Group B Seminar November 21st Topic B: Has 9/11 destroyed any hope for Humanitarian Intervention?

Image is open source from wikipedia and being used here for educational purposes:

On the afternoon of March 19th 2011, French jets attacked and destroyed Libyan army artillery (above) that was shelling Benghazi and killing civilians as part of a vicious civil war. Was this a classic textbook case of humanitarian intervention, or part of a wider trend towards western powers intervening in conflicts as and when they choose?

The exact essay question is:“Critically evaluate the argument made by MacFarlane, et al., (2004), about the impact of September 11th and subsequent events on humanitarian intervention.”

In fact if your read the article it becomes quickly apparent that the piece is about the responsibility to protect doctrine, sometimes written R2P as shorthand. This is obviously a case of humanitarian intervention, but it is a rather special and particular one related to the concept which was developed in the original Canadian brokered report of 2001. The article in question is quite old, and you should note that in 2009 the R2P doctrine was formally adopted by the United Nations as a norm, although that is not to say it has the status of binding international law as such.

Moreover, just this year the UN Security Council formally granted permission to a number of (NATO) powers to take ‘whatever means necessary’ under Resolution 1973 and 1970 to prevent the Libyan government from massacring its own people. This is clearly some type of humanitarian intervention, and perhaps a textbook case of one, although no less controversial for that. For example, Russia has diplomatically stated that it is unhappy with how NATO conducted its brief war against Qaddafi’s regime, in particular noting that France dropped arms to the rebels in apparent violation of the resolutions earlier prohibition on arms trafficking to either side (1) (France argues such action were needed to prevent massacres and in accordance with a broad reading of Resolution 1973). Whatever the legal details which will be argued over for some time to come, In reality NATO took sides in a nasty vicious Libyan civil war, that otherwise Qaddafi’s regime would probably have won through indiscriminate massacre. So does the doctrine of Humanitarian Intervention not actually demand participation in such civil wars? You could link such criticism of the idea to theoretical debates between neo-realists and liberals, the former keeping with an age old maxim that it is best to avoid meddling in other peoples’ wars unless by necessity rather than ethical sympathy.

A student should also distinguish here between whether the chances of using a formal doctrine like R2P have been harmed by the 9/11 agenda or whether in general humanitarian intervention, or even any form of western military role in crises has taken a serious dent in credibility?

One should query to what extent the writers have clearly formulated their research question, as it may well be the case that the American invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan earlier, were not taken under any formal pretext of humanitarian intervention per se. They were rather classic ‘Westaphalian’ state like exercises in unilateral war-making. The legal reasoning of the Afghan attack was that the Taliban government provided a safe haven for the 9/11 plotters. The reasoning for the Iraq invasion was that Iraq allegedly had weapons of mass destruction and was thus an imminent threat (neither claims were proven to be true or were especially credible at the time). The UN did not stand in the way of the American invasion of Afghanistan, however, it is noteworthy that the invasion received no mandate from the UN and the Security Council did not vote approval or indeed any permission to invade-they merely stayed silent de facto granting permission one could surmise? Equally, the US did not formally declare war against Afghanistan, which resulted in something of a legal grey area as regards to the legality of the invasion. A few months after military action a formal UN mandate was agreed for the stabilization force, which NATO leads and which wields a very permissive right to use force according to the standard of ‘all necessary measures’. In the case of Iraq, there was absolutely no consensus that the US and its allies were justified in taking military action. Notably, they failed to get a second UN resolution and therefore that invasion was carried out without any UN approval.

These details are important, because most of the advocates of humanitarian intervention, and certainly built into the R2P idea, is the advocacy for a clear UN mandate for use of force, which of course raises its own problems in that it gives Russia and China, both powerful and less than democratic states within the Security Council, a de facto veto over any humanitarian interventions. However, legally, whatever the American invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq were, they were certainly not exercises in humanitarian intervention. So how could they undermine the case for genuine interventions?

I think a better way of framing the writers’ question is then to what extent these wars discredited any form of robust intervention by western militaries which might in the eyes of voters look more or less like the same thing? One suggestion there is that voters may not be able to tell the difference between a humanitarian intervention and a more traditional unilateral war? Can they understand the difference between say the Iraq war in 2003 and the Darfur operation by the EU in 2009-2010?  Is there not a danger here of assuming too much ignorance on the part of citizens who it is true may not understand the finer points of international law, but can spot an aggressive war of opportunity from a more limited response to genuine atrocities actually happening and for which an intervention is both a plausible and workable last resort?

The authors do make the point that these post 9/11 wars eroded capabilities and budgets to intervene elsewhere, but notice that the very question itself may be somewhat muddled.

For example, they also concede that there is some evidence that humanitarian type interventions have continued after 9/11…what for example was the significance of a French led EU mission in the Congo that they mention?

Aside from the legalities, for which it is clear that Bush administration’s war on terror was not consistent with the R2P doctrine, what evidence is there in this piece that some hijacking of humanitarian rationales took place to justify this war?

To what extent is their argument really about wasted military capacity, chiefly on the part of the USA, which could be better deployed for humanitarian mission but which will be mired in Iraq and Afghanistan? (as I write this today the US is effectively withdrawing from both wars, leaving only some forces involved).

Details of public opinion are presented. To what extent do they show waning or consistent support for any obligation to intervene, which notice is not quite the same thing as humanitarian intervention or the R2P doctrine?

In conclusion, are the authors positive or negative about the chances for humanitarian intervention doctrines to be sustained and developed?

Notice that the question calls for a ‘critical evaluation’, which I think invites you to consider the strengths and weakness of their approach. In this regard I would suggest that the article is sloppy and imprecise in distinguishing between the legal doctrines for humanitarian intervention (or R2P) and the practical (military) capacities to do so. Indeed, the focus on military means to achieve humanitarian intervention is only superficially probed in the article-there is some discussion about white helmets and such like to protect aid workers. However, some experts have queried whether conventional western militaries, such as the US, are well suited to humanitarian intervention, whereas combined civil and military forces drawn from other countries might be more suitable and acceptable (India has contributed over 100,000 solider to peace keeping operations in recent years, and Ireland in relative terms has made a huge input for a small state). Such combined civil and military forces could look somewhat different from the type of exclusively military forces which invaded Iraq in 2003 (2).

Moreover, while the authors’ style of heaping quite a bit of opprobrium on the Bush administration seems both correct, and may be deeply satisfying, perhaps it detracts from looking more closely at whether there may not be more general limits to any doctrine of humanitarian intervention. In particular, given the centrality of the permanent members of the UN security council (China, Russia, France, USA and the UK) remaining vital in legitimating any form of humanitarian intervention according to most accounts, is this not ‘stranglehold’ by the permanent members not what remains most problematic about the concept rather than whether the global war on terror has eroded willingness and capacity to intervene?

Consider that NATO launched a major military operation against Qaddafi’s regime after his forces begin collectively bombardment of urban areas without discrimination and applied siege like conditions to cities within their own state. This seems like a textbook grounds for invoking any doctrine of humanitarian intervention. Yet why was no humanitarian intervention threatened against Israel in 2009, when the attacked Gaza in a not disimilar manner as part of operation Cast Lead? One answer is perhaps that for all their faults the Israel army did not have a systematic policy of deliberately targeting civilians, but then did Qaddafi’s either? What if the standard of care is one which approximate to an indiscriminate, disproportionate or negligent use of force against a domestic population? One commentary on the Israeli invasion of Gaza in Christmas 2009 noted that: “at least 759 innocent civilians were killed in Gaza during Operation Cast Lead, 318 of them minors……There is abundant testimony that Israel unleashed firepower of an unprecedented intensity in Gaza, despite its dense civilian population. Though efforts were made to warn civilians to leave the combat zone and many, perhaps most, civilians left their homes in advance of the army’s entry into northern Gaza, the combat zone was by no means emptied of ordinary people. A great many were killed—primarily because, as a high-ranking Israeli officer told The Independent, “We rewrote the rules of war for Gaza.” (3)

It is clear the conduct of the Israeli army here was not the same as that of Qaddafi’s forces, however the use of force may well still have been unlawful. The obvious answer why such a difficult case involving Israel’s use of force against civilians in territory which it is deemed to control as an occupying power, is of course political not legal: the ubiquity of an American veto within the Security Council which would make such a suggestion fanciful. Is this then not what makes humanitarian intervention so problematic as a concept?



  1. See: and also
  2. See for a discussion of this balance between civilian control and skills together with military forces needed for successful and genuine humanitarian intervention, Quille (et al.) (2006) Developing EU Civil-Military Co-ordination: the role of the new Civilian Military Cell. Available at:
  3. See Shulman  David (2011) ‘Goldstone and Gaza: What’s Still True’, New York Review of Books,  May 26th. Available online at




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