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Analysis of International Relations 101: Approaches to Humanitarian Interventions


In the realm of International Relations, where conflict, displacement, and natural disasters shape our ever-changing landscape, a nuanced understanding of humanitarian action is paramount. In the series "Analysis of International Relations 101," the reader will embark on a journey to unravel the multifaceted dimensions of humanitarianism.  

From delving into introductory notions and concepts to dissecting ethical considerations and legal frameworks, this series offers a nuanced understanding of humanitarian interventions. Each article examines key aspects such as the historical evolution of interventions, the role of anthropology in shaping humanitarian practices, and the diverse typologies of approaches to intervention, including sovereigntist, pacifist, and human rights-based perspectives.  

Furthermore, readers will grapple with the ethical dilemmas inherent in humanitarian interventions, exploring questions of impartiality, consent, and the unintended consequences of aid. The legal frameworks underpinning interventions, as well as the roles of international organizations like the United Nations and NATO, are scrutinized to evaluate their effectiveness and challenges in coordinating and implementing humanitarian efforts.  

Historical case studies, including pivotal moments in Bosnia, Rwanda, and Kosovo, provide valuable insights into the successes, failures, and lessons learned from past interventions, shedding light on their impact on international relations. Moreover, readers will confront present and future trends and challenges in humanitarian interventions, from the implications of new technologies to the complexities of climate change and the rise of non-state actors.  

Ultimately, this series aims to equip readers with the analytical skills necessary to navigate the complexities of humanitarian interventions within the broader context of international relations. As we explore the intricacies of global humanitarian action, may these insights inspire thoughtful reflection on the importance of compassion, solidarity, justice, and collective action in the face of adversity.  

This 101 series is divided into eight articles, including:   

3. Approaches to Humanitarian Interventions   

4. Legal Frameworks for Humanitarian Interventions  

5. Ethical Considerations in Humanitarian Interventions   

6. Anthropology and Intercultural Aspects of Humanitarian Action   

7. Historical Case Studies of Humanitarian Interventions  

8. Present and Future Trends and Challenges in Humanitarian Interventions 

Analysis of International Relations 101: Approaches to Humanitarian Interventions 

Navigating the complex terrain of international relations, particularly concerning humanitarian interventions, demands a nuanced understanding of diverse perspectives, evolving norms, and ethical considerations. In this comprehensive exploration of International Relations 101, we embark on a journey through the multifaceted approaches to humanitarian interventions, from traditional sovereignty-based strategies to contemporary concepts like the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) and pacifist perspectives. As the global community grapples with increasingly complex humanitarian crises, the imperative to protect vulnerable populations clashes with the principles of state sovereignty and non-interference. This tension has fueled debates over the legitimacy, legality, and efficacy of humanitarian interventions, underscoring the need for a critical examination of the diverse strategies employed in addressing such crises. Through a deep dive into scholarly insights, historical precedents, and contemporary dilemmas, this article seeks to unravel the intricacies of humanitarian interventions and their implications for international relations. From the philosophical underpinnings of sovereignty to the practical challenges of implementing R2P and the ethical dilemmas surrounding pacifist approaches, our analysis aims to provide a better understanding of the various paradigms shaping international responses to humanitarian crises. 

Traditional Sovereignty-based Approaches 

Sovereignty is commonly understood as the supreme authority within a state. This authority includes both abstract notions of power (like influence, legitimacy, and control) and concrete mechanisms for enforcing that power (such as law enforcement agencies, military forces, and judicial systems) (Gulati & Kosha, 2012). Philosophers like Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau contributed significantly to the discourse on sovereignty. They discussed how this power emerges from a social contract—a theoretical agreement among individuals to form a society and surrender certain freedoms in exchange for security and order. This concept laid the groundwork for understanding how governments derive their authority from the consent of the governed (Gulati & Kosha, 2012). Sovereignty is not absolute. It is constrained by the rule of law, which means that the exercise of sovereign authority must adhere to established legal principles and procedures. This prevents rulers from acting arbitrarily or tyrannically and ensures accountability to the people (Gulati & Kosha, 2012). The idea of the sovereign state, where a centralized authority holds power over a defined territory and population, is a relatively modern concept. It emerged in Europe during the Renaissance and Enlightenment periods and later spread globally through colonialism and imperialism (Gulati & Kosha, 2012). 

In the context of humanitarian interventions—where external actors intervene in the affairs of sovereign states to prevent or mitigate humanitarian crises—the concept of sovereignty becomes particularly complex and contentious. On one hand, there is the traditional principle of state sovereignty, which asserts that states have the exclusive right to govern their internal affairs without external interference. On the other hand, there are evolving international norms that prioritize the protection of human rights and individual well-being. Balancing these competing interests is a central challenge in debates over humanitarian intervention (Gulati & Kosha, 2012). 

Figure 1: Liberty Leading the People (Delacroix, 1830).

In contrast to the traditional sovereignty paradigm, Gulati and Kosha (2013) posit a reevaluation of sovereignty within the context of human rights protection. They argue that when states flagrantly violate their obligation to safeguard the lives and well-being of their citizens, they forfeit their claim to sovereignty (Gulati & Kosha, 2013). According to this perspective, sovereignty is not an absolute and unconditional right of states but rather a responsibility. When a state egregiously abuses its power, particularly by committing or allowing severe human rights violations, it loses the legitimacy of its sovereign authority. In such cases, the international community is not only justified but morally compelled to intervene. This concept is rooted in the principle of "Responsibility to Protect" (R2P), which emphasizes that sovereignty entails a duty to protect populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing, and crimes against humanity (Gulati & Kosha, 2013). 

Humanitarian intervention, therefore, becomes a necessary response to prevent or halt atrocities. This form of intervention aims to protect vulnerable populations and uphold the fundamental principle of human dignity. By intervening in situations where a state fails to fulfil its protective responsibilities, the international community seeks to restore sovereignty to a state of rightful governance—one that respects and ensures the safety and rights of its citizens (Gulati & Kosha, 2013). This reevaluation challenges the traditional notion of sovereignty as absolute non-interference. Instead, it frames sovereignty as conditional upon the state's adherence to its fundamental obligations toward its citizens. In this light, humanitarian intervention is viewed as a means to correct severe breaches of these obligations and to reestablish the legitimate exercise of sovereign authority in instances of state failure (Gulati & Kosha, 2013). This perspective represents a significant shift in international relations, emphasizing the moral duty to protect human rights even if it requires breaching the conventional boundaries of state sovereignty. 

Figure 2: The Battle of San Romano is a Painting (Uccello, 1438).

Article 2(4) of the U.N. Charter enshrines the principles of state sovereignty and non-intervention, but its interpretation is pivotal to the legality of humanitarian interventions. Proponents argue that interventions to prevent human rights violations are consistent with the U.N.'s purposes, citing Article 1(3) to support this view. Critics, however, maintain that sovereignty is inviolable and that humanitarian intervention contradicts the principles of territorial sovereignty and non-interference enshrined in international law (Gulati & Kosha, 2012). The evolving discourse on sovereignty now incorporates the notion of responsibility, where states are accountable not only to their citizens but also to the international community for upholding human rights. This shift challenges the traditional absoluteness of sovereignty, suggesting that states must balance their authority with their obligations to protect human dignity (Ayoob, 2002). Building upon Gulati and Kosha's argument, Ayoob (2002) advances the notion of sovereignty as a dynamic concept evolving in tandem with changing norms and expectations regarding state behavior. This redefinition of sovereignty challenges the traditional view by asserting that states are not only endowed with authority but also imbued with responsibilities to protect human rights. Sovereignty, in this revised framework, entails not only the exercise of power within territorial boundaries but also accountability to the international community for upholding universal standards of human dignity. This shift underscores the interconnectedness of sovereignty and human rights, emphasizing the imperative of striking a balance between state autonomy and the protection of fundamental freedoms. 

Despite the moral imperative driving humanitarian interventions, critics, as highlighted by Gulati and Kosha (2013), often question the legitimacy of interventionist motives, alleging that humanitarian actions may be driven by geopolitical interests rather than genuine humanitarian concerns. Additionally, Ayoob (2002) warns of the risks associated with intervention, including unintended consequences and the erosion of international norms if interventions are not conducted following legal standards and principles of proportionality and impartiality. The divergence between Northern and Southern perspectives, as elucidated by Ayoob (2002), underscores the complex dynamics in debates over sovereignty and intervention. While Northern states prioritize justice and advocate for intervention to protect human rights, Southern states emphasize the importance of maintaining order within their borders and resisting external interference as a threat to their sovereignty. Bridging this gap necessitates inclusive dialogue and a nuanced understanding of historical, cultural, and economic factors shaping these perspectives, ensuring that interventions are conducted with legitimacy and sensitivity to local contexts. 

Figure 3: The Third of May 1808 (Goya, 1814).
Pacifist and Non-violent Strategies 

Contrasting with traditional state-centric approaches are pacifist and non-violent strategies that emphasize dialogue, mediation, and conflict resolution without resorting to military force. Advocates of pacifism argue that violence begets violence and that sustainable peace can only be achieved through peaceful means. However, critics contend that pacifism may not always be effective in the face of severe humanitarian crises, where immediate action is needed to save lives. By definition, pacifism stands as a marginalized viewpoint across political, cultural, and philosophical realms (Dexter, 2019). While many societies and faiths denounce violence, individuals who oppose practices like the death penalty, euthanasia, or abortion do not necessarily align themselves with pacifism (Dexter, 2019). Originating from diverse religious, secular, moral, or strategic standpoints, pacifism can either be conditional or absolute in its rejection of war, often extending to all forms of physical and non-physical violence (Dexter, 2019). It underscores principles of equality, dignity, responsibility, and a commitment to peaceful political activism. In the domain of international relations (IR), pacifism finds scant attention despite its traditional dominance by diplomats and soldiers (Dexter, 2019). Jackson's examination of leading IR journals between 2005 and 2014 revealed minimal discourse on pacifism, suggesting a reluctance to engage meaningfully with its principles (as cited in Dexter, 2019). It is perceived as disruptive, challenging the discipline's identity and societal structures entrenched in militarism and warfare (Dexter, 2019). Conventional ethical discussions on armed conflict rarely scrutinize the essence of war itself, a complexity exacerbated by evolving conflicts like the War on Terror (Dexter, 2019).  

Some propose reconceptualizing pacifism to encompass a broader rejection of violence across its various forms, be they physical, structural, or symbolic (Dexter, 2019). Galtung's insights (as cited in Dexter, 2019) underscore the context-specific nature of violence, suggesting its derivation from societal structures and its variable definitions depending on circumstances. Fraser and Hutchings' argument (as cited in Dexter, 2019) that discerning between legitimate and illegitimate violence, as well as violence and non-violence, proves inherently elusive. This nuanced approach to pacifism does not outright reject all forms of violence but instead evaluates them within specific contexts and power dynamics (Dexter, 2019). By eschewing a rigid definition, pacifism becomes a terrain of debate and uncertainty rather than a fixed standard (Dexter, 2019).  

Figure 4: A Sunday on La Grande Jatte (Seurat, 1884-1886).

The contemporary "pacifist dilemma" revolves around the ethical conundrum of whether military intervention should be employed to prevent mass human rights abuses (Dexter, 2019). This echoes historical debates surrounding pacifist responses to crises like Nazi Germany in 1939 (Dexter, 2019). Critics contend that this poses an unanswerable challenge to pacifists. The urgency to act in dire situations often overshadows doubts about the efficacy of military intervention, presenting a particularly daunting predicament for proponents of non-violence (Dexter, 2019). Cockburn's findings illustrate varied perspectives on this issue, ranging from advocating for force against threats like ISIS/ISIL to supporting broader peace-building approaches or outright rejection of military intervention (Dexter, 2019). 

Müller (2004) offers an approach grounded in three epistemic imperatives that guide the pacifist's worldview toward understanding and resolving conflicts. The epistemic imperative concerning human nature involves understanding the perspectives of all parties involved in a conflict, avoiding demonization, and promoting nuanced understanding (Müller, 2004). For example, during the Kosovo conflict, this imperative would involve understanding the Serbian viewpoint, including that of its leaders and critical intellectuals (Müller, 2004). Following this imperative does not mean accepting or believing everything said by the other side, but ensuring that their perspectives are heard and considered. It aims to prevent hasty moral judgments and simplistic portrayals of the enemy (Müller, 2004). The second imperative emphasizes the search for non-violent solutions to conflicts, prioritizing peace over war, and exploring alternative options before resorting to military action (Müller, 2004). In the Kosovo case, this would involve enhancing and supporting missions like the Kosovo Verification Mission (KVM), aimed at monitoring and de-escalating tensions without military intervention (Müller, 2004). The imperative acknowledges that reality does not dictate when non-violent alternatives are no longer viable; rather, this decision reflects a system of values that prioritizes peace over war (Müller, 2004). The third imperative highlights the need to be cautious of the risks of escalation inherent in military conflicts, advocating for thorough consideration of the long-term consequences (Müller, 2004). 

Figure 5: Moonrise over the Sea (Friedrich, 1822).

Another approach to the pacifist dilemma is to consider a just war perspective, which suggests that inaction can also result in casualties, as illustrated by British MPs during debates on the Iraq War after the Chilcot report (Dexter, 2019). This perspective sees violence as manageable and predictable if employed correctly, while viewing non-violence as mere passivity (Dexter, 2019). However, this outlook often distorts the complexities of crises and overlooks the contributions of both military and non-military interventions to these crises (Dexter, 2019). Rejecting the premise of the question does not negate the ethical concerns it raises; rather, it prompts a radical reconsideration of what it truly means to care for others (Dexter, 2019). Violence limits our understanding of our connections with others. Going beyond the notion of protective politics, pacifism offers a broader perspective beyond mere crisis management (Dexter, 2019). Humanitarian disasters are seldom unforeseen or unavoidable. Pacifism should not be undermined by the question of how to respond to others' suffering. Instead, it should focus on how our actions and those of others perpetuate cycles of violence, both structural and physical, within specific contexts (Dexter, 2019). 

The pacifist imperatives guide the evaluation of conflicts on a case-by-case basis (Müller, 2004). While these principles encourage a persistent search for peaceful solutions, they do not mandate an absolute refusal of war under all circumstances (Müller, 2004). Historical examples, such as the support for war against Nazi Germany, illustrate that pacifists may find themselves compelled to endorse military action when it becomes evident that non-violent alternatives are exhausted and the moral imperative to intervene outweighs the commitment to peace (Müller, 2004). However, the decision to abandon pacifist principles is not dictated purely by objective reality but by a moral judgment reflecting a particular system of values (Müller, 2004). Therefore, the commitment to pacifist imperatives can remain strong, even in the face of challenging situations, as long as the principles are pursued with reason and not dogmatism (Müller, 2004). 

Figure 6: Proclamation of Peace after the Thirty Years' War (Dietrich, n.d.).
The Evolving Concept of Responsibility to Protect (R2P) 

The failures of humanitarian interventions and the controversies surrounding unauthorized interventions led to the development of R2P (Gierycz, 2010). UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan's appeals for a more robust framework to prevent atrocities culminated in the ICISS report, which shifted the focus from the right to intervene to the responsibility to protect. The report emphasized that while states are primarily responsible for protecting their citizens, the international community has to intervene when states fail (Gierycz, 2010). The ICISS report outlined principles for intervention, stressing that military action should be a last resort and must meet criteria such as right intention, proportional means, and reasonable prospects. It recommended that the UN Security Council (UNSC) authorize interventions but provided alternatives like the General Assembly or regional organizations if the UNSC fails to act (Gierycz, 2010). 

In 2005, the UN World Summit adopted the "protection clause" in the Millennium Declaration, reaffirming the R2P concept. This clause, endorsed by all 150 member states, outlined the responsibilities of states and the international community to prevent and respond to genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing, and crimes against humanity. It mandated the use of peaceful means and, if necessary, collective action through the UNSC (Gierycz, 2010). Despite its formal acceptance, R2P faces significant obstacles. The "protection clause" lacks detailed guidance on implementing interventions, particularly when the UNSC is paralyzed by political divisions. This limitation has led to continued atrocities in places like Darfur, Myanmar, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where timely and decisive international action has been absent (Gierycz, 2010). The emphasis on UNSC authorization aims to prevent misuse of R2P but has not alleviated concerns about selective interventions and political bias. The lack of specific criteria for intervention and the requirement for case-by-case decisions further complicate the timely and effective application of R2P (Gierycz, 2010). 

Figure 7: The Course of Empire: Destruction (Cole, 1836).

A critical issue with R2P lies in the ambiguity of who exactly holds the responsibility to protect. While the primary responsibility rests with the state experiencing the crisis, this responsibility shifts to the international community when the state is unable or unwilling to protect its citizens. However, the term "international community" is inherently vague and lacks specificity, creating a loophole that allows states to avoid their commitments (Pattison, 2008). Thomas Weiss highlights this vagueness, noting that it enables analysts to skirt around identifying which specific entities should act when the international community fails to respond effectively (Pattison, 2008). The lack of clarity about who is responsible undermines the effectiveness of R2P, as seen in ongoing crises like Darfur and Somalia. The current ambiguity surrounding R2P allows potential agents to shirk their responsibilities, leading to a failure to protect populations from severe human rights abuses. This situation results in an unassigned duty to intervene, which theoretically falls on the international community but practically on no one in particular (Pattison, 2008). For R2P to be effective, it must move beyond general commitments to specific, enforceable obligations borne by identifiable entities. 

While humanitarian intervention (HI) and R2P aim to protect civilians from mass atrocities, R2P represents a significant shift in approach. Unlike HI, which focuses on the right to intervene, R2P emphasizes the responsibilities of states and the international community (Gierycz, 2010). It introduces a hierarchy of responsibilities, with the primary duty of states and the secondary duty of the international community to assist and, if necessary, intervene (Gierycz, 2010). However, R2P's reliance on UNSC authorization and the absence of clear intervention criteria create challenges in practice. The unresolved issue of assigning specific responsibility within the international community persists, complicating effective enforcement (Gierycz, 2010). 

Figure 8: The Intervention of the Sabine Women, (David, 1799).

Reframing R2P as a human rights concept offers a comprehensive framework for addressing the complexities of intervention and protection efforts. It provides a clear legal foundation, emphasizes preventive measures and accountability, and promotes broader civil society engagement and international jurisprudence (Gierycz, 2010). This approach can enhance the effectiveness and legitimacy of R2P in preventing and responding to mass atrocities while upholding human rights standards. The obligations reflected in the "protection clause" of R2P stem from established rules and principles of customary and treaty International Human Rights Law (IHRL) and International Humanitarian Law (IHL) (Gierycz, 2010). This suggests that R2P is already intrinsically linked to human rights and humanitarian law. Explicitly framing R2P within this legal framework clarifies the legal basis for intervention and protection actions. It also guides how states interpret and implement their responsibilities under R2P (Gierycz, 2010). This approach enables the development of specific mechanisms for monitoring compliance with human rights and humanitarian law standards, thereby facilitating the identification of protection failures and the appropriate response measures (Gierycz, 2010). Grounding R2P in human rights principles emphasizes the importance of preventive measures to address the root causes of atrocities and mitigate risks before they escalate. This aligns with the text's emphasis on the need for new ideas and approaches to better understand and implement R2P (Gierycz, 2010). R2P can be operationalized as a proactive tool for upholding human rights standards and preventing crises by focusing on prevention. This includes promoting good governance, addressing discrimination, and strengthening the rule of law mechanisms (Gierycz, 2010). Additionally, framing R2P as a human rights concept reinforces the importance of accountability for violations. It emphasizes the need for robust mechanisms, such as international criminal courts and tribunals, to hold perpetrators accountable for genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity (Gierycz, 2010). 

To ensure the responsibility to protect is properly discharged, it is crucial to assign this duty to specific agents. The International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS) posits that the UN Security Council is the most appropriate body to authorize military intervention for humanitarian purposes (Pattison, 2008). However, this recommendation addresses only the procedural aspect, not the substantive question of which particular agent is responsible (Pattison, 2008). For the duty to protect to be claimable and effectively enforced, it needs to be assigned to specific obligation-bearers (Pattison, 2008). Without identifying particular agents responsible for intervention, the duty remains an imperfect one, lacking enforceability (Pattison, 2008). Broader civil society engagement is also essential for the effective implementation of R2P. Reframing R2P as a human rights concept facilitates this engagement by aligning R2P with broader human rights advocacy efforts. Civil society organizations, human rights activists, and affected communities can play a crucial role in monitoring human rights situations, documenting violations, and advocating for action under R2P. Moreover, drawing on international jurisprudence, including decisions by human rights courts and tribunals, strengthens the legal basis for interventions under R2P. It provides precedents and guidance for interpreting and applying R2P principles consistently across different contexts. 

Figure 9: Panorama of Warsaw (Bellotto, 1770).
Navigating the Complexities of Humanitarian Interventions 

In navigating the complexities of humanitarian interventions within the broader context of international relations, we have embarked on a journey of exploration, analysis, and reflection. From examining traditional sovereignty-based approaches to grappling with the evolving concept of Responsibility to Protect (R2P) and considering the merits of pacifist perspectives, our exploration has shed light on the diverse paradigms that shape international responses to humanitarian crises. There are no easy solutions or one-size-fits-all approaches to addressing humanitarian challenges. Each crisis presents unique complexities, requiring careful consideration of diverse perspectives, ethical principles, and practical realities. The spectrum of approaches to humanitarian interventions reflects the diverse interests, values, and challenges inherent in international relations. Each approach has strengths and limitations, from traditional state-centric strategies to innovative community-based initiatives. The evolving concept of Responsibility to Protect underscores the international community's collective responsibility to prevent and respond to humanitarian crises. At the same time, community-based and multi-stakeholder initiatives offer promising avenues for sustainable peacebuilding.  The imperative to protect vulnerable populations must be balanced with respect for state sovereignty and non-interference. The tension between these principles underscores the need for critical examination, thoughtful dialogue, and collaborative action in shaping effective responses to humanitarian crises. By fostering greater understanding, empathy, and cooperation, we can strive towards a world where humanitarian interventions are guided by principles of justice, compassion, and respect for human rights, ensuring a safer and more secure future for all.

The upcoming article in this series will delve into the legal frameworks governing humanitarian interventions. Moreover, our analysis will encompass not only the formal legal instruments such as treaties and conventions but also the customary international law and emerging norms that shape state behavior and expectations regarding humanitarian interventions. We will examine the role of key actors such as the United Nations, regional organizations, and individual states in authorizing and conducting interventions and the legal justifications invoked in these processes. By delving into case studies and historical examples, we will elucidate the practical applications of legal principles in real-world humanitarian crises, shedding light on the complexities and ethical dilemmas inherent in interventionist actions. Through interdisciplinary exploration and engagement, we aim to provide valuable insights and foster meaningful dialogue on one of the most pressing issues facing the international community today. Stay tuned as we navigate the intricate intersection of law and humanitarianism in the next instalment of our series. 

Bibliographic References

Ayoob, M. (2002). Humanitarian Intervention and State Sovereignty. The International Journal of Human Rights, 6(1), 81–102.

Dexter, H. (2019). Pacifism and the problem of protecting others. International Politics, 56, 243-258.

Gierycz, D. (2010). The responsibility to protect: A legal and rights-based perspective. Global Responsibility to Protect, 2(3), 250-266.

Gulati, J., & Khosa, I. (2013). Humanitarian Intervention: To Protect State Sovereignty. Denver Journal of International Law & Policy, 41(3), 4.

Müller, O. (2004). Reconstructing Pacifism. Different Ways of Looking at Reality. In G. Meggle (Ed.), Ethics of Humanitarian Interventions (pp. 57-80). Berlin, Boston: De Gruyter.

Pattison, J. (2010). Humanitarian intervention and the responsibility to protect: who should intervene? OUP Oxford.

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