Ethics & Public Policy Center

Defining "Humanitarian Intervention"


George Weigel

Distinguished Senior Fellow and William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies


 

GW: “Humanitarian intervention” is a major post-Cold War buzzword. You discuss it a bit in your book. Do you have in mind a set of criteria by which we determine when the United States is obliged to do something; when doing something or not doing something is an essentially pragmatic choice that could go either way; and when the “something” in question is a something you shouldn’t touch with a ten-foot pole? And does your set of criteria tell us when we ought to try to get other parties involved, either as partners or as proxies?

 

EA: We can all try to develop typologies here, but in the end I think they tend to break down in the face of reality. Still, constructing typologies makes sense, because it helps us to think about these things more clearly.

The beginning of wisdom is to define “humanitarian intervention” narrowly. What we ought to mean by it is, intervention in a situation in which there is a humanitarian problem that our intervention is meant to resolve. Every problem around the world has a “humanitarian” component. Every war has a “humanitarian” component because it has victims, frequently civilian victims. That doesn’t make every situation a conflict that lends itself to “humanitarian intervention.”

“Humanitarian intervention” properly defined is, in essence, a form of disaster relief. We shouldn’t use the phrase to describe a situation in which the humanitarian problems are caused by a military or political conflict that has to be solved, first, before there can be effective relief of massive suffering.

An earthquake or a refugee problem may require “humanitarian intervention.” And I don’t reject the possibility of using the military in “humanitarian interventions” defined this narrowly. We use the National Guard, and sometimes the Army, for such intervention here at home, because they can get there “the firstest with the mostest.” There are also going to be situations where bandits or other outlaws are involved and you need to secure an airport or a port; that can still be conceived of as “humanitarian intervention.”

But I would draw a distinction between those sorts of things and situations in which it is impossible to address the humanitarian issue unless you first resolve the primary causal factor: a war or a violent political dispute. That was the problem in Somalia. Why did we see “mission creep” there? Be cause we went in under the assumption that we were there to feed people, and ended up realizing that this was a civil war in which the only way really to solve the humanitarian problem was to solve the civil war by brute force. In the end, we decided we didn’t want to do that, and so we left. In the speeches of the late Defense Secretary Les Aspin, you can see the “mission creep” … well, creeping. And ultimately, I think, the American people decided they weren’t interested in solving the Somali civil war by brute force. To be perfectly blunt about it, it didn’t seem to them worth the cost of their children’s lives.

So I would very carefully limit the category of “humanitarian intervention” to what amounts to a form of disaster relief. That we can do; but it’s important to distinguish it from other kinds of political and military interventions. I think we should do those, sometimes, too. But we shouldn’t do them under false pretenses.

George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and holds EPPC’s William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.

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