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Ten surprising facts about humanitarian intervention

After the end of the Cold War, humanitarian intervention – the use of military force to protect populations from humanitarian emergencies without the consent of the host state – emerged as one of the hottest topics of international relations.

As is usually the case in world politics, the actual practice of humanitarian intervention is more complex, than we might think. Sometimes, states traditionally thought to oppose intervention might support it, as with Pakistan over Bosnia and China over Somalia. The reverse is also sometimes true – in 2011 Germany opted not to vote in favour of NATO-led intervention in Libya, whilst decades earlier, Norway – a well known champion of humanitarianism – condemned Vietnam for its intervention which ended a genocide in Cambodia that had accounted for a quarter of that country’s population.

So, when we think about humanitarian intervention we need to be especially mindful of its ever-complex politics. These ten surprising facts might help.

1. Humanitarian intervention has a long history in both thought and practice. The question of whether it is legitimate to wage war to protect people in other countries from tyranny has a long history. The earliest Just War thinkers, St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas, argued that ending tyranny in other countries was a just cause for war. In the nineteenth century, European powers intervened in Greece to end Ottoman atrocities there.

2. Humanitarian intervention remains rare. We talk about humanitarian intervention much more frequently than we practice it. It is much more common for humanitarian emergencies to end because those that caused it achieved what they wanted (think of the decline of violence in Darfur after 2005 or the end of the Sri Lankan civil war in 2009), were defeated militarily by local actors (think of the end of the Rwandan genocide), or were deposed/persuaded to change course by internal dissent.

3. Not until 2011 did the UN Security Council authorize the use of force against a recognized government for humanitarian purposes. The UN Security Council is mandated by the UN Charter to authorize the use of force to maintain international peace and security. In the early 1990s, the Council identified a range of humanitarian issues as threats to the peace, but stopped short of authorizing force unless the recognized government granted consent (as in the cases of Haiti and Rwanda in 1994), or it judged that there was no government (as in Somalia). In other cases, the Council refused to authorize intervention because the relevant government was opposed to it (Kosovo), or insisted that it would only authorize intervention once consent was granted (as in the case of East Timor).

When we think about humanitarian intervention we need to be especially mindful of its ever-complex politics. 

4. Humanitarian intervention is as likely to be conducted by non-Western states as it is by Western states. There is a widespread view – that humanitarian intervention is an action that Western countries carry out on non-Western, or post-colonial, countries. However, this is not the case for two reasons. Firstly, since the Second World War, as many humanitarian interventions have been conducted by non-Western countries than by those in the West. These include India’s intervention in Bangladesh, Vietnam’s intervention in Cambodia, Tanzania’s intervention in Uganda, and the ECOWAS interventions in Liberia and Sierra Leone. The US-led intervention in Somalia comprised a significant non-Western element acting under UN-command, and the NATO-led intervention in Libya in 2011 included states such as Jordan, Lebanon, and Qatar. Secondly, Western interventions have tended to focus on states in, or near, the West itself – for example Kosovo, Bosnia and Libya.

5. The African Union was the first international organization to codify a right of humanitarian intervention. And it remains the only organization in the world to do so. Article 4(h) of the African Union’s Constitutive Act gives the organization a right to intervene in the domestic affairs of its member states in situations involving genocide or mass atrocities. This right has not yet been exercised.

6. ECOWAS in West Africa was the first regional organization to launch a humanitarian intervention without the authorization of the UN Security Council. Nearly a decade before NATO got into the humanitarian intervention business, ECOWAS – led by Nigeria – intervened against Samuel Doe’s regime in Liberia without UN authorization. The Security Council later passed a resolution ‘welcoming’ the intervention.

7. The “United Nations Protection Force” did not have a mandate to protect civilians. In response to the wars of Yugoslavia’s dissolution, which began in 1991, the UN established a large peacekeeping mission known as UNPROFOR – the UN Protection Force. Yet, despite its name, UNPROFOR did not have a mandate to protect anyone other than its own forces. It was mandated to “deter attacks on safe areas” but not to use force to defend them – something that the people of Srebrenica discovered to their horror in 1995 when UN forces dissipated and left them to their fate. More than 7,700 men and boys were massacred by Bosnian Serb militia in the genocide that followed.

UN peacekeepers at Sarajevo airport in 1993, during the siege of Sarajevo by Mikhail Evstafiev. CC-BY-SA-3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

8. Done well, humanitarian intervention save lives. Calculating whether humanitarian intervention works, or not, is difficult because it requires counter-factual thinking. Research done independently by Taylor Seybolt and Matthew Krain, and using different data sets, suggests that when the international community does not intervene, or when outside powers intervene to support a warring party, a civil war or episodes of mass killing tends to last longer, and therefore leads to a higher death toll, than situations where intervention occurs. Virginia Page Fortna, meanwhile, has shown that long-term interventions involving peacekeeping also seem to reduce the likelihood of a war reigniting by a significant margin.

9. The Responsibility to Protect tries to reframe how the world responds to genocide and mass atrocities. The Responsibility to Protect, or R2P, focuses on the rights of populations to be protected from mass atrocities. It says that when states manifestly fail to protect their populations from mass atrocities, the international community should take action, working through the United Nations and employing powers given to the Security Council by the UN Charter in 1945. R2P does not give states or regional organizations a right to use force to protect populations without authorization by the UN.

10. The UN Security Council regularly refers to the Responsibility to Protect principle. Contrary to popular belief, R2P is now widely used by the UN Security Council. It has adopted more than 40 resolutions referring to the principle, including some that specifically authorize UN peacekeepers in South Sudan and Mali to help implement R2P. The Council has referred to R2P in relation to crises in, Democratic Republic of Congo, Somalia, Yemen, Libya, Central African Republic, South Sudan, Syria, Cote d’Ivoire, Liberia,, and Burundi.

Featured image credit: Reconciliation: The Peacekeeping Monument by Tony Webster. CC-BY-2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

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