Respecting the "H" word.

The U.K.’s leading non-governmental aid agencies have launched an appeal for funds to support their work with people affected by the devastating drought in the Horn of Africa. The DEC appeal, launched on 8 July, will no doubt once again demonstrate the generosity of the public when they are asked to respond to this kind of emergency. But there are also lessons to be learned in terms of how we understand and categorise international intervention.

When agencies appeal for funds to enable them to respond to such crises, they are in effect calling for a humanitarian intervention in the country or region affected. In other words, they are proposing to intervene solely on the basis of the moral imperative we face to assist the victims of suffering, based on our shared humanity. This is what the word “humanitarian” means, and it is what gives the agencies – the UN, the Red Cross, the international NGOs – their legitimacy.

However, precisely because of its unequivocally moral nature, the concept of “humanitarian intervention” also appeals to politicians seeking a justification for interventions of a decidedly more political character. When the end of the Cold War allowed one superpower – the United States – to dominate international intervention the term “humanitarian intervention” came to acquire a new meaning. In the aftermath of the first Gulf War in 1991, when terrified Kurds fled to the mountains of northern Iraq to escape Saddam Hussein’s reprisals against them for daring to rise up against him – with the encouragement of President George Bush Senior – the UN Security Council authorised a US-led military intervention to provide protection and assistance. This intervention, although it was coercive and motivated by a number of different factors (e.g. political embarrassment), was characterised by the interveners as “humanitarian”.

This started a trend of coercive military intervention for ostensibly humanitarian purposes, which continued during the 1990s: for example in Somalia, Bosnia, and Liberia. However the political agenda of those intervening was viewed with increasing suspicion by others in both the global North and South. So, when in 1999 the US and UK tried again to use a humanitarian justification for intervention against Slobodan Milosevic in Kosovo they failed in their attempt to obtain a Security Council mandate. They carried on regardless and settled for an intervention that was held by some to be “illegal but legitimate”, but which could hardly be described as “humanitarian” without seriously distorting the meaning of the term. The low point of “humanitarian intervention” was when President George W Bush, faced with an increasingly disastrous situation following his invasion of Iraq in 2003, attempted to insert a retrospective humanitarian justification for his actions.

Meanwhile, an alternative approach to justify international intervention in the face of potential or actual mass atrocities came with the doctrine of the “Responsibility to Protect”, first articulated in 2001 and formally adopted by the UN General Assembly in September 2005. This shifted the focus away from the right of the intervener to the responsibility of the host nation to protect its own citizens; however if they were unable or unwilling to do so others had a responsibility to take collective action.

Although “R2P”, as it became known, appears to consign “humanitarian intervention” to the history books, the lure of the “H” word is still powerful for politicians. This is seen in the justification for the current Western intervention in Libya. Although Security Council Resolution 1973, authorising the imposition of a no-fly zone (i.e. military intervention), uses the language of R2P – referring to the Libyan government’s responsibility to protect its own people – politicians, media commentators, and academics alike have sought to present this in a framework of “humanitarian intervention”.  NATO leaders have characterised the intervention as humanitarian on the grounds that it was launched to prevent Gaddafi from massacring his opponents in Benghazi as he had threatened to do. However, clearly the reasons for intervening against Gaddafi (and not, for example, in Bahrain or Syria) are more complex and multi-faceted. When the crisis erupted, both President Obama and Prime Minister Cameron moved quickly to call for the removal of Gaddafi from power, but given that this is not part of UNSCR 1973 and cannot therefore be used to justify the use of force in a sovereign state, the official justification remains the protection of civilians. This resonates more naturally with international humanitarian law and is therefore used to support the – increasingly far-fetched – claim that the purpose of the intervention is “humanitarian”.

The contrast between the “humanitarian intervention” in Libya and the unfolding humanitarian intervention in the Horn of Africa could not be sharper. In the former case there is an avowedly political purpose – the removal of Gaddafi – supported by a humanitarian argument; in the latter a transparently humanitarian justification that transcends any political considerations. Even the militant Somali Islamist organisation Al Shabaab have called on international aid agencies to intervene, underlining the fact that they too accept the need for a purely humanitarian intervention. This is very different from the contested nature of the intervention in Libya. It is important not to lose the distinction between the two types of situation, and to use the “H” word only when it is justified.