Why is humanitarian intervention so controversial

Humanitarian Military Intervention: Dispute over the term stands in the way of research

Humanitarian military interventions are a source of heated controversy, and rightly so given their potential consequences. The debates are not limited to the political admissibility of these deployments. What exactly should count as humanitarian military intervention also divides science. Any definition proposed meets with widespread opposition. In empirical research, individual case studies dominate that are most likely to be kept out of the conceptual struggles. Comparative studies cannot do this and therefore hardly make any progress. The research field would be well advised to use the core definition of humanitarian military interventions. Any additional elements should be included in the empirical research, but not in the definition of the term.

The term “humanitarian military interventions” has drawn a lot of criticism. Many believe that the use of military force is inextricably opposed to humanitarian goals (see for example here). Talk of humanitarian military interventions weakens the international ban on violence. Despite these and other reservations, the term is widely used to this day. Debates about the international responsibility to protect did nothing to change that.

Conceptual confusion

The term “humanitarian military intervention” was able to maintain its dominant position, but is understood inconsistently. There are entire book chapters that exclusively list different definitions of these uses. To counter this conceptual confusion, I evaluated around 100 books and essays with Matthias Dembinski and Theresa Werner for an article in the journal International Peacekeeping, classic and newer texts from different disciplines and normative perspectives. In doing so, we identified a largely undisputed core term. Accordingly, “humanitarian military interventions” refer to operations abroad that exert or threaten military coercion and declare the intention to protect citizens of the target country from acute violence.

This core definition makes it possible to distinguish such operations from others, for example from the evacuation of nationals, disaster relief or peacekeeping missions after wars have ended. Nevertheless, the majority of the articles viewed insist on adding further elements to the definition. Some of the researchers would like to use these additional elements to describe “humanitarian military interventions” as narrowly as possible and thus as exceptions, in order to maintain the international ban on violence. Others define humanitarian military interventions without caring about the empirical consequences of their definition.

What speaks against including additional elements in the definition of humanitarian military intervention? I summarize the reservations here.

Additional element # 1: Permission from the government of the target country

The intervention must take place without the approval of the government of the target country, says a little more than half of the publications evaluated (see for example here). This additional element proves to be problematic in several respects: First of all, the lack of government consent is difficult to determine (see here) when different groups argue about which of them is the rightful government (as in Haiti 2004) and the government only one Part of the interveners and their activities agree (as in South Sudan since 2011) or only consent to the operation after pressure (as in East Timor 1999). After the collapse of a state, as in Somalia in 1992, the criterion says nothing.

As required by the additional element, a humanitarian military intervention must violate the sovereignty of the target state. As a result, an intervention that aims to protect civilians from a brutal non-state group and is carried out with the consensus of the government of the target country should not be considered humanitarian. The eponymous declared humanitarian intention would be irritatingly subordinate to the aspect of the violation of sovereignty.

After all, the criterion leaves a large number of cases behind the grid. A data set created at PRIF counted 41 humanitarian military interventions after the Second World War based on the undisputed core definition. Only ten of them took place without approval from the government of the target country.

Interventions in Bosnia-Herzegovina, which have had a major impact on the political and academic debate on humanitarian military interventions, would be excluded.

Supplementary Element # 2: A mandate from the United Nations Security Council

Some researchers insist that only illegal military interventions be defined as humanitarian. For them, the term “humanitarian military intervention” only includes operations without a mandate from the Security Council (see for example here). Here the declared humanitarian motive is again of secondary importance. However, it cannot be seen why authorization by the Security Council should necessarily run counter to the protection of civilians.

The 2005 World Summit Outcome Document stated:

We [heads of states and government] are prepared to take collective action, in a timely and decisive manner, through the Security Council, in accordance with the Charter, including Chapter VII, on a case-by-case basis [...] should peaceful means be inadequate and national authorities are manifestly failing to protect their populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity ”.

Operations based on this international responsibility to protect should not count as humanitarian military interventions if the criterion of the lack of a mandate was maintained.

Only 12 of the humanitarian military interventions in PRIF's dataset did not have a Security Council mandate. Insisting on a lack of authorization would also rule out operations that are highly controversial politically or in terms of their consequences, but are conceptually widely recognized as humanitarian military interventions, including Somalia 1992-1995, Bosnia-Herzegovina 1993-1995 or Libya 2011. This shows how very few proposed definitions ignore the practice of humanitarian military interventions.

Additional element no. 3: The importance of the humanitarian motive

In debates it is sometimes said (see for example here) that a humanitarian military intervention must have no other motive besides the humanitarian one. In the PRIF dataset, however, there is not a single case in which further motives of the interveners can be excluded.

More cautiously formulated are definition proposals, according to which there may be other motives, but these would have to remain subordinate to the humanitarian intention (see for example here). This understanding requires being able to rank the motives of the interveners in a clear order of precedence. That might still seem feasible in individual cases. With a larger number of cases, however, this is very difficult because the interveners weight the same motives differently depending on the context. The actions of the interveners do not clearly indicate the hierarchy of their motives. Equally strong intentions can lead to different patterns of action, depending on the relationship between the interveners and the conflicting parties.

The PRIF data set deals with the question of the humanitarian motive as follows: A categorization as humanitarian military intervention requires that the highest decision-makers declare their intention to protect the citizens of the target country from violence directly before or at the beginning of the deployment. However, an intervention is not considered humanitarian if there is a motive that clearly runs counter to the humanitarian goal, for example if the intervention denies the target country the right to exist or claims part of its territory.

Additional element # 4: The extent of violence in the target country

Some want to use the term “humanitarian military intervention” only for operations that react to extreme levels of violence (see for example here). Often behind this narrowing is the honorable motive of opposing the possible (re) legitimation of military violence in international relations. However, this definition excludes interventions in early phases of the conflict or in countries with a small population. In analyzes of success or failure, this would have a biasing effect if early interventions, as is sometimes assumed, were better chances of ending or containing the violence.

Additional element # 5: The success of the intervention

Especially advocates of humanitarian military interventions want to define them through their balance sheet. In their view, only those military interventions that stop or reduce violence are humanitarian (see for example here). This definition makes comparative research more difficult. In the case of ongoing military interventions, it would first have to wait for them to end. Determining success or failure is also not easy. If the violence ended quickly, critics can object that without the intervention the conflict would have ended earlier. Likewise, in the event of an escalation, advocates can claim that without the intervention it would have been even worse. This refers to important questions of the evaluation, which should not, however, burden the definition of humanitarian military interventions.

Conclusion: Include the mentioned aspects in the analysis, but not in the definition

Overall, it can be seen that overloaded definitions hinder comparative research on humanitarian military interventions. They make operationalization more complex and more error-prone. Furthermore, they exclude military interventions, which have shaped entire debates but do not fit into categories such as traditional peacekeeping or aid to an ally. The insistence on additional elements shrinks the Fall Universe drastically, and if these elements are combined it would be almost or completely empty. In the end, an empirically irrelevant term and a group of nameless military interventions with declared humanitarian motives remained.

Government approval, a mandate from the Security Council, the prominence of the alleged humanitarian intent and the extent of the violence - all these aspects should be included as explanatory factors in the analysis of humanitarian military interventions. But that is not possible if you are supposed to define such operations. The conditions for the success and failure of these interventions can only be examined if not only those operations that are associated with an end or decrease in deadly violence are considered humanitarian.


Thorsten Gromes is a research associate at PRIF in the Internal Conflicts program area. His research focuses on post-civil war societies and so-called humanitarian military interventions.

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