What is humanitarian intervention

International security

Peter Rudolf

To person

Dr. phil., born 1958; Political scientist, Science and Politics Foundation (SWP), Ludwigkirchplatz 3–4, 10719 Berlin. [email protected]

The NATO operation against the Gaddafi regime in 2011 was the first war that was largely politically justified on the basis of the principle of the "Responsibility to Protect" (R2P). According to this principle, the international community of states does not have a legal, but a moral, subsidiary responsibility to prevent massive human rights violations, if necessary with military force, if the government of the country concerned does not live up to its responsibility to protect its own citizens.

It is true that the R2P discussion is a continuation of the debate about "humanitarian intervention" [1], insofar as it concerns the hard core of the problem - the question of military intervention. But the R2P principle has changed the discourse on the humanitarian use of military force: In the case of the most serious human rights violations, intervention is no longer required, but rather renouncing it. The appeal to R2P thus tends to favor a moralism that ignores the dilemmas of humanitarian wars rather than ethically reflecting on them in their complexity. What is necessary, however, is a political and ethical assessment that does justice to the complex problem of a human rights-based use of military force.

Responsibility to protect as a normative principle

Seldom has a term found its way into the political, ethical and international law vocabulary as quickly as that of the "responsibility to protect". A concept, a principle, a norm or a doctrine can be used - even this dazzling connotation points to different interpretations. The International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS), which originally propagated the term, understood R2P as principle'Governments usually speak of one concept, and in academic literature, R2P is often referred to as an (emerging) standard designated. [2] A distinction must be made between the broad conception of R2P presented in the ICISS report from 2001 (R2P 2001) and the narrow concept as contained in the final document of the UN World Summit in 2005 (R2P 2005). [3]

When the ICISS began its work in 2001, the intention behind it was to give a new discursive framework to the debate on humanitarian intervention following the experiences in Rwanda and the Balkans. [4] With the establishment of this commission, the Canadian government had taken up the concern of the then Secretary-General of the United Nations (UN) Kofi Annan to create a consensus on the question of military interventions based on human rights. The term "humanitarian intervention" was deliberately no longer used. Instead, the Commission report uses the terms "intervention" and "military intervention". This took into account the reservations that humanitarian organizations had about the original name - they saw it as a label of military force that already had a positive connotation.

In terms of content, the commission adopted a new interpretation of the concept of sovereignty - sovereignty was no longer understood as control, but as responsibility. The responsibility to protect is divided into three dimensions: prevention, response and reconstruction. The focus of the report, however, is the hard core of the military intervention problem. In extreme cases, according to the thesis, military intervention is required if national governments fail to meet their responsibility to protect. On the one hand, this applies when a large-scale loss of human life is to be lamented or threatened, whether through government action or government failure to protect; on the other hand in cases of "ethnic cleansing" on a large scale. [5]

The responsibility to protect in the sense that it has received approval under the umbrella of the UN is narrower in some points. The final document of the 2005 Summit speaks of the responsibility to protect populations from genocide, war crimes, "ethnic cleansing" and crimes against humanity. R2P 2005 thus contains a list of specific cases of crime. The international community, represented by the UN, has a subsidiary role if national governments clearly fail to fulfill their responsibility to protect. In this specific case, this also includes the use of means of coercion according to Chapter 7 of the UN Charter if peaceful means prove to be inadequate. [6]

When it comes to means of coercion, R2P 2005 does not speak of "responsibility", but rather of "willingness". There is no mention of an obligation to intervene. [7] Furthermore, R2P 2005 does not contain any explicit reference to the third element of R2P 2001: the responsibility for the reconstruction. Nor does this document name any criteria for a legitimate intervention, as can be found in R2P 2001: These include a justified reason, right intention, ultima ratio, proportionality and reasonable prospects of success. All these features mentioned in 2001 come from Bellum iustum-Tradition that was continued in the "humanitarian intervention" debate during the 1990s.

According to the unanimous understanding, the principle of the responsibility to protect, more precisely the military intervention component, is not yet a norm that is binding under international law. [8] In essential points, the principle reflects obligations in the area of ​​human rights. A multitude of human rights norms have changed the understanding of legitimate state violence - and thus the understanding of sovereignty. Certain basic human rights norms - right to life, prohibition of torture and slavery, prohibition of discrimination - are part of international law ius cogens, to the mandatory law that does not allow any deviations. They are at the same time Erga-omnes-Obligations, i.e. obligations that are not only owed to a certain other legal entity, but to the entire community of states and other entities under international law. This results in a right to intervene in the event of a violation of fundamental human rights. [9]

To the ius cogens However, it also includes the prohibition of violence, from which individual and collective defense according to Article 51 of the UN Charter is exempt. Due to the prohibition of violence, military intervention is only possible unequivocally allowed if the UN Security Council detects a threat to international peace and authorizes coercive measures in accordance with chapter seven.

The actually innovative core of the principle of responsibility to protect, the interventionmandatory, is not a binding legal norm. The principle lacks essential prerequisites for this, including in particular general validity, clarity, consistency and, above all, appropriate legal practice. [10] States do not want to be legally obliged to intervene. R2P has no significant consequences under international law; it remains primarily a political-moral concept. [11] In essence, it is about a change in awareness, about the creation of "a knee-jerk international reaction that mass crimes that are taking place or are imminent concern everyone and not anyone". [12]

In the R2P discourse, the old idea of ​​humanitarian intervention has taken on a new form. But the responsibility to protect encompasses much more; because military intervention is only one element of the - to use current UN jargon - the third pillar of R2P, the prompt and decisive reaction. [13] In this respect, the advocates of the R2P principle are right when they point out to criticism that it is not just about military interventions. What is discussed under prevention and reconstruction essentially sums up what the UN and other organizations were already intensely preoccupied with in the 1990s and continue to be preoccupied. In this respect, the assessment is correct that R2P is in many ways "old wine in new bottles". [14]

But the "new hose" of moralization has significant effects on international discourse that should not be underestimated. R2P has changed the parameters of the international debate. [15] If prevention and diplomacy fail, as the cases of Libya and Syria show, R2P becomes the argument for all those who call for intervention. In the German debate, proponents of the NATO-led Libya mission claimed that external intervention to prevent massive atrocities was a moral duty that the Federal Republic had evaded. [16] States can very well evade the alleged duty of military intervention for moral reasons. The moral understanding on which R2P is based cannot lay claim to a monopoly on ethically justified action. [17] The problems associated with a humanitarian military intervention are so great that a "multitude of normative considerations" have to be taken into account and weighed up in individual cases. [18]

Human rights and military violence

Anyone who postulates an obligation to human rights-based military interventions argues within the framework of the "liberal" paradigm of international politics. Because from a "realistic" point of view, responsibility consists first and foremost in asserting national interests. Sending one's own citizens to war to save others without fundamental national interests being at stake is morally irresponsible from the perspective of the realistic school of thought.

The question of cross-border moral obligations, of the extent of responsibility for "strangers", only arises in the context of liberalism, but it is assessed quite differently. The decisive factor is whether you are more likely to Cosmopolitanism or that Particularism leans towards whether one advocates a moral universalism in which the fundamental rights of every human being are of equal importance, or whether one recognizes priority for the rights of one's own fellow citizens and understands moral responsibility in a graduated sense. [19] From a particularist point of view, a distinction is made between global duties and special duties for citizens in a political community that is characterized by its own identity and specific loyalties. Such an understanding of political ethics does not generally give national obligations priority over global ones; The "negative" duty not to violate elementary human rights also applies beyond one's own borders. However, the level of "positive" duties is lower.

Militarized cosmopolitan morality. R2P as a principle is committed to a liberal, cosmopolitan morality that ignores state borders and focuses on transnational obligations between individuals. Because R2P actually postulates - without its advocates justifying this - a general obligation to prevent serious acts of violence anywhere in the world by military means if necessary and to wage war in the service of humanity if this can end bad evils.

Even if one accepts the imperatives of a cosmopolitan approach that asserts far-reaching, universally applicable obligations to help, the question remains: Why is military emergency aid so often privileged in public discourse over other auxiliary obligations, such as the obligation to fight diseases that affect millions of people Bring death? If a positive duty to humanitarian intervention can be justified, because everyone, out of impartial considerations, would have to wish for a world in which he would be helped as a victim of violent human rights violations, then other obligations to humanitarian aid can be derived from such a perspective - to combat Poverty, disease, hunger. [20]

This problem arises particularly when looking at the consequences of action: If the goal is to save the largest possible number of people, then it may be far more efficient under certain circumstances to use those financial resources that a military operation devours in a different way. In this respect, the opportunity costs of humanitarian intervention cannot be ignored. With the sums spent on military actions, far more people could be saved if they were used for health initiatives, such as vaccinations against measles or the development of a vaccine against malaria. [21] One could argue that humanitarian interventions are not only linked to humanitarian goals, but are always mixed with other concerns, such as preventing the flow of refugees. But such secondary goals can also be achieved with measures for international health policy and disaster relief.

Global duty to help versus national responsibility. The obligation to wage war to rescue the citizens of other countries, if necessary, is justified in analogy to individual emergency aid, to which everyone is obliged according to their abilities and with an assessment of the risk to themselves. But that is the level of individual morality. In the case of humanitarian military interventions, on the other hand, questions of political ethics are at stake: Is a state even entitled to oblige its soldiers - citizens in uniform - to kill "strangers" for the protection of "strangers" and to take the risk of their own death? [22]

A global military duty to provide assistance is in contradiction to Responsibility towards own citizens. It also contradicts the "contract" that soldiers have entered into with their society: if necessary, to sacrifice their lives for their basic interests. In fact, the risk of own losses is minimized by the way in which humanitarian wars were waged in the cases of Kosovo and Libya - namely with air forces alone. But interventions under the imperative of almost completely excluding one's own victims do not correspond to the goal of saving as large a number of people as possible. [23] If atrocities are to be prevented quickly, as they are usually committed in the context of civil war and violent political upheaval, this requires the use of ground troops, which is associated with greater risks for one's own soldiers.

Kill to save. Anyone who claims an obligation to intervene assumes that it is morally justified to kill to save - not only to kill direct culprits, but also soldiers who are not involved in crimes themselves, and non-combatants whose death is accepted as "collateral damage". It was rightly pointed out that this shifts the debate: "It is no longer primarily discussed whether and under what circumstances an exception to the ban on killing is justified, but what types of human rights violations oblige one to intervene, even if those killed innocently are accepted. "[24]

When advocates of intervention address the question of the moral legitimacy of killing, they often fall back on two arguments. One is that we must accept the death of innocent people in order to save a far greater number of innocent people from death. [25] But the argument ignores the difference between inflicting harm and not helping - two behaviors that, depending on the situation, have to be assessed morally differently. [26] The other line of argument is based on the classic principle of the "double effect", with which the acceptance of unintended but nevertheless predictable victims can be legitimized. Accordingly, the death of innocent people is acceptable if it is not the means to the achievement of a good cause, but rather the unintended consequence of a justified act that has more good than bad consequences overall. [27]

The principle of double action opens up a wide scope for accepting unintentional but nonetheless foreseeable victims among non-combatants - a scope which, as has been criticized, is too great in the case of humanitarian interventions. These are supposed to protect people. [28] In the case of a humanitarian justified intervention, the death of non-combatants cannot simply be accepted as unintentional and indirect "collateral damage" of legitimate warfare.

The moral principle of a "double effect" underlying the argument of "collateral damage" must therefore be applied in accordance with the restrictive understanding as formulated by Michael Walzer with regard to the obligations towards the rights of non-combatants. [29] Accordingly, it is not enough that the bad effect is not intended and also not a means of attaining the morally acceptable goal. Rather, the foreseeable negative effects - in the sense of a "double intention" - must be minimized as far as possible while accepting their own costs. That means: In the case of a humanitarian intervention, the risk of losing their own soldiers must be accepted in order not to endanger the lives of non-combatants.The risks for both, for your own soldiers and for the innocent, cannot necessarily be reduced militarily together. [30] This moral dilemma cannot be avoided, even if proponents of humanitarian interventions tend to ignore it.

Consequential responsibility - ignored rather than soberly reflected on. In the debate about humanitarian interventions, the problems of implementation, the chances of success and foreseeable overall consequences are largely ignored. [31] The Consequences responsibility[32] does not only refer to whether the means employed are suitable to achieve the stated goals. In 1999, for example, the air warfare in Kosovo was clearly unable to prevent the murders and mass expulsions that began after the war began. It also extends to the foreseeable overall consequences of an intervention, which usually means taking sides in a civil war-like conflict. [33]

Humanitarian interventions aimed at saving lives are often portrayed as quick operations at low cost. But as a mere short-term therapy, humanitarian interventions can hardly be successful, since the human rights violations occur in a context that requires lasting pacification. [34] The responsibility for the consequences is particularly great if the regime is overthrown in the course of a humanitarian intervention. After that, long-term violent instability can be expected. [35] With the postulate of responsibility for "reconstruction", an important aspect of responsibility for consequences comes into focus in the R2P discourse. But since disenchantment has set in what the associated concept of the liberal peace building As far as is concerned, the reluctance to face long-term entanglements is politically understandable.


All in all, the problems and dilemmas analyzed suggest the following conclusion: Military interventions based on human rights can only be justified in extreme situations. If the human costs of such an intervention are disproportionately high compared to the benefits, or if it is unlikely that the desired humanitarian goals will be achieved, then the intervention is morally wrong in the sense of a consequentialist assessment. This also applies if the use of military force meets the criterion of the ultima ratio. [36] In both cases - proportionality and chances of success - it is a prospective assessment that is fraught with a number of uncertainties.

That means: There are not only pragmatic but also moral reasons for setting the threshold criteria for a military intervention based on the principle of responsibility to protect very high. [37] Intervention can only be justified if (1) large numbers of civilians are killed in a short period of time in a massively coordinated manner; (2) it is possible to save a considerable number of people militarily with low losses for the intervening states; (3) the prospect of permanent security without a long-term military presence and an expensive but seldom successful one nation building to be able to create.