Is humanitarian intervention an outdated concept?

Humanitarian intervention can be defined as military intervention which is carried out in pursuit of humanitarian – as opposed to strategic – objectives. Primarily, it is done for the protection of Human Rights and the alleviation of suffering where abuses are taking place. There was an increase in humanitarian intervention in the post-Cold War period of ‘liberal peace’, with notable successes such as Kosovo (1999) and Sierra Leone (2005) preventing further loss of life.  In many instances it is deemed necessary and justified, however lack of consistency and key failures such as Afghanistan (2001) or Libya (2011) have called into question the true relevance and effectiveness of humanitarian intervention in recent years.

Humanitarian intervention continues to be justified on the basis of ‘Responsibility to Protect’. Established at the UN world summit in 2005, R2P is the international community’s commitment to the protection of citizens from violence, ethnic cleansing and genocide.  Intervention by the UNSC is justified within a sovereign state where Human Rights are being abused and the state’s government essentially forfeits its right to govern. This drew upon liberal ideas that the primary responsibility of the state is the protection of its own people – if it does not then the international community has a moral obligation to act, an idea reinforced by French Liberal Bernard Henri Levi. A clear instance of R2P is Libya in 2011, where the UNSC demanded an immediate ceasefire to prevent ongoing attacks on civilians which in turn led to the establishment of a no-fly zone and NATO action. Prior to this, Blair’s Doctrine of the International Community (1999) gave the moral justification for interventions by right-minded countries such as the NATO bombing in Serbia which ended the ethnic cleansing of Kosovans. Another notable example would be in Sierra Leone, where a peace agreement was reached in 2005 following a long and brutal civil war. The most recent strikes on Syria in April 2018, were justified by UK PM Theresa May under ‘Responsibility to Protect’. This demonstrates how humanitarian intervention is not outdated: the protection of the Human Rights of civilians within states remains a responsibility of the international community in the modern world.

Notwithstanding, humanitarian intervention has been regarded by some as antiquated in the new context of multipolarity; the incline of P5 states like China and Russia has resulted in it being used as part of wider great power politics, with powers being asserted in certain regions to obstruct the West – in particular the USA. The most pertinent example of this is inaction in Syria: Russia and China have exercised the veto power on more than eight separate UN resolutions, preventing decisive, effective action until 2018. This shows how humanitarian intervention can easily be subverted by key states’ regional ambitions and alliances (Putin being called upon by President Assad to protect his regime). Other notable examples which demonstrate how intervention on behalf of upholding human rights is used as a justification by powers to act in their own interests, are the 2008 war against Georgia (where Russia ‘liberated’ South Ossetia) and the 2014 annexation of Crimea. It can be argued that states can claim justification for these destabilising actions, because of the precedent set by NATO. Furthermore, Russia could use this to legitimise intervention within the sovereign affairs of the Baltic States, on behalf of the Russian minority. This evidence indicates that in the modern political order, humanitarian intervention is open to interpretation and the ‘Responsibility to Protect’ can be utilised as part of great power politics in an increasingly multipolar world.

The need to maintain regional stability is another factor which reinforces the continued necessity for humanitarian intervention. Widening humanitarian conflicts have significant implications for stability in a region; in a Realist view, this provides an incentive for regional powers to intervene – as demonstrated by India’s intervention in the 1971 East-West Pakistan War due to the war’s implications on the redefinition of borders in the Indian Subcontinent, creating the People’s Republic of Bangladesh. Intervention by the US in the First Gulf War (1991) prevented the aggressive expansion of Saddam Hussein’s forces in Kuwait (a country with large reserves of oil).  Frequently, an imbalance of power provides an environment which facilitates extremism and terrorism. If intervention in Libya had been more focused on nation-building, then the reach of ISIS could have been curtailed to a greater extent. Similarly, in Syria if action had been taken at an earlier stage, the hugely destabilising refugee crisis could have been prevented from escalating. It can therefore be argued that humanitarian intervention is still a relevant idea in the 21st century, as action can maintain stability in a region, which has wider repercussions.

In spite of this, humanitarian intervention has received growing criticism, due to the perceived double standards and hypocrisy of participating states, especially in cases where regional stability is not regarded to be under threat. Notable non-interventions took place in Bosnia where 8,000 Muslims were massacred in Srebrenica (1995), in addition to the murder of nearly 1 million Hutus by the Tutsi government in Rwanda (1994). Failure to address the ongoing repression of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar (with 600,000 having been exterminated or fled the country) has also received international condemnation. Furthermore, ongoing relations between the West and states with terrible human rights records – such as Saudi Arabia, Azerbaijan and Venezuela – significantly weakens the argument for humanitarian intervention. This demonstrates how states will disregard the protection of human rights, acting in their own self-interest to maintain beneficial trading relationships (primarily based on the trade of oil). A pertinent example of this would be the UK’s dealing of arms with Saudi Arabia (with sales by companies such as BAE systems topping more than £6bn since the outbreak of conflict in Yemen). This suggests that humanitarian intervention will only take place where it is advantageous to the parties involved and not primarily for the civilians who are under threat, which has reduced its effectiveness in recent years.


Conversely, humanitarian intervention is not outdated as it has changed and developed to become a more advanced form of ‘liberal intervention’. A strong advocate of liberal intervention, Bernard Henri Levi argues that Human Rights take precedence over sovereignty. Both Levi and President Macron have advocated for intervention in Syria, arguing ‘Aleppo will be the shame of our generation’ if intervention does not occur.

Continued involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq can be examined in this context; intervention is still necessary for the spread of liberal institutions and values in states where they are not present or under threat (democratic peace theory). The spread of Western liberal democracy retains importance, particularly in the wake of the ideological conflict of the Cold War, with Liberals like Thomas Friedman arguing that no two democracies would go to war with one another. Therefore, it can be argued that humanitarian intervention with the aims of spreading democracy is becoming increasingly important, not only to end human rights abuses, but to establish frameworks and institutions which prevent them from happening again.

However, humanitarian intervention is argued to be increasingly immoral in the modern world, with states taking action under the pretences of spreading liberal democracy and protecting Human Rights, purely to secure their own strategic aims within a region. It is considered by some to be evidence of Western cultural imperialism: leading, interventionist powers have a neo-colonialist agenda in these states. Principally, this is argued to be the case in Iraq; the US spent $1.82 billion on measures designed to strengthen democratic institutions, only resulting in the outbreak of sectarian conflict and the return to authoritarian leadership. Realist Niall Ferguson has attributed this failure to a lack of planning or understanding of the culture and a short stay in the country. Critical theorists such as Noam Chomsky have strongly criticised Western powers’ motivations and involvement in the Middle East, citing the acquisition of large oil reserves as a significant factor. Liberal intervention in Libya has failed, resulting in political turmoil and the creation of a failed state and a breeding ground for Islamist terrorist groups like ISIS. Due to the constraints of different systems and conservative cultures, humanitarian intervention in this form can be seen to have failed, showing that ultimately it is an outdated concept in the current global political system.

In conclusion, it can be argued that humanitarian intervention has been successful in some cases indicating its relevance in the modern world, particularly following the collapse of the USSR in 1991 and the emergence of a unipolar world system. Action taken in Sierra Leone or in Kosovo, demonstrates the reach and success of R2P and Blair’s Doctrine of International Community. However, inconsistency, double standards and the failure of liberal intervention in states such as Iraq and Libya shows how humanitarian intervention has frequently proved unsuccessful and detrimental for states’ development. The use of humanitarian intervention as a guise for states acting in their own self-interest is also a contentious issue: a justification for Western neo-colonialism or Russia’s annexation of Crimea. Ultimately, it can be argued that while humanitarian intervention has been effective in certain instances it is a flawed and outdated concept which may be reconsidered in years to come.

Susanna Allam

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