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Powerful States and Humanitarian Intervention Response

Humanitarian intervention is best understood as the process of engaging in military intervention by one state into another state with the purpose of minimizing suffering in the recipient country. Although this intervention is based on a very noble cause, a number of challenges have arisen in terms of such situations. Powerful nations have often taken up this humanitarian intervention role because they possess the authority and resources to implement it and it has even been considered a right. However, such claims have been met by equally strong oppositions that will be addressed subsequently.

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Powerful nations impose their ideas on suffering nations

Prior to making a claim that a powerful nation-state has a right to humanitarian intervention response to humanitarian crises, the intervening country must be prepared to face the fact that it is doing so based on its own ideas, and these may not necessarily be universal. One of the earliest writers on this subject-John Stuart Mill asserted that whether a country opts to go to war based on certain ideologies or for its selfish territorial reasons is irrelevant; both actions necessitate aggression and imposition of one’s will upon that of other people.

This results in nothing more than criminal action on the part of the intervening country. It is presumptuous to assume that powerful nations’ rules on morality in international relations are the same ones that can be applied to other countries that must deal with the same problem. Therefore, when powerful nations opt to interfere in the matters of another nation, they are basically trying to show that their moral law or their will takes precedence over that of another nation. (Walzer, 2009)

The western concept of democracy may not be the only interpretation of good governance as poor nations still possess their own cultures and institutions that give them their own identities. It is possible that there could be certain political institutions that may not necessarily be the best but are workable for nations that undergo humanitarian crises. In fact, countries that have been subjected to such interventions often argue that western countries often dismiss their institutions as having little consequence or value and this is reminiscent of an imperialist school of thought. (Reiff, 2002)

Humanitarian intervention to assist governments holds no water

Some powerful states assert that sometimes it may be necessary for them to intervene in the issues of another warring nation so as to assist the governing authority to restore order once it has been ascertained that the latter country is trying to fight off an opposing force within its borders. However, this justification may be questioned on the basis of the capability of such a nation. If a government cannot be able to deal with an uprising on its own, then there is little justification for it to exist.

It would do more harm than good for its institutions if another country decided to take part in wrangles between such entities. Usually, when certain powerful nations intervene in the affairs of another country, they are in essence absolving the poor country of its responsibility to protect its citizens. That responsibility cannot simply be transferred from one government to another; it is a sole reserve of the respective government that has been oppressing its people. (Abiew, 1999)

Sometimes some governments or nations may be confronted with crises that are perpetual in nature. In other words, humanitarian interventions to restore peace in such nations often end up being futile as the nations may continue to remain in a state of conflict. A case in point is the nation of Somalia that has not had a legitimate government for years on end. Some powerful nations have attempted to assist this country but their interventions have not yielded any tangible results as the country is still considered one of the most dangerous to live in today.

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The failure of powerful nations to cause change here illustrates how ineffective such actions really are as it is the prerogative of the concerned nations to make their countries secure. In fact, it can be argued that human interventions in such situations are never highlighted by western media owing to the sensationalist emotions that humanitarian crises evoke in western nations. To this end, many western nations often employ the term during high octane crises. Those issues that suddenly crop up are the ones that prompt powerful nations to utilize this right to intervene yet those very nations often go silent when it comes to chronic wars. These double standards, therefore, illustrate the questionable nature of such actions in the future. (Seybolt, 2002)

True liberty is fought for

A number of proponents of intervention by powerful states assert that humanitarian intervention is necessary to contribute towards the liberation of suffering people. In fact, this has been a very important determinant of such actions even as far back as the eighteenth century. However, the problem with such an approach is that most of the concerned parties may not be ready for the intricacies of liberty. In other words, for a nation to fully appreciate the notion of liberty, then it must be willing to brave and oppose all manner of barriers to get it. This is a form of orientation that renders them fit to possess institutions that represent liberty and freedom.

When an external party such as a powerful nation comes and imposes freedom and liberty in an oppressed nation, then chances are that the natives may never consider such values as truly their own. They may not possess the desire or will to fight for it especially when domestic conditions dictate otherwise. To this end, such values may then be short-lived because the oppressed persons do not have such a strong determination to maintain their freedom. In fact, the only thing that can truly guarantee that a nation remains free is letting them contest amongst themselves and emerge victorious in these respective struggles. (Hugo, 2001)

It abuses the sovereignty of nations

Many intervening nations have asserted that force is often justified because if no actions are taken in the face of suffering, then this would surmount to the lack of conscience on the part of the able or powerful nation. These proponents of humanitarian intervention further hold that military methods do possess the ability to create peace if they are handled in the proper manner. However, the problem with such a premise is that it only considers the view of the intervening nations. It has been forgotten that the warring country is indeed sovereign. It does have a right to carry out its affairs without interference from other parties.

In fact, the claim of having a ‘right to intervene’ has generated a lot of controversies owing to the fact that powerful nations are transforming what would be regarded as an act of good faith into a right. Furthermore, because of the employment of military methodologies, it is likely that the concerned parties may be affected quite negatively. This violation of another country’s sovereignty is not a matter that can be taken lightly.

It is also possible that powerful nations can abuse this right to intervene by failing to refer to a supranational authority. An example here would be the UN. Powerful nations often claim that emergency situations may necessitate such actions and therefore justify the process of interfering in another country’s affairs. However, sometimes these emergencies have been premature and have led to dramatic losses. For instance movement of refugees has sometimes been regarded as an emergency as was the case with Yugoslavia. However, this is a controversial decision and may not necessarily be strong enough to necessitate the violation of another’s country’s right to maintain its sovereignty. (Bordat, 2009)

It has often been stated by proponents of humanitarian intervention that one of the underlying principles in this kind of claim is the value of self-governance. They believe that all nations should possess the right to govern themselves democratically. However, using armed approaches to instate those values goes against the foundational framework of self-governance and abuses the sovereignty of nations. In fact, even the United Nations Charter has specifications on this matter. It is specified that the UN cannot interfere in the home affairs of another nation. Claim to have a right to intervene therefore contradicts such an important aspect of international law.

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With regard to the sovereignty debate, most powerful nations supporting humanitarian intervention often assert that the international arena is already characterized by many actions that restrict its sovereignty. When advancing these arguments, they sometimes cite the United Nations Charter which declares that no state aggression can be permitted unless it is done for self defense. To this end, the Charter severely restricts sovereignty decisions by states.

Furthermore, such proponents cite the concept of the International criminal court as well as several international tribunals designed to try crimes committed by state actors. To this end, precedence is given to international law rather than holders of state authority.

Therefore, by allowing powerful nations to intervene in the affairs of another nation, the aggressors would not be doing anything new. This would be an expansion of what had been carried out in previous attempts. However, there is a serious problem with such an argument because it is used to justify one negative with the existence of another. Powerful nations should not presume that their actions can be right just because they have been accepted in the past. Instead, more effective solutions should be considered. (Hilpold, 2002)

Political motives often interfere

Besides creating a legal problem in matters surrounding sovereignty, there is always the chance that certain nations may not possess noble intentions. In the nineteenth century and in centuries before, military involvement in other country’s whereabouts was often carried out for selfish political interests. Usually, this was done in order to expand geographical interests of a nation by acquisition of certain territories or it was done as a strategic decision with more or less the same effect. In the centuries that followed, military intervention took on different dimensions that still have strong linkages with the political agenda of the concerned nations.

It has often been argued that certain powerful nations may be interested in taking control of the resources in poor warring nations and they may use humanitarian intervention as nothing more than a scapegoat to pursue this vendetta. A case in point was the US led invasion of Iraq in 2002. At the time of the military intervention, it was argued that this was done in order to restore democracy in Iraq by eliminating a dictator – Saddam Hussein as well as to fight terrorism.

However, analysts also assert that there was a hidden mission which the serving US president at that time did not disclose to the public- which is to secure the strategic interests of oil in this country. It may be difficult to prove this assertion totally, but it is also difficult to completely dismiss it since Iraq is an oil producing nation and the United States was a net importer of fuel. Use of humanitarian interventions by powerful nations is therefore highly susceptible to abuse and may result in negative consequences. (O’Brien, 2004)

Asymmetrical approach to international relations

Powerful states often possess the upper hand in issues of humanitarian crises. In fact it is very unlikely for a poorer nation to be seen engaging in a humanitarian effort in a certain rich nation. For instance, the United States has often directed its actions in various countries in South America, France intervened in Sierra Leone and many others powerful states have been aggressors. To this end, these countries always possess an upper hand that makes them appear superior over others.

Poorer nations have therefore aired out their discontentment at such an approach in international relations. They articulated these concerned during the g-77 summit that had brought together various poor nations of the world. It was asserted that this was an unfair approach as no cases could be found of poor countries trying to engage in humanitarian intervention in the rich ones. (Wheeler, 2002)

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In fact, some have asserted that this approach reflects values inherent in colonialism. During the nineteenth century, rich nations interfered with the sovereignty of poor communities and imposed their will in those nations under the premise that they were going to ‘civilise’ native populations. They engaged in a series of violations of human rights amongst those poor nations under the justification that they were powerful and therefore possessed the right to dictate what would happen to the poorer or the colonised nations. Although there are numerous distinctions between colonisation and humanitarian intervention, one cannot blame poor nations for noting these similarities with colonialism since both interactions are centred on asymmetrical approaches to power in the global arena.

In the year 1999, the serving secretary general Kofi Annan asserted that the United Nations and other nations needed to act especially after the international arena had failed in prevention of hundreds of thousands of death in the Rwandese genocide. It was this secretary general who stated that state boundaries should not be considered as walls that protected war criminals thus declaring that there must be actions to be taken.

Although this individual was not advocating for humanitarian intervention by powerful states, he was asserting that sovereignty needed to be considered in a different light. His utterances solicited a lot of emotive responses from groups from the global south especially those ones that are considered as poor since most of them stated that dilution of sovereignty was likely to follow if such principles were to be implemented to the letter. (Annan, 1999)

International organisations failed and single nations may fail too

Many proponents of the right of powerful nations to intervene argue that international peace keeping bodies like the United Nations or NATO have failed in their major mandates. These proponents further claim that the existence of wars in nations such as Somalia, Rwanda or Bosnia over the past decade have illustrated how ineffective these international organisations are. Consequently, a new school of thought or a new approach is necessary and this is the right to intervene in humanitarian crisis.

The major problem that powerful nations must address when invoking this right is that they are utilising similar methods to those that had been employed by international organisations. Consequently, outcomes that were recorded during those times when international organisations existed are the same ones that may come about when powerful nations decide to intervene on their own.

It has often been accepted by many parties that the concept of intervening in another nation’s issues is nothing new. In fact, the United Nations lays this out in the Declaration of human rights (1948) claiming that sovereign states should respect certain human rights which everyone is entitled to. International law is also characterised by the need to protect civilians by possessing the collective responsibility to tackle genocide, war crimes and many other crimes against humanity. When powerful nations claim a right to intervene based on human rights issues. They are in essence borrowing their terminologies and values from international law and this implies that the pathways employed in international law are also likely to be the same ones used by these respective institutions. (UNICEF, 2001)

Humanitarian intervention by powerful states also places a lot of precedence on non peaceful means for resolving conflicts. Instead of focusing on prevention as is the case with certain entities, this approach fails to acknowledge the power that cooperation with other nation states actually brings and what nations can achieve in those respective locations. As the term itself states, humanitarian intervention is driven by the need to intervene and not by the need to prevent conflict or war.

Force tends to create even worse circumstances than had earlier been intended and this need to be considered only as an option of last result to those parties who may want to use it. In other words, by exercising this right to intervene, powerful nations are sidestepping some of the other successful methods that have been used in conflict resolution such as inter-communal dialogues, reconciliation, police deployment and humanitarian relief.

There should also be efforts to strengthen the capacity of states with regard to their political institutions and loss in terms of enacting reform in laws. These would serve as less harmful methods of resolving conflict rather than engagement in harmful conflict by powerful nations. It can be argued that the UN and other international bodies had failed because they also failed to recognise the value of peaceful means. If powerful states acknowledged the fact that it can indeed be possible for them to act without having to conform to some kind of coercive force then armed intervention needs to be considered only as a last result.

Some proponents of humanitarian intervention by powerful nations assert that this is something that is already ongoing and that certain countries only intervene militarily when all else has failed. However, interpretations of ‘last resort’ have often been controversial and have yielded minimal results in instating peace. As long as coercion is the driving factor in humanitarian intervention, then it is bound to replicate the same failures that were recorded by international bodies that used the same approach. (Heir, 2010)


The right to intervene by powerful nations in dealing with humanitarian crises may result in certain problems that must be confronted. First, it may lead to violation of the sovereignty of nations and asymmetrical approaches to international relations. It could promote political interests of the aggressing nation and may also impose the will of the powerful nations upon the nation in crisis. Furthermore, there is the possibility that liberty will be short-lived since it has to been fought for by the affected parties. It is also likely to justify the process of absconding one’s duties as a government of warring nation to protect one’s people. Lastly, this may result in failure since its borrowed from humanitarian responses by international bodies.


Hugo, S. (2001). Rights based humanitarianism. Humanitarian Aid and Politics seminar Paper. London commonwealth.

UNICEF (2001). UNICEF global guidelines for programming of human rights. 29 October, Nairobi report.

Reiff, D. (2002). Humanitarianism in crisis. London: Schuster and Simon.

O’Brien, P. (2004). Justice, peace and aid in Afghanistan. Kabul: Kumarian press.

Hilpold,P. (2002). Humanitarian intervention – legal reappraisal. European international law journal 12(4), 437.

Abiew, F. (1999). Evolution of humanitarian intervention doctrine & practice. Kluwer law international report.

Heir, A. (2010). Humanitarian intervention. Melbourne: Palgrave.

Annan, K. (1999). Concepts of sovereignty. The economist.

Wheeler, N. (2002). International society and humanitarian intervention. Oxford: OUP.

Bordat, J. (2009). Controversy on humanitarian interventions. Social Inquiry journal 2(1), 59.

Seybolt, T. (2002). Successes and failures of Humanitarian intervention. Oxford OUP.

Walzer, M. (2009). Arguments on humanitarian intervention. Web.

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