Military Intervention for Humanitarian Aid


Once considered a violation of international relations, military interventions of humanitarian concerns are now seen as a compelling policy issue that its widely debated. It involves the discussion on how and when should military force be used and thus represents a significant challenge not only to the way that humanitarian and military interventions work but also to the way in which ethical issues are involved. Therefore, it is imperative to consider the difference between ethical and empirical issues involved in the discussion of humanitarian military interventions to reveal the limitations of the latter or discover whether they can be justified in real-life contexts.

When discussing humanitarian military interventions in the context of ethics, it is imperative to note that global ethics comes at the forefront of the exploration. According to Crocker (2014), there are two perspectives on the causes of injustice and unethical events occuring in the global context. The first perspective is that only national development patters, which the relations among states being both normatively and causally irrelevant. The second perspective is opposite to the first one, suggesting that only global organizations and connections between states matter, with the national development being insignificant. The concepts of global and development ethics are the result of the two perspectives, suggesting that the context of international relations is highly complex, dealing with significant ethical issues as a result of inequalities that exist between countries. Military interventions for humanitarian reasons should be reviewed in the context of such disparities as they serve as a backdrop for the relationships between states.

In order to develop an understanding of the morality of military humanitarian interventions, it is crucial first to differentiate between ethical and empirical questions. Empirical questions refer to the realm of inquiry that can be explored and subsequently answered through observations of the real world. In the case of humanitarian interventions, empirical questions will be raised in regard to real-life events associated with the issue (Barnett & Weiss 2011). For example, the case of the Cyclone Nargis intervention will be discussed as it invokes important problems regarding the efficacy and practicality of humanitarian aid (Barber 2009). Ethical questions are associated with the sphere of inquiry, exploring general moral opinions about the world and thus cannot be answered by science. The discussion of humanitarian aid as applied to ethical principles would reveal the intentions of countries participating in them as well as the impact on states to which such interventions are targeted.

Ethical Issues

Contractualist versus Deontological Understandings

Contractualism implies a view on morality that indicates a perspective on morality associated with contractual agreements. In a narrow sense, it suggests that an act is morally wrong within the circumstances that would be rejected by the general norms that regulate behaviors and interactions between people. Furthermore, it is important to note that, in its essence, contractualism also involves the reasons and forms that can be morally justifiable. Therefore, within the contractualist view on humanitarian interventions, it is necessary to consider whether the circumstances would justify their implementation and whether the general norms would accept them. As mentioned by L’Anson and Pfeifer (2013), humanitarian interventions that involve the component of military action should address the objections as a limit to the ability to care for the urgent needs of suffering people. Thus, in order to protect oneself against the criticism of humanitarian interventions, appealing to the measures of accountability within a particular context.

Deontological perspectives are far less complicated as compared to contractualism, implying that people follow the pre-established rules and fulfill their duties and responsibilities. There is also a sense of natural intuition involved in distinguishing between what is ethical and what is not. Subjectivity and uncertainty are thus limited in deontology because people are intended to follow specific rules and objectives. In the discussion about humanitarian interventions, policy actions should be considered to determine the morality of their implementation. For example, as mentioned by Nili (2011), policies of nonintervention play essential roles in determining whether interventions should be carried out. Humanitarian intervention is warranted when it is believed that more lives of people will be saved by intervening rather than remaining inactive. An intervention must be implemented for the purpose of helping people in need. Following international policies that dictate the interactions between states is essential to determine the morality of humanitarian interventions within the deontological understanding.

Utilitarian versus Virtue Understandings

The utilitarian approach relates to the sphere of consequentialist ethical theories that prioritize actions that will be beneficial for the majority of people. The ethics of humanitarian interventions involving military force within the utilitarian perspective is concerned with finding the reasoning that would point to the predominant benefit for a population. As suggested by Peter Singer, a contemporary utilitarian, there is an active moral duty associated with giving to the poor and providing communities in need with the resources for prosperity (Widdows 2014).

There is a “duty of justice” that can be applied in specific instances of humanitarian interventions. However, there are debates about whether the duty should be limited to pre-determined contexts in which there is a need to help people overcome the challenges that limit their well-being. Singer’s utilitarian argument is complex and multi-dimensional, which aligns with the complexity of humanitarian aid interventions (Widdows 2014). The argument implies universality, the following of equity and impartiality principles, determining morality as related to increasing social utility, as well as understanding moral goodness as “the maximal reduction of suffering (if not quite the maximization of the good) (Widdows 2014, p. 155). Thus, if a humanitarian intervention does not align with the mentioned principles of utilitarianism, it is highly likely to be unethical.

In contrast to utilitarianism, virtue ethics emphasizes the importance of the virtue of the mind, character, and a sense of honesty. Virtue, which is referred to as the excelled character trait; however, possessing it is a matter of degree. The approach to ethics is derived from Aristotle’s thinking, which was associated with the idea that ideal traits must be nurtured, and when established, they will become stable. As related to humanitarian interventions that involve the military component, virtue ethics is applied in order to determine the emotional and the moral influence of the action on people. States that implement humanitarian interventions, in order to be virtuously ethical, should “begin experiencing emotional discomfort, which is severe enough to become a compulsive motivation that drives them to perform the acts of virtue that they hope to cleanse” (L’Anson and Pfeifer 2013, p. 50). If there is no evidence of the emotional discomfort associated with the suffering of states, it is likely that humanitarian intervention is not ethically justified.

Contextualist versus Universalist Understandings

In ethics, contextualism refers to the combination of views in philosophy that underline the context in which certain occurrences take place (Rysiew 2007). When considering the ethics of humanitarian interventions, the circumstances (contexts) within which justice is being reached. To justify the morality of such aggressive and complex acts, the circumstances of justice should be evaluated. For example, the background of society as a combination of values and frameworks should be evaluated. Besides, it is imperative to understand the influence of institutional frameworks that characterize particular groups, as well as to assess the agency that is capable of bringing change. Humanitarian interventions are thus unethical when they do not provide assistance nor exercise the duty to help as related to particular contexts (Nili 2011).

To counter the ethical approach of contextualism, universalism points out that some ideas can be applied universally, regardless of the context. For example, global ethics (GE) deals particularly with universalism in regards to guiding the relations between people around the globe and later applying the components of trade, environment, business, conflict, and others (Crocker 2014). GE is, therefore, concerned with the universal and global and asks how they influence the national and local for the better or worse (Crocker 2014). Thus, the universalist view on the issue of military humanitarian interventions will consider the influence of the acts on the global community in general. For instance, the use of humanitarian drones has been widely debated on the global scale because they have gained widespread popularity and contributed to the emergence of complex ethical and legal dilemmas that arise among countries worldwide (Emery 2016). Therefore, only those humanitarian actions are moral, which can facilitate mutual understanding among multiple nations worldwide, leading to collaboration and the sharing of perspectives.

Rationalist versus Postmodernist and Postcolonial Understandings

Rationalism refers to the epistemological view that any view should appeal to reason as the vital source for justification and knowledge. As a tradition of thought, rationalism maintains that individuals are irreplaceable components of communities that base their moral principles and ethical norms, which depend on their specific practices and cultural beliefs. Within the rationalistic view, humanitarian interventions are discussed in the context of respect for the sovereignty of states as a prerequisite for an international order. Humanitarian interventions can change the nature of territorial nation-states as well as subsequently alter their political institutions and values (L’Anson & Pfeifer 2013).

In academic study, postcolonialism focuses on the human implications of the control and exploitation of colonized lands and populations residing on them. In general, the study is concerned with studying the influence of European imperial power and can be widely applied to the discussion of humanitarian interventions (Mahdavi 2015). While there is a responsibility of states to ensure peace and prosperity of nation-states worldwide, postcolonialism widely critiques humanitarian interventions (Barnett & Weiss 2011). When applied to the context of events in the Middle East, the humanitarian discourse has leaned in the direction of forced policing and the violation of ethical norms of nonintervention. Therefore, within the frameworks of postcolonialism, military interventions for humanitarian reasons are rarely justified because they represent an infringement on the sovereignty of states as well as limit their capabilities of dealing with arising challenges themselves. According to Scholz (2017) who explored responsible interventions and remaining humanitarian, the concept of sovereignty was reexamined reasonably recently, in the 1990s in relation to the humanitarian crisis affecting Rwanda and Bosnia. The international community had to review the policies of humanitarian obligation in order to protect the populations of countries against human rights violations as well as establish a commitment to respect sovereignty.

Empirical Issues

Events at Kosovo

The ethical questions raised during the exploration of military interventions for humanitarian reasons leave the additional ground for exploring empirical questions further. While the true ethical values may be beneficial in theory, they may not work in practice, which is why it is imperative to look at the issue through the lens of real-world cases. The events in Kosovo are still challenging to classify as either moral or immoral because of the differing opinions regarding the need for intervention as well as their influence on human rights provisions. As NATO failed to implement a diplomatic solution to mitigate the crisis at Kosovo, it intervened through military force, justifying the action as a humanitarian war. Those who oppose the efforts of NATO in Kosovo may have different positions on humanitarian rights norms and the role of states in intervening in the affairs of other sovereign countries. As mentioned by Young and quoted in Scholz (2017), there is increasing support for the severe and extensive protection against violations of human rights by a state or the inability to guard citizens against massive violence. The events of Kosovo were endorsed within general international law as the needed military force in order to help the state to regain its sovereignty and enable the promotion of human rights. However, it remains to be said that some international players assume highly extensive power within their commitments and legitimize war on others.

In Kosovo, the real possibilities for the abuse of power and influence were evident. The obligation to protect the population of the region from human rights violations is finely balanced and limited by the responsibility not to show domineering and oppressive actions to the global community. Therefore, despite the seemingly noble intentions of NATO and the utilitarianism of the intervention, the organization was not given authority to use violence against the Yugoslav forces. This shows that every act of violence must be justified independently, which was not done in Kosovo’s case.

Furthermore, as suggested by virtue ethics, little concern was given to the discussion whether it was possible for NATO to intervene effectively without the use of military force and generate a sense of authority that would inevitably prevent Serbs from facilitating their ethnic cleansing (Scholz 2017). Building upon the accounts of Young on the intervention in Kosovo, it can be concluded that appealing to the consequentialist justification of violence may not work in real-life scenarios as it is also important to appeal to the power of democracy as related to justifying military interventions with humanitarian purposes. As the deontological perspective calls for the following of the established rules and norms in order for actions to be considered morally right, more considerations should have been given to the international standards of sovereignty and the establishment of peace through non-violent methods. Therefore, NATO’s intervention in Kosovo has never been ethically or empirically justified, which is why it is being debated to this day.

Events at Myanmar: Responsibility to Protect

The case of Cyclone Nargis is similar to the one discussed previously as concerns were raised regarding the justification of military intervention to facilitate the delivery of humanitarian aid to the disaster’s survivors (Barber 2009). This case is especially relevant in the context of discussing the meaning of ‘responsibility to protect’ and its influence on relations between states. Despite the severe impact of the natural disaster on the health and well-being of Myanmar’s population, the state’s government imposed severe restrictions on humanitarian aid from international organizations, such as the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, the UN’s World Food Program, and Save the Children (Barber 2009). The government refused to issue visit visas to help workers as well as restricting the access to the majority of areas affected by the disaster and insisted that the government itself should distribute the aid. Despite the suggestion of the UN that the sooner humanitarian assistance is provided and the less procedural obstacles are encountered, the more lives can be saved, the government of Myanmar refused to accept any help that the international community offered.

The actions of the Myanmar government raised questions regarding the application of ‘responsibility to protect’ the population of the country due to the lack of care on the part of officials. The refusal of the government to accept any aid from the international community increased the risks of death, which was itself characterized as a crime against humanity. The ‘responsibility to protect’ in international law dates back to the Security Council activism associated with the Cold War and the events related to NATO’s involvement in Kosovo and Somalia. While there is no specific law that would explain the use of such a duty, the evidence from international practice shows that the involvement of third parties into the affairs of states was attributed to significant violations of human rights and the abuse of power by the governments or groups that target innocent population. The duty to protect, regardless of its reasoning, bridges the divide between intervention and sovereignty and is, therefore, less confrontation compared to the right to intervene. However, what it is not often mentioned is that responsibility drives an obligation, which can lead to the justification of interventions, either with the use of military force or not.

As related to the natural disaster in Myanmar, the responsibility to protect was evoked for the reasons for the government failing to protect its population. When the Cyclone Nargis occurred, the possibility of crime against humanity, which is a justification for intervention, referred to the restriction of humanitarian aid. Crimes against humanity are defined as systematic and intentional attacks directed at the civilian population (Barber 2009). Apart from enslavement, deprivation of physical liberties, rape torture, and acts of violence, any behaviors that are characterized as inhumane and causing great suffering or serious injury.

Nevertheless, a military intervention to facilitate humanitarian aid should be regarded as the last resort for states that want to insert themselves into the process of promoting peace and the fair treatment of populations. This means that two questions should be answered in order to justify a humanitarian intervention through military force. The first question is whether forced humanitarian aid can actually be useful in addressing the humanitarian needs of the affected population. The second question refers to whether there is a likelihood of a forced intervention have been worse than the implications of inaction. Thus, a humanitarian intervention through military efforts can only be justified when there is no chance that a peaceful method could have been effective in establishing peace in a given region and improving the well-being of populations.

Concluding Remarks

In conclusion of the exploration, it should be mentioned that the new principles of international law should not be developed in order to justify the implementation of military interventions for humanitarian aid.. Specifically, military aid should be the last resort, as evidenced by the cases of Cyclone Nargis and NATO’s intervention in Kosovo, peaceful efforts should be considered first in order to eliminate the need to use force and violence. As suggested by the deontological understanding, there is an expectation of following pre-determined rules and regulations to maintain the morality of actions.

The postcolonial perspective is also necessary to note because of its negative perception of the involvement of powerful states into the affairs of other countries. Besides, the utilitarian view on the problem suggests weighing the advantages and disadvantages of action for it to be morally right or wrong. As related to the cases of Kosovo and Cyclone Nargis, military interventions for humanitarian reasons cannot be justified because their adverse impact outweighs the benefits of using force against other countries. Thus, the problem of explaining military interventions for humanitarian reasons will continue being controversial because each case is different. In this case, contextualism should be applied in order to judge the morality and reasonableness of actions in each specific context.

Reference List

Barber, R 2009, ‘The responsibility to protect the survivors of natural disaster: Cyclone Nargis, a case study’, Journal of Conflict & Security Law, vol. 14, no. 1, pp. 3-34.

Barnett, M & Weiss, T 2011, Humanitarianism contested: where angels fear to tread, Routledge. New York.

Crocker, D 2014, ‘Development and global ethics: five foci for the future’, Journal of Global Ethics, vol. 10, no. 3, pp. 245-253.

Emery, J 2016, ‘The possibilities and pitfalls of humanitarian drones’, Ethics & International Affairs, vol. 30, no. 2, pp. 153-165.

L’Anson, C & Pfeifer, G 2013, ‘A critique of humanitarian reason: agency, power, and privilege’, Journal of Global Ethics, vol. 9, no. 1, pp. 49-63.

Mahdavi, M 2015, ‘A postcolonial critique of responsibility to protect in the Middle East’, Perceptions, vol. 10, no. 1, pp. 7-36.

Nili, S 2011, ‘Humanitarian disintervention’, Journal of Global Ethics, vol. 7, no. 1, pp. 33-46.

Rysiew, P 2007, Epistemic contextualism, Web.

Scholz, S 2017, ‘Iris Marion Young on responsible intervention: reimagining humanitarian intervention’, Journal of Global Ethics, vol. 13, no. 1, pp. 70-89.

Widdows, H 2014, Global ethics. An introduction, Routledge, New York.