Can Military Intervention be ‘Humanitarian’?

TitleCan Military Intervention be ‘Humanitarian’?
Publication TypeMagazine Article
Year of Publication1994
AuthorsOmaar, Rakiya, and Alex de Waal
MagazineMiddle East Report
Issue Number187-188
Date Published1994/04

Humanitarian intervention, the violation of a nation-state’s sovereignty for the purpose of protecting human life from government repression or famine or civil breakdown, is an old concept that has been given a new lease on life with the end of the Cold War. It is currently being practiced in Somalia and parts of Iraq, and has been discussed, with varying degrees of seriousness, with regard to Bosnia, Angola, Mozambique, Liberia, Zaire, Sudan and Haiti. Customary international law has always recognized a principle of military intervention on humanitarian grounds. The classic examples of nineteenth-century military “humanitarian intervention” occurred when Britain, France and Russia cited persecution of Christians in Muslim-ruled territories of the Ottoman Empire. The European occupation of Africa was spurred to a significant extent by pressure from Christian missionary societies to suppress the slave trade and idolatry, and to spread Christianity and “civilization.” The philanthropic imperialism with which the European powers entered Africa was regarded as benign at the time, but history allows us to take a more skeptical view with regard to the interests at stake. This article discusses whether it is possible for military interventions to ever be wholly humanitarian in purpose and impact.

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