Home > Free Essays > Warfare > Modern Warfare > Humanitarian Intervention: Consent and Proportionality

Humanitarian Intervention: Consent and Proportionality Essay

Exclusively available on IvyPanda Available only on IvyPanda
Updated: Nov 21st, 2020

History of humankind is riddled with wars waged for various reasons. Since ancient times, nations and states fought one another over territory, resources, religion, traditions, and ideology (Thayer 2013). What all wars have in common is that in every single case, the initiators of the conflict find a justification for their actions. War is a grisly business, filled with murder, fire, and death. While there are certain people ready to wage war on payroll with no need to justify their actions to themselves or others, the majority of the population requires a righteous reason in order to accept and support the conflict.

The leaders, rarely driven by morality in their conquest, realized the importance of justifying hardships of war to the troops and their nations. As humanity evolved, justifications took multiple forms. First, there were divisions based on territory and nationalism, followed by religious justifications, which were replaced by ideological wars and confrontations in the 20th century. After the fall of the USSR in 1991, the source of ideological tension between the East and the West disappeared. In the 21st century, wars and invasions are frequently named Humanitarian Interventions. While theoretically, the use of military force for a humanitarian purpose can be justified. In practice, humanitarian interventions frequently carry hidden agendas that distort the initial justification of the action and affect the result in a negative way.

What is Humanitarian Intervention?

McMahan (2010, p. 3) defines a humanitarian intervention as “military intervention in another state that is intended to stop one group within that state from brutally persecuting or violating the human rights of members of another group.” He states that these interventions, more often than not, target the existing government and its army. Thus, such an intervention is conducted without the consent of the state, and the country subjugated to intervention. The concept of humanitarian intervention resides on a postulate that, under certain circumstances, human rights violations can override the rights of states to govern themselves and deal with their own internal affairs. In theory, the UN must pass a resolution in order to justify the beginning of humanitarian military intervention in another country. In practice, however, certain countries allowed themselves to act with no regard for the resolutions and the UN Charter (The UN Charter 2017). One of the examples includes the invasion of Iraq by the US and its allies in 2003.

Justifications of Humanitarian Interventions

Based on McMahan’s article concerning humanitarian interventions, as well as on works of Kuperman (2014) and Pieterse (2016), it is possible to assemble a list of criteria which a situation needs to meet in order to justify humanitarian intervention. In addition, the intervening forces need to be held to a certain standard themselves, in order for the intervention to be called “humanitarian.”

  • Cases of large-scale violations of human rights. The mass slaughter of people in Rwanda in 1994 is used as a staple example of a country in need of humanitarian intervention (Meierhenrich 2014). However, this criterion is debatable. How many people need to die at the hands of a particular government to declare an intervention necessary? Can other violations of human rights be used as a basis for humanitarian intervention? The UN charter answers this with the concept of “Responsibility to Protect,” however, in practice, it is referred to very rarely due to the ambiguity of the terms (Background information on the responsibility to protect 2016).
  • Consent from potential beneficiaries of the intervention. In many situations where human rights are constantly violated, such as an event of a civil war, any military intervention from outside the country might be perceived as an invasion.
  • The absolute absence of ulterior motives. Humanitarian intervention loses any moral justification if the side responsible for committing it has self-serving goals in mind. This usually reflects the number of civilian casualties, since if the intervention does not really care about saving lives, their strikes will be indiscriminate.
  • Do more good than harm. In order for a humanitarian intervention to be justified, it has to have a positive result. In many situations, the results are hard to predict. This makes planning and justifying interventions even more difficult, as it is hard to guarantee its success.

If a humanitarian intervention adheres to these four criteria, then it can be considered justified. However, while it is theoretically possible to imagine such a scenario, the realities of modern politics and humanitarian crises have very little in common with these theoretical concepts.

Justifying the War to the Troops

One of the problems that arise with the concept of humanitarian intervention is the justification of war to the soldiers that will participate in the operation. While soldiers are professional combatants, are trained to fight and are expected to give their lives in the line of duty, if need be, their duties and loyalties lay specifically to their respective countries (Petersen & Maksimovic 2011). The participation of military force in a humanitarian intervention suggests that the soldiers will be forced to fight and put themselves in danger for the sake of the people they do not know or even care about.

As a general rule, neither the people nor the members of the US army demanded their government to participate in all and any humanitarian interventions that were fought in the last 20 years. This makes the already unstable moral ground for such interventions even weaker, as these wars are waged without consulting with the population.

Humanitarian Interventions and Realpolitik

McMahan and other theorists that seek to find justification for humanitarian interventions tend to base their arguments on a supposition that states and governments are going to commit to a military strike against another nation or country for humanitarian concerns. It suggests that national leaders are driven by ethics and morality first, and the interests of their respective nations – second. Naturally, very few, if any, humanitarian interventions could be called completely justified.

However, if we look at the concept of humanitarian interventions through the prism of Realpolitik, it will become obvious why so many interventions raise so many questions about their legitimacy or sincerity of the proclaimed goals. The concept of Realpolitik suggests that states and governments are driven by practical and pragmatic concerns, rather than ethics and morals (Bartrop & Totten 2013). Although the term is frequently used as a pejorative, the concept itself remains a valid one. It offers reasonable explanations as to why almost every humanitarian intervention fails to uphold the tenets of moral justifications mentioned in the previous chapter.

Participation in a perfect and justified humanitarian intervention is always detrimental to all parties involved. During the operation, the intervening forces will suffer casualties, valuable equipment will be damaged or lost, and a prolonged campaign will become a burden on the state budget. This is one of the reasons why the USA did not participate in preventing the genocide in Rwanda in 1994 – there was nothing to gain from such action. The Clinton administration did not want to lose votes for committing to the intervention. Occupation and pacification of Rwanda did not promise any financial gain either, as the country had no valuable natural resources.

Wars in general, whether waged under the guise of humanitarian interventions, counter-terrorist operations, or religious crusades, tend to be waged with ulterior motives in mind. Even in a perfect scenario of a justified intervention, there are parties who would benefit from the war and promote it through any means. These parties are mainly military contractors – companies that produce ammunition, weapons, rations, and military equipment. To them, war is a business opportunity. Thus any military action, even a justified intervention, will possess ulterior motives of the parties involved in supporting the war effort.

The Iraq campaign, waged by the United States and their allies, can be used as a classic example of a humanitarian intervention done wrong. Initially, the war was justified by the Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein possessing dangerous weapons of mass destruction (Sassoon 2012). However, the subsequent investigations revealed that these accusations were false. Then, there was an attempt to brand the campaign as a humanitarian intervention. If we treat it as such and compare it to the four criteria of justifying a humanitarian intervention, this operation will fail in all of them:

  • Violations of Human Rights. While the Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein has been accused of violently suppressing movements seeking to overthrow the government during various stages of his rule, no immediate genocide was being committed at the start of the humanitarian intervention in 2003 (Saddam Hussein 2017).
  • Consent from potential beneficiaries from the intervention. There was no large-scale movement or opposition to the dictator when the operation began. Thus, there were no notable beneficiaries of the intervention.
  • Lack of ulterior motives. There is plenty of evidence to indicate that the US pursued its own economic and political goals by invading Iraq. One of these goals is to establish control over the energy resources located in the Persian Gulf (Colgan 2013).
  • The ends and the means. Surveys conducted from March 2003 to August 2007 indicate that over a million Iraqis perished as the result of the war. To compare, the victims of Saddam Hussein’s regime estimate around 250,000.

Analysis of Humanitarian Interventions and their Results

There are numerous factors that need to be taken into account when judging the success or failure of a particular humanitarian intervention. In order to simplify the analysis, we will look at the countries that were subjected to humanitarian interventions, analyze their state before and after the intervention, and compare the number of casualties received during the intervention to potential damage brought upon by their respective governments and dictatorships.

  • Iraq. The alleged number of victims of Saddam Hussein’s Regime – 250,000. The total number of casualties during the Iraq War – over 1 million (Iraq body count, 2017). State of the country – still recuperating from the war. A large portion of the country under ISIS control.
  • Libya. The alleged number of victims of Muammar Qaddafi’s Regime – unknown. The total number of casualties during the Libyan Civil war – over 100,000 (Alibhai-Brown 2011). Infrastructure and the economy suffered a great deal of damage (Muammar al-Qaddafi 2014).
  • Syria. The alleged number of victims of Bashar Assad – over 5000 (Oweis 2011). The total number of casualties during the ongoing Syrian Civil war and war against ISIS – over 400,000 (Syrian president 2015).
  • Kosovo. Initial death-toll at the start of the conflict: 1500-2000 people. The total number of casualties during the Kosovo War – over 13,000 (Spagat 2014). Tensions between Serbia and Kosovo persist (Geis, Muller & Schornig 2013).

As it is possible to see, all four conflicts presented in this analysis have a death toll that is much higher than whatever damage their governments and dictatorships inflicted on their population. In all cases, there was a significant decline in respecting and upholding human rights, and in two cases out of four, the states were thrust into a civil war, as the result of the humanitarian intervention. This contradicts one of the four criteria that would make an intervention justified – to do more good than harm. The intervention failed to achieve that goal in all four presented cases (Gulbis 2013).

UN Armed Forces

One of the most frequent suggestions that concern the use of armed forces to prevent humanitarian crises is to give the UN a mandate to have its own armed forces, which would be strong enough to successfully engage in humanitarian interventions, and would not serve the interests of any country or nation. In theory, this measure would make interventions more justified if we refer to the four criteria of justification. However, there is a lot of opposition to that idea. It operates on the assumption that the UN operates without flaws, that every member of the UN is equal to another, and that all decisions will be made unanimously. That is not so. The members of the UN have their own national interests and agendas, which they will simply pursue within the parameters of the organization. The wealthier and more powerful the country is – the more likely it is to gain support from its allies and satellites. In addition, the creation of an army that does not serve anyone state is a great logistical challenge, as it will need bases, supply depots, suppliers of arms, armaments, food, medicine, and other materials (Military 2016). In addition, the soldiers will likely speak different languages and have different views on the world, which will not help in facilitating cooperation. If we add in the fact that most, if not all, humanitarian interventions tend to cause more harm than good, then the creation of a UN army becomes a pointless exercise.


The concept of humanitarian intervention can be understood from an emotional perspective. When evil is being committed, it is very hard to simply stand by and watch it unfold. The first reaction of any decent human being, when they witness a heinous crime being committed, is to intervene and stop it. Even use force, if need be. However, this sentiment cannot be applied to large groups of people and governmental bodies, which do not operate with the same morals and sentiments. Government morality lacks the emotion and benevolence of a singular person, as it is comprised of many people, who see crimes only through reports filled with numbers and statistics. Despite the bold claims about values of human rights and democracy, the analysis shows that the governing motivation behind any government action remains self-interest, hidden behind the mask of goodwill and benevolence.

While humanitarian interventions can be justified in a theoretical setting, in practice, they rarely, if ever, work out. They bring more harm than good, destroy the country’s infrastructure, and pave the way for more radical elements to take control. Often, these elements are even worse than the dictatorships they just dethroned. Thus, it has to be concluded that humanitarian interventions cannot be justified. If the theory that justifies them has very little to do with the realities of war, then the theory is wrong.

Does this mean that the world has to stay silent while atrocities are being committed in certain places without batting an eyelash? The answer to that is “No.” If we stand by and do nothing, it speaks volumes about our society and about each and every one of us. Nevertheless, a large-scale military intervention is not the answer. Destroying a country to save it is not the answer. There has to be a different approach, one that will allow a surgical and precise solution to the problem. In addition, the call for action must come directly from the people, rather than their governments. The reactions of the people towards tragedies around the world lack ulterior motives, as exemplified by humanitarian crises caused by natural cataclysms. The people must act as a safeguard against humanitarian interventions waged with the scope of political, territorial, and economic gains.

Reference List

Alibhai-Brown, Y 2011, , Web.

Background information on the responsibility to protect 2016, Web.

Bartrop, P & Totten, S 2013, Impediments to the prevention and intervention of genocide, Transaction Publishers, London.

Colgan, J 2013, ‘Fueling the fire: Pathway from oil to war,’ International Security, vol. 38, no. 2, pp. 147-180.

Crawford, T & Kuperman, 2014, Gambling on humanitarian intervention, Routledge, New York.

Geis, A, Muller, H & Schornig, N 2013, The militant face of democracy, Cambridge University Press, New York.

Gulbis, 2013, , Web.

2017, Web.

Meierhenrich, J 2014, Genocide: a reader, Oxford University Press USA, New York.

McMahan, J 2010, ‘Humanitarian intervention, consent, and proportionality,’ Oxford Scholarship Online, vol. 1, pp. 1-42. Web.

Muammar al-Qaddafi 2014, Web.

Oweis, K 2011, Syria death toll reaches 5,000 as insurgency spreads, Web.

Petersen, S & Maksimovic, B 2011, Web.

Pieterse, J 2016, World orders in the making: Humanitarian intervention and beyond, Institute of Social Studies, New York.

Sassoon, J 2012, Saddam Hussein’s Ba’th Party: Inside an authoritarian regime, Cambridge University Press, New York

Spagat, M 2014, A triumph of remembering: Kosovo memory book, London University Press, London.

, 2015, Web.

Thayer, B 2013, ‘Humans, not angels: Reasons to doubt the decline of war thesis,’ International Studies Review, vol. 15, no. 3, pp. 37-56.

2017, Web.

This essay on Humanitarian Intervention: Consent and Proportionality was written and submitted by your fellow student. You are free to use it for research and reference purposes in order to write your own paper; however, you must cite it accordingly.
Removal Request
If you are the copyright owner of this paper and no longer wish to have your work published on IvyPanda.
Request the removal

Need a custom Essay sample written from scratch by
professional specifically for you?

Writer online avatar
Writer online avatar
Writer online avatar
Writer online avatar
Writer online avatar
Writer online avatar
Writer online avatar
Writer online avatar
Writer online avatar
Writer online avatar
Writer online avatar
Writer online avatar

certified writers online

Cite This paper
Select a referencing style:


IvyPanda. (2020, November 21). Humanitarian Intervention: Consent and Proportionality. Retrieved from https://ivypanda.com/essays/humanitarian-intervention-consent-and-proportionality/

Work Cited

"Humanitarian Intervention: Consent and Proportionality." IvyPanda, 21 Nov. 2020, ivypanda.com/essays/humanitarian-intervention-consent-and-proportionality/.

1. IvyPanda. "Humanitarian Intervention: Consent and Proportionality." November 21, 2020. https://ivypanda.com/essays/humanitarian-intervention-consent-and-proportionality/.


IvyPanda. "Humanitarian Intervention: Consent and Proportionality." November 21, 2020. https://ivypanda.com/essays/humanitarian-intervention-consent-and-proportionality/.


IvyPanda. 2020. "Humanitarian Intervention: Consent and Proportionality." November 21, 2020. https://ivypanda.com/essays/humanitarian-intervention-consent-and-proportionality/.


IvyPanda. (2020) 'Humanitarian Intervention: Consent and Proportionality'. 21 November.

More related papers