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Humanitarian Intervention Does More Harm Than Good

Humanitarian Intervention Does More Harm Than Good
The BriefGet Up To Speed

The international community currently faces a global refugee crisis and mass atrocities in Iraq, Myanmar, Syria, Yemen, and beyond. How should the West respond? 


Proponents of humanitarian intervention – the use of force to halt human rights abuses – argue that the world’s most powerful militaries have a responsibility to protect innocent civilians around the world. Beyond saving lives, they argue, intervention deters would-be abusers and ensures global stability, thereby strengthening the liberal world order. But opponents argue that military intervention is thinly veiled Western imperialism, and subsequently, an assault on state sovereignty. And, it’s ineffective: the West, with its military might, increases the death toll and worsens the conflicts it sets out to solve. Further, given recent waves of populism in the U.S., France, and U.K., they suggest that Western nations should spend their time looking inward rather than policing activity around the world.  This debate is presented in partnership with The German Marshall Fund's Brussels Forum, broadcast live from Brussels, Belgium.


“The willingness to use armed force is also inevitably influenced not only by the desperation of the affected population but also by geopolitical factors, including the relevance of the country to the world community, regional stability, and the attitudes of other major players, say experts.”

Wednesday, June 12, 2013
Jayshree Bajoria and Robert McMahon

“Trump’s Syria intervention comes at a moment when the U.S. is questioning its role abroad.”

Monday, April 10, 2017
Clare Malone

“The question of whether it is legitimate to wage war to protect people in other countries from tyranny has a long history,” and “humanitarian intervention is as likely to be conducted by non-Western states as it is by Western states.”

Sunday, November 27, 2016
Alex J. Bellamy

“Syria rests on the brink. South Sudan teeters on the edge of disaster. And all across the globe, fires rage and the threat of humanitarian crisis looms large. But how should the United States respond to these conflicts abroad?”

Wednesday, January 4, 2017
Tulsi Gabbard, Elvir Ahmetovic, Edward Luck, Stephen Kinzer and James Stavridis
For The Motion

“Humanitarian military intervention affects a myriad of interconnected and changing parts, like a kaleidoscope where the pattern changes completely and unpredictably when rotated.”

Thursday, March 16, 2017
Charles V. Peña

“Some may also protest that the United States cannot give up on humanitarian intervention since it is the only country with the capability to project power around the globe. This may be true, but it would be a relevant concern only if other countries or nongovernmental organizations were already devoting sufficient resources to nonmilitary forms of humanitarian aid.”

Wednesday, November 30, 2011
Benjamin A. Valentino

“… Historically speaking, intervening on behalf of rebels increases the number of civilians who are killed by increasing the desperation of government forces.”

Tuesday, August 27, 2013
Matthew Yglesias

“After trillions of dollars spent, thousands of dead and wounded, and the creation of myriad new terrorist enemies, Washington could learn a few lessons when considering future interventions.”

Monday, April 17, 2017
George Liebmann
Against The Motion

“It is imperative for policy makers to identify or formulate strategies of ‘humanitarian intervention’ without instigating further violence, fueling crimes against humanity, genocide, factors leading to further deterioration of the host state.”

Tuesday, February 6, 2018
Anant Mishra

“Stopping the world's worst wars is not always practical or worth the cost--sometimes our efforts will only produce a temporary peace. But we should have intervened in Rwanda, Sudan, and probably Liberia. In addition, we were right to get involved in Somalia, Bosnia, and Kosovo.”

Monday, July 12, 1999
Michael O’Hanlon

“In time, however, the US is likely to become a poorer and meaner place if it disengages from the rest of the world.”

Wednesday, November 9, 2016
Gideon Rachman
Costs of Intervention

“With such ramshackle fiscal and foreign policy alike, Americans might be forgiven for being uncertain whether and where our government is at war, how long it has been there and how much the whole thing will cost us.”

Wednesday, February 1, 2017
Bonnie Kristian

“Adding up the costs all of these foreign adventures, misadventures and tragedies inevitably leads one to wonder how these monies might have been better spent.”

Tuesday, July 9, 2013
Gordon N. Bardos

“But reducing the risk of conflict more directly through peacekeeping is, the authors maintain, even better value for money. If the total cost of war to a country and its neighbours is $60 billion-$250 billion, then each percentage-point reduction in the risk of renewed violence is ‘worth’ $600m-$2.5 billion.”

Thursday, May 15, 2008
The Economist
Responsibility to Protect, Sovereignty & International Law

“Each individual State has the responsibility to protect its populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity.”

Thursday, September 15, 2005
United Nations

A guide for understanding R2P in theory and in practice.

Saturday, March 1, 2014
United Nations

“Today’s tragedies illustrate that much more is needed. It is time to commit to a new global order, one in which the Responsibility to Protect extends to us all — as the protectors and, perhaps, as those who someday may need to be protected.”

Friday, October 27, 2017
Ellen J. Kennedy

“And make no mistake: President Trump cannot on the one hand sensibly launch missiles against Assad for his brutality toward Syria’s innocent children, while simultaneously imposing his own overbroad blanket ban upon the entry of those same children and their parents into the United States under his revised March 6 travel ban…”

Friday, April 7, 2017
Harold Hongju Koh
Refugees & Intervention

“The relationship between refugee crises and humanitarian interventions remains unclear. On one hand, the use of brute and indiscriminate force appears to be a deliberate tactic by the Assad regime to displace locals and create refugee flows, thereby raising the costs for outside powers like Turkey to either provide humanitarian assistance or intervene militarily. But this tactic could also backfire, prompting calls for greater military involvement by the West.”

Thursday, September 13, 2012
Lionel Beehner

“During 2016, 10.3 million people were newly displaced by conflict or persecution” 

Sunday, September 24, 2017
Indulekha Aravind
Terrorism & Intervention

“So if the link between British military intervention and an increased risk of terror attacks in Britain is not seriously disputed, where did that history of intervention originate?”

Friday, May 26, 2017
James Robbins

US academic Rosa Brooks puts the West’s political reactions to terrorist attacks into perspective.

Monday, November 30, 2015
Roy Greenslade
China, Russia & the Politics of Intervention

“Initially opposed to the Responsibility to Protect (R2P), China has become a consistent advocate of the principle, endorsing its application in multiple countries while urging a constrained, multilateral approach to the use of force.”

Wednesday, June 8, 2016
Courtney J. Fung

“China hasn't been known for establishing military bases in Africa - or even beyond its immediate sphere of influence. This is changing following its decision to build a military base in Djibouti on the Horn of Africa.”

Tuesday, August 1, 2017
Theo Neethling

“Russia is attempting to cloak aggressive action through the mantle of humanitarian intervention.”

Friday, March 7, 2014
James P. Rudolph

“Over the past two decades, the United Nations Security Council has responded more strongly to some humanitarian crises than to others. This variation in Security Council action raises the important question of what factors motivate United Nations intervention.”

Tuesday, March 7, 2017
Martin Binder

“The five permanent members of the UN Security Council, namely, the UK, US, France, China and Russia, have a veto right that allows them to stop any resolution from being adopted. It is an extraordinary privilege of the permanent members of the UN Security Council.  However, this privilege is directly responsible for stopping the UN Security Council from taking real steps concerning the Syrian Civil War.”

Sunday, July 2, 2017
Ewelina U. Ochab
Post-9/11 Case Studies

“With our ongoing war efforts there, the Trump administration is courting disaster.”

Thursday, January 25, 2018
Michael Brendan Dougherty

“The American public is always ready to pay attention to military strikes. But what does the president’s decision mean for the humanitarian crisis?”

Tuesday, April 11, 2017
Emma Green

“NATO should do more to help bring the Syrian war, which has already resulted in hundreds of thousands of civilian deaths, to an end.”

Friday, May 5, 2017
Allison Feikes

“The diplomacy and military operations were imperfect, but Kosovo is the gold standard in humanitarian intervention.”

Thursday, February 22, 2018
David L. Phillips

“The atrocities in Bosnia did not end without NATO’s involvement, and the genocide in Rwanda did not cease until the U.N. sent in a peacekeeping force.”

Monday, September 11, 2017
Farahnaz Ispahani

“Myanmar reveals that the world’s promise of ‘never again’ applies only sometimes. But the Rohingya are only the latest in a string of victims to learn this lesson the hard way.”

Monday, November 13, 2017
Max Fisher

“The implications are that we need to regroup and figure out how to put the question of preventing genocide and mass atrocities back on the table at the UN.”

Thursday, February 8, 2018
Sara Perria

“By his policy choices, Mr. Maduro has created and is dramatically magnifying the enormous human tragedy in Venezuela. This conduct constitutes a prima facie case of crimes against humanity under the category of ‘other inhumane acts’ that intentionally cause great suffering or death.”

Tuesday, May 30, 2017
Jared Genser

“Trump leaves open possibility of military intervention in Venezuela.”

Saturday, August 12, 2017
Jill Colvin and Joshua Goodman

“The UN says $2.3 billion is needed by Yemen in humanitarian aid this year, only 41% of which has been funded. But what good even is humanitarian aid when the very suppliers are also fueling the fire causing the need for aid in the first place?”

Sunday, September 10, 2017
Anastasia Kyriacou

“A Saudi misadventure has created a terrible humanitarian crisis.”

Sunday, September 10, 2017
Financial Times

U.N. Resolution 1973 legalized outside military intervention in the Libyan Civil War.

Thursday, March 17, 2011
United Nations Security Council

“Seven years after Libya’s revolution, the country is a failed state with a humanitarian crisis and a serious threat to U.S. national security.”

Wednesday, February 21, 2018
Emily Estelle

“As stated in the UN Security Council resolution authorizing force in Libya, the goal of intervention was ‘to protect civilians and civilian populated areas under threat of attack.’ And this is what was achieved.”

Tuesday, April 5, 2016
Shadi Hamid

“But when asked in April if he envisioned a US role in helping stabilize Libya, Trump said the US would focus on fighting ISIS.”

Sunday, September 24, 2017
Ryan Browne

“Civilians suffer in all wars, but the suffering of Iraqi civilians in this war is particularly unfortunate because one of the main justifications for the war was humanitarian: to rescue suffering Iraqis from a tyrant."

Sunday, October 1, 2006
Eric A. Posner

“… At a time of renewed interest in humanitarian intervention, the Iraq war and the effort to justify it even in part in humanitarian terms risk giving humanitarian intervention a bad name. If that breeds cynicism about the use of military force for humanitarian purposes, it could be devastating for people in need of future rescue.”

Sunday, January 25, 2004
Human Rights Watch

“The fall of Mosul has left our leaders silent, while others mutter about Bush and Blair. But at Iraq's hour of greatest need we cannot stand by.”

Thursday, June 12, 2014
John McTernan

“Beyond counterterrorism interests, there is a humanitarian case for remaining in Afghanistan. The Taliban oppose women’s rights, religious tolerance, education for girls and general liberal democratic values. Preventing such a group from gaining power helps Afghans.”

Tuesday, September 5, 2017
Daniel L. Byman

“In any counterinsurgency war, if the insurgents are not losing, they are winning.”

Thursday, August 10, 2017
Ivan Eland

“Imagine what it means for a genocide to continue, not for 100 days as in Rwanda, but for 10 years.”

Friday, April 18, 2014
Akshaya Kumar

“If government and rebels want to fight they will fight and the best thing for peacekeepers to do is keep their heads down.”

Wednesday, May 21, 2008
Alex de Waal
Pre-9/11 Case Studies

“The success of the peacemaking mission in Sierra Leone has given heart to all who think that the rich world's military power should be used to rescue ‘failed states.’”

Wednesday, May 15, 2002
The Economist

“Until Congo gets a government able and willing to protect its people, rather than prey on them, the UN will be needed. Yet its presence seems sure to prop up a government that is one of the main causes of its people’s misery. And so the mission goes on, endlessly.”

Thursday, February 22, 2018
The Economist

“The intervention did bring security, but it was late in doing it.”

Saturday, January 6, 2001
Ajiza Magno

“Migration, youth unemployment and unresolved alleged war crimes are headaches for Kosovo’s international backers.”

Friday, February 16, 2018
Andrew MacDowall

“But if the west had wanted to act morally in the Balkans and to protect the people in Kosovo there were solutions other than war with the Serbs, and options other than backing the KLA – the most violent group in Kosovan politics.”

Wednesday, December 15, 2010
Neil Clark

“Contrary to widespread criticism, the air campaign achieved every one of its goals. Having seriously underestimated allied resolve, Milosevic accepted the alliance's demands on June 3. After 77 days, with no casualties of its own, NATO had prevailed. A humanitarian disaster had been averted. About one million refugees could now return in safety. Ethnic cleansing had been reversed.”

Tuesday, November 30, 1999
Javier Solana

“There are successes. One, surprisingly, is security. In an outcome few expected, fighting has not erupted here since the 1995 Dayton Peace Accord ended a brutal three-year conflict.”

Friday, April 27, 2012
David Rhode

“Perhaps American inaction in the Rwanda genocide, five months before, was on Clinton’s mind when he said: ‘I know that the United States cannot, indeed we should not, be the world’s policemen. And I know … Americans are reluctant to commit military resources and our personnel beyond our borders. But when brutality occurs close to our shores, it affects our national interests. And we have a responsibility to act.’”

Wednesday, September 10, 2014
Pooja Bhatia

“The U.S. government knew enough about the [Rwandan] genocide early on to save lives, but passed up countless opportunities to intervene.”

Saturday, September 1, 2001
Samantha Power

“Though progress has been made, to many observers the lessons learned have not always been followed by action. Violence in places like Syria and the Central African Republic indicate that the world has yet to overcome its divisions and indifference in the face of atrocity.”

Friday, April 11, 2014
Benedict Moran

“This much is manifest: no massive intervention in a failed state--even one for humanitarian purposes--can be assuredly short by plan, politically neutral in execution, or wisely parsimonious in providing "nation-building" development aid.”

Sunday, March 31, 1996
Walter Clarke and Jeffrey Herbst
Non-Western Interventions

“So far the [African Union] has only sent forces in at the request of the state in need. Theoretically it can intervene against a nation's wishes, which is part of the remit of the new rapid-response African Standby Force.”

Tuesday, July 19, 2016
BBC News

“If the situation continues, the African Union and international community cannot sit by and watch genocide.”

Wednesday, October 21, 2015
Omar Mohammed
Women & Intervention

“If women could make it happen in these other parts of the world, why not try it in Syria? Why are women still not represented at the negotiating table?”

Friday, February 23, 2018
Rachel Vogelstein and Jamille Bigio

“Current conflicts disproportionately affect women. It is conservatively estimated that 70% of those killed in today’s conflicts are civilians, many of them women and children, who become especially vulnerable when law and order break down.”

Wednesday, September 7, 2016
Fiona Hodgson