The Politics of Humanitarian Intervention


Humanitarian intervention in international law refers to the threat or use of force by the state, a group of states or an international organisation primarily for the purpose of protecting the citizens of a particular state from widespread violations of internationally recognised human rights, including genocide and crimes against humanity.

The term “humanitarian intervention” was coined by William Edward Hall, a British jurist, in 1880. Some other terms, such as“intervention in the general interests of humanity” or “intervention for humanity”, which are similar to the French term intervention d’humanite, intervention on the ground of humanity or intervention on behalf of the interests of humanity, bear the same meaning. Heraclides and Dialla identified four components, namely, humanity, impartiality, independence, and neutrality for human intervention, which are commonly referred to as humanitarian principles.

The United Nations (UN) General Assembly has also recognised and adopted these principles as the main guidelines for international humanitarian action under the UN. The phrase “principles guiding humanitarian action” is used to refer to both fundamental as well as humanitarian principles. The aim of humanitarian intervention in the form of military intervention is to save scores of innocent people in other countries from massive human rights’ violations (primarily the right to life). It entered into public consciousness only around 1990. Humanitarian intervention came into the limelight not because of its general acceptance but because of its controversial character, which has ignited fierce debates around the world.

The question of intervention for protecting humanity poses agonising dilemmas.

In most of the cases where intervening states engaged in humanitarian intervention, the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) stands paralysed; there occurs an impasse between the sanctity of life (saving human beings) and the veneration of sovereignty and independence, and intervening states are accused of indulging in a gross abuse of power in the name of humanitarianism. Most liberals prefer intervention, exceptionally, even without UN authorisation, given that the intervention has gained wide international legitimacy, and the plight of the people in the affected country is so appalling that global humanity is at stake. Most realists discard ethics in foreign affairs and believe that threats to vital interests are worthy of intervention, and call intervention only for humanitarian reasons a delusion or as bogus.

It is important to bear in mind that many states have employed humanitarian intervention as a tool for economic as well as political benefits. Humanitarian intervention has thus been regarded as the “duty to react”, a component of the wider “responsibility to protect” doctrine.

The issues relating to when and how to intervene militarily in order to stop mass atrocities remain quite popular. Reconceptualising sovereignty as responsibility has a threefold significance: first, it suggests that the state authorities have the responsibility of safeguarding the lives of citizens and promotion of their welfare; second, that the national political authorities are directly responsible to their citizens and to the international community through the UN; and third, that the state’s agents are responsible for their actions. Therefore, according to the responsibility to protect doctrine, the primary responsibility for protecting populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing, and crimes against humanity rests only with individual states. In case of their failure, the responsibility passes over to the international community.

Sovereignty stands for humanity and serves human ends, and States intervening in another state on grounds of humanitarian intervention should not be allowed to shield themselves behind the sovereignty principle. Tyranny and anarchy lead to the severe moral collapse of sovereignty. As in all moral matters, we have competing reasons of various kinds to guide behaviour. Sometimes, humanitarian intervention in a state is wrong despite the fact that the government of that state is itself guilty of serious human rights’ violations. Thus, we cannot always remedy the wrong even if it seems right for us to do so. On some occasions, intervention becomes heavily costly for the intervenor. And on many occasions, remedying a wrong means harming persons in unethical ways; i.e. in ways and to an extent that would be at least as morally unacceptable as the wrongs we are intending to remedy.

It can be claimed that humanitarian intervention is usually understood as a post-Cold War phenomenon. It is military intervention which serves strategic ends. But it is framed in such a way that it is usually considered to be carried out in pursuit of humanitarian ends. Moreover, it flourished in the 1990s as a result of the liberal notion of a “new world order”.

Nevertheless, after the US military campaigns in Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003, serious concerns and doubts have been expressed regarding the benefits and motives of humanitarian interventions.

The question of humanitarian intervention is indeed one of the most fiercely disputed issues in global politics. Proponents of humanitarian intervention find it to be based on new and moralyl enlightened cosmopolitan sensibilities stressing that in a world characterised by growing interconnectedness or interdependence, humanitarian intervention is justified in order to facilitate the development of a rule-bound global order with roots in shared values, i.e. peace, democracy, and human rights.

While opponents decry it as being deeply misguided and morally unacceptable, not only because it is often undertaken on the basis of particular geopolitical reasons, i.e. selectivity and double standards, but also because it is based on Western notions, namely, democracy and human rights, as well as a simplistic “good vs. evil” understanding of conflicts and global developments.

The concept of responsibility to protect has given a moral dimension to humanitarian intervention, but the international community still faces many legal and political challenges while handling the humanitarian crisis. This happens because of multiple conflicts, i.e. conflicts in concept, conflicts in legal regulation, and conflicts in the legitimacy of humanitarian intervention involved.

Humanitarian intervention since the end of the Cold War has had devastating results for the countries affected. The main reason lies in the fact that the idea of humanitarian intervention is incompatible with the existing international order. However, the international community, which justifies humanitarian intervention on grounds of morality which is completely unrealistic and nothing more than a myth, seems to be convinced that the idea is both desirable and feasible despite its contradiction with the existing international system.

Apart from a fundamental transformation of the international order, the problem of alienation cannot be totally solved. But normalisation, institutionalisation, and legalisation of the concept can help find a solution to the problem of alienation.


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