“Humanitarian intervention,” the violation of a nation-state’s sovereignty for the purpose of protecting human life from government repression or famine or civil breakdown, is an old concept that has been given a new lease on life with the end of the Cold War. It is currently being practiced in Somalia and parts of Iraq, and has been discussed, with varying degrees of seriousness, with regard to Bosnia, Angola, Mozambique, Liberia, Zaire, Sudan and Haiti.

The concept of national sovereignty has long been the chief legal and political obstacle to military intervention in pursuit of humanitarian objectives. This principle of sovereignty was established in modern times with the Treaty of Westphalia of 1648, which brought an end to the Thirty Years’ War and a century of destructive religious conflict in Europe. Under the original formulation of this principle, the religion of the ruler was to be the religion of his or her subjects: Dissent was a privilege, not a right, and appeal to any authority higher than the ruler (such as the Pope) was not permitted. The benefit of the principle of sovereignty, and its corollary of non-interference in the affairs of another state, was the end to confessional wars. The negative result was the growth of absolutist government: Sovereignty was located in the person of the ruler. The idea that sovereignty resides in a people rather than a ruler was a product of nineteenth-century romantic nationalism, put into practice by leaders such as Bismarck, Garibaldi and Victor Emmanuel.

One of the sovereign rights accorded to a ruler was the right to declare war. The principle of sovereignty was applied by and for the powerful states (not, for instance, on behalf of Poland) and was never extended to territories and societies outside Europe. African and Asian nations (not nation-states) were invaded and conquered, sometimes in the name of civilization and humanitarianism. With the spread of the nation-state system to the world beyond Europe and North America, the principle of national sovereignty was extended as well.

In the recent period, the behavior of the Nazi regime in Germany posed a great challenge to the notion of national sovereignty because the principle of non-interference allowed practices that became genocidal. It was only when the Third Reich invaded other countries, submitted their populations to appalling abuses and threatened to dominate Europe that a coalition of states emerged to confront and defeat the Nazis. The contemporary debates around intervention in Bosnia and even in Iraq reflect the same sort of hesitation to intervene when the main issue is a regime’s treatment of its own subjects.

The United Nations was founded following the defeat of Germany and Japan, and one of its guiding principles was linking respect for human rights with world peace. This link was jettisoned, in practice, with the Cold War, but it informed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and similar international instruments. The underlying rationale was that respect for human rights would be a check on arbitrary power, thereby allowing for the preservation of the principle of sovereignty and non-interference. The UN envisioned that sovereignty would be exercised by governments on behalf of the people, more or less democratically.

Sovereignty thus became the cornerstone of human rights legislation. Starting with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, that legislation was binding on sovereign governments in their relations with their people. Sovereignty lost some of its absolute power to the extent that the UN was seen to reflect the community of nations and, as such, a higher authority.

Intervention Motives

Customary international law has always recognized a principle of military intervention on humanitarian grounds. The classic examples of nineteenth-century military “humanitarian intervention” occurred when Britain, France and Russia cited persecution of Christians in Muslim-ruled territories of the Ottoman Empire. Britain intervened in Greece in 1830; France sent a military expedition to Syria and Lebanon in 1860; Britain sent troops to Crete in 1866. The motives of European rulers were influenced by public opinion at home, but strategic interests also played a crucial role. The European occupation of Africa was spurred to a significant extent by pressure from Christian missionary societies to suppress the slave trade and idolatry, and to spread Christianity and “civilization.” The philanthropic imperialism with which the European powers entered Africa was regarded as benign at the time, but history allows us to take a more skeptical view with regard to the interests at stake.

Nonetheless, the theoretical and legal debate was sophisticated. In a formulation that has rarely been bettered, W. V. Harcourt, writing in the mid-nineteenth century, described intervention as “a high and summary procedure which may sometimes snatch a remedy beyond the reach of law…. In the case of intervention as that of revolution, its essence is illegality, and its justification is its success.” [1]

European confidence in its “civilizing mission” was severely tested by the experience of fascism, beginning with the Italian invasion of Ethiopia in 1935. The alleged abuses suffered by ethnic Germans were cited as a reason for the Nazi invasion of Czechoslovakia. The UN Charter was therefore drawn up in the context of extreme skepticism about “humanitarian” justifications for intervention. The Charter expressly prohibited the use of force, or threats of the use of force, by states except in self-defense. No article of the Charter, nor subsequent international legal instrument, makes reference to the use of force for humanitarian purposes. [2]

Critics of military humanitarian intervention argue that this is no accident, that the doctrine of humanitarian intervention in customary law was so abused that it had become worthless. Advocates argue that the UN Charter is designed to restrict the use of force to self-defense and collective action in support of peace and human rights. The use or threat of force in pursuit of humanitarian goals, when sanctioned by the UN, is by this interpretation within the spirit of the Charter.

Over the last 40 years, a number of governments have justified unilateral military action with reference to the customary law of military humanitarian intervention in one form or another. Without exception, the international community has refused to recognize these actions as legitimate. Clear instances are Vietnam’s invasion of Cambodia and Tanzania’s invasion of Uganda, both in 1979. Related examples of military action ostensibly taken in defense of foreign nationals in the countries concerned include the US invasion of the Dominican Republic and the US-Belgian action in the Congo, both in 1964. In all these cases, the absence of UN sanction of the military action has been of paramount importance in the wider refusal to condone the actions as true cases of humanitarian intervention.

Military humanitarian intervention has recently undergone a revival in circumstances where national sovereignty has manifestly failed to serve the citizens of a given state. The most recent instances (Iraqi Kurdistan and Somalia) have been undertaken under the auspices of the UN intervention in Bosnia has been considered under a similar mandate.

If an abusive government such as Iraq or Sudan cites “sovereignty” to defend actions involving mass violations of human rights (or, in extremis, genocide), then it is clearly failing to exercise that power on behalf of the people to whom it is supposed to be accountable. When the US-led coalition states occupied part of the Kurdish area of northern Iraq, they were violating only the very debased form of sovereignty exercised by the Iraqi government.

UN blessing for such military actions has been crucially important, as is the fact that this endorsement be seen as the outcome of a genuine international consensus, and not the outcome of manipulation by one or more powerful countries. In fact, however, the UN is increasingly seen as a tool of the US. In Somalia, the international forces were routinely referred to as “the Americans” by both Somalis and foreigners. This confusion is dangerous. If UN resolutions, and even UN instruments such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, are no longer seen to represent the collective will of the community of nations but rather the foreign policy concerns of Western states, sovereignty will again become a more plausible defense by abusive governments. It is no accident that the government of Sudan was the most outspoken opponent of US intervention in Somalia.

The legal status of military humanitarian intervention is thus problematic. There is an ideal form of such intervention that few would object to: when a governing power is so tyrannous that its crimes can be remedied only by external intervention, and the world community is united in demanding such action. The problem is that few if any cases of military intervention that cite this doctrine come close to the ideal.

Intervention in Practice

Humanitarian intervention can, in fact, take a variety of forms: material assistance (through relief aid), sanctions (coercive, non-military pressure to end abusive practices) and, finally, the dispatch of military forces to remedy a human disaster.

Intervention in the form of material relief is difficult and rarely done well. This fact is obscured by the uncritical publicity given to the efforts of relief organizations. Assistance given for the best motives can have counterproductive consequences. For example, generous aid to help refugees, just like other forms of aid, can be used to prop up an authoritarian government or to enrich elites. The list of major recipients of US aid in sub-Saharan Africa — Sudan, Zaire, Liberia, Ethiopia and Kenya, with Somalia receiving the highest amount per capita — scarcely testifies to success in promoting stability or long-term economic development.

In situations of conflict, assistance is even more problematic since it is likely to have strategic military significance. The large-scale provision of aid to Ethiopia in the mid-1980s helped to make possible counterinsurgency campaigns that were deeply damaging to the rural poor. Food aid has fed wars in Africa wherever it has gone. Both sides in most conflicts feed their armies, at least in part, from food aid, and armies use food to attract civilian populations to areas they control. The presence of Western relief agencies can give spurious humanitarian credentials to military operations designed to displace and impoverish rural communities.

Where relief programs in wars have been successful, they have been implemented in concert with attempts to address the strategic context as well. In 1989, Operation Lifeline played a key role in restoring a degree of normality to southern Sudan, devastated by war and famine. There was a simultaneous ceasefire brought about by internal political processes in Sudan. The ceasefire made it possible for rural people to return home, plant crops and herd their animals in confidence that they would not be attacked. Trade and labor migration also became possible. The economic benefit of these activities was far greater than the provision of relief, though the latter received much more international publicity.

How can the strategic context of a war-famine best be addressed? Sanctions (or the threat of them), censure at the UN, and other diplomatic and economic penalties can have dramatic effects. Operation Lifeline Sudan began just weeks after the US government threatened to withhold aid unless there was a breakthrough in stalled negotiations over aid delivery. In early 1993, three years of sustained diplomatic pressure on the military government in Sudan finally began to pay off when the government became more amenable to demands that it allow relief organizations access to most parts of the country. Unfortunately, such sanctions are rarely used, are not given the chance to work, are broken or are only attempted too late. In addition, many conventional interventions — sanctions are a case in point — actually contribute to human suffering. The embargoes imposed on Iraq, Serbia and Haiti in order to punish the rulers have caused immense hardship for ordinary people, including, at least in the case of Iraq, a sharp increase in infant mortality. In a case such as Somalia, with no central government, a mixture of sanctions imposed on the contending factions and encouragement of a political settlement is appropriate. This may appear obvious, but it is rarely applied thoroughly. Constructive diplomacy is equally vital. In Somalia, support for clan elders, humanitarian groups and women’s groups pushing for a peaceful political settlement had been proving productive with the efforts of UN special envoy Muhammad Sahnoun. This was never given a chance to work, but even the attempts in this direction were more than had been tried in comparable situations. In south Sudan, there has been almost no outside support for the efforts of local civic groups, notably the churches, to promote an alternative to the authoritarian leaders of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army. One of the tragedies of the former Yugoslavia is the failure of the international community to support independent pro-peace initiatives within the various republics.

The deployment of UN peacekeeping forces can usually be classified as a diplomatic, rather than military, intervention. Peacekeepers are deployed with the consent of the combatant parties as part of a diplomatic process.

To sum up: Material relief or diplomatic interventions with humanitarian goals, not to mention coercive steps such as sanctions, are loaded with strategic significance and are difficult to implement. For these reasons, among others, they are rarely done particularly well. They fail because they are obstructed by warring parties, but also because of incompetence or mixed motives by the UN or other representatives of the international community. This is an essential point to grasp before considering the merits and demerits of military intervention in pursuit of humanitarian aims.

Military Intervention

The third level of humanitarian intervention — the use of military force in violation of sovereignty and in pursuit of humanitarian goals — is fraught with problems. It is never “clean” or quick. For these reasons, consideration of military humanitarian intervention should be subject to rigorous preconditions which have rarely if ever been met in practice.

• Military intervention, if acceptable at all, should be a last resort. Where military intervention is contemplated or implemented, there has always been a history of inept or damaging diplomacy and peacekeeping, and inadequate or incompetent relief programs by the international community. Alternatives, if tried, rarely have been tried properly. In every case in which military intervention has been tried or is contemplated, observers with detailed knowledge of the situation can point to missed opportunities and serious blunders.

Mean-spirited refugee policies often underlie crises that military intervention is supposed to resolve. The unwillingness of Turkey to host Iraqi Kurdish refugees prompted the crisis that led to military intervention in northern Iraq. Had Turkey responded as did Iran, with hospitality and a well-managed relief program, massive human suffering could have been averted. Similarly, US unwillingness to receive Haitian boat people is a key factor in US policy towards Haiti. The claim that “all else has failed” should therefore always be treated with skepticism. The conventional routes are always open, but they are often slow and fraught with complications. Diplomacy of this kind may appear a luxury when there is an urgent humanitarian crisis, but may in the long run be the most effective international response.

• There must be an accurate and independent evaluation of the scale and nature of humanitarian needs. In Africa, humanitarian crises are rarely as severe as the relief agencies and media make out. In the Sahel in the early 1970s, demographic investigations show that at most 100,000 people died; contemporary press reports put the figure in the millions. In Ethiopia in 1984-1985, the predicted death toll ranged as high as 6 million; most relief agencies claimed that 1-2 million died, but the scanty mortality figures available put the toll at probably about 500,000. Those in the relief business are familiar with such exaggeration, but it has always been considered bad taste to draw attention to it, for fear of sounding callous.

In practice, it is the media’s assessment of the severity of a crisis that prompts action. Given the wildly inaccurate diagnoses of the severity of famines or refugee crises common in the media, this is deeply disturbing. Reporters and editors must pay much more attention to the reliability of their assessments of disasters.

It is important to accurately calibrate humanitarian emergencies for planning an appropriate response. If it had been true, as the UN claimed, that 2 million faced death by starvation in Somalia in December 1992, a military occupation capable of responding to such need would have been unobjectionable. The reality did not warrant the degree of panic displayed and manipulated. Relief agencies repeatedly confuse the efficiency of their own operations with the degree to which famine is being overcome. It is quite possible for relief to become more difficult just as a harvest is gathered in and the famine comes to an end. This is indeed what was happening in Somalia at the end of 1992.

This is not an argument for universal skepticism about impending disasters, but accurate intelligence is not a luxury. It is vital for effective emergency relief operations.

• The most important question concerning intervention is: Can military forces do the job? This covers several distinct questions. The first is whether the forces can remain militarily intact, sustaining a low, politically acceptable level of casualties. Most modern military forces are equipped for and trained to fight high-technology wars with the aim of securing a quick victory. Events in Somalia have demonstrated the inappropriateness of such equipment and training for humanitarian missions. Humanitarian intervention demands a different set of military skills. It is akin to counterinsurgency. The very few successful counterinsurgency campaigns — for example, the French in Morocco in 1910-1925 and the British in Malaya in the 1950s — were necessarily comprehensive and constructive. They stressed extreme patience, a high level of confidence between troops and people, and a military strategy that was an intrinsic part of an overall political and economic plan. At the time these two colonial campaigns were waged, furthermore, it was politically acceptable for intervening forces to sustain a relatively high level of casualties. Military commanders on peacekeeping missions almost always feel unduly constrained by the rules of engagement, which, for instance, prevent them from firing first. On the other hand, an aggressive and insensitive force can quickly alienate local people, as happened in Somalia. Radical changes in military doctrine and training will be needed if armies are to carry out humanitarian tasks. But the demands made upon Western armies by politicians and constituents at home for quick fixes and low casualties make the required changes difficult.

A separate question is whether the military can accomplish the tasks at hand. Military assistance can help with relief logistics. There is a tendency to assume that escorting relief convoys is an end in itself. But food assistance is invariably a relatively small factor in alleviating the hardship and death caused by famine. Most people die from epidemic disease, hence public health programs are the single most important factor in saving lives. Concentrating people in protected zones without adequate public health facilities inevitably facilitates the spread of communicable diseases and increases death rates. Moreover, people’s self-help efforts are cumulatively more important than external aid. Undermining self reliance is disastrous under any conditions; enabling people to carry out economic activities is by far the most effective form of relief. If the troops confine themselves to protecting relief convoys and creating safe distribution zones, they may actually do more harm than good.

Military intervention has its own logic. The troops may go in because relief agencies call for them, but once there they follow commands from military structures, not relief agencies. Their operations are dictated by military strategy, which puts the security of military personnel as the first priority. This means that the troops will move slowly, with their own massive logistical backup. In Somalia, the early weeks of the intervention diverted transport resources and port space from the relief effort. In Bosnia, security of UN forces has often proved the paramount concern, and risks to European ground forces the critical factor militating against US air strikes. If the threat is in the form of guerrilla insurgency, commanders will adopt counterinsurgency “safe zones” which oblige people to abandon homes and farms and congregate in camps in order to receive relief. The troops may fulfill a narrow humanitarian mandate, but only at the expense of creating larger problems. Relief agencies must realize that military intervention does not make the job of fighting famine any easier; it merely makes it different.

• Military intervention does not necessarily address the strategic context of a disaster. The logic of military occupation and the demands of peacemaking and reconstructing a society are very difficult to reconcile. Foreign military commanders deal with local military commanders. This is their training and the requirement for protecting their troops. Intervention may thereby confer on local commanders a degree of legitimacy that is, in political or human rights terms, unwarranted. The alternative to negotiating with warlords is fighting, defeating and disarming them, and then creating a civilian administration under the protection of the intervention forces. Fighting a war of this sort is likely to be politically unacceptable to the international community and the countries sending the troops.

Is there a middle way? Can civil initiatives be nurtured under the umbrella of an intervention force, which keeps the warlords at bay in the meantime? The problem is that while the interventionary forces are there, they constitute the major factor in the political equation. When they are removed, the premises of negotiations change. Civil structures built up by an interventionary force are unlikely to survive the withdrawal of that force. Military intervention does not solve diplomatic problems; it merely changes the diplomatic agenda.

• Intervening military forces should strive for neutrality, and must be accountable. The case for military intervention is always made on the basis of the failure of diplomatic interventions. The governments that send troops invariably have sorry records on relief and diplomacy. The UN may be just as bad. As a result, the intervening forces are already a party to the tragedy when they arrive. It is a delusion to think they are neutral or above the fray.

Under all circumstances, intervening forces should be accountable. An independent body, consisting of representatives of the international and local community, should monitor the neutrality of and respect for human rights by the intervention forces. This body should work in the public realm and have the power to follow up complaints. Intervening forces should respect the Geneva Conventions and other laws of war. Indeed, propagating knowledge about international humanitarian law should be one of their tasks. In Somalia, the UN justified violations of the Geneva Conventions by claiming that its authority stemmed solely from the Security Council resolution authorizing them to take “all necessary measures” to capture or punish Gen. Muhammad Farah Aidid. Putting international forces above the Geneva Conventions is an extremely dangerous precedent that must be challenged.

The entry of international military forces represents a failure of the international community’s earlier efforts. The UN’s standing is lowest precisely where it matters most, where it has been most needed and has bungled the job. One reason for the UN Secretariat’s support for intervention in Somalia was to cover its previous shameful record. The organization is now widely reviled by Bosnians and held in contempt by Cambodians and Iraqis. The UN has been unwilling to submit itself to independent or public scrutiny. A necessary component of any military intervention should be a thorough, public and independent examination of what went wrong beforehand.

Relief operations and diplomatic interventions should be done earlier and better than they have been in the past, so as to make military intervention unnecessary. No reasonable person could object to the idea that when a human rights or humanitarian emergency reaches a state of massive loss of life, sovereignty should not be an obstacle to international intervention. But situations of mass starvation or genocide do not happen overnight. They invariably follow from a history of culpable negligence or equally culpable complicity by the international community. Conventional solutions continue to be possible in most instances, but require more persistence, imagination and professionalism than is commonly brought to bear.

When military intervention does take place, for whatever reason, there are certain standards of independent verification of facts, accountability and human rights that must be respected. Above all, the international community must recognize that military intervention cannot solve humanitarian or conflict resolution problems; it can only alter them.

In a seemingly intractable situation, it is tempting to throw up one’s hands in horror and cry “do something!” Sending in the Marines is a satisfyingly dramatic “something,” but the respite it gives is extremely brief.


[1] Sir W. V. Harcourt, Letters of Historicus on Some Questions of International Law (London, 1843).
[2] For example, the UN Declaration on Principles of International Law Concerning Friendly Relations and Cooperation among States (1949), the Declaration on the Inadmissibility of Intervention (1965), and the Definition of Aggression (1974).

How to cite this article:

Rakiya Omaar, Alex de Waal "Can Military Intervention Be “Humanitarian”?," Middle East Report 187-188 (March/April 1994).

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