On “Humanitarian Intervention”

Monument to civilian victims of a NATO airstrike in Serbia during the 1999 Kosovo War (Petar Milosevic via Wikimedia Commons)

by Helena Cobban

I am old enough to remember when a “humanitarian intervention” meant organizing collections of food and blankets to send to distant communities in distress. Heck, in my elementary school in England we knitted little 6-inch squares to make up such blankets: they were taken away, sewn together, and delivered to the Red Cross by the teachers.

Nowadays, though, the term “humanitarian intervention” is nearly always understood to mean military action—or, in short, war. How did this happen?

The first move in this weasel-ish double rebranding was to re-describe war as merely “intervention.” That started happening in Western discourse right after the end of the Cold War, in discussions of what policies Western governments should adopt toward crises in Bosnia, Somalia, or Rwanda. At that time, Western governments and publics were still prepared to consider deploying numerous more pacific tools from the traditional diplomats’ tool-box, so “intervention” could still mean engaging in a broad range of diplomatic activities. But after the horrors of the 1994 Rwandan Genocide, the posture the United States and its allies adopted toward political crises in places of geostrategic interest shifted strongly toward a greater reliance on the use or threat of force, and the term “intervention” became increasingly synonymous with acts of war.

That shift became solidified in the over-militarized years after 9/11. Today, politicians, journalists, think tankers, and academics often unthinkingly conduct entire, lengthy discussions of whether Washington should “intervene” in crises in Syria, Venezuela, or wherever, when what they are actually discussing is whether Washington should use military action against that country. As they do that, they are de-facto setting aside any consideration of the numerous other tools of diplomacy.

The addition of the descriptor “humanitarian” to any such war/intervention is possibly an even more dangerous rhetorical move since, as explained below, it degrades the very concept of humanitarianism. 

It is easy to see why warmongers have often wanted to describe their plans as “humanitarian”: it clothes their military campaigns in all the fuzzy feelings of the do-gooder. In one way or another, imperial and colonial powers have been doing just that for nearly 200 years. In the early days of the European empires, perhaps it was okay for the architects of their wars of expansion to describe their campaigns in purely selfish terms. “We’ll grab those crown jewels from the rulers of India!” “We’ll seize control of those lucrative trade routes!” “We’ll find great new acreage for our farmers to settle on and use!” But with the growth of literacy and the spread of newspapers, it became necessary to temper such displays of avarice and ascribe more noble goals to the continuing wars of expansion. Saving the “natives” of the targeted lands from some form of civilizational blight became a greater part of the empire-building rhetoric. And if the representations of that blight had to be exaggerated to some extent by the imperialists’ spokesmen and their allies in the national media, in order to strengthen the case for a “salvationist” imperial war—as happened very frequently—then so be it. (The counterpoint to that was always to downplay, or hide altogether wherever possible, any accounts of the much greater violence employed by the imperial armies and the much greater human suffering that they inflicted…)

The specific use of the term “humanitarian” in Western discourse, when applied to an act of war, seems to have started with NATO’s 1999 war for Kosovo. As noted above, it was right around then that the term “intervention” became commonly used in place of war. Perhaps the rhetoricians who made that move realized that—due to the still-prevalent understandings about the nature and definition of “humanitarianism”—the term “humanitarian war” was just too much a contradiction in terms.

I can state unequivocally, based on my personal experience, that there is no such thing as a “humanitarian war.” For six years, 1975 through 1981, I lived as a civilian and struggled to maintain our family’s household in war-torn Lebanon. Then, in the early 2000s, I did some in-depth research (including field research) into the legacies of earlier armed conflicts in three countries in sub-Saharan Africa. In every one of those conflicts, as in others around the world, it is the poorest and most vulnerable of the civilians trapped inside the war zone who suffer the worst losses and abuses. Organizations like the United Nations, the International Committee of the Red Cross, the Iraq Body Count, and Brown University’s “Costs of War” project all confirm that conclusion.

Over the past 20 years, the increasing use of the term “humanitarian intervention” to mean military action has been accompanied by the efforts major Western governments have pursued to co-opt and distort the work of non-governmental organizations with previously long records of providing humanitarian aid on a relatively non-political basis.

Two big U.S. examples of this are the New York-based International Rescue Committee (IRC) and Portland-based Mercy Corps. Both of these bodies have worked closely with the U.S. government on projects in Syria and elsewhere. In Syria, they have only ever provided relief services to people in areas controlled by the anti-Assad opposition. This politically discriminatory delivery of services runs directly counter to the core humanitarian-aid principles of impartiality and neutrality. (These and similar organizations, meanwhile, mounted broad, highly alarmist media campaigns that featured only the casualties in areas of Syria controlled by anti-Assad forces, while remaining mum on the also-high number of casualties suffered in the government-held areas that hold the majority of the country’s population. Those campaigns, coming from respected aid organizations, reinforced the perception among Western publics that the Syrian government and its allies are somehow uniquely evil, while Syria’s anti-government forces act only like Boy Scouts.)

Both the IRC and Mercy Corps have taken considerable amounts of money from government sources in recent years. As reported in the IRC’s “Form 990” filing for 2016, $415.4 million (58%) of its $710.3 million income over the preceding year came from government grants, while for Mercy Corps, the corresponding proportion in its 2017 filing was 57% of its $308.2 million income.

It seems plausible to conclude, therefore, that these organizations (and many smaller aid groups that acted in accordance with U.S. or UK political objectives in Syria) have also violated the core humanitarian principle of independence from the actions or policies of governments. This conclusion is strengthened when we learn that the Executive President of the IRC is David Milliband, a former British Foreign Secretary who was a long-time Blairite operative in 10 Downing Street, or that the former President of Mercy Corps, Nancy Lindborg, now heads the disturbingly hawkish, Congressionally-funded U.S. Institute of Peace. For his part, Milliband has a nice gig at the IRC, where in 2016 he pulled in a compensation package totaling $885,000.

The use of the term “humanitarian intervention” for war and the co-optation and distortion of the work of aid organizations have, between them, had the further effect of decreasing the understanding among Western publics of principles of humanitarian action in times of war that had more than proven their worth over the preceding 140 years. Those principles were closely tied to the emergence and development since the 1860s of the international “Red Cross” movement (to whose British affiliate, in late 1950s, my classmates and I contributed our little knitted squares).

Almost since its inception, the Red Cross movement has had two parts, both dedicated to upholding the same core principles. One part is the globe-spanning International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, made up of affiliated national-level societies that pursue their humanitarian work in many different contexts, mostly relating to natural disasters, not war. The other wing of the movement is the Geneva-based International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), which focuses more tightly on the challenges of humanitarian action in times of war. The ICRC has long worked with national governments, international organizations, and civil society to develop principles that ensure that wars, when fought, inflict as little damage on combatants and noncombatants as possible. In times of conflict, it works with all those parties and the national Red Cross/Crescent societies to try to implement those principles. One of the best-known achievements of the ICRC is the set of four Geneva Conventions it midwifed in 1949. These treaties, to which nearly all the world’s governments have acceded, lay out the rules for how armed forces must treat wounded or detained prisoners-of-war and how they must treat civilian residents of “foreign” areas that fall under their control in the course of any battle. Other ICRC-midwifed treaties dictate what kinds of weapons can be used in warfare and also, crucially, how they can be used.

All these fundamental principles of humanitarian action in time of war put clear constraints on how warfare can be waged—precisely because their authors recognized that in and of itself warfare is profoundly inimical to human life and wellbeing. Hence the deep contradiction of the idea of any “humanitarian war.”

It is time, therefore, to lay aside all the weasel-words and euphemisms that members of Western political elites have used in recent year to mask the realities of the nature of war. Military action is not just an “intervention.” In many circumstances, it is an act of war, and it should be recognized as such. And military action can never, in itself, be described as “humanitarian.” As General Sherman recognized, war is indeed hell.

Helena Cobban

Veteran Middle East analyst and author Helena Cobban is a Senior Fellow at the Center for International Policy and the CEO of both Just World Books and the nonprofit Just World Educational. JWE’s website Justworldeducational.org makes freely available to the public a variety of resources on war, peace, justice, and the Middle East. The views she expresses here are her own.



  1. The expression “humanitarian intervention” was used frequently to define and justify the intervention to protect the Kurds in 1991 and the US invasion of Somalia in 1992. Neither of these were NATO operations. The late Christopher Hitchens time and again cited the Kurdish intervention as the reason for his conversion from anti-war to a foaming-at-the-mouth warmonger. If this author was unable to find examples for “humanitarian intervention” before 1999 it was because she chose not to look.

  2. President George H.W. Bush’s decision to intervene militarily in Somalia in 1992 was exclusively for humanitarian purposes. There was famine. War lords were capturing food shipments and holding them for ransom. People were literally starving. The U.S. press was full of articles depicting starvation. President Bush sent troops for six months to unblock supply routes and feed hungry people. UN peace-keepers took over after six months. The US operation had zero political motives. I was U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Africa at the time.

  3. A good point about Somalia 1992. Thanks for adding it. As I understand it, Centcom’s Opn Restore Hope there was an outlier to the general argument I was making in the article. But it was also, tragically, one in a stream of examples of good intentions paving a road to a terrible place (most especially for Somalia’s people.)

  4. Herman J Cohen.

    I agree.

    A selfledd act of charity by a Christian population to help a wretched & wrecked Muslim country.

    One wonders were all the Muslim states where, why weren’t they doing anything?

    I wonder if we would be in the religious war that we are toady if GHWB had been re-elected.

  5. Two big U.S. examples of this are the New York-based International Rescue Committee (IRC) and Portland-based Mercy Corps. Both of these bodies have worked closely with the U.S. government on projects in Syria and elsewhere. In Syria, they have only ever provided relief services to people in areas controlled by the anti-Assad opposition.


    What “projects in Syria” could Cobban possibly be speaking about? This dark formulation would give those unfamiliar with Syria’s history since 2011 the notion that it has helped wrest control of territory from the dictatorship. In fact, the only such intervention has been on behalf of the Kurdish YPG that has never shown any interest in overthrowing Assad. The USA has helped to arm and defend it but only on the basis of defeating ISIS. That has been the sole interest of American imperialism, not regime change but the ongoing “war on terror”.

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