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MIHE Blog News, views and insights from Macmillan International Higher Education

Time To Rethink Humanitarian Intervention

The world is on fire. A new politics that promotes human protection is desperately needed. Amidst all the failure and despair, there are the faint, but nonetheless discernible signs that a new politics might be possible.


Since the start of the ‘Arab Spring’ in early 2011, the number of armed conflicts has increased. Some reports suggest a six-hundred fold increase in the annual number of civilian casualties in war. Atrocity crimes are committed regularly, and with seeming impunity, in Syria, Yemen, Iraq, South Sudan and elsewhere. Internal and International displacement has reached a level not seen since the end of the Second World War. Wherever we look, the forces that promoted human protection and the constructive management of difference over the past few decades are in retreat. Meanwhile, the forces of racism, xenophobia and nationalism are everywhere on the march.

The effects can be seen not only in the outpouring of mass violence in the Middle East and parts of sub-Saharan African, but also in the increasing tendency of both ‘great’ and regional powers to utilize and support violence to support their narrow sectarian interests. Declining international support for key elements of the human protection regime, such as international refugee law, is further contributing to a global crisis of human protection that challenges the progress made over the past few decades.

At the same time, however, there are discernible signs of a new politics of humanitarian intervention emerging. Since the end of the 1990s, the Security Council has become much more active in responding to atrocity crimes than it ever has previously. International society is more likely to respond to atrocities, and when it
does, responses are more comprehensive and much more likely to foreground protection than in the past. Nowadays, it is common to see international actors utilize a bewildering array of strategies and measures in response to atrocities: peacekeeping, diplomacy, mediation, investigations, sanctions, embargoes, judicial actions, humanitarian relief and informational operations just to name a few. Understood in this way, the issues surrounding humanitarian intervention become less of a binary dilemma (do we send in the Marines to save strangers?) and more of a question of what combination of actions are the most appropriate for preventing or halting atrocities in any given situation. This is how the politics of intervention need to be reoriented.
Populations in peril today ... are much more likely to experience other forms of collective international action in their name.
Although the practice of humanitarian intervention is not new, it has undergone a minor revolution since the end of the Cold War. For most of its history, humanitarian intervention has been a rare, ad hoc, activity undertaken by individual states or groups of states motivated by a mixture of compassion for the victims of atrocities and self-interest. Over the past two decades, it has evolved into one of the instruments employed collectively by the society of states as a whole to prevent atrocity crimes and protect vulnerable populations. Where it was once a largely unilateral affair, humanitarian intervention has become a more collective endeavour, one that is regulated, more often than not, by international institutions. And where it was once an entirely ad hoc response to atrocities in far away places, humanitarian intervention has become but one – rarely used – component of an international regime focused on the protection of populations from atrocities. So, whilst populations in peril today are no more likely to experience armed intervention on their behalf than they were during the Cold War, they are much more likely to experience other forms of collective international action in their name.

Although far from perfect, the norms and practices this minor revolution instantiated have occasionally succeeded in increasing the costs to the perpetrators, diminishing their chances of success and improving the protection afforded to the vulnerable. Responses based on military intervention were never likely to represent a compelling response to the problem of genocide and mass atrocities. What’s needed are new, more comprehensive, ways of protecting vulnerable populations that focus on the prevention of violence, the utilization of a far wider range of measures and tools and the engagement of a much broader spectrum of actors. In place of the ad hoc, we need an international regime that takes the focus away from questions of armed intervention and places it squarely on the protection needs of vulnerable groups and individuals.
Featured image credit: Photo by Milan Pinder. Available on Pixabay via the Pixabay license.