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date: 08 July 2020

From Humanitarian Intervention to the Responsibility to Protect

Summary and Keywords

In contrast with humanitarian access or the provision of humanitarian assistance, humanitarian intervention is commonly defined as the threat or use of force by a state to prevent or end widespread and grave violations of the fundamental human rights of individuals other than its own citizens, without the permission of the state within whose territory force is applied. In support of their cause, advocates of humanitarian intervention often draw upon and reference the authority of the notional “just war.” The four main ways by which humanitarian intervention has been connected to the idea of the just war relate to the ideals of self-determination, punishment, responsibility, and conditional sovereignty. For a humanitarian intervention to be considered legitimate, there must be a just cause for intervention; the use of force must be a last resort; it must meet the standard of proportionality; and there must be a good likelihood that the use of force will contribute to a positive humanitarian outcome. The historical practice of humanitarian intervention can be traced from the nineteenth century to the recognition of the Responsibility to Protect by the World Summit in 2005 and its application in Darfur. Major conceptual debates surrounding humanitarian intervention include the problematic relation between sovereignty and human rights, the legal status of intervention, the issue of multilateralism versus unilateralism, and the quest for criteria for intervention.

Keywords: humanitarian intervention, human rights, just war, Responsibility to Protect, sovereignty, multilateralism, unilateralism


Humanitarian intervention has garnered a great deal of academic commentary in recent years despite the relative dearth of empirical cases. Aside from a few cases in the nineteenth century, three possible instances in the 1970s, and a limited set of post–Cold War actions, states have generally shied away from the practice of military intervention for humanitarian purposes. Yet, the legal and moral issues raised by the possibility of humanitarian intervention dominate academic discourse and public advocacy on human rights today. This essay will review these debates, mapping them against the historical practice of humanitarian intervention. It contends that although contemporary accounts of humanitarian intervention reflect the development of human rights discourse and institutions in the latter half of the twentieth century, its roots reach back to the medieval just war tradition.

With this in mind, we commence with the just war tradition, outlining the historical connections between the idea of just war and the possibility that force might be used for humanitarian purposes. We then extend our focus on historical connections to the realm of practice, examining the history of intervention from the nineteenth century to the recognition of the Responsibility to Protect by the World Summit in 2005 and its (non-)application in Darfur. This broad sweep demonstrates that the evolution of humanitarian intervention does not reflect a smooth, linear progression toward a universal norm, but is punctuated by a series of reversals and historical breaks. The next section builds on this by drawing our attention to a number of issues raised by the empirical cases treated. In doing so, it highlights the major conceptual debates surrounding humanitarian intervention. These include the vexed relation between sovereignty and human rights, the legal status of intervention, the issue of multilateralism versus unilateralism, and the quest for criteria for intervention. Finally, concluding comments will address possible directions for future research.

First, however, a few words on the definition of humanitarian intervention are in order. Holzgrefe (2003) provides a commonly cited definition: “the threat or use of force across borders by a state (or group of states) aimed at preventing or ending widespread and grave violations of the fundamental human rights of individuals other than its own citizens, without the permission of the state within whose territory force is applied.” This contrasts with humanitarian access or the provision of humanitarian assistance (Mills 1998a). To the extent this involves the use of force it may qualify as humanitarian intervention. However, most humanitarian assistance activities are undertaken by NGOs and other actors without the use of force. Most crucially, however, they are palliative rather than curative – i.e. they aim to keep people alive by preventing them from starving or dying as a result of a lack of medical care rather than by stopping those trying to kill them in the first place. It addresses the symptoms rather than the cause. Humanitarian intervention would also not include most peacekeeping activities since peacekeeping generally requires the consent of the state, whereas intervention does not.

Historical Roots in the Just War Tradition

Advocates of humanitarian intervention often draw upon and reference the authority of the notional “just war” in support of their cause. Where this occurs, certain classical understandings of the right to war are deployed in order to anchor the legitimacy of humanitarian intervention as a historical practice. Accordingly, a certain relation between historical and contemporary articulations of both the just war and humanitarian intervention is invoked. Typically, classical accounts of the just war are presented as the authoritative foundation for contemporary arguments pertaining to humanitarian intervention, providing both a rhetorical reference point and intellectual ballast. While we may be justifiably skeptical of the relation drawn between classical and contemporary arguments for intervention in these cases, they are nonetheless revealing with respect to the contested and historical character of humanitarian intervention. In particular, they disclose the four main ways by which humanitarian intervention has been connected to the idea of the just war, relating respectively to the ideals of self-determination, punishment, responsibility, and conditional sovereignty.

The first and possibly most influential account is the Millian approach adopted by Michael Walzer in his seminal Just and Unjust Wars (1992) and subsequent writings. This approach foregrounds considerations of self-determination. It is premised upon the dual principle that human rights are foundational to international society and that they are best preserved by attending to the rights of political communities. Of course it sometimes happens that political communities fall prey to repressive governments that violate, rather than uphold, the human rights of their citizens. In their most severe forms, these violations can take the form of genocide or mass enslavement, acts that shock the moral conscience of humankind. Where such acts occur, we must take this as evidence that the political community in question has been dissolved, taking the principle of nonintervention along with it. As Walzer puts it, “when a government turns savagely upon its own people, we must doubt the very existence of a political community to which the idea of selfdetermination might apply” (1992:101). In these cases, the principle of nonintervention may be set aside in favor of humanitarian intervention. Crucially, however, this should not be understood as a general right in international society, but as an exception to the standing principle of nonintervention.

This treatment of the right to humanitarian intervention is premised upon a certain understanding of self-determination, drawn from John Stuart Mill. According to Mill, the right of political communities to decide their own fate, free from outside interference or undue oppression, is of paramount importance to the question of intervention. As he presents it, the possibility of autonomous government that the process of selfdetermination provides for is the key to liberty and durable political institutions. Where government is instituted as a result of any other process (such as external interference or oppression), instability and misrule will follow. “The attempt,” Mill points out, “to establish freedom by foreign bayonets is a solecism in terms. A government which requires the support of foreign armies cannot be a free government […] Nobody will long enjoy freedom when it is necessary for another to assert it for him” (1837/1989b:374). As a general rule, then, intervention is strictly prohibited. Yet Mill allows that a situation may arise where the only way to uphold or restore the process of self-determination, usually maintained by nonintervention, is to take the opposite course of action and intervene. As Mill obliquely puts it, circumstances may sometimes emerge that require “intervention to enforce non-intervention” (1859/1989a:123). Thus understood, the practice of humanitarian intervention is best approached as a “negative demonstration” of the reasons underpinning the general principle of nonintervention. Further, it may only ever be justified “as if it were an exception to a general rule, made necessary by the urgency and extremity of a particular case” (Walzer 1992:90).

This highly circumscribed understanding of the right to humanitarian intervention may be aptly equated with the “politics of rescue” (Walzer 2004:67). The notion of rescue is important, for it sets the limits to intervention both with respect to when it should take place and its objectives. Dealing with the first of these issues, rescue is only legitimate in the most egregious cases of human rights violations, and does not apply to low-level daily oppression. It is an emergency measure for emergency situations rather than a remedy for everyday social inequities. Moving on to the issue of objectives, the goal of rescue limits the ends of any humanitarian intervention. It restricts intervention to a form of interdiction, a via negativa, as opposed to a more ambitious program of domestic reform or societal reconstruction. Walzer captures this nicely: “Rescue the people in trouble from their troublers, and let them get on with their lives. Help them, then leave them to manage as best they can by themselves” (2004:70). This formulation effectively rules out humanitarian intervention for the purpose of imposing democracy, free enterprise, or certain economic arrangements upon a society. Instead, it presents intervention as a means for restoring the integrity of a political community and its capacity for self-determination.

This approach to humanitarian intervention has been subject to fierce criticism from many quarters on account of its conservative bias and the manner by which it implicitly relies upon a doctrine of “might is right” (Luban 1985). Among Walzer’s earliest critics was Hedley Bull. A pivotal figure in the so-called English school, Bull expressed disappointment at Walzer’s refusal to discuss the foundations of his position, claiming that it indicated a lack of “theoretical and historical depth” (Bull 1979:599). This critique did much to inspire the second approach to humanitarian intervention that we will treat here, the English school approach. The English school approach is perhaps best exemplified in the work of Nicholas J. Wheeler. Wheeler frames the question of humanitarian intervention in terms of the legitimacy of using force against states that grossly violate human rights. As such, he is concerned with the manner by which international society has managed, and continues to manage, the tension between sovereignty and human rights understood as competing normative agendas, respectively reflecting the values of order and justice.

Not content with mapping how international society has navigated these morally charged issues, Wheeler also sets out a substantive theory for evaluating the legitimacy of any given act of humanitarian intervention. He contends that there are four requirements, drawn from the just war tradition, that an intervention must meet to qualify as legitimate. First, there must be a just cause for intervention, what Wheeler labels a supreme humanitarian emergency. Alluding obliquely to Walzer’s position, Wheeler adds that a supreme humanitarian emergency arises in cases such as ethnic cleansing, genocide, and large-scale state breakdown, “when the only hope of saving lives depends on outsiders coming to the rescue” (2000:34). Second, the use of force must be a last resort. Third, it must meet the standard of proportionality. Finally, there must be a good likelihood that the use of force will contribute to a positive humanitarian outcome. Where all of these criteria are met, a humanitarian intervention might be considered legitimate.

Wheeler traces the origins of humanitarian intervention to the seventeenth century Dutch jurist Hugo Grotius. Specifically, he cites Grotius’s statement that “if a tyrant […] practices atrocities towards his subjects, which no just man can approve, the right of human social connexion is not cut off in such a case […] it would not follow that others may not take up arms for them” (2000:45). The purpose of this citation, one must assume, is to draw a connection between Grotius’s conviction “that the rights of the sovereign could be limited by principles of humanity” and Wheeler’s own defense of humanitarian intervention. Yet, this reference also draws our attention to the striking divergence between classical (in this case, Grotian) and contemporary articulations of humanitarian intervention. For instance, where Wheeler treats humanitarian intervention in relation to rescue and protection, Grotius’s (1625/2005) discussion is anchored in the ideas of punishment and enforcement of the natural law.

In The Rights of War and Peace, Grotius deals with what would today be called humanitarian intervention under a discussion entitled “Of Punishments” (1625/2005:949). His starting point is the conviction that states may rightfully wage punitive war against any sovereign guilty of violating the natural law (954). This writ extends to those cases where the crimes committed by foreign sovereigns are directed against their own subjects: “If a Busirus, a Phalarus, or a Thracian Diomedes should exercise such tyrannies over Subjects as no good man living can approve of, the Right of human society shall not therefore be excluded […] And, therefore […] I may make war upon a man, tho’ he and I are of different nations, if he disturbs and molests his own Country” (1525/2005:1161–2). Put simply, Grotius claims that governments may rightfully seek to exact punishments, not only in affairs that narrowly concern themselves, but in response to those cases where a state is guilty of persecuting its own people. While Wheeler does not follow Grotius in presenting intervention as a punitive endeavor, the connection he draws to Grotian political thought nonetheless reveals the close relation between humanitarian intervention and punitive law enforcement.

Our third approach to humanitarian intervention, the Christian realist position, does not shy away from this close historical relation to punitive law enforcement. The Christian realist position is most powerfully represented today by Jean Bethke Elshtain, a vocal supporter of the invasion of Iraq and a strong advocate of humanitarian intervention. She has argued repeatedly that the strong states of this world must employ force to protect human rights where they are threatened by rogue or failing regimes (2001; 2003; 2004). In the current context, this translates into a justification for a muscular liberal interventionist agenda wherein US military power is employed in the service of global civic peace. According to Elshtain, this position may be derived from an Augustinian conception of the just war. Such an approach places great emphasis on the responsibility that attaches to political authority. Augustine develops this theme by focusing on the vocation of the judge. The judge is responsible for ensuring that order is maintained in society by passing sentence over those found guilty of criminal misdeeds. This is an onerous task that requires the judge, in command of the coercive machinery of the state, to preside over the accused. Still, because the public interest demands it, the good citizen will accept the burden of judgment when it is cast upon him or her. As St. Augustine puts it, “Given that social life is surrounded by such darkness, will the wise man take his seat on the judge’s bench, or will he not venture to do so? Clearly, he will take his seat; for the claims of human society, which he thinks it wicked to abandon, constrain him and draw him to his duty” (1998:927). In other words, it is a duty or ethic of responsibility that calls the good citizen to judgment, and underpins the vocation of judgment more generally.

Elshtain extends the ethic of responsibility from the vocation of judgment to the realm of statecraft. Just like the vocation of judgment, she argues, the task of government marries responsibility for the public order to the exercise of state power. This may require the state to wage war to vindicate or restore international order in circumstances where it has been violated. Chief among these circumstances are those cases where rogue or failing states prey upon their subjects, depriving them of their basic human rights. Where this is the case, those states that have the capacity to act as the Good Samaritan and intervene must do so. In this way, Elshtain draws a justification for humanitarian intervention from the commonplace wisdom that with great power comes great responsibility. This argument has proved very powerful in the context of the “war on terror.”

Our fourth approach to humanitarian intervention treats human rights as a function of sovereignty. This approach was adopted by a number of authors, such as Deng et al. (1996), Mills (1998a), Weiss and Chopra (1992), and others in the 1990s, but received its most high profile expression courtesy of the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS) in 2001. ICISS was commissioned by the Canadian government to prepare a report – subsequently published as The Responsibility to Protect – in light of the humanitarian crises of the 1990s and UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan’s (1999) call to create a consensus on intervention.

Prior to the publication of the report, sovereignty was understood as a legal principle or status that guaranteed a state immunity from any external interference in its domestic affairs. Thus configured, it allowed repressive governments to fend off external criticisms pertaining to human rights (among other things) with the claim that these are domestic matters, and therefore nobody else’s business. All too often claims to sovereignty were zealously advanced by repressive governments, who sought the legal cover and protection they afforded from the threat of external interference. Moreover, for so long as the norm of state sovereignty and its corollary doctrine of nonintervention trumped human rights concerns, this would continue to be the case. Recognizing that the reversal of this state of affairs, such that human rights concerns acquired precedence over state sovereignty in every instance, was not practicable, ICISS sought to recast sovereignty in terms that incorporated human rights concerns. It achieved this end by treating sovereignty not as a form of dominium, but as an exercise in responsibility:

State sovereignty implies responsibility, and the primary responsibility for the protection of its people lies with the state itself. Where a population is suffering serious harm, as a result of internal war, insurgency, repression or state failure, and the state in question is unwilling or unable to halt or avert it, the principle of non-intervention yields to the international responsibility to protect.

Accordingly, state sovereignty and the rights that accrue from it are now conditional upon the successful discharge of certain duties, namely the protection of human rights within that state. Where a state fails to discharge these duties it forfeits its sovereign status and the freedom from external intervention that it guarantees. In these cases, the international community inherits the responsibility to protect human rights within that state in the government’s stead and may pursue a policy of humanitarian intervention to that end.

This sovereignty as responsibility approach is couched explicitly in the idiom of the just war, referencing categories such as “just cause” and “right authority,” among many others. It also calls to mind earlier conceptions of conditional sovereignty, most notably that offered by Thomas Aquinas in the thirteenth century. Aquinas contends that sovereign authority is derived from the sovereign’s performance of three primary duties that contribute to the common good: the maintenance of security within the community by defending against internal wrongdoing and external attack; the exercise of justice by punishing those responsible for wrongdoing; and the preservation of order within society (Aquinas 2002:240–41). Where the sovereign fails to execute these duties, and thereby fails to contribute to the common good, he cedes his status as sovereign. Consequently, Aquinas stipulated that a sovereign who fails to discharge his duties may be overthrown by those over whom he rules. This amounts to a right to tyrannicide. Yet, unlike the ICISS approach, Aquinas did not extend this right to external actors; he argued that it fell squarely and solely to the political community itself to ensure that the defective sovereign is removed from his post. Though Aquinas does not set out the rationale for delimiting the right to regime change in this way, it is consistent with the ideal of self-determination and avoids the tricky jurisdictional issues that have ensnared ICISS; namely, what properly constituted authority can legitimate the actions of the external party and by what means did this actor acquire the right to intervene? It does not necessarily follow from the fact that a government may forfeit the protections that sovereignty affords it, that an outside power can or should assume responsibility for removing this government from power.

The conditional sovereignty perspective on humanitarian intervention does not differ all that much, at least not superficially, from the Millian, English school, and Christian realist approaches surveyed earlier. All four perspectives offer support for the practice of humanitarian intervention. Yet, as this section demonstrates, the historical origins cited in support of these various approaches disclose certain tensions and ruptures internal to them. Questions of self-determination, punishment, responsibility, and jurisdiction sit uneasily alongside one another, as do legal, moral, and even theological reflections, revealing something of the contested and historical character of humanitarian intervention. Each of these ideals suggests a different conception of humanitarian intervention, and consequently produces a different template for investigating the right to use force for humanitarian purposes. Accordingly, the practice of intervention itself comes to resemble a critically contested site, rather than a straightforward enterprise. This becomes very apparent when one casts a glance toward historical and recent cases of humanitarian intervention, and the controversies these episodes have generated. It is to these cases and controversies that we now turn.

The Practice of Humanitarian Intervention: A Historical Survey

Historical surveys of humanitarian intervention all too often treat their subject as if it were guided by some obscure teleological force, where there is a smooth and linear progression through history toward a norm of humanitarian intervention. As such, these surveys tend to emphasize the continuities inherent in the historical evolution of humanitarian intervention, often at the expense of those disjunctures, breaks, and ruptures that also form part of the story. The aim of this section is to provide an outline of the historical evolution of humanitarian intervention that is sensitive to the elements of change and continuity that underpin and animate it. By doing so, we hope to draw attention to the tensions written into the historical practice of humanitarian intervention (Weiss 2007; Bass 2008; Evans 2008; Bellamy 2009). While this survey does not cover every case – for practical reasons of space – it picks out benchmark cases from the nineteenth century right through to today.

The Nineteenth Century: A Prehistory of Humanitarian Intervention

Concurrent with the demise of natural law philosophy and the rise of a state-centric international legal positivism, the nineteenth century witnessed a series of interventions in which proto-humanitarian sentiments were invoked. The first case of note occurred during the Greek War of Independence (1821–27) against the Ottomans. In 1827, Russia, the UK, and France intervened and defeated the Ottomans. The actions of the intervening states are not reducible to any one overarching explanation. While Russia’s involvement was motivated primarily by geostrategic interests, proto-humanitarian factors figured prominently in the justifications Russian officials submitted in defense of the intervention. They claimed that Russia, as the protector of Europe’s Orthodox Christians, was duty-bound to take military action in order to halt Ottoman repression. Britain and France, by contrast, were urged to act by public opinion that viewed the conflict as a defense of Christian peoples in the face of aggression from infidel Turkish forces. A similar mix of sectarian concerns and humanitarian appeals was evident in the French-led 1860–61 intervention in Lebanon (then controlled by Syria). This action was undertaken to halt the massacre of Maronite Christians being carried out by Druze and Ottoman troops. Spurred on by domestic Catholic opinion, France intervened in order to rescue this persecuted Christian minority. Acting with the support of the great powers, France deployed ground troops to the area and justified its actions in humanitarian terms.

The Greek and Lebanese cases foreshadow later discussions pertaining to multilateralism. Both actions received the sanction of the great powers of the day, a notable development that signaled a tentative acceptance of humanitarian actions in international affairs. If, however, the Greek and Lebanese interventions called attention to an emergent humanitarian impulse in world politics, the weak (and in the latter case, nonexistent) response from the international community to both the Bulgarian massacre of 1876 and the Armenian genocide during and after World War I highlighted its limits. In both cases, the major European powers demonstrated a reluctance to risk national blood and treasure to save the lives of foreign nationals caught up in state-sponsored atrocities. Put crudely, traditional geostrategic concerns overruled humanitarian concerns.

These various cases – Greece, Lebanon, Bulgaria, and Armenia – display the limits but also the promise of humanitarian sentiment at this time. The limits of humanitarian sentiment in the nineteenth century are clear for all to see. While humanitarian concerns were undoubtedly of some import with respect to the cases just surveyed, they were secondary to religious-sectarian interests during this period. Where intervention did take place, it often relied upon a regressive conception of struggle between the infidel Ottoman Empire and Christian Europe. For instance, all three parties to the Greek intervention depicted their actions as a defense of Christian coreligionists, rather than as a cosmopolitan responsibility. The troubling implication was that those with whom one did not share religious ties did not qualify for humanitarian protection of this kind. In other words, non-Christian peoples fell beyond the scope of human concern. On the other hand, the promise these interventions signaled is contained in two developments, both indicating a progression toward humanitarian norms. In the first place, the possibility that transnational civil society might form a cosmopolitan vanguard for humanitarian action in global politics first came to the fore in this period. Public clamor for a British intervention in the Ottoman Empire in 1876–77 foreshadows the development of humanitarian transnational civil society movements in the late twentieth century and beyond. The second development refers to the expansion of the sphere of humanitarian concern that has taken place since the nineteenth century. In nineteenth century Europe, one had to be Christian (and the right kind of Christian) to fall within the purview of humanitarian concern. Yet it was during this same period, often referred to as the “Age of Enlightenment,” that a philosophical foundation was being laid for an expanded and more inclusive conception of humanity.

The Cold War: Asserting Sovereignty

The idea of an expanded and inclusive conception of humanity developed gradually over the course of the next century until it burst to prominence in the immediate aftermath of World War II and the horror of the Holocaust. Following the devastation of the 1940s, the international community vowed “never again” and committed itself to a universal human rights regime and “to prevent and to punish” genocide. This nascent universal human rights regime was countered, however, by the process of decolonization, which brought with it a revitalized commitment among states to the institution of sovereignty and its corollary doctrine of nonintervention in the internal affairs of other states. This renewed commitment to the traditional Westphalian order was underwritten by the strategic realities of the Cold War; the division of the globe into spheres of influence and the attendant fear that any violation of this order might ignite a superpower conflict reduced the prospects for international human rights protection during this period.

Against these odds, a small set of plausible instances of unilateral humanitarian intervention occurred at this time: India in East Pakistan (1971), in response to massacres by the Pakistani military; Tanzania in Uganda (1979), overthrowing Idi Amin; and Vietnam in Cambodia (1979), pushing the Khmer Rouge from power. These interventions, which have been treated extensively by Ramsbotham and Woodhouse (1996), Murphy (1998), Wheeler (2000), and Franck (2002), were necessarily limited ventures and were justified by reference to nonhumanitarian norms (in contrast with current practice where humanitarian arguments are used to justify nonhumanitarian actions). This reluctance to use humanitarian justifications was a reflection of the fact that human rights norms had not reached the point that they could override concerns over sovereignty and the Cold War balance of power (as well as the fact that there were obviously nonhumanitarian motives involved). Anxieties persisted that humanitarian intervention would destabilize international order by undermining the sanctity of state borders and dissolving the doctrine of nonintervention.

Modest openings toward a new agenda did, however, appear in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Reisman and McDougal (1973) initiated a debate about intervention when they published a memorandum arguing that unilateral humanitarian intervention should be recognized as a legal right. Against the backdrop of the attempted secession of Biafra from Nigeria, this memorandum called on the International Law Association (ILA) to draft a set of rules that would establish a legal template for intervention. The ILA’s response came in 1974. Taking up the challenge laid down by Reisman and McDougal, it promulgated a list of twelve criteria for legitimate intervention. These criteria focused predominantly on the intentions of the intervening party, requiring that the intervening country go to the Security Council before the intervention, and creating a clear hierarchy of preference as to who should undertake the intervention: the UN, then regional organizations, then individual states (Wheeler 2000). These criteria suggest a degree of reluctance to endorse unilateral intervention. Rather than delegating the response to humanitarian crises to those individual states that display a willingness and capability to project force, the ILA framed the challenge of intervention as an issue for the entire international community led by the UN. This was, however, an idea whose time had not yet come. There was little further call for discussion of humanitarian intervention in the late 1970s and 1980s as the Cold War rumbled on. This was to change in the 1990s following the sudden conclusion of the US–Soviet rivalry.

After the Cold War: Revisiting Sovereignty

The 1990s witnessed a major evolution in normative understandings of the balance between sovereignty and human rights and the practice of humanitarian intervention. Humanitarian intervention gained credence as an appropriate response to widespread gross violations of human rights, although practice did not always live up to this evolving understanding. Three factors facilitated this development. First, the collapse of the Soviet and Yugoslav states unleashed a rash of “new wars” (Kaldor 2007b) in central and eastern Europe and a number of African states. Ethnic cleansing and mass civilian casualties accompanied these conflicts. In this regard, the collapse of the Eastern bloc created a demand for humanitarian intervention. Second, the end of the Cold War and the accession of the US to the role of the sole superpower ensured that this demand could now be met without risk of provoking a global war. The US, as the undisputed global superpower, now enjoyed a free hand in the management of international peace and security. Third, these developments were supplemented by technological innovation: courtesy of the so-called revolution in military affairs (RMA), the world’s most technologically advanced states now possessed an enhanced capacity to intervene in faraway war zones, lessening the risk to their troops (although some, e.g. Kaldor 2007a, question whether such technologies are actually effective against the asymmetrical enemies found in these conflicts). The convergence of these factors in the early 1990s favored the emergent practice of humanitarian intervention. A number of benchmark interventions duly took place during these years: Liberia (1990), Northern Iraq (1991), Somalia (1992), Haiti (1994), and Kosovo (1999), as well as one notable failure – Rwanda (1994). These cases are worth reviewing.

In 1990, civil war erupted in Liberia, involving widespread gross violations of human rights and threats to regional stability. Following the Security Council’s refusal to consider the situation, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) led a robust peace-enforcement mission in the area. This intervention met with general support from the people of Liberia as well as from members of the international community (as did the humanitarian justifications put forth by ECOWAS). Further, the Secretary-General of the Organization of African Unity (OAU), Salim A. Salim, declared that African governments could no longer hide behind arguments of sovereignty to engage in such human rights abuses. This was significant given that most African states, as with most postcolonial states, have been particularly jealous of their sovereignty and very hostile to any sort of intervention. It also marked the first occasion on which the international community supported a humanitarian intervention undertaken by a regional organization without UN approval.

Operation Provide Comfort, the US–UK–French intervention in Iraq in late 1991, undertaken in the months following the ejection of Iraqi forces from Kuwait, represented an ambiguous reflection of partial normative change among the Western great powers. It established “no-fly zones” in northern and southern Iraq in order to protect the region’s minority populations from the violent mistreatment they were suffering at the hands of Iraqi government troops. France argued that massive human rights abuses, even if not identified as threats to international peace and security, could legitimate Security Council action. The resolution the Allies relied on for authority to intervene did not authorize military action so it was technically illegal, although there was general acquiescence by the international community. Yet, the Allied powers’ argument that the intervention was legitimated by the Security Council recognized the necessity of multilateral “right authority.” Operation Restore Hope, the 1992–3 intervention in Somalia undertaken by US forces under UN command, was also legitimated by reference to the connection between humanitarian crises and international peace security. This was, however, a botched operation: US forces commenced an early withdrawal only a few months into the mission after incurring higher casualties than anticipated, revealing a shallow commitment to humanitarian objectives. Finally on this same theme, in providing Chapter VII sanction for the 1994 US intervention in Haiti, the Security Council directly linked human rights violations and the refugee crisis to threats to international security. In this instance, the intervention was supported by a cluster of Latin American countries that, although unaffected by the refugee crisis, endorsed the use of force to return Aristide to power, thus partially creating a precedent for so-called democratic interventions.

Perhaps, however, it is necessary at this point to recall the caution that it is possible to overstate the element of continuity at work in this narrative. Although the train of events from Liberia in 1991 to Haiti in 1994 suggests a smooth progression toward an assertive norm of humanitarian intervention, this overlooks those cases – most notably Bosnia and Rwanda – where humanitarian concern was either totally absent or found wanting. The case of Bosnia is disheartening for supporters of humanitarian action. A lack of political will hindered efforts to halt the human rights crisis the Former Yugoslavia endured from 1992 to 1995. During this period, a series of atrocities took place, including the institution of concentration camps and the massacre at Srebrenica, where 8000 Bosnian Muslims were murdered. In the final analysis, it took forceful action by NATO forces to halt the killing and bring an end to the conflict. The fact that it took more than three years for the international community to adequately address the situation demonstrates a lack of humanitarian resolve.

An even greater lack of resolve was demonstrated during the 1994 Rwandan genocide, in which approximately 800,000 people were killed in a situation that represented the clearest case of genocide since the Holocaust. The international reaction was silence. The UN sought to wind down its existing mission in Rwanda by withdrawing troops, while members of the Security Council, most notably the US, refused to acknowledge the nature of events in Rwanda for fear that this would commit them to a policy of military intervention. The only forceful action – with UN approval – occurred when France engaged in Opération Turquoise, a limited intervention that focused on securing Hutu areas and hardly addressed the broader context of the genocide.

A rather more robust intervention occurred in Kosovo in 1999, when NATO forces undertook to halt Serbian atrocities in the region. This intervention broached opposition from both Russia and China. Both states were reluctant to acquiesce in what they perceived would be a precedent-setting violation of state sovereignty. The Western powers harbored no such qualms. Disregarding their failure to secure UN authorization for the intervention, they initiated a protracted bombing campaign of dubious legality against Serbian forces operating in Kosovo. Despite securing a degree of international support, and ultimately achieving its objectives by forcing Serbia’s capitulation, NATO’s conduct of this campaign was criticized. Critics of the intervention claimed that its reliance on a bombing strategy carried out from high altitude transferred risk from NATO aviators to civilians on the ground, thus illustrating the limits to the cost that intervening states may be willing to endure and highlighting the question of jus in bello when evaluating such interventions. Setting this concern aside, along with those relating to the legal status of NATO’s actions, this intervention is generally regarded as the high-water mark of humanitarian interventionism in the 1990s.

Summing up this period closing the twentieth century, there was no clear consensus either for or against humanitarian intervention. The story was a muddled one: successful interventions were often followed by weak-willed failures and noninterventions, and no formal conclusion had yet been reached as to the legal status of intervention. This situation continued into the early years of the twenty-first century. This equivocal state of affairs is perhaps best understood by reference to the latter months of 2001, when the terrorist attacks of September 11 were closely followed by the publication of the ICISS report, The Responsibility to Protect (the idea of the responsibility to protect is often referred to simply as R2P).

After 9/11: R2P and the War on Terror

The ICISS report represented a serious effort on the part of its sponsors to develop a legal consensus pertaining to the practice of humanitarian intervention. As noted earlier, it proposes that military intervention should be permitted as a last resort in those cases where a state has failed to discharge its responsibility to guarantee the human rights of its people. ICISS also argued that in addition to the “responsibility to react” (which frequently is equated with R2P), the international community had a “responsibility to prevent” situations from escalating to the point where intervention is needed, as well as a “responsibility to rebuild” after an intervention. While these two other responsibilities are obviously important, they go beyond the focus of this essay and so it will suffice to note the broader agenda even if R2P has come to be equated with the responsibility to react. Under the heading of the “responsibility to react” ICISS also included nonmilitary actions such as sanctions, although, again, much of the academic analysis, as well as the focus of human rights activists, has been centered on military intervention. Not surprisingly, these proposals generated much discussion. They also garnered a substantial degree of support, most notably from the UN Secretary-General’s High-level Panel on Threats, Challenges and Change (2004), Kofi Annan’s report In Larger Freedom (2005), and the 2005 UN World Summit. At the World Summit, the gathered leaders recognized a responsibility to protect, although with significant caveats. In just four years a phrase moved from the realm of academics and international do-gooders to the halls of the UN, along the way gaining ground as a new global norm. At the same time, support for R2P is not uniform. The most vociferous dissent comes from a relatively small number of countries, mostly, although not exclusively, from the Middle East and Asia, including two permanent members of the UN Security Council – China and Russia (Thakur 2006; Banda 2007).

It would not, however, be unfair to suggest that R2P was overshadowed during this same period by the events of 9/11 and the subsequent “war on terror.” The events of 9/11 and the “war on terror” breathed a new lease of life into the traditional national security agenda, as international terrorism, proliferation, and border controls have returned to prominence. Indeed, it is possible to argue that this agenda has reduced the possibility of humanitarian intervention occurring even in cases of great need. This has arguably been the case with respect to Darfur. Already militarily and economically overstretched by the requirements of the “war on terror,” the US and its allies do not possess the resources to commit to tackling Sudanese problems. Although US officials have declared that the situation in Darfur amounts to genocide, and a UN investigation found crimes against humanity, a robust response has not been forthcoming. As the situation has deteriorated, it has been met with little more than a UN Security Council referral to the International Criminal Court and two underresourced peacekeeping missions – one courtesy of the African Union and the other initiated under the umbrella of the UN. So far as Darfur is concerned then, the international community has not lived up to the commitments it rendered at the World Summit, thus calling into question the normative force of R2P.

Yet it is not entirely appropriate to suggest that the “war on terror” forecloses the possibility of humanitarian intervention. In many cases, proponents of the “war on terror” have sought to reconcile the human rights discourse and the global campaign against terrorism. They have done so by drawing a link between human well-being and global security, observing that regions suffering from repression and deprivation are likely to foster violent extremism. From this perspective, national security concerns and humanitarian objectives go together: national security objectives can be served by active humanitarian engagement, while humanitarian objectives gain more traction by association with national security concerns. Indeed, it is possible to discern a blurring of national security and humanitarian objectives in the official discourse pertaining to those military engagements that have taken place under the banner of the “war on terror.” For instance, though the US-led invasion of Afghanistan was primarily a response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the Bush administration supplemented its legal case for the use of force by invoking humanitarian concerns. While humanitarianism was not the Bush administration’s central concern, it certainly played a prominent role in their defense of the invasion (Mills 2005). Only eighteen months later the US and its allies again deployed the language of humanitarianism to justify the widely condemned invasion of Iraq. Spokespersons for the British and American governments repeatedly claimed that any invasion of Iraq should be welcomed as an act of liberation that would rescue the Iraqi people from Ba’athist misrule and usher in a more democratic form of government (O’Driscoll 2008:68–72). The simple fact that these parties sought to legitimate the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq on humanitarian grounds indicates that the “war on terror” does not preclude humanitarian intervention. Rather, it incorporates it into a broader security agenda designed to address the rise of violent extremism.

The sustainability of this approach to humanitarianism has been called into question by many commentators. They warn that this is a shallow brand of humanitarianism that is contingent upon the ebb and flow of realpolitik. The merging of interests is only coincidental and interventions conducted against terrorism will likely not be conducted in the same way that a true humanitarian intervention would or should be carried out. This has certainly been the case in both Afghanistan and Iraq, where the means employed have not always been consistent with humanitarian objectives. Indeed, the failure to commit to a firm stance over Darfur indicates that the “war on terror” is just as likely to push aside humanitarian interests as advance them. More worrying, the abuse and manipulation of humanitarian justifications for actions that do not readily fit this billing have led to widespread suspicion of such arguments (Bellamy 2004).

In conclusion of this section, we might note that the picture presented here is unclear. The narrative that we are confronted with in relation to the historical development of humanitarian intervention is a story that encompasses progression and evolution, but it also includes reverses, breaks, and ruptures. Facing into the twenty-first century, it is difficult to speculate what the future holds for humanitarian intervention. Will it be completely eclipsed by the “war on terror” and the return of a more conservative national security agenda in Washington and elsewhere, or will it enjoy a revival as security concerns incorporate an ever greater humanitarian component and human rights norms acquire greater salience? What is clear is that there is no teleological driver at work here that might guide our enquiries, only the interplay of idealism, politics, and historical contingency. Accordingly, we are left with many tensions, loose ends, and controversies that have yet to be resolved. The next section will consider these issues, and assess the prospects for their resolution in the years to come.

Core Debates

The previous discussion of actual cases of intervention and nonintervention in instances of genocide and other humanitarian crises illuminates the main issues involved in assessing humanitarian intervention. These issues gesture toward some of the questions raised above relating to self-determination, sovereignty, jurisdiction, and responsibility. These questions are, of course, of a historical character. With this in mind, this section will attempt to unpack some of these questions as they arose in relation to the historical development of humanitarian intervention as we have just traced it.

Self-Determination: Human Rights versus State Sovereignty

At the core of debates over the legitimacy of humanitarian intervention is the debate over state sovereignty. Historically speaking, international society has recognized state sovereignty as the foundational norm of world politics and the starting point for any discussion relating to humanitarian intervention. Acting as both a settled norm and a set of international legal principles, state sovereignty creates a seemingly unbreakable line between what happens inside a state and everything else beyond the state. It stipulates that states should be free to organize their common life according to their own cultural mores and needs, absent external interference. As such, it safeguards the right of states to self-determination and fosters a presumption against humanitarian intervention. As noted, sovereignty was vigorously asserted during the Cold War, thus protecting many human rights abusing regimes from outside interference. Yet, the human rights discourse spread after World War II, challenging and then recasting the debate, questioning claims to absolute sovereignty and the firm dividing line between the domestic and the international.

One challenge (Mills 1998a; International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty 2001), drawing on Lockean and other notions of a social contract, argued that states which violated human rights lost legitimacy and would be open to sanctions by the international community. This perspective recognized the continuing relevance of sovereignty but sought to reinterpret traditional notions of sovereignty to include protection of human rights as a core element. Further, R2P maintains that the international community has not only a right, which had been the previous term under which humanitarian intervention had been discussed, but a responsibility to take measures, including military intervention, when widespread gross violations of human rights occur. However, the status and locus of that duty are not clear (Bagnoli 2006; Tan 2006). In Kantian terms, is this a perfect duty – i.e. something which is absolutely required on the part of an agent – or an imperfect duty – where there is some sort of discretion on the part of an agent? This is tied up with the question of who is the repository of this duty; that is, who are the agents to which this duty adheres? Is it states, and if so do they have a duty to intervene themselves or do they have a duty to create an institutional mechanism (e.g. a standing UN force) to carry out that duty collectively on their behalf? Many argue that the UN, as an expression of the will of states, has the duty. The UN certainly has not institutionalized R2P in any substantial way, nor has it responded to Kofi Annan’s (2005) call to create criteria for when the UN might intervene. These questions will be addressed in the following sections.

Jurisdiction: Restrictionists versus Counter-Restrictionists

Possibly the largest issue adhering to humanitarian intervention at present involves its legality or lack thereof. Is there a legal basis for a state or international organization to carry out a humanitarian intervention in the domestic jurisdiction of another state? These issues have sparked an intense debate between, to borrow Arend and Beck’s terminology (1993), restrictionists and counter-restrictionists.

Prominent restrictionists include Akehurst (1984), Brownlie (1963), and Chesterman (2001). They deny the legality of humanitarian intervention. Focusing mostly on black letter law, including treaties and legislation, they argue that there is a clear prohibition on the use of cross-border force for humanitarian purposes. Their analysis revolves around Article 2[4] of the UN Charter, which stipulates “All members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state, or in any other manner inconsistent with the Purposes of the United Nations.” This is buttressed by Article 2[7], which proscribes external interference in other states, with the exception of those interventions sanctioned by the UN Security Council for the preservation of international peace and security. Restrictionists contend that these clauses set out a clear and strict prohibition on unilateral humanitarian intervention.

Counter-restrictionists argue against this view. This group includes scholars such as Tesón (1997), Reisman and McDougal (1973), Pogge (2006), and Wheeler (2000). They contend that there are legal grounds for humanitarian intervention, even where it is undertaken unilaterally. In the first place, they claim that the UN Charter does not explicitly rule out humanitarian intervention. Articles 2[4] and 2[7] apply only to those interventions that aim to challenge the territorial integrity or political independence of any state; as such, they do not necessarily pertain to humanitarian intervention, which does not usually involve efforts to change the boundaries or challenge the political independence of a state (Tesón 1997). Second, counter-restrictionists claim that the restrictionist reading of the Charter is partial and one-sided, overstating the imperative of international peace and security at the expense of the UN’s stated commitment to human rights (Reisman and McDougal 1973). In line with this, they may also point to the Genocide Convention, which directs states “to prevent and to punish” genocide and which recognizes the human rights element. It is their third line of approach that is most interesting though. This involves an approach to interpreting international law that focuses not only on black letter law, but also pays attention to state practice and custom. From this perspective, it is reductive to treat international law solely as a function of treaties and legislation; law is also produced by opinio juris and custom. Accordingly, we can acquire a more finely attuned reading of the law by including state practice in our analysis. Where humanitarian intervention is concerned, some scholars – most notably Murphy (1998), Franck (2002), and Wheeler (2000) – have concluded that state practice indicates that it has achieved customary status. Drawing on a survey of state practice over the course of the twentieth century, they claim that there is a discernible progression toward the acceptance of humanitarian intervention as a legal norm. Of course, this assessment has been contested by scholars such as Stahn (2007) and Chesterman (2001), who deny that humanitarian intervention commands universal assent. According to this view, state practice does not provide firm evidence of a customary basis for humanitarian intervention in international law.

As with so much else pertaining to humanitarian intervention, the question of its legality is shrouded in doubt and contested opinions. Two conclusions can be drawn from this. First, the legality of humanitarian intervention appears to hinge on state practice. That is, it is not a purely definitional or analytical issue; rather, it assumes a historical character. It is sensitive to changes in the global political context. Second, while unilateral humanitarian intervention has a highly contested legal status, multilateral humanitarian intervention authorized by the UN Security Council is less problematic legally. The Security Council must only find a clear connection between the humanitarian crisis and threats to international peace and security, which it has on a number of occasions since the end of the Cold War (Mills 1998b).

Responsibility and Authority: Multilateralism versus Unilateralism

The distinction drawn between multilateral and unilateral intervention relates to the question of who qualifies as a properly constituted agent of humanitarian intervention. That is, which actors should be granted the responsibility to undertake intervention in appropriate cases and who has the authority to make such decisions? All things being equal, should individual states acting on their own initiative be permitted to carry out interventions, or should this right be reserved solely for international organizations such as the UN (or states acting on behalf of the UN or with UN authorization)? Further complicating the matter is the status of regional organizations. Should NATO or the AU be trusted with the responsibility to intervene, or would this invest too much power in what are essentially regional blocs? Before going any further with these questions, it may be helpful to define our terms. Multilateral interventions are those undertaken by a recognized legitimate international authority such as the UN. Unilateral intervention occurs when a state or group of states acts on its own initiative, without the imprimatur of the recognized legitimate international authority. This may include interventions carried out by regional blocs (e.g. NATO’s actions in Kosovo in 1999) and informal alliances (e.g. the “coalitions of the willing” in Afghanistan and Iraq).

A key issue in this discussion is that of impartiality. Where a matter as sensitive as humanitarian intervention is at stake, most argue that it is desirable that the intervening party’s motive for acting should be impartial, insofar as this is possible. Critics of unilateral intervention insist that it lacks mechanisms to ensure the impartiality of the intervening party, thus leaving a residual suspicion that ulterior motives or partisan interests may be at play. Brownlie (1963) and Vincent (1974), for example, both express a sense of unease that unilateral intervention may provide a cover for unscrupulous behavior. The justification of humanitarian intervention might be abused by states, as with Hitler’s invasion of Czechoslovakia or, more recently, with the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Moreover, acceptance of unilateral intervention risks ceding the global enforcement of human rights to those actors who are the most capable and least inhibited with respect to the use of force. This may not be a beneficial development and carries certain dangers with it: most notably, it risks undermining the international rule of law by offering the most powerful states a free pass to police the world as they see fit.

A multilateral approach, on the other hand, theoretically avoids the possibility of partiality and the temptation to empire by procedural means. By delegating the decision to intervene to the UN Security Council, it ensures that narrow national interests will not determine the course of action taken. Rather, a collective decision will be taken that, in theory at least, should reflect the will of the international community. This should go some way toward ensuring the legitimacy of the mission in the eyes of both the country subject of the intervention and the international community more generally. Despite these attractions, multilateralism is also beset by problems. First, state interests matter as much in the Security Council as they do when states are acting on their own. The aggregation of interests does not necessarily avoid this. In addition, the protracted and bureaucratic nature of the process that must be undertaken prior to the launch of any intervention can be problematic when dealing with urgent humanitarian crises. Indeed, the track record of the UN is not encouraging in this respect: all too often delegates have engaged in drawn out discussions in the chambers of the Security Council, while preventing or delaying action in Bosnia, Rwanda, and Darfur, to name just a few examples. Moreover, when actions are finally undertaken, they are often compromised by an inadequate mandate, the result of a multilateral bargaining process that occasionally resembles a search for the lowest common denominator rather than a quest for operational efficiency. This seems to have been the case in Bosnia. There is a very real danger, then, that if we insist on a multilateralist approach to humanitarian intervention, we run the risk of prioritizing procedure over results and instituting a system that is not responsive to humanitarian concerns.

Where does this leave us? Once again we seem to be in the gray zone of moral dilemmas, where the only option is pragmatism. With this in mind, a number of scholars (Mills 1998a; Chesterman 2001) have counseled that unilateral interventions should be denied legal standing, with the proviso that they may sometimes be excused as the only option available in worst-case scenarios. In other words, unilateral intervention should be tolerated in certain circumstances where multilateral intervention is not feasible or forthcoming, but it should not be codified in international law. Put simply, it should be considered as an extra-legal measure of last resort that requires political justification. Interestingly, this approach runs counter to the zeal for devising criteria that animates much of the literature on humanitarian intervention.

Criteria for Intervention

In an attempt to both empower and constrain the international community, many have put forth criteria for when, and by whom, humanitarian intervention should be undertaken (Ramsbotham and Woodhouse 1996; Mills 1998a; International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty 2001; Roth 2004). All of these sets of criteria hearken back to a significant extent to the just war tradition and tend to agree on certain core points: there must be horrific killings going on; the intervening entity must have a humanitarian motive (the question of whether other motives may also be present still exists, although many are willing to accept that states will have other interests besides humanitarian ones); proportionality, or the connection of the use of force to the end desired; and a reasonable prospect for success. Where commentators disagree, and where some may depart from traditional just war criteria, are right authority – can only the UN Security Council authorize such action or can other entities also intervene without UN sanction? – and last resort – given the extreme nature of the response should all other peaceful possibilities be tried first or, recognizing that more people will die while these other strategies are tried, can strategies likely to fail, or at least not work quickly enough, be bypassed?

These criteria are of use to policy makers in deciding whether to intervene. However, one might also want to evaluate after the fact whether an intervention qualified as humanitarian, which might include operational principles for conduct during an operation, thus injecting elements of jus in bello into the discussion (Ramsbotham and Woodhouse 1996; International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty 2001; Seybolt 2007). The conduct of NATO in Kosovo raises such issues (Chesterman 2001). Franck (2006) argues that the Security Council can act as a jury for ex post facto evaluation of interventions. Pogge (2006), however, points to the issue of jurying under pressure – Security Council members voting a certain way as a result of diplomatic and economic pressures. In addition, such states will likely not be disinterested observers. Lu (2006) argues such jurying cannot work against the most powerful states.

Whether there should be formal, institutionalized criteria is another important question. Kofi Annan (1999; 2005) and the Independent International Commission on Kosovo (2000) have called for codification of such criteria. Others are more cautious, arguing that interventions will be dependent upon more than just codification of clear rules, and that having a legal right of intervention might actually increase the instances of states using humanitarian intervention as a pretext for nonhumanitarian intervention (Chesterman 2001; Stromseth 2003). They also argue that no single set of criteria can address all situations. Others (Roth 2004) argue that such criteria could help deter abuse.

Evaluating Humanitarian Intervention

As will be clear from the sweep of this survey, most of the work on evaluating humanitarian intervention has focused on the legal/political/moral issues surrounding particular interventions; much less work has been done on empirical evaluations and trying to derive conditions for success of interventions. There have been attempts to evaluate the international response to single cases, including Rwanda (Steering Committee of the Joint Evaluation of Emergency Assistance to Rwanda 1996), Somalia (Clarke and Herbst 1997), Bosnia (Burg and Shoup 2000), and Kosovo (Independent International Commission on Kosovo 2000). Although these provide vast amounts of information, and important conclusions on the individual cases, they all suffer from the inherent weaknesses of a single case study. Seybolt (2007) examines a total of seventeen interventions in six crises to evaluate their effectiveness. He concludes that there have been some (at least partial) successes, while many of those cases typically deemed failures had the potential to be more successful. Further, strategy is very important – the way states think about the intervention and plan the application of military (and other) resources will likely have a significant impact on the success of the intervention. Most importantly, and in contradiction to many other observers, he concludes that rather than an absence of state interests, the intervening states must have some sort of stake in the conflict to ensure that they provide enough resources and have enough staying power.

In addition to the responsibility to react, the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (2001) also points to two other parts of R2P – the responsibility to prevent and the responsibility to rebuild. The former has featured prominently in many recent crises since frequently the international community does little to respond to situations until they reach some undetermined threshold of atrocities, media engagement, and NGO involvement. The Rwandan genocide highlighted not only the importance of early warning but the necessity of acting upon information in a timely manner (Adelman and Suhrke 1996). Further, as noted, one important criterion frequently cited for evaluating interventions is what happens afterwards. Do the intervening entities withdraw quickly, leaving the citizens of a wrecked country to their fate? Do they occupy the country for their own ends? Or do they provide ongoing financial, technical, diplomatic, and other resources to help the people rebuild? These concerns return us to some of the principal theoretical issues raised above in relation to just war; namely, should we view the practice of humanitarian intervention in terms of rescue or a further-reaching understanding of global responsibility?

Future Research

Most of the recent work on humanitarian intervention has reflected a Western perspective. Non-Western and other critical voices have been much less in evidence. Hashmi (1993) has given voice to one non-Western perspective, investigating the possibilities for humanitarian intervention in Islamic thought. There have been occasional observations on changing perspectives in non-Western parts of the world, and some other critiques – including possible moral hazards of intervention (Kuperman 2005; Belloni 2006) – but little sustained work. The charter of the African Union appears to provide openings for humanitarian intervention, but this was certainly not evident in Darfur. How have the experiences of the 1990s, coupled with expanding (although still problematic) democracy around the continent, affected state perspectives? Latin America has frequently seemed more Western in outlook; has its anticolonial perspective on intervention changed? Asia appears to be a holdout against many human rights trends, as indicated by the East Asian values debate in the 1990s; yet even China has felt pressure with regard to its policies on Darfur.

Normative political theory, development of criteria for intervention, and individual case studies have dominated the literature. While there have been some cross-case comparative studies and evaluations, there has been much less comprehensive work on explaining humanitarian intervention – i.e. answering the question of under what conditions humanitarian intervention occurs. Perhaps this is partly explained by the relative paucity of cases. However, the simple explanations that are provided – such as the “CNN effect” (which has been debunked; see Robinson 2002) – have lagged the other parts of humanitarian intervention scholarship and will benefit from further development. One avenue ripe for development is to apply the current scholarship aimed at reconciling interest-based and norms-based explanations of state behavior to humanitarian intervention.

At the beginning of this essay we disaggregated humanitarianism from humanitarian intervention. However, it is clear that there is a connection – intervention can be in the aid of humanitarianism, humanitarianism can be a substitute for intervention, and humanitarianism can be used as legitimation for actions that are labeled humanitarian but are not. States – especially Western states – are likely to use humanitarian action – whether forcible or nonforcible – as significant elements of their foreign policy in the troubled parts of the world. Further, one can also discern a complex relationship between these two concepts and the emerging international criminal justice regime. Does the latter help or hinder the former? More research is needed to embed the normative and practical development of R2P within such broader human rights trends.


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Enough: The Project to End Genocide and Crimes Against Humanity. At http:/, accessed Mar. 2, 2009. A project of the Center for American Progress, a progressive US think tank, co-founded by the International Crisis Group. Provides reports and briefings on particular situations, as well as information on activism.

Genocide Intervention Network. At, accessed Mar. 2, 2009. Originally a student-founded network to develop student and community leaders. The student-led component is STAND: A Student Anti-Genocide Coalition ( Genocide Monitor provides up to date information on particular crises.

Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect. At http:/, accessed Mar. 2, 2009. The Centre is an initiative of a number of NGOs and involves major figures from ICISS. Its goals involve supporting the R2P agenda and it promotes research and forges links with NGOs, governments, and IGOs to this end. The website includes relevant documents and it will update the ICISS bibliography, which is fully searchable.

International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty. At, accessed Mar. 2, 2009. The official website of ICISS. It provides the entire Responsibility to Protect report, as well as the research essays and summaries of the regional and national consultations that formed the basis for the report. There is also a searchable bibliography as well as relevant public remarks by those associated with ICISS.

International Crisis Group: The Responsibility to Protect. At, accessed Mar. 2, 2009. Highlights the work of the ICG, a major conflict-oriented NGO, in the area of R2P. It provides links to relevant documents, as well as speeches by Gareth Evans, President of ICG and co-chair of ICISS. The website also discusses R2P in light of current crises and provides an updated bibliography since the ICISS report was published. At http:/, accessed Mar. 2, 2009. Provides philosophical background on just war theory and an extensive annotated bibliography for its application to modern warfare, including terrorism and counterterrorism warfare and the invasion and occupation of Iraq. There is also a significant set of links to reviews of books related to war, as well as to many other related online resources.

Responsibility to Protect: Engaging Civil Society. At, accessed Mar. 2, 2009. A project of the World Federalist Society – Institute for Global Policy. Aims to expand discussion and awareness of R2P. Provides background information on various crises. There is an archive of relevant UN documents, government and civil society statements, and news articles. The website also provides short reports applying R2P to current crises.

Responsibility to Protect Coalition. At http:/, accessed Mar. 2, 2009. Organization focused on changing US policy toward R2P and the International Criminal Court. Provides links to key documents and related institutions and an updated bibliography.


The authors would like to thank the two anonymous reviewers, and the human rights section co-editor, Chandra Sriram, for their helpful comments on an earlier draft of this essay.