The Politics of War – Humanitarian Intervention

As I sat down for lunch today and put on the TV for some mindless entertainment, I, not surprisingly, settled down on a war docudrama. Watching the representations of war in pop culture always pushes me into a spiral of thoughts and I want to quickly put them down here. On roll, there is always an attempt to glorify the phenomenon of humanitarian intervention but why are we ignoring the crisis its facing in the recent past and present as a doctrine having been reduced to merely a pretext for invasion?

If we look at the context of use of the terms humanitarian and intervention in an attempt to explore the debates surrounding the motive of humanitarian intervention being contaminated by power politics, we realize humanitarianism has evolved historically, once meaning only a simple act of kindness and benevolence. But over time it has meant alleviating suffering and providing relief to those not involved in war – the non combatants – and/or those affected by war. The international right of humanitarian intervention is an inchoate development from this very humanitarian impulse.

So when coupled with intervention, the doctrine by any definition will (and does) involve the threat and/ or use of military force as a central feature because, let’s be honest, the concept was never really developed with the intention of coping with the aftermath of, say, natural disasters. This, by all logic, leads directly to the inconsistency the practice faces with state sovereignty which in turn led to the conception of the responsibility to protect.  

But has R2P really been successful in masking the strategic interests and the pursuit of greater power which guides the actions of the intervening forces? Machiavelli and Adam Smith scream NO! from their graves. They called it way back while questioning the very notion of states being moral agents, intervening to put an end to human suffering. Realists reject the relevance of morality in international relations and their view point does provide us with possible distortions that moral perspectives can produce. 

The motive of any action is always complex and need not be dominant and/ or exclusive. An argument denouncing interference in a realm of activity ordinarily governed by the rules of sovereignty falls short in the face of, for example, claims made by Putin who suggested that Ukrainian president had, in fact, asked for support from the Russian federation prompting intervention. A Rwanda and a Srebrenica gave birth to new reasons to remain skeptical of absolute sovereignty.  

Its true, states fail to protect its people and their rights and recurring instances of gross and systemic violations of human rights have brought into question the very ability or, in some cases the willingness, of states to carry out such a responsibility. And so the international community accepted the responsibility instead and that this would be exercisable by the UNSC only. But clearly that has come to mean nothing, there being a  fresh crisis of legitimate authorization. Interventions have lacked not just legal justification but also moral justification as they only resulted in a worsened situation. Intervention in certain cases led to further political indecisiveness. Moral costs in terms of collateral damage has always been high. 

But the lack of a comprehensive systematic program doesn’t mean its not well worth trying. The positive effects of a successful intervention last for a longer term. As is the case with almost all decisions taken by nation states in the global political scenario, the strategy of intervening with military forces is thus seen by many as simply the best amongst a poor set of alternatives. Power needs to be seen, in its essence, not so much as control but responsibility which is why R2P was a good development. However, it is for us to understand that this mere shift in conceptual arena is not the answer to all problems. Issues such as the operational dilemmas, how interventions need to be planned and carried out, how international and domestic political will needs to be mobilized remain untouched. 

We need to save this doctrine from being a parallel to the practice of benevolent despotism carried out by the colonizers, carrying out expansion and exploitation under the pretext of development and civilizing mission. Humanitarian intervention cannot become, if its not already, the latest in the over dragged custom of political obfuscation. The resolution of this crisis is imperative to ensure the international system does not fail to begin with.  








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