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Military force and promoting humanitarian values.

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How far is military force an effective instrument for the promotion of humanitarian values?

This essay will argue that military force is an ineffective instrument for the promotion of humanitarian values. However, this is qualified by also presenting reasons for discounting the effectiveness of non-military interventions. This essay will be structured as follows. The first sections will confront methodological issues that have to be addressed before the question can be answered. Following this we will embark on a comparison of military and non-military interventions. The essay will evaluate a paradigm case of a successful operation, Australia in East Timor. We will argue it is anomalous and can barely qualify as a genuine intervention. We then see a true case of an intervention, Afghanistan, and conclude that this constitutes a failure of a military promotion of humanitarian values. We will then move onto evaluate two cases of non-military interventions, UN Resolutions and economic sanctions. It will be argued that UN sanctions are impotent, with reference to the actions of Israel. The essay will then examine the sanctions placed on Iraq, and argue that they caused a greater humanitarian crisis than any hitherto encountered intervention. The essay will conclude with reasons why one should refrain from drawing methodological precepts from previous interventions, and advocates a case-by-case analysis.

It is important to limit the scope of this debate. First of all, I will not be discussing issues such as the legitimacy of military force being used in national liberation movements with the discussion instead focusing on third party military intervention. There are questions that further need to be addressed: Firstly, what constitutes military force? Is it the mere presence of military personnel (e.g. UN Peacekeeping forces), or does it have to be active military participation? Secondly, what are humanitarian values? Thirdly, how does one measure the promotion of such values? Is there a quantifiable way to ask whether their promotion has been effective? Fourthly, are there case studies which can be turned to in order to address the question? If there has never been a genuinely humanitarian intervention, then it will be impossible to assess the success of such an endeavour.

In response to the first question, it is simpler to treat all military interventions of the same ilk. Consider the criteria set out by the Red Cross (1997), arguing that a prerequisite for an intervention to be humanitarian it has to be neutral, impartial and independent. The position of the Red Cross is that no armed force could satisfy these requirements backed as they are by political governments with their own agenda. If one finds this cogent, then there is no prima facie reason for discerning between mercenary, state-backed and UN organisations[1]. In regards to humanitarian values, and how to measure their effectiveness, to find a view backed by consensus is almost impossible. We confront positions as diverse as simple, utilitarian measurements of the amount of people whose lives have been saved (Janzekovic, 2006: 144) to more specific positions such as Regan (1996: 341-342) who claims that an intervention can be deemed successful if it destabilises the region in such a way, so that it is more difficult for the oppressing-state to continue with its human rights violations. This position would not use a short-term measurement such as deaths to measure the success of an intervention. However, I shall err on the simpler measurement. This is simply due to that the measurement of injuries, fatalities and abuses in a conflict is a simpler tool of analysis, rather than a vague notion such as ‘favourable destabilisation’[2]. Finally, as to whether there has been a genuine humanitarian intervention, the answer seems to be negative[3]. Regardless of whether or not one agrees with the historical analysis in the books cited, there is an explanatory problem for believers in genuine intervention, which is the sporadic and inconsistent use of such interventions. This is what Paris (2014: 578-588) calls the inconsistency problem. The thrust of the problem is that such inconsistent use of military intervention in regards to humanitarian crises implies that there is more than just selfless means motivating the intervenors. Although other factors affect the ability to intervene (Binder: 2009), there is a strong motivation that, when combined with the historical record, humanitarian intervention is a misnomer. However, let us leave this issue to the side. What we shall discuss now is the following: “Do military interventions for nominally humanitarian ends, save more lives than non-military means for the same ends?”

Let us examine some of the paradigmatic cases of successful military intervention. One often cited is the success of the Australian intervention in East Timor in 1999. The intervention was required due to the Indonesian governments oppressive measures used to quell an East Timorese population insistent on independence from Jakarta. During the referendum campaign, there was widespread use of militia intimidation to quell support for independence, accompanied by widespread human rights violations. The actions of the Indonesian forces resulted in the displacement of around 40,000 – 85,000 East Timorese (T. Seybolt, 2007: 88.)). The success of the Australian military has been praised by some, such as Wheeler and Dunne (2001) who took such success as totalling almost a paradigm shift on the effectiveness and new normative perspective of a humanitarian intervention (contrasting it with the collusion of the United States in the violent occupation of the East Timor in 1975 (Amnesty International, 1985). However, although the Australian intervention is largely considered successful, unfortunately, it does not meet the criteria of a humanitarian intervention. Humanitarian interventions, under most definitions (Roberts, 2003:5) have to be a military action without the consent of the oppressing power, in this case, Indonesia. However, as is noted by Chesterman (2002), Australia sought the consent of the Indonesian government, before intervening. The Australian government of the 5th of September said that they would only consider intervention if four conditions were met: (i) there was a security council mandate, (ii) if the Indonesian government consented, (iii) if the endeavour was a short term one, and (iv) if the force had a strong regional component Wheeler and Dunne (ibid p.807). What makes the fact that consent was sought from Indonesia considerably stranger was the fact that, apart from Australia, the international community did not believe that Indonesia had any rights over East Timor, with East Timor being internationally considered to be an independent state. As Chesterman goes onto note as well, that, although it is often cited to be an example of successful intervention, the fact remains that the international community displayed great reticence in intervening (contrasted with their enthusiasm regarding Bosnia). Chesterman concludes that if Australia had not intervened, no one else would have (Chesterman 2002:181)) There are also significant reasons that the reason for Australian intervention were hardly impartial either, as Chesterman also notes that the Howard Government of Australia was probably more worried about the influx of refugees that would come from such a crisis (a point which is corroborated by Gonzalez-Forester (2004), who documents Australia and other countries previous ambivalences to violent Indonesian actions towards the East-Timorese.)

This case study appears to support the question posed in the affirmative, as once the Australian forces intervened, the extent of the massacres and expropriations stopped considerably. Thus, there does appear to be some motivation for considering military intervention a useful technique. However, there are also other considerable problems by extrapolating from this example. First of all, the Indonesian forces consented to their intervention, so the Australians were entering a comparatively un-hostile environment, and secondly, this fact is bolstered by the generally warm relations between Australia and Indonesia. In order for us to extrapolate from this example, we would have to see how well interventions perform in a country which does not openly consent to the intervention from a third party.

Such an example would be Afghanistan, a country that has twice been intervened by hostile forces supporting apparently humanitarian goals (both Russia (1979-1989) and the United States (2001- Ongoing)). Both of these interventions have had the nominal motivation of humanitarian ends, and both have, to some extent worked towards them. In the case of the Russian intervention, it seems to be that the attempt to intervene has failed, despite the attempt to implement progressive policies (Bennis, 2015). The report cited documents how their attempts to implement progressive policies in the rural areas of Afghanistan provoked widespread rebellion, thus making the humanitarian situation considerably worse. The United States intervention initially seemed to be a more intelligent intervention, with there being a pronouncement of the military intervention being accompanied by humanitarian aid drops. However, as Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) note, the aid packages of food (which only occurred around once a month) shared the same yellow packaging as cluster bombs, which led to a number of casualties (Calas and Salignon: 2004, p. 82.) Asides from that, there also seems to be strong reports that human rights are being abused by militant forces which the united states support. For example, the New York Times have reported on a massacre occurring in Dasht-E-Leili, where Afghan Soldiers killed Taliban POW’s on their route to Sheberghen Prison (Gall, 2001).this directly violates Article 13 of the Geneva Convention regarding the treatment of POW’s (ICRC, 1949). Incidents such as this are indicative of a failed intervention, in regards to the promotion of explicitly humanitarian values. Although the indefinite extension of the US-Afghanistan war means that any conclusion might seem premature, the track record of the past 14 years indicates that military interventions do not promote humanitarian ends if the members of the occupying country do not welcome it.

We have thus encountered compelling reasons to dismiss the effectiveness of military means for promoting humanitarian ends. What is now necessary is to contrast this with the effectiveness of non-military interventions. We shall examine two such examples: UN declarations and economic sanctions. We shall conclude that both are ineffective: UN declarations are ineffective without military support, and economic sanctions can exacerbate already precarious situations. In regards to the first point, there does seem to be a strong case for this. Consider, for example, the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory in the West Bank and Gaza, as well as their occupation of the Golan Heights in Syria. All of these violate international law, and violate UN sanctions (Hammon, 2010)). However, this does not seem to have deterred the Israeli government from refraining from the maintenance of such illegal activities, nor does it seem to have any force in preventing further breaches of international law. Secondly, consider the economic sanctions that were placed on Iraq in response to the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait implemented by United Nations Security Council Resolution 661 (S/RES/661 (1990)) These sanctions are considered to have some of the most disastrous humanitarian results of recent history. The result of these sanctions have resulted in UNICEF reporting around 500,000 Iraqi children under the age of 5 dying (an increase of over 4,000 deaths a month compared to before the sanctions were enforced) (Edwards, 2000) In fact, the ‘oil-for-food’ program has had effects that compelled the organiser of the program, Denis Halliday, to resign, calling the program ‘genocidal’. The fact that this resignation at such a senior level in the UN is almost unprecedented is remarkable in and of itself. What makes this fact more remarkable is due to the fact that the person assigned to replace him, Hans von Sponeck, also resigned from the post, citing similar reasons (ibid.) A counter-point could be raised here, to the effect that it was not so much the food-for-oil program itself that was the problem, but rather the insufficiencies of the program in light of the bombing campaign that almost crippled Iraq’s infrastructure. For example, Eric Hoskins claimed that ‘[the bombing campaign] effectively terminated everything vital to human survival in Iraq – electricity, water, sewage systems, agriculture, industry and health care’ (Curtis, 1995: 189). Thus, the point could be raised that this should be cited as a failure of military intervention, rather than non-violent. This point is a strong one, yet the cataclysmic consequences were not invoked by the bombing campaign, rather it was the sanctions which prevented the rebuilding which precipitated a humanitarian disaster. It is difficult to equate the success and failure of these positions, as they are often used in tandem, and it becomes difficult to dissociate what could be indications of mere incompetence, from the more malice invocations of the doctrine of realpolitik.

In conclusion, it is difficult to ascertain the effectiveness of military force. This is because paradigmatically successful operations, such as East Timor do not qualify. The possibility of a further answer is complicated due to the fact that the Israel-Palestine conflicts demonstrates the impotence of non-military means without the possibility of an armed intervention. Yet, the fact that condemnations are powerless also does not help us answer the question: Afghanistan shows how a militarily backed campaign can make a military solution to legitimate grievances considerably worse, and yet Iraq shows us how economic sanctions also exacerbate precarious scenarios. It seems to be that to offer an answer regarding the effectiveness of this-or-that method is premature, and universal laws determining efficacy should be replaced with a case-by-case analysis.


1 For a response to this, see Janzekovic (2006, p.130). For a more methodological reason regarding the difficulty of providing meaningful distinctions between forms of intervention, see Raymond (2015. p.295-298)

2 For example, did the UN sanctions against Iraq in response to their invasion of Kuwait ‘destabilise’ Saddam? It is not obvious to say.

3 For why interventions previous to World War I were not humanitarian, see Losurdo (2014) For why interventions post- World War II were not humanitarian see Blum (2003)


Amnesty International. (1985) East Timor Violations of Human Rights: Extrajudicial Executions, “Disappearances”, Torture and Political Imprisonment, 1975–1984. London: Amnesty International Publications.

Bennis, P. (2015) ‘Afghanistan’ in: Assange, J. The WikiLeaks Files: The World According to US Empire. New York: Verso Books. Pp. 368-394

Blum, W. (2003) Killing hope: US military and CIA interventions since World War II. London: Zed Books

Calas, F. and Salignon, P. (2004) ‘Afghanistan: From “Militant Monks” to Crusaders’. In: Weissman In the Shadow of “Just Wars”, Weissman, ed. London: Hurts and Co.

Chesterman, S. (2002) Just War or Just Peace? Oxford: Oxford University Press

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Losurdo, D. (2014) Liberalism: a counter-history. London: Verso Books.

Paris, R. (2014) “The ‘Responsibility to Protect’and the Structural Problems of Preventive Humanitarian Intervention.” International Peacekeeping 21.5: 569-603.

Raymond, D (2015). “Military Means of Preventing Mass Atrocities.” In Rosenberg, S. Galis, T. Zucker A. eds. 2015: Reconstructing Atrocity Prevention. New York: Cambridge University Press. Pp.295- 320

Regan, P M. (1996) “Conditions of successful third-party intervention in intrastate conflicts.” Journal of Conflict Resolution 40.2: 336-359

Roberts, A. (2002) ‘The So-Called “Right” of Humanitarian Intervention’, in Yearbook of International Humanitarian Law 2000, 3. The Hgue: T.M.C Asser.

Seybolt, T B. (2007) Humanitarian military intervention: the conditions for success and failure. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

UN Security Council, Resolution 661 (1990) Adopted by the Security Council at its 2933rd meeting, on 6 August 1990, 6 August 1990, S/RES/661 (1990), available at: // [accessed 25 October 2015]

Wheeler, N. and Dunne, T. (2001) ‘East Timor and the New Humanitarian Interventionism’, International Affairs, 77, 4, pp. 805–27.

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