Humanitarian Intervention

What happens when a country's citizens can no longer trust their own government to protect them? At what point should other countries step in to help those citizens, and how? When is a military intervention in the affairs of a foreign state justified? These are some of the thorny questions that surround the issue of humanitarian interventions - a course of action that has often failed to prevent catastrophe despite good intentions. Let's take a closer look at the rise of the humanitarian intervention, the debate, and more. 

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Table of contents

    Humanitarian Intervention History

    Let's kick off by clarifying what we mean by humanitarian intervention.

    Humanitarian refers to any act which aims to protect or promote the well-being and safety of a population at risk (eg humanitarian aid). A humanitarian intervention, then, is the act of intervening (militarily or otherwise) in the affairs of a state to protect human life within its borders.

    Humanitarian interventions can be carried out by states alone, or by groups of states. They can be a response to war, conflict, famine, natural disaster or political persecution. Generally, they take place because the intervening power believes that not enough is being done locally to prevent disaster and protect human lives.

    Although examples of non-military humanitarian intervention can be found throughout history, military humanitarian interventions have become the most common way that states intervene in other states to protect human life.

    The term 'humanitarian intervention' was first coined by William Edward Hall in his 1880 work A Treatise on International Law. When Hall was writing, however, humanitarian intervention was understood somewhat differently from the explanation we have given above.

    In Hall's time, there was no concept of international human rights as we know them now, and certainly, no international laws or courts which governed the actions of an international community of nations. Instead, the conditions for state intervention rested on the appeals of persecuted citizens for assistance from foreign governments.

    The Greek War of Independence (1821 - 1829)

    Regarded as the first humanitarian intervention, in this example the British, Russian, and French armies intervened to help revolutionary nationalist groups in Greece overthrow their Ottoman Turkish rulers.

    Humanitarian Intervention, Greek War of Independence, StudySmarterA painting depicting an idealised battle during the Greek War of Independence, 1821, Wikimedia Commons

    The Balkan Crisis (1875 - 1878)

    During the Balkan crisis, Russia sought to expand its interests in the Balkan states which were then under Ottoman rule. Russian expansion, however, threatened to destabilise the independent regime in Bulgaria, leading to the diplomatic intervention of Great Britain in 1878.

    Hugo Grotius (1583 - 1645)

    Many consider the origins of humanitarian intervention to be found as early as the 16th century, in the writings of Hugo Grotius. Grotius wrote that '‘where judicial settlements fail, war begins', and he sought to apply a moral argument to military action. He wrote extensively about the need for state actions to be both just and moral, laying an early intellectual foundation for organisations such UN and NATO.

    The Rise of Humanitarian Intervention

    In the wake of the Second World War, nation-states across the globe recognised a need for greater cooperation, and an institutional framework to regulate international relations. One of the most significant developments in this period was the establishment of the United Nations Organisation (UNO) in 1945. Along with the establishment of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) in 1949, this period ushered in a new era of international politics. Realism was still accepted as the main motivation for state actions, but at the same time, it was impossible to ignore the fact that nations were, to a certain extent, interdependent.

    Realism: also known as 'realpolitik', realism in international relations is a school of thought that claims that state actions are always motivated by the desire for wealth and power.

    This interdependence set a precedent which would allow for multilateral (i.e., involving more than one state) humanitarian intervention in cases where a nation-state was committing acts such as those seen in Nazi Germany. However, with the beginning of the Cold War in 1947, it was apparent that this spirit of international collaboration would be short-lived. Over the next 40 years, international relations were defined by a series of proxy wars and the struggle for influence between the USA and the USSR.

    Interdependence: the idea that nation-states are intrinsically linked by their shared interests and should therefore cooperate.

    With the fall of the Soviet Union in 1989, there began a new era in which liberal theorists framed the triumph of capitalism as the 'end of history', suggesting that globalisation might alleviate international tensions. As the UN and NATO had survived decades of Cold War, it was believed these institutions could now become the focus of international cooperation, guaranteeing global peace. By the early 1990s, however, destabilisation in several regions led to a decade of humanitarian interventions, some of which failed spectacularly.

    Humanitarian Intervention, NATO flag, StudySmarterThe flag of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), established in 1949, Wikimedia Commons

    Humanitarian Intervention Examples

    The 1990s was the 'decade of humanitarianism', during which NATO-led coalitions of Western States intervened in several conflicts and disasters, drawing on ideas from the just war theory.

    Just war theory is a doctrine which aims to set out the stages and factors that states must consider before entering into a conflict. It aims to ensure that military interventions only occur when they are morally justifiable.

    Bosnia and Herzegovina (1992)

    The former Republic of Yugoslavia was dissolved in 1991, 11 years after the death of its leader, Joseph Tito. When Bosnia declared independence from Yugoslavia in 1992, it was besieged by Serbian Yugoslav forces who were seeking control of the region. In the same year, UN and NATO forces entered Bosnia. Until 1993, their presence was established along the Adriatic coast, importing supplies and monitoring military movement. Towards the end of the year, the UN Protection Force (UNPROFOR) expanded UN involvement to the air, where they experienced their first military engagement with Serbian aircraft in 1994.

    Part of UNPROFOR's approach was the creation of 'safe zones' where persecuted members of the Bosnian Muslim population could find safety from the threat of Serbian violence. One of these was in the besieged city of Srebrenica. In July 1995, Serb Yugoslav forces massacred 7,000 boys and men in and around this UN 'safe zone' and expelled a further 20,000 from the area. Following this, the UN appealed to NATO for further air support and, with the start of Operation Deliberate Force in August 1995, NATO forced began a campaign of aerial strikes to suppress Serbian forces. In what would later be defined as genocide under international law, the massacre in Srebrenica provides a stark example of a failed humanitarian intervention.

    Kosovo (1998 - 1999)

    Later in the 1990s, NATO intervened militarily in another part of the former Yugoslav Republic. In 1998, a war began in Kosovo between the forces of Serbia, who regarded Kosovo as part of their country, and the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) - ethnic Albanian Muslims who were seeking independence from Serbian rule. The KLA, which had ties with Albania, had been complaining about human rights violations by Serbian forces for years. As a result of this repression, NATO forces organised a humanitarian intervention which began in 1999.

    Unlike the NATO intervention in Bosnia, which started with a mandate to monitor, the intervention in Kosovo involved direct attacks on Serbian forces from the beginning. From March to June 1999, NATO forces launched a 'humanitarian war' of air strikes against Serbian forces - both in Kosovo and in Serbia proper - which eventually led to the signing of the Kumanovo Treaty on the 9th of June 1999.

    Humanitarian Intervention, Kosovo war, StudySmarterAn image captured at the border of Kosovo and Montenegro, as civilians attempted to flee the violence, 1999, Wikimedia Commons

    Libya (2011)

    The conflict in Libya started as a series of protests against the regime of Muammar Gaddafi but escalated into a civil war between the government and rebel groups. On the 17th of March 2011, NATO forces voted in favour of imposing a no-fly zone in the region. On the 19th of March, the first French aircraft entered Libyan airspace in a NATO-led reconnaissance mission labelled 'Operation Harmattan'. For the next 7 months, NATO forces used their air and naval domination to not only limit the Gaddafi regime's military capabilities but also conduct targeted assaults against the government. NATO's intervention in the region has been criticised as disproportionate and ultimately politically destabilising.

    Ethics of Humanitarian Intervention

    The ethical considerations behind humanitarian interventions, therefore, are produced by a cost-benefit analysis which is based on the suffering of non-combatants. In this way, military-based humanitarian intervention is justified morally and ethically by the argument that, without intervention, universal human rights will continue to be encroached upon.

    As we have seen, the methods pursued by NATO forces during the early stages of the intervention were largely humanitarian - supplying aid and monitoring the progression of the conflict. However, after Srebrenica, it became clear that a more forceful approach was necessary. Therefore, this example is useful in understanding how humanitarian interventions are first justified and then, if necessary, intensified.

    Humanitarian Intervention Debate

    If the central ethical justification of humanitarian intervention is the protection of non-combatants, then the key debate can be seen in nations' capabilities to achieve this aim. Since the 1990s, therefore, the issue of human security has been vital in the development of humanitarian intervention. The concept of human security places the well-being of civilians as equal to - or even greater than - traditional considerations in war such as the acquisition of arms or territory. Therefore, the duty to protect citizens becomes the chief justification behind humanitarian intervention.

    However, there has been debate about the efficacy of military interventions in stabilising nations or regions which are experiencing political turmoil. In 2011, MP Rory Stewart argued that the failure of humanitarian intervention projects led by Western states was 'predetermined by modern western culture – by attitudes and worldviews of which the policy elite would have been hardly conscious'1. Stewart contends that western culture, with its bureaucracy and abstract statecraft, is ill-suited to intervene in cultures with different priorities.

    Humanitarian Intervention - Key takeaways

    • Humanitarian intervention is understood as the intervention of one state (or a group of states) using military power to prevent human rights violations which are taking place within the borders of a separate nation.
    • Following the horrors of the Second World War, NATO and the UN were created to ensure international laws were upheld.
    • The 1990s have become known as the 'decade of humanitarianism' in which NATO-led coalitions of states launched humanitarian interventions.
    • This desire, as was seen in Bosnia, can lead to interventions being escalated from purely aid-based practices into military operations.
    • Humanitarian intervention promotes the consideration of 'human security' in conflicts, but also the attempt to universalise western culture has come under criticism.


    1. Rory Stewart, Gerald Knaus, Can Intervention Work?, 2011.
    Frequently Asked Questions about Humanitarian Intervention

    What does humanitarian intervention mean? 

    Humanitarian intervention is understood as the intervention of one state (or a group of state) who utilise their military power in order to prevent human rights violations which are taking place within the borders of a separate nation 

    When was the first humanitarian intervention? 

    The first humanitarian intervention occurred during the Greek War of Independence (1821 - 1829)

    What are the principles of humanitarian intervention?

    The principles of Humanitarian Intervention are that intervention can be justified in light of mass civilian casualties, such as those carried out during genocides and ethnic cleansings. 

    Why did humanitarian intervention increase in the 1990s? 

    Known as the 'decade of humanitarianism', the 1990s saw an increase in interventions as numerous states entered conditions of severe political turmoil and civil unrest.

    Why is humanitarian intervention controversial?

    Humanitarian intervention has been criticised for essentially trying to universalise Western culture in regions that have a separate cultural history. 

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    What is another name for realism in politics?

    What is 'human security'?

    What term did liberal scholars use to define the triumph of capitalism following the dissolution of the Soviet Union?


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