Military Humanitarianism

Does Military Humanitarianism Really Exist? No, Not Exactly...

Since the end of the Cold War, the world has seen a rise in militarily humanitarianism. From 1948 to 1988 there were only 13 UN peacekeeping missions, but from only 1988 to 1994 there were an astonishing 21 UN peacekeeping missions.1 Often the military uses what David Rieff calls the ‘humanitarian alibi’ which is “the misuse of the humanitarian idea and humanitarian workers by governments eager to do as little as possible in economically unpromising regions like sub-Saharan Africa.” In other words, humanitarian aid is provided by governments, especially the United States, to nations in conflict that offer no political incentive for military intervention. However, when aid is not being used as the excuse for not intervening in conflict, it is used as a screen for military intervention.

The line between military invention and humanitarian intervention began to be blurred in the early 1990s and especially after the September 11th attacks when the U.S Secretary of State Colin Powell said that “NGOs are a force multiplier for us, such an important part of our combat team.” This has been dangerous for aid workers in the field because warring parties now see no difference between soldiers and aid workers which could be one of the reasons why aid workers are being increasingly targeted in conflict zones. 2

Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) follow the ‘holy trinity’ of humanitarianism which are: neutrality, impartiality, and independence. When governments begin to use humanitarian aid as a screen for military operations, it threatens NGOs’ ‘holy trinity’ and thus creates confusion between who is an aid workers and who is a combatants. Humanitarianism began to be used in 1991 in Iraq to cover for political interest in military interventions and has continued until today. The following examples are of U.S. military interventions on the basis of military humanitarianism:

Operation Provide Comfort
Operation Provide Comfort – Northern Iraq (1991)
During Operation Desert Storm, hundreds of thousands of Kurds attempted to flee Iraq in fear of being targeted by Saddam Hussein and headed towards Turkey. For political reasons, Turkey refused to allow the Kurds to enter; therefore, the Kurdish IDPs (internally displaced people) were trapped between Iraq and Turkey. The U.S. launched Operation Provide Comfort to deliver humanitarian aid to the IDPs and to repatriate the Kurds. Delivering aid and helping the Kurds repatriate were not the only reasons for Operation Provide Comfort, but there was also political motivation. Turkey was a U.S. ally in Operation Desert Storm as well as the bridge from the West to East, making it critical for the U.S. government to remain on good terms with the Turkish government. For the first time since the Cold War, humanitarian aid was used as a strategic tool and screen for military intervention and thus began the new trend of military humanitarianism.
Operation Restore Hope

Operation Restore Hope - Somalia (1991)
At the end of 1991, George Bush was a lame duck President in the U.S. and had no obligation or incentive to launch military intervention in Somalia. The United Nations Operation in Somalia (UNOSOM) was failing and the situation in Somalia was deteriorating into a humanitarian disaster because food routes were not secure which made it extremely challenging to deliver relief aid. Bush genuinely wanted to help the affected populations in Somalia by securing routes for food to be delivered to those in need and subsequently deployed 30,000 troops to help boost the effort. Things turned from good to worse in 1993 when U.S. Black Hawk helicopters were shot down. The peacekeeping mission was then turned to a manhunt. Although Operation Restore Hope was a success in military terms, it scared the U.S. from intervening in many conflicts for purely humanitarian reasons following that incident. This was the first and last time that the military used humanitarian aid without any political motivations.
Operation Restore Hope

Operation Uphold Democracy – Haiti (1994)
A coup d’etat in Haiti overthrew the elected President Aristide. Haitian refugees tried fleeing to Florida which the United States did not want. Operation Restore Democracy was created to reinstate Aristide as President of Haiti. The U.S. was interested in this intervention because it allowed Haiti refugees to remain in Haiti so they had no reason to attempt to flee to Florida. Furthermore, Clinton was trying to pass a health care reform bill and he needed the support of the Black Caucus for it to pass. The Black Caucus wanted to help Haiti; therefore, by creating Operation Restore Democracy, he won the support of the Black Caucus for his health care bill. Again, delivering humanitarian aid through military intervention had a strategic political motive.

Operation Deliberate Force
Operation Deliberate Force – Bosnia (1995)
The United Nations Protection Force (UNPROFOR) began an operation in Bosnia to secure aid delivery routes in Bosnia but was not specifically created to protect civilians from the conflict. In the end, UNPROFOR was largely unsuccessful and ineffective. The U.S. had no interests in neither Eastern Europe or the Balkans region but Operation Deliberate Force was created because Clinton was running for reelection in the following year and therefore needed a success in Bosnia.

Operation Allied Force – Kosovo (1999)

Kosovo was seen as the first humanitarian war which gave mixed signals and further blurred the lines between humanitarian aid intervention and military intervention. Operation Allied Forces was the second NATO bombing campaign after Operation Deliberate Force in Bosnia. The UN Security Council did not approve of a military operation in Kosovo but President Clinton rallied NATO against the UN Security Council’s wishes. The 50th anniversairy of NATO was near and NATO was beginning to loose its credibility so it was necessary to boost its image and Kosovo provided the opportunity.

Problems with Military Humanitarianism
As mentioned above, one of the problems with military humanitarianism is that it combines military intervention and humanitarian aid which confuses belligerent forces in conflict about who is acting for the government and has political motives and who is an independent and neutral actor providing aid and relief. Aid workers have become increasingly targeted in conflict zones recently and one of the reasons for this might be because the military is often using the fa├žade of humanitarian aid for their operations; thus making it hard for people to discern who is armed and who is a noncombatant.

A further problem with military humanitarianism is that it can make governments allergic to intervention when things go wrong. For example, after the Black Hawk helicopter debacle in Somalia during Operation Restore Hope, the U.S. was fearful of taking part in any other military/humanitarian intervention in any area that was of no strategic interest. This resulted in the failure to act during the Rwandan genocide. The U.S. had no direct incentive to get involved and was fearful of another botched mission so they did nothing to stop the genocide.

Why Doesn’t the U.S. Intervene in Other Conflicts?
In the name of humanitarian intervention, the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS) created two thresholds which allow for humanitarian intervention: ethnic cleansing and large scale loss of life. These thresholds are set high to prevent too much military intervention which threatens states’ sovereignty. To intervene, states must also receive permission from the UN Security Council. If violations are occurring below the ICISS threshold, intervention is not barred but other criteria must be met. To intervene, the following requirements must be met: (i) ending human rights violations must be the primary reason for intervention, (ii) the intervention must do more good than hard, and (iii) the intervention must have a good chance at succeeding. Because of the high threshold that must be met to intervene, states now tend to wait until the situation gets very bad before they even talk about intervention. The environment is now more reactive rather than proactive which means that intervention now occurs when the situation is severe rather than intervening in anticipation of a dire situation.

Darfur Militia in Sudan 
Sudan – To Intervene or Not?
So why do states not intervene in Sudan? The threshold that the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty set has been surpassed because there has been large scale loss of life and genocide. Under the International Coalition for the Responsibility to Protect, states and NGOs have the responsibility to protect civilians in crisis areas when the belligerent state (whose responsibility it is to provide their citizens with certain irrefutable rights) fail to do so. In Sudan’s case, Bashir has failed to protect Darfuris so there are, in fact, grounds for intervention. Furthermore, the African Union has so far been unable to protect the civilians in Darfur.

However, for intervention all the permanent UN Security Council members need to agree and in the case of Sudan, Russia and China continually veto the proposal. China is staunchly against breaching states’ sovereignty so it is therefore one of Bashir’s allies because he knows that China will not question his human rights violations in Darfur. When the UN Security Council fails to call for intervention, outside individual states then have the right to intervene. England and the U.S. are expected to act, but being tangled in two wars, their militaries are severely overstretched and cannot spare troops for Sudan. Furthermore, since September 11th, Sudan has cooperated with the U.S. in providing vital information so they are reluctant to intervene in fear that it may ruin the relationship and cooperation. Armed intervention in Darfur was also feared to possibly undo the South Peace Accord.

So why don’t other nations intervene? Other countries use the excuse that armed intervention in Darfur does not have a good chance at success so it would therefore not be useful. Also, when states intervene in overthrowing a current regime (in this case it would be Bashir’s regime), they must be willing to stay and oversee the stabilization of the government and the end of the conflict. In Sudan’s case, no nation wants to do this.

What About Libya?

Will the West decide to intervene in Libya? Thus far, the situation in Libya has not been been characterized as a humanitarian disaster, but rather a political issue. Since the U.S. and England are still involved in two wars, it is unlikely that they will participate (or be able to participate) in a large scale intervention. Furthermore, neither the U.S. nor England will want to remain in Libya to oversee the implementation of a new government and the stabilization of the situation since the intervention in Iraq did not go as planned and took longer than anticipated. Much like with Operation Restore Hope, the U.S. has become somewhat allergic to further intervention.

A Look Towards the Future

It will be interesting to see if there will be any intervention force launched in Libya as the situation unfolds. Furthermore, the more that the U.S. military continues to use humanitarian intervention as a reason for military intervention, the more confusion there will be as to who the ‘enemy’ is in conflicts. In future crises, it will be important to watch if military intervention takes place and whether or not humanitarianism is used as the reason. Until then, we must wait and watch.

1 Fetherstone, (1994) Putting the Peace Back into Peacekeeping Theory: Theory Must Inform Practice, International Peacekeeping, Vol.1 No.1.
2 Rieff, David. A Bed for the Night: Humanitarianism in Crisis. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2002. Print.

3 Day, Christopher. Class Lecture. 24 February 2011.


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