Humanitarian Aid

Is humanitarian intervention ever anything other than
a fig leaf for national interest

When discussing the issue over humanitarian intervention and wether or not it is merely a front used by states to mask their own interests it it important to first define humanitarian intervention. J.L. Holzgrefe defines humanitarian intervention as, ???the threat or use of force across state borders by a state (or group of states) aimed at preventing or ending widespread and grave violations of fundamental human rights of individuals other that its own citizens, without the permission of the state within whose territory the force is applied.??? and for the purpose of this essay this is the definition that will be used when assessing pervious cases of intervention and the reasoning behind them. (Holzgrefe 2003) There is also a need to evaluate the two main schools of thought on the legitimacy of humanitarian intervention, Restrictionists and Counter Restrictionists, this does not directly relate to the question but is important in understanding the way in which examples of humanitarian intervention have been perceived by the international community and many of the points raised by the two opposing schools do directly relate to the question over national interest. There has also been a change in approach towards humanitarian intervention by the main state powers and this should also been considered as the answer to this question may have changed over time as the approach of the key states changed. Through this essay I will attempt to argue a realist view which states that national interest drives a states foreign policy and thus they only intervene when it suites their own agenda to do so. In the majority of examples of humanitarian intervention in the post- cold war period the states who intervened in matters of human rights always have their own incentives that are hidden by the shroud of humanitarian intervention.

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The debate over the legitimacy of humanitarian intervention has been raging for decades with scholars putting forward strong arguments for both sides. Counter- restrictionists argue that there is both a legal and moral case for humanitarian intervention. They believe that the UN Charter, specifically articles 1(3),55,56 commits the member states to protect fundamental human rights. As well as this they argue that humanitarian intervention is permitted by customary international law, this is a law that has been, ???derived from the consistent conduct of states acting out of the belief that the law required them to act that way.” (Rosenne 1984) As well as legal justifications for humanitarian intervention, counter-restrictionists also believe the international community has a moral duty to intervene in situations where basic human rights are not being upheld and as a world community we must protect citizens as we would wish to be protected if we were in their situation. They argue that sovereignty derives from a states responsibility to protect the citizens within it, and if at any point it fails to do this it loses its sovereign rights and thus intervention is just. There are a number of flaws within all the argument put forward by the counter-restrictionists which have been raised on numerous occasions by the those of the opposing school of thought, the restrictionists. The restrictionists believe there are seven key objections to the argument put forward by the counter-restrictionists. The most relevant objections to this question concern abuse of humanitarian intervention and selectivity. Restrictionists believe that as there is no impartial means of deciding when humanitarian intervention is just, there is much leeway for abuse of the humanitarian intervention and the use of it to cover the pursuit of national self-interest. A case often used as an example of abuse is Hitlers justification of his invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1938, when he stated it was necessary in order to protect the german population within the state. Along with abuse, restrictionists also state that selectivity leads to inconsistency in policy and proves that national interest is the driving force behind intervention, and even when states do intervene it will never work as it is impossible to impose human rights as they spawn from democracy which can only be brought about through a domestic struggle for liberty. Although the question of the legitimacy of humanitarian intervention does not directly influence this question some of the key arguments raised by the restrictions are closely linked to the subject matter and show that there is much debate within the international arena on the subject of humanitarian intervention and most importantly its ability to give states a seemingly just front from which they can explore areas of self-interest.

While it is important to assess case studies of humanitarian intervention and the reasons behind them individually, it is also necessary to look at the changing approach to humanitarian intervention thorough from the cold war period to the war on terror as this may indicate if at any point national interest is more or less important in the decision to intervene. During the Cold War period was not a legitimate practice with states putting more value on sovereignty and order that human rights. During this period the majority of states were preoccupied with their own interests and focused on the imminent conflict between the two super powers- the United States and the U.S.S.R. Both these states intervened in multiple conflicts in states such as Vietnam and Korea but these interventions were in no way humanitarian and were purely the two super powers attempting to thwart each other and deal each other blows without entering into face to face combat. Due to the focus on the conflict between the United States and the U.S.S.R a number of humanitarian crises were ignored, such as the mass genocide that occurred in Cambodia under Pol Pots leadership. Between 1975 and 1978 the Khmer Rouge killed over 2 million citizens in an attempt to ethnically cleanse and de-westernise the country. This situation is a prime example during which humanitarian intervention would have been necessary and just however due to the Cold War and the perceived lesser importance of human rights the Khmer Rouge were allowed to go on unchecked. This example indicates the lack of humanitarian intervention during the cold war period, yet this soon changed during the 1990s which has been become known as a ???golden era??? for humanitarian intervention. (Baylis, Smith and Owens 2008) The number of NATO interventions, most notably within the Balkans, show the growing prominence of human rights within the international arena and a distinct shift away from the sovereignty dominated policies of the Cold War. Post-9/11 with the introduction of the ???war on terror??? the approach of the larger states towards humanitarian intervention has changed once again.(Baylis, Smith and Owens 2008) Many believe that since the ???war on terror??? begin larger states, in particular the United States have reverted more towards their cold war policies and their own security and goals ahead of human rights. The contribution of states, specifically western states, has declined dramatically since the ???war on terror??? has began as they are more concerned about increasing the number of enemies they have in the international field.(Baylis, Smith and Owens 2008) More over many scholars are concerned that no only are states ignoring human rights violations they are abusing the label of humanitarian intervention in order to take military action against other states they feel threatened by. There has been significant changes in policy towards humanitarian intervention during recent decades yet there is little evidence to suggest that at any point intervention has been solely down to human rights and that national interests have not been a significant contributing factor. During both the Cold War and ???war on terror??? the interventions by the more powerful states were due to their own interests, either to stunt the progress of a significant rival or to provide security through a pre-emptive attack against a threat. (Baylis, Smith and Owens 2008)Even during the supposed, ???golden era??? for humanitarian intervention during the 1990s, it can be argued the majority of interventions were carried out due to national interest and the case studies about to be discussed further back up the claim that humanitarian intervention is in most cases merely a front which states use to disguise their own self-interests.(Baylis, Smith and Owens 2008)


The intervention by the French in July 1994 after the mass killing of over 800,000 Tutsis by the Hutu portion of the population was presented by the French government as a purely humanitarian mission, yet the evidence suggests this is not actually the case. The catalyst for this genocide was the death of the Rwandan president, Juvenal Habyarimana, whos plane was shot down on the 6th of April. This sparked the break down between the Hutu and Tutsi factions of the population and resulted in the mass murder of over 20% of the population during a 100 day period. The french finally intervened and ended the bloodshed heavily emphasising the humanitarian nature of their operation, yet there is much evidence to suggest that they were in fact pursuing their own agenda. The french had been supporting the Hutu government for over 20 years and had even provided troops to them during previous conflicts and it has been suggested that the French president was worried that if the Rwandan Patriotic Front took control they would lose their dwindling influence within Africa. The French therefore held off from intervening until the latter stages of the genocide. This shows that the French were working to achieve their own goals as if their mission was purely humanitarian they would have stepped in at the start of the genocide and prevented the atrocities that occurred, ???when troops were put in it was too late, the killing had been done??? (Annan 1998).


Kosovo is often label as a perfect example of purely humanitarian intervention. NATO intervened at the beginning of the conflict stating that they wished to, ???prevent a humanitarian catastrophe???.(Baylis, Smith and Owens 2008) They believed they could achieve this goal by using strategic bombing to significantly reduce Serbias military and coerce the Serb leader, Slobodan Milosevic, into accepting the Rambouillet settlement. They believed that their use of force was justified on the grounds that the Serbs were committing crimes against humanity and had broken a wide range of international laws. On the surface this intervention does seem purely humanitarian with the protection of the Kosovar Albanians being the principle objective of the mission. However if NATOs intervention is analysed at a greater depth a number of self-interest motives can be seen. The first of these is the fear of Slobodan Milosevic and his henchmen. If NATO had not stepped in to stop them, the fear was that they would continue to create widespread devastation, such as that seen in Bosnia and that their sphere of influence would spread to the neighbour states of Kosovo, namely Macedonia, Albania and Bulgaria. As well as this there was a fear that a lengthy, drawn out conflict within the Balkans would create a massive refugee crisis in Europe which would adversely affect the European member states of NATO. At a glance the intervention in Kosovo does seem like the perfect example of humanitarian intervention, yet if the results of not intervening are explored a number of self-interest reasons for intervention quickly surface and it could be argued that far from being the perfect example of humanitarian intervention, Kosovo is another case study where national self-interest led to action.

Somalia and Iraq (1991)

The examples of US led intervention in Somalia in December 1992 and after the end of the First Gulf War in April 1991 show the fickle nature of humanitarian intervention and that if the states participating in the intervention feel it is doing them harm at home they will not think twice about cutting their losses and leaving without achieving the objectives of securing human rights for the citizens of the state in which they intervened. In both cases pressure from their own citizens has heavily influenced the states decision to take action. In 1991, US, British, French and Dutch military forces were forced to create ???safe havens??? for kurdish people due to the massive refugee crisis created after the First Iraq War and in 1992 the US government were pushed into intervening in Somalia after US citizens had felt empathy and compassion after seeing pictures of Somalians dying on television.(Baylis, Smith and Owens 2008) Yet the opinion of the US citizens soon changed when the pictures were replaced with those of dead American soldiers being dragged through the streets after a failed operation in October 1993 which led to the death of 18 US Rangers. Soon after this event President Clinton announced a timetable for withdrawal despite the fact that the atrocities that led to the intervention were still occurring. These examples do not show that the states intervened for reasons of self interest but instead show that they are more than willing to sacrifice the human rights and welfare of others in order to remain popular with the citizens of their own nation.

Iraq (Second Gulf War)

The US-led intervention in Iraq which led to the Second Gulf War has been on of the most high profile and highly debated cases of so called humanitarian intervention to date and has been a bone for contention since the first troops landed on March 20th 2003. The reasons behind the invasion of Iraq given by the two leading states has been put up for much analysis and debate and can be seen as in a way humanitarian as well as being heavily national interest. The main justification was that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) that posed a significant threat to the rest of the world. Yet these claims were often queried as no WMDs were found by Hans Blix and thus Husseins threat was questioned, ???I dont think Saddam Hussein was a threat. He was a horrible man, but there were lots of other threats much more dangerous.???(Urquhart 2004) So to add weight to the argument for intervention the leaders of both the US and the United Kingdom argued that oppression of Saddam Hussein was a breech of their basic human rights and that , ???Iraq would be a better place??? without Hussein as leader.(Cushman 2005) This would suggest that despite human rights issues being a contributing factor in the decision to invade, matters of national interest and the security of their own citizens was the key factor that led to the intervention. A factor not stated by the US or British governments but often raised by those who argue that the war was purely national interest based, is that of oil, in particular the vast oil fields situated in Iraq which many believe contains the largest reserves in the world. Many sceptics states that it was the US governments desire to control these reserves and have a say in who gained the extraction contracts, which were awarded in 2009, that led to the invasion of Iraq. It is impossible to know for certain if this was a main factor in the decision to intervene but if it was it would mean that this is definitely an example where humanitarian intervention is merely a fig leaf for national interest.


When exploring humanitarian intervention it is important not only to look at cases where states did intervene for supposed humanitarian reasons, but also cases where they have failed to act. From 2003 onwards, the Sudanese government has been carrying out a ???reign of terror??? in Darfur.(Baylis, Smith and Owens 2008) To date over 2 million people have been forced from their homes and the death toll is over 250,000. It would seem correct to believe that with these figures the UN has already or was at least planning a substantial humanitarian intervention in the area to end the suffering and re-establish basic human rights, however this is not the case and all that has been done is a inadequate African Union (AU) mission has been deployed which can do little to end the bloodshed. Many believe that the lack of action is due to the fact that after the drawn out nature of the Iraq war and the negative way it has been perceived by the international community, states wish to reaffirm the principle of sovereignty and do not want to partake in anything that would harm this. This shows that states are reverting back to their old Cold War principles and are less concerned over human rights, showing that humanitarian intervention will always be determined by states own interests and what the feel is best for their own goals in the international environment of the time.

East Timor

East Timor, much like Kosovo, has often been labelled as one of the few examples of totally humanitarian intervention. After the decolonisation of the country by Portugal Indonesia wished to take over the area, the UN successfully diffused the situation by sending in Australian troop who introduced an administrative structure which laid the base from which fair elections could occur and by 2002 East Timor was recognised as an independent nation. This is seen as a very successful humanitarian intervention, ???UN missions achieved its mandate and greatly assisted East Timor in becoming and independent state.??? (Smith 2003) The mission seems to be human rights goals ??“ to remove the Indonesian invaders who had been committing great atrocities against the native population; over 60,000 citizens are estimated to have been killed during Indonesian rule, and to re-establish East Timor as an independent state. Yet more recently questions have been raised over Australias wish to intervene. It has been suggested that the Australian government wished to gain control of key oil and gas reserves in the area, ???The Timor operation was driven by Canberra??™s desire to maintain control over the lucrative Timor Sea oil and gas reserves and prevent rival powers, above all former colonial ruler Portugal, from gaining a foothold at its expense in the strategically crucial region.??? (OConnor 2009) This cannot be proven but if it is the case then it would discredit the view that East Timor is the perfect example of humanitarian intervention.

The examples of humanitarian intervention discussed in this essay seem to suggest that humanitarian intervention is merely a fig leaf for national interests. Within all the case studies there have been national interest factors that have been deemed as, if not more, important than the humanitarian reasons for intervention. This view is enhanced by the changing policies of states towards humanitarian intervention over the decades which shows that human rights issues are only important to states when it is beneficial for them to be so and that the interest of their own nation outweighs the importance of ensuring basic human rights for all. The fact that major world states were happy so sit by during the devastation of the genocide in Cambodia and are still yet to take any real action to stop the atrocities occurring in Darfur show that not only does national interest effect when and how states intervene it also can prohibit them from doing so. Even in the cases that are argued to be perfect examples of humanitarian intervention, Kosovo and East Timor, this is only the case on the surface and as in all the other cases of so called humanitarian intervention if you look at them more closely there are issues of national interest that are the main driving forces behind the actions taken.

Word Count : 3,249

Annan Kofi, ???Leading the UN??™
Access at:

Baylis, John, Owens, Patricia & Smith, Steve (eds.), The Globalization of World Politics: An Introduction to International Relations, 4th edn (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2008).

Cushman, Thomas (ed.), A Matter of principle : humanitarian arguments for war in Iraq, (London : University of California Press, 2005.)

Hiro, Dilip, Desert Shield to Desert Storm : the second Gulf war (New York : Authors Choice Press, 2003.)

Holzgrefe, J, Humanitarian intervention : ethical, legal and political dilemmas, (Cambridge : Cambridge University Press, 2003)

OConnor, Patrick, 2009, Australian imperialism, the 1999 East Timor intervention and the pseudo-left, World Socialist Web Site, assess at

Rosenne,Shabtai, Practice and methods of international law. (New York : Oceana Publications,1984)

Smith, Michael G., Peacekeeping in East Timor : the path to independence (London : Lynne Rienner, 2003.)

The United Nations Charter

Urquhart, Sir Brian, ???The UN after 9/11??™

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