How Far is Military Force an Effective Instrument for the Promotion of Humanitarian Values?

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Recent years have seen an increase in military force being used as a tool for increasing the scope for humanitarian values within conflict zones. This paper assesses this trend, and uses a number of conflict case studies as a vehicle for evaluating this premise. In doing so, this paper considers that the Libyan intervention in 2011 offers a case study which argues that state led humanitarian intervention is borne out of a political, as opposed to a humanitarian, need. This undermines the promotion of humanitarian values. The concept of military led humanitarian intervention can be found within a highly subjective area of academic and political thought.

With regards to this, there are some commentator’s, such as Waxman (2013: n.p.) who consider that military led humanitarian intervention consists ofA  “the use of military force to protect foreign populations from mass atrocities or gross human rights abuses” whilst others, including Marjanovic (2012: n.p.) see this particular course of action as being “a state using military force against another state when the chief publicly declared aim of that military action is ending human-rights violations being perpetrated by the state against which it is directed”. With regards to this subjectivity there is a series of overlapping concepts that help to further the debate in this area. These overlapping areas can be found within a number of conceptual areas including war and conflict within which humanitarian values are negatively impacted by activities which impact upon non-combatants, these include human rights abuses.A  Where humanitarian values are considered, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) (2013) holds a perspective which suggests that these comprise of aspiration in relation to humanity, neutrality, independence, and impartiality. In this regard, therefore, one can suggest that where military forces are deployed in order to promote or support humanitarian operations it is necessary that these forces act accordingly within the boundaries of these guiding principles. In their totality, therefore, it is arguable that there exists a number of factors which need to be present where a situation occurs that requires military led humanitarian assistance. With regards to any underpinning intervention that relates to issues covered within humanitarian interventions, Weiss (2012: 1) believes that it is possible that an underlying notion of a “responsibility to protect” is a dominating factor in contemporary geo-political thinking, however instead of this doctrinal approach being used across the globe Weiss (2012) believes that the global community tends to cherry-pick the various conflicts that it intervenes in, this is discussed elsewhere in this paper. That said, Minear & Weiss (1995) had previously indicated that any military intervention that seeks to promote humanitarian values should incorporate a post war recovery planning and redevelopment programme. However recent decades, particularly since the end of the Cold War, has seen an increase in the numbers of military led humanitarian interventions that are related to “activities undertaken to improve the human condition” (Weiss, 2012: 1). This latter issue, concerning the human condition, suggests that there has been a genuine shift in the contemporary conflict environment. This shift is primarily based on the progression from conventional warfare to of asymmetric warfare which involves a number of non-state actors and combatants.

This is a factor that has not been ignored by Weiss (2012). Here the suggestion that, today, only state led military interventions can promote humanitarian values has been promoted because non-state actors are not bound by regulations and international protocols regarding the dynamics and conduct of war. Indeed this particular perspective gains an increased level of support where the current post Cold War conflict environment is considered. For Pattison (2010) the years following the end of the Cold War have resulted in a vastly increased number of military operations that have been designed to support humanitarian values through intervention.

These interventions have occurred in a plethora of collapsed or failed states and include, but are not limited to. post Gulf War (1991–2003) Iraq, Bosnia – Serbia (1995), The Balkans and Kosovo (1992-1999), East Timor (1999) Somalia (2002), Haiti (2004), and Libya (2011). These interventions, for some, also include the post 9-11 era’s intervention in to Afghanistan and latterly in Iraq (2003-2010) (Pattison, 2010). In this regards, Weiss (2012) believes that the underlying concept of humanitarian intervention has helped to increase the potential for international interventions into other states because of a need to increase the level of protection offered to non-combatants from conflict. However, the earlier indication of cherry picking conflicts offers for a greater insight into the nature of political discourses which take place at the United Nations (UN) Security Council with regards to these conflicts and where state led political aspirations are an overbearing factor in the intervention tools and choices made by states. Indeed one can argue that the current and ongoing conflict in Syria offers as a casing point particularly since all state actors which have intervened possess their own aspirations in shaping the future of that particular country (Haaretz, 2014; Press TV, 2013; Ruthven, 2014; Time, 2015). In some respects, therefore, the issue of humanitarian intervention and its related values base is being abused in order that these political aspirations can be furthered (Dagher, 2014). This aspect, however, is a perpetual factor in the international arena, particularly where realist agendas are taken into consideration (Bayliss & Smith, 2001). One area where international intervention has been encouraged is in relation to ethnic conflict. Kaldor (1998) recognises that the end of the Cold War resulted in an increase in the frequency of ethnically charged conflicts and that these types of conflict have been offered as a rationale for international humanitarian based interventions In respect of this, Kaldor (1998) argues that the changes that have taken place within conflict dynamics that has resulted in belligerent forces not being constrained by international regulations, including the Geneva Convention protocols, Laws of Armed Conflict or relevant United Nations Charters (Kaldor, 1998) has led to humanitarian values being used as an excuse to further the political aspirations of a number of states. The result of this changed dynamic has perpetuated and has spread to a number of conflict zones around the world.

However, it has led to an increase in the reliance upon conventional forces whose role has been to offer peace keeping and security services to non-governmental organisations (NGOs) in support of their own operations. In this respect it is noted that Christoplos, Longley, and Slaymaker (2004) consider that the intervention strategies have also altered in recent years. Here, they note thatA  the underpinning intervention programmes now seek to promote humanitarian values and that this is evidenced by the creation of a tripartite doctrinal system which now utilises areas of national and personal rehabilitation; added to this are post war recovery programmes that are intended to help redevelop both the state and social infrastructures; finally there is the central issue of relief programmes that seek to maintain the fabric of civil society during crisis periods. For Seybolt (2007) this perspective adds weight to any argument that promotes the possibility that military humanitarian interventions can assist NGOs in their duties via the provision of security provisions. However, it is also recognised that adding external military forces into a combat zone has can lead to further complications primarily because military operations possess a potential for using force when necessary (Davidson, 2012; Ministry of Defence, 2011). In promotion of a perspective which says that deployed military forces can utilise force is well grounded in military doctrines. For example the UK Ministry of Defence promotes a policy whereby “The peacekeeper fulfils a mandate with the strategic consent of the main warring parties, allowing a degree of freedom to fulfil its task in an impartial manner, while a sustainable peace settlement is pursued.” (Ministry of Defence, 2011: 1.1). This perspective suggests that it is possible for military personnel whose primary function is to assist NGOs as part of the promotion of humanitarian values is in fact a secondary consideration.

Ultimately the use of military force within humanitarian interventions is a purely political choice that is intended to help reshape the political landscape of the affected region or state in the post conflict environment. With regards to the current Syrian conflict, one can argue that the divergent and conflicting political perspectives and aspirations is a factor which will undermine the potential for any real focus upon the promotion of humanitarian values. Indeed, it is also recognised that this eventuality does little to promote the principles of humanitarianism as argued by the likes of the ICRC (2013). In effect the possibility that military forces can conduct purely military operations, or war phase fighting, during a humanitarian intervention undermines any utilitarian or altruistic claims made by the respective political powers. In its totality this suggests that the aforementioned issue of political realism is both present and ongoing.A A  Indeed such an argument can be backed up by a policy review of the recent and ongoing Afghan conflict. A review of UK doctrinal papers promotes this paper’s preference that military operations incorporate the possibility that war fighting, as well as security duties, is a contingent factor in the preparations for any military force. Stabilisation programmes in the Afghanistan intervention occurred in an environment where the UK’s military “had the consent of the host nation government but no other warring party (Afghanistan: Taliban 2001 – present)……..A military force may decide in such situations that the defeat of a specific enemy is essential to the success of the operation.” (Ministry of Defence, 2011: 1.1). Essentially, therefore, in political terms it is feasible that political intentions can undermine any altruistic argument in relation to the deployment of military forces to carry out humanitarian operations.

For some the recent ‘humanitarian’ intervention into Libya is an example of this outcome. The recent UN backed military intervention in Libya was mandated via humanitarian intervention that was intended to provide relief and assistance (United Nations, 2011). The promotion of this intervention was supposed to further the seven values of humanitarian intervention, as promoted by the ICRC (2013) however one can argue that the resultant intervention was mainly politically motivated because there is sufficient evidence to indicate that Gaddafi’s regime had been a long time foe of those states which executed the intervention (USA, UK & France) (Boulton, 2008). In promotion of their intervention, the USA UK, and France had argued that a failure to intervene would result in a humanitarian crisis caused by the perpetuation of conflict. However, Kuperman (2011) argues that the resultant UN Resolution 1973 (United Nations, 2011) created conditions where the intervening military forces could operate beyond the realms of Resolution 1973. These included, for example, allowing the USA, UK, and France to conduct stabilisation operations so that the authority of the Gaddafi regime could be undermined, thereby helping to bring this conflict to a swift conclusion. In layman terms this meant military intervention via war fighting. With regards to this, Kuperman (2011) also argues that Libyan state functions were impacted, including the freezing of its financial and economic assets. It was also argued that the intervening forces of the USA, France and the UK oversaw the deployment of private military contractors whose role was to undertake anti Gaddafi operations thereby seeking to overthrow his regime (RT News, 2012). In effect, the usage of humanitarian justifications for military intervention in conflict can be defined in terms of the actions and justification of the states whose forces have been committed to operate in those areas and regions. In its totality, therefore, the usage of military force as an effective instrument for the promotion of humanitarian values is limited. These limitations can be found within the underlying political rationales that exist within states that are prepared to commit forces for these operations, particularly where these states have an interest in the realisation of a particular outcome. Whilst humanitarian led interventions have become a mainstay of the post Cold War climate, one can argue that the promotion of the seven humanitarian values that are promoted by the ICRC (2013) are undermined by the intervening forces because of their ability to both flout their mandate, as well as their ability to conduct war fighting operations under the guise of humanitarianism. In essence, therefore, one can argue that there are genuine limits to the ability of military forces to promote humanitarian values however these limitations are not factors which states consider when seeking to intervene in any conflict.


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How far is military force an effective instrument for the promotion of humanitarian values?. (2017, Jun 26). Retrieved July 20, 2024 , from

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