argues that although the main reason for this inaction was shown to be the unsuccessful outcomes of the Somalia operation in 1992-1993. The underlying reason was the fact that Rwanda was not considered priority by the U.S., lacking any direct security interest in this region. This case demonstrates that state interest was the determining factor, while just cause and right intention were ignored during decision-making process. Additionally, these are the great cases to study the phenomenon of “double standards”, or a selective approach in humanitarian intervention, when states choose where to intervene according to their own interests. This concept is a huge obstacle against the idea of just cause as well as right intention since not moral ground but state interest is the driving factor in this process.

The third problematic factor of humanitarian intervention is the usage of the militarymeans during the intervention. Evans (2006) in his article “From Humanitarian Intervention to R2P” states that the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS) added three main obligations into humanitarian intervention which are responsibility to protect, responsibility to react, and responsibility to rebuild aftermath (p.709). Evans (2006) further elaborates that main inconsistency always arises due to the last two factors in the process of implementation since these two concepts demand military intervention of the third parties (p.709). To forestall a humanitarian catastrophe, states usually take non-military measures such as sanctions and negotiations as the first step. Following this, if the state fails to prevent violence through non-militaristic ways, military deployment in order to react to the chaos and rebuild the intervened state is needed which cause problems within the humanitarian intervention.

Initially granted, military intervention profoundly affects civilians on the ground causing deaths of innocent people and paves the way for massive conflicts between two opposite poles in the conflict zone. Valentino (2011) states that during the U.S. intervention into Somalia in 1993, over 500 Somalians were killed in the Black Hawk down operation, while more than 1500 people died throughout the whole mission (p.64). Controlling an air assault is necessarily a more difficult task since focusing on the enemy and differentiating it from civilians are not that easy so it poses a huge threat to the general population. It might be perfectly applied to the Kosovo case where Valentino (2011) claims that the NATO airstrike took lives of 500 civilians, while fifteen civilians were killed during the NATO’s bombing of the Serbian television channel (p.64). Another consequence might be further conflicts which may ensue from military support to one group and the other feeling discriminated. As Valentino states, while helping one group through military aid might make the situation worse by making one party more superior than another one (p.63). The NATO helped Kosovo defeat Serbians in 1999. But after the NATO left, the Kosovo Liberation Army slaughtered many innocent Serbian civilians (p.63). These events that occurred in the past perfectly prove that while the main goal is protecting suffering civilians, more people can lose their lives owing to the utilization of and supporting with weapons and other military means. Overall, all claims made are the negative consequences of military usage in the process of humanitarian intervention.

Coming to the final problem, there is a huge debate over the effectiveness of humanitarian intervention as well as the “responsibility to rebuild” concept. According to “Problems and Prospects for Humanitarian Intervention” (2000) the main focus by member states of the UN should be on smooth transition which could be attained by building a new civil administration within the damaged state and the peace-keeping process should be observed closely (p.2).  However, recent history shows that almost in all cases except for Haiti and East Timor intervening parties failed to restore their stability as allegedly wrong mechanisms were applied and miscalculations. For instance, the Libya case might be a great example to support this idea. Adams (2012) in “Libya and Responsibility to Protect” states that following the intervention, the infrastructure and political system that had been established through forty-two years almost disappeared and the aims of tribal divisions and existing regional interests went against the National Transitional Council’s efforts to rebuild the country in Libya (p.13). The Libya case once more demonstrated that states both of the time do not come up with the long-term solution rather are interested in the first time which is intervention.

In terms of effectiveness, if the intervening state fails to rebuild, two consequences might be duly expected. First of all, ineffectiveness is dangerous since as a result of this, the state might provoke hatred rather than appreciation, which is a further threat to national security as well as international reputation. According to Valentino, (2011), the American position mainly hinges on its relationship with two powers, namely Russia and China, however due to its failed intervention in Bosnia and Kosovo, the relations with these two states were shaken due to the Chinese Embassy bombing in Belgrade and the Kosovo case for Russia (p.66). It can also be mentioned that today, especially in the Middle East, there is a huge hatred and anti-American mass emerged in reaction to failed action enterprises of the U.S. which also affects American reputation globally. Furthermore, if appropriate steps after intervention are not taken, unstable states represent huge threats towards the global community, providing safe heaven for terrorist groups or genocidal policies. Fragile or failed states create a great environment for the emergence of terrorist groups and another militant activist which put the global arena in threat.  From this point of view, nowadays one of the biggest threats to the political sphere, the ISIS became much stronger due to the instability of neighbouring countries in the region.

In conclusion, I could state that humanitarian intervention has more negative effects than positive sides if we look at the current situation and chaos happening in the MENA region. This is mainly due to the fundamental problems mentioned above. As a consequence, outcomes of failed humanitarian interventions might be observed all around the world, especially in MENA region which is still on headlines. Furthermore, many people are displaced and still suffer from the instability in their countries because of wrong attempts. In my opinion, humanitarian intervention through military and regime change is not an answer to the problems happening around us, since causes more dangerous results. In order to sustain peace and stability, state sovereignty should be respected and only in the cases of state failure to respond, humanitarian intervention should be utilized.



1. Adams, S (2012). Libya and the Responsibility to Protect. Retrieved from http://www.globalr2p.org/media/files/libyaandr2poccasionalpaper-1.pdf

2. Ayoob, M (2002). Humanitarian Intervention and State Sovereignty. International Journal of Human Rights. p.81-102. Retrieved from http://kirstenjfisher.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/12/Ayoob-Humanitarian-Intervention-and-State-Sovereignty.pdf

3. Evans, G (2006). From Humanitarian Intervention to the Responsibility to Protect. p.703-722. Retrieved from http://hosted.law.wisc.edu/wordpress/wilj/files/2012/02/evans.pdf

4. Kuperus, T (1999). Kosovo and Rwanda: Selective Interventionism? Public Justice Report. Retrieved from https://www.cpjustice.org/public/page/content/kosovo_and_rwanda

5. Massingham, E (2009). Military intervention for humanitarian purposes: does the Responsibility to Protect doctrine advance the legality of the use of force for humanitarian ends? p.803-831. Retrieved from https://www.icrc.org/eng/assets/files/other/irrc-876-massingham.pdf

6. Problems and Prospects for Humanitarian Intervention (2002). Policy Bulletin. Retrieved from http://www.stanleyfoundation.org/publications/archive/UNND00pb.pdf

7. Valentino, A. B. (2006). The True Costs of Humanitarian Intervention: The Hard Truth about a Noble Notion. Foreign Affairs. p.60-73. Retrieved from https://www.dartmouth.edu/~benv/files/Valentino%20-%20True%20Costs%20of%20Humanitarian%20Intervention.pdf


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Shahana Bilalova

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