Humanitarian Intervention: "Why do states intervene in some humanitarian crises and not others?"

Essay, 2007

13 Pages, Grade: Distinction


IRPG 840 The International System

Why do states intervene in some humanitarian crises and not others? Support your answer with relevant examples.

Sebastian Plappert

Sovereignty emerged along with the appearance of the modern state system, and sets the currant norm in international relations (Forsythe & Pease 1993, pp. 291-294). Although often violated, the principle of Non-Intervention is carefully guarded by the nation states, especially by third world states and those who perceive themselves as potential targets of intervention (Ayoob 2004, pp. 100-104). Nevertheless, there is a remarkable trend to alter this concept for humanitarian intentions, predominantly by western, democratic nations (Ayoob 2002, pp. 83- 85). States are willing to intervene for upholding human rights, because human suffering is less tolerated. Some scholars go as far as to speak of a responsibility to intervene of the capable, to protect the weak (MacFarlane 2004, pp. 978-979). Traditionally, intervention describes an intended act of interference, which occurs when an external agency violates a state's autonomy and territorial integrity against its will (Vincent 1974, pp. 8-13). The concept of humanitarian intervention is therefore an intervention in order to relief physical suffering, to end violent misuse of authority, or generally to prepare humane conditions of living for the local people by force (Holzgrefe 2003, p. 18). However, states do not intervene in any case human rights are threatened, they tend to be selective. This paper will argue, that the decision to intervene or not, depends on political will to do so, which itself derives from a correlation between anticipated costs and benefits. Intervention will occur only when, under consideration of all factors, the benefits outweigh the costs. After a brief review of cold war conditions, this essay will concentrate on key factors, which influence political will for humanitarian intervention in the post cold war era. All factors will be considered by supportive cases compared to Rwanda as an example for lacking political will.

During the cold war, the decision to intervene in humanitarian crisis was predominantly a political issue, carefully taken to balance the status quo. Humanitarian reasons were always far less important than geo-strategic considerations: Not human rights, but power relation between the USSR and the USA, determined the decision to intervene (Morgenthau 1967, pp. 427-428). Even by accepting humanitarian benefits of the Vietnamese intervention in Pol Pot’s Cambodia, the West was more concerned about the growing influence of communist Vietnam (Solarz 1986, p. 27-30). Moreover, Vietnam did not justify its actions by humanitarian issues, but by claiming to react in self-defence; which is a political reason (Klintworth 1989, p. 59). The same happened in the Tanzanian invasion of Uganda in 1979, which ended Idi Amin’s terror regime, but was claimed to enhance Tanzanian security (Roberts 1993, p. 434). Consequently, the USA, as well as the Soviet Union, intervened only when they could either prevent the spreading of communism, or “overthrow regimes led by warmongering capitalists” (Finnmore 2003, p. 85). Scott (1996, pp.) explains, arbitration for humanitarian intervention in that time were only possible as a ”result of doctrinal politics and bureaucratic infighting”, because the costs of an operation to relief human suffering are only justified, if political aims were at stake (Jackson 2000, p. 259). Cold War conditions limited political will to trigger an intervention just for humanitarian crises, instead, interventions were only conducted when it seemed possible to gain relative power as well (Mandelbaum 1994, p.15). Consequently, the character of the international system determines the political will of states to intervene or not.

However, with the end of the cold war, ideological bipolarity does not influence decisions for humanitarian interventions anymore (Falk 1996, pp. 511-512), but there are still cost/benefit calculations to consider, which determine political will to act or to not.

The first of several factors is a reasonable outlook of success. Humanitarian Intervention is only undertaken, when such an operation is considered to make a difference and is supposed to lead to a positive outcome for the interceding side (Jakobson 1996, p. 212). Success is defined as accomplishing the preset goal of stopping genocide or restoring food supply, while keeping casualties low. While achieving both ends, results in political benefit; the failing to encounter the crisis, as well as losses of soldiers, is perceived as costs, in the sense of wasted lives and effort (Luttwak 1994, p. 23, p. 27). Setting up safe havens in northern Iraq for the suffering Kurds in 1991 for instance, was considered to turn out successful (Jackson 1993, p. 592-593). The prior victory over the Iraqi army minimised the power of Saddam Hussein and the secured area could be protected easily by the superior air force (Jakobson 1996, p. 208). A similar perception was held in the case of Haiti in 1994. After Jean-Bertrand Aristide was overthrown in 1991, the junta of Raoul Cedras terrorised and killed over five thousand of Haitians, before the pressure of the USA made them resign (Hippel 2000, pp. 98-100). Haiti’s low military capacity and the lacking support of the population for the de facto ruling junta, led to a decision to solve this crisis by force. Since even “the Pentagon viewed the intervention itself as easy”, the “good chances of success … facilitated the decision to go in” (Jakobson 1996, p. 211). In these circumstances, an assumed low risk of failure in each case has enhanced the decision to intervene.

On the other hand, a perceived higher risk prevents states in engaging in interventions. This was apparently the case “during the Rwandan upheaval of 1994 [, where] most states were clearly reluctant to take decisive action”, because “the probability that an intervention would succeed … [was] too low” (Regan 1998, p. 776). The ongoing civil war, between two equipollent adversaries, seemed not to be a case, were humanitarian actions could have achieved a solution. (Kupermann 2000, p. 101-102) Since a successful operation was unlikely, Western governments were not willing to act. A state’s political will grounds on domestic support, which depends on the outcome of one’s intervention. Therefore, the strong possibility of success increases the likeliness of states to intervene, whereas a high feasibility of failure prevents humanitarian engagement.


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Humanitarian Intervention: "Why do states intervene in some humanitarian crises and not others?"
Macquarie University
IRPG 840 The International System
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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487 KB
short essay, 9 pages text, 3 pages sources, no index.
Intervention, Cases, humanitarian crisis, international relations
Quote paper
MIR, MA Sebastian Plappert (Author), 2007, Humanitarian Intervention: "Why do states intervene in some humanitarian crises and not others?", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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