Is Humanitarian Intervention Justified?

In Part 1 of a fresh 2-part series, Sami Steinbock discusses a question currently more in the public sphere than for a long time.

In 1939, Adolf Hitler invaded Czechoslovakia. The invasion of Czechoslovakia was both justified and legitimized by Hitler under the pretext of humanitarian intervention.  However, the reality of this invasion was far from humanitarian. More recently, the same claims have been made against the United States of America (USA) and the United Kingdom (UK) with the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Any comparison between these two cases is of course extreme, but it goes some way illustrating the nature of the controversy surrounding humanitarian intervention, from the question of why governments have not intervened in Darfur, to the question on why the international community intervened so early in Sierra Leone. There are only a handful of countries who are explicitly against any sort of humanitarian intervention (for example Cuba, Iran, Venezuela, Zimbabwe and, to an extent, China). The ‘Responsibility To Protect’ doctrine must also be considered, and the potential implications for requiring humanitarian intervention.

Perhaps we need to start with s reasonably precise definition. According to Bellamy and Wheeler, “humanitarian intervention is military intervention that breaches the principle of state sovereignty”, but humanitarian interventiontank is not limited to only military intervention. Humanitarian intervention is the intervention within the internal affairs of another state for humanitarian purposes and therefore this action can be both through the use of force and / or non-violent. It is often used with military force as was seen in the recent ‘coalition’ intervention in 2011 in Libya or in Mali in 2013, but it can also be done through the donation of charity or the use of government aid to humanitarian causes. This can even be done in military cases such as the provisions of arms, technical know-how and communication equipment such as has been the case with the Free Syrian Army for, in return, a say in the eventual rebuilding of the infrastructure and reformation of the government within the country. The distinction often made between humanitarian intervention and general military intervention is that humanitarian intervention is motivated by humanitarian reasons and often not in response to any situations that may pose a direct threat to the intervening state or its immediate interests.

There is a need to make a distinction between lethal and non-lethal cases of humanitarian intervention. The mere threat of military force could also be counted as humanitarian intervention and can sometimes be as effective, although, in the globalised world that we live in, it is hard to tell what may or may not pose a direct threat to a state’s interests. Therefore, humanitarian intervention must be humanitarian in the nature of alleviating the human suffering within the nation where  the intervention is taking place. Of course, this measure is vague and it is a definition that can be stretched to suit the nation or nations intervening. The USA has been notorious for intervening in foreign countries’ affairs, often citing humanitarian reasons as the reason, so that the international world views it as legal when in reality it is neither humanitarian nor, arguably, legal. The same is said of the UK, with France in Africa, and with the European Union and Japan; rather than using force, using money and trade. In summary, humanitarian intervention is intervention within another state’s internal affairs, often through the use of violence, but not limited to that.

The principles of international law are humanitarian in nature; they seek to affirm the dignity of man and protect human life. To preserve those laws, action must be taken. Reisman argued, prior to the ending of the Cold War, that states should be intervening more often against states that commit genocide and mass murder: he cites the human rights principles in the UN Charter stating that the UNSC should take more action to protect human life. Legal justification, stating the protection of human life, was claimed by Britain, France and Russia during the intervention in Greece in 1827, and much the same was used by the USA during the intervention in Cuba in 1898. More recently, the same was claimed by France and Britain – talking of the principle of customary international law when intervening in Iraq in 1991 by creating safe havens.

There are counter-arguments, though, against the legality of intervention. The nation-state is sovereign within its ID-100134181boundaries; therefore another country supposedly does not have the right to cross those boundaries and impose its values and opinions on another. There is, though, the reality that states which have abdicated humanitarian protection of their own citizens can be argued to have lost the right to govern, and that international law is absolute in its desire to protect human life. Additionally, consent of the country may well be gained before deployment in certain cases of humanitarian intervention.

Another argument in favour of humanitarian intervention is related to the ongoing globalisation of world politics. In the globalised world in which we live, borders have become less important: someone who suffers from poverty or drought in Somalia could blow up a building in London as a result. Hoffman (2006) goes into much detail describing the evolution of international terrorism and the requirements to defeat the evolution of it, in both the present and future. Humanitarian intervention can therefore be a preventive measure to stop bad things happening, not only in the foreign country but also in the home country. There are problems, though, with this argument, namely that intervention costs money and lives, and often goes wrong. Intervening in Somalia to fix a humanitarian issue does not usually work if the problem is not clearly understood by those intervening, or if the citizens of the country do not wish international aid or presence. Parekh goes further, explaining that “citizens are the exclusive responsibility of their state, and their state is entirely their own business”, so that, therefore, there is no justification in risking your own citizens’ lives on behalf of those suffering abroad. This argument though is limited, as the short-term benefits of successful humanitarian intervention are often outweighed by the long-term costs due to non-intervention.

Humanitarian intervention has changed the fortunes of many countries drastically for the better, such as in Sierra Leone. Instances where it has gone wrong are cases of it not being done enough, or quickly enough, or not being executed properly. This surely is a reason to stop intervening badly, rather than to stop intervening at all. Although, cases such as Sierra Leone are anomaly successes, the track record has proven to be almost invariably disastrous with recent interventions, including Iraq, Afghanistan and Somalia amongst others, all going wrong. Unfortunately the chances of success are too low to be worth the risk. The reality though is that Iraq and Afghanistan were not humanitarian interventions, even if, since intervening, Afghanistan has become one. Humanitarian intervention as well does not have to be done with force, and there have been may successes where force, or rather violence, was not used.

In the second part of this series, I’ll go on to discuss in more detail effects of humanitarian intervention in specific cases 



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