When, If Ever, Is Humanitarian Intervention Justified?

In Part 2 of his latest 2-part series, Sami Steinbock discusses in more detail effects of humanitarian intervention in specific cases

There are sometimes reckoned to be five criteria that, if achieved, mean humanitarian intervention is justified: these are similar to those set out by the ICISS Report in 2001 when dealing with the ‘Responsibility to Protect’ doctrine. The threat or harm carried out to the human population of the nation must be sufficiently clear and serious to justify the use of military force, so therefore there must be a seriousness of threat. The purpose of the intervention should be clear, so therefore it is important to know what threat is being dealt with, and that there are no other purposes or ulterior motives for the intervention. The humanitarian intervention, in order to be justified, must be used as a last resort.

Non-military options must be explored and there must be justification for having to resort to military action (which echoes international law on military force in general). Only if it is believed that lesser measures will not work then eventual military intervention is justified. The intervention should be done by proportional means and therefore the scale of force, duration of action, and intensity of it so that it is the minimum necessary to deal with the threat in question. Most importantly to many scholars and in cohesion with the ‘just war’ theory it must be clear that there is a reasonable chance that military action will be successful: by this it must be clear that the consequence of doing nothing or rather inaction is greater than the consequence of intervention and action.

Since the end of the Cold War, there have been 13 cases of military humanitarian intervention, including the most recent incidents in Libya and Mali. The NATO mission in Yugoslavia (Kosovo) was considered a success, but the same procedures, except the ‘boots on the ground’, were used in the intervention within Afghanistan and there is little argument that the intervention within Afghanistan was in the slightest way successful.

Much the same argument goes with official UN missions. There was success in Libya, although in East Timor success was limited, and in the Democratic Republic of Congo the war has lasted 25 years and more lives have been claimed than in any war since World War Two. Furthermore, the lack of action by the UN in Rwanda in 1994, and more recently in Darfur, have been heavily criticised.

In terms of non-violent intervention, there is the same controversy but on a more subtle level. The Bill Gates Foundation donated $1.3bn in 2012 to fight AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria amongst other things. If this donation in fighting these diseases in Africa is a success then there is no doubt his humanitarian intervention will be described as justified and successful. Yet on the other hand, if the results provide nothing and the benefits are not seen, people will be questioning how much better off the $1.3bn would have been spent elsewhere.

At the same time there are organisations such as the Catholic Church. Catholic Relief Services, representing the Church within the USA, distribute funds throughout the world for humanitarian causes. Many of these causes it funds are undoubtedly a success, and therefore justified, with their response to the Haiti Earthquake in 2010 being one of those. There has though been controversy across Africa and South America in their campaign against the use of condoms, instead they fight for abstinence. In fighting against condoms, even though the message is pro-abstinence they still fight against the general spread of condoms at the same time, therefore damaging the campaign for the prevention the spread of AIDS. This is because condoms are seen as the true devil here, as the message is twisted and abstinence is not adhered.

The UN meanwhile does great work around the world providing humanitarian relief: an example is managing displaced PEast_timor_independence_un2alestinian refugees or providing earthquake relief, all being justified and often successful. Yet in October 2010, a hurricane hit Haiti before going on to the East Coast of the USA. Along with it came the death of 54 people in Haiti and tens of thousands of people left homeless: the UN sent relief workers from South Asia and they brought with them cholera – a disease Haiti had not seen in over a century. Since then more than 500,000 people have been infected by this disease with the death toll by the end of December 2011 being 7,000 deaths – more than the earthquake caused in the first place. This is an example of humanitarian intervention that is non-violent being far from being executed properly. Yet, had it been a success and thereby executed properly, it would have been justified. As is evident from here with both violent and non-violent cases there is no simple criteria that can judge justification, it is rather the success after that will measure whether it is considered justified or not.

In conclusion, as was proven from the onset, humanitarian intervention when executed properly is justified. It is only justified, though, when the criteria are met and if it is humanitarian in nature. In reality though, only afterwards can it be seen whether the intervention was justified, due to it depending mainly on success.

There were five criteria that were set up that would justify intervention. The threat being serious enough, a clear purpose of the reason for intervention, military action only as a last resort, intervention must be the minimum necessary and there must be a reasonable chance of success. All of these criteria lead to intervention being justified from the onset. Afterwards though, it will only be considered justified if the intervention was successful. If it is not successful, then it will not be considered justified. For this reason humanitarian intervention although justified, and justified when reaching the five criteria that were made clear, it is only in reality justified if the intervention was successful.


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