Humanitarian Interventions


Humanitarian intervention can be defined as a situation in which one state uses military force with the aim of ending the violation of human rights within another state. In an international context, the sovereignty of each particular state is recognized and respected. Consequently, it is rather difficult for one state to invade another without a justifiable reason. When it comes to priorities however, it must be noted that human rights often are above the sovereignty of any given state. Thus if the state is publicly known to violate human rights, it is very possible and justifiable for a foreign country to intervene and remedy the situation by military means if necessary. The legal definition of humanitarian intervention however often implies connotations of hidden motivations in the intervention. According to this definition, the publicly declared aim of the intervention must be aligned with the rescue of a people who are being subjected to extraordinary suffering within their country. This definition has two challengeable concepts namely ‘publicly declared’ and ‘extraordinary suffering.’ Both of these can be easily distorted to suit the underlying political interests of the country that is intervening. This is probably why there have been so much controversy surrounding the concept of a humanitarian intervention in the recent times. Scholars are no longer certain about the positive aspects of a humanitarian intervention considering the fact that numerous negative outcomes are seen as significant as well. This paper analyses the situations in which humanitarian interventions succeed and the resultant effects of such interventions. To do this effectively, the paper examines the theories of humanitarian intervention and its correlation with world politics. In addition, the paper explores cases in which humanitarian intervention efforts succeeded and cases in which such cases failed, as well as, the effects of the humanitarian interventions on the state.

The Theories Behind Humanitarian Interventions and How the Concept Was Introduced Into World Politics

The concept of humanitarian interventions has been in existence since the 19th century when countries felt obliged to intervene in the affairs of other countries based on humanitarian concerns. The first actual humanitarian intervention was a combined effort between Britain, France and Russia as they fought together to free Greece from the Ottoman Empire in 1827. The justification in this case was that the Greeks were rising up against their conqueror and thus they needed support. The Greeks in this case could not have been considered as rebels or piratical people considering that they were being ruled by foreigners in their own home. The intervening nations were particularly sympathetic towards Greece because the Ottoman Empire was a foreign entity with distinguished practices and policies that were justifiably alien to the European people. Moreover, while Greece was eventually freed, the activities of the international collaboration against the Ottoman Empire continued well into the 1880s as instigated by the unjustifiable attacks on unarmed civilians in Bulgaria. The Ottomans killed more than 12,000 Bulgarians, leading to a public outcry and security concerns all over Europe. In this case, the humanitarian concern was genuine and justifiable.       

Initially however, it can be noted that the interventions almost always had a political angle. When Benito Mussolini deployed troops to Italian Somaliland and Italian Eritrea for example, the pretext was that he was trying to secure the Wal Wal border and stop the locals from being involved in slave trade. Slave trade is a factor that may qualify as a widespread humanitarian concern since it involves the violation of numerous rights and freedoms. It must, however, be noted in this context that Mussolini mainly wanted to invade and colonize Ethiopia and this was the main motivation for his ‘humanitarian intervention.’ Adolf Hitler did the same thing in Czechoslovakia when he claimed to be trying to stop the ethnic conflicts then he sent his troops to occupy Sudetenland. As a Nazi aggression propagandist, Adolf Hitler main motivation was to conquer Europe and possibly the whole world. His concerns for the ethnic clashes in Czechoslovakia are thus as questionable as his intentions in Poland or anywhere else where he sent troops. In the above case, that both humanitarian interventions, in this case, were vaguely justifiable. 

From a historical perspective, quite a number of theories can be used to explain the need for a country to intervene in another country’s affairs. It must be appreciated that states are often aimed at protecting their own interests and thus even a humanitarian intervention must have an underlying vested interest for the intervening nation. The basic part of the definition for a humanitarian intervention however requires that there must be some form of widespread suffering of the people in the nation that needs the intervention. Similarly, a situation must exist that that requires a remedy. It would be difficult to justify an intervention into a peaceful nation without causing an international uproar, especially in the post-colonial times. Initially, powerful nations ventured into peaceful weaker nations and colonized them without any action from the international community.  In each event of a humanitarian intervention, there are some underlying theories used as a justification and these often change depending in the humanitarian situation that is being remedied. 


Realism is a school of thought that is based on four major propositions. First, states are the central figures in international politics. Therefore, whenever there is an international situation, the required responses will be decided upon by the interested states and not an international organization like the UN or the AU among others. As such, the interests of the nation are often more compelling than those of an international community when it comes to resolving international conflicts. It would be difficult for a nation to participate in a humanitarian intervention where the situation does not threaten their position, security, economy or reputation as a nation. 

The second proposition is that the international system of politics is founded on anarchism where no supranational entity can impose their authority over the states. This means that each state would like to be able to make their own choices and partake in international initiatives at will and as it suits their interests. Generally, the presence of a supranational authority would undermine the sovereignty of the states and it is justifiable that each state would like to take responsibility for their own actions and thus make their own decisions with respect to what to do and what not to do, in the event of an international situation. 

The third proposition then cites that any actions directed towards an international situation are often motivated by self-interests. This specifically highlights the fact that every nation that participates in a humanitarian intervention is likely to have an angle, political or otherwise in the situation at hand. Propagating self-interest in this case is thus considered as a norm rather than a compromising factor. Without vested self-interests, it may be difficult for a nation to commit all the power and money need to hold a successful humanitarian intervention. 

The last proposition in this theory is that each state in this world has a desire for power but the basis for this desire is not malicious in any context. Countries generally desire to be untouchable and the most certain way of ensuring this is by being more powerful than the others. Unfortunately, when a given country is quite committed to increasing its power or influence, such a country becomes a threat to its neighbors. In most cases, such as situation often raises tension between the two countries. Eventually, tension created may degenerate into an endless competition between states, such as the case of Iran and western powers. In addition, being a powerful state comes with its consequences in terms of responsibility in the international community. The powerful states have to protect the weaker states from other powerful attackers in order to create a level battlefield.

All these propositions align to explain why and how various states end up partaking in conflicts that originally did not involve them. For example, when Britain, France and Russia intervened in Greece the aim was to stop the Ottoman Empire. It can be noted that the Ottoman Empire was actually a threat to Russia’s interest in Eastern Europe. This implies that the underlying interest for Russia’s participation was also political. Russia also needed to establish its position as a powerful nation and thus intimidate the Ottoman Empire in order to get them out of Eastern Europe. In addition, Greece was a weaker nation that required protection from an overly strong invader and it was the role of the stronger nations at the time to help. Participating in the Greece war of independence was thus a show of power for Russia too. 

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Humanitarian Interventions

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May 14, 2019 in History Essay Samples