Humanitarian War

In: Humanitarianism: Keywords
Deniz Gökalp
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In the post- World War II period, the newly created (1945) United Nations (UN) was hesitant to approve the idea of military intervention by a member state in the sovereign land of another member state, even in the case of alarming humanitarian situations. During the Cold War, geopolitics played an important role in rendering the UN Security Council ineffective as member states turned a blind eye to human rights violations of their political allies around the world (Roberts 1993).

The principle of non-intervention was the dominant norm within the UN system until the late 1980s, and member states would be expected to justify their interventionist actions based on the UN Charter’s chapter concerning “threat to the international peace and security” so as not to receive condemnation and pushback from the UN (Vincent 2015). Yet, between World War II and the end of the Cold War, the world witnessed interstate wars (e.g. the Korean and Vietnam wars), political interventions through coup d’états (e.g. Nicaragua, Greece, Chile, and Turkey), and proxy wars (e.g. the Congo Crisis and Angolan Civil War) organized by powerful states, most actively by the United States (USA) and a number of western European states.

Despite the UN’s reluctance to endorse military interventions, the idea of “just war” in contemporary politics was subtly consolidated during the Cold War era through the foreign policy of the USA, the Truman Doctrine, the Nixon Doctrine, and the Carter Doctrine, as well as European policies for the postcolonial governance of former colonies (De Lauri 2019a). After the end of the Cold War, the idea of “humanitarian war” as the massive use of armed force in the name of humanitarianism proliferated globally (De Lauri 2019b). Humanitarian military interventions in Iraq (1991), Somalia (1993), Bosnia (1995), and Kosovo (1999) were all backed by the UN Security Council through missions, resolutions, and peace-keeping operations, and gathered significant support from civil society groups associated with the (new) left of the post-Cold War era, at least until the devastating consequences of these humanitarian wars unfolded. International law provided not legality but a certain degree of legitimacy to most of the foreign military interventions, on the grounds that they were implemented to end genocides, civil wars, and human rights violations in situations of state failure or tyranny (Chesterman 2002).

Between the end of the 20th and the beginning of the 21st centuries, both humanitarians and activists assumed and claimed autonomy, neutrality, and independence for humanitarian engagements around the world to deliver “global pietas” and to defend human rights. At the same time, the world witnessed a growing overlapping between compassion and war (De Lauri 2019a; Pandolfi and Rousseau 2016). A surprising number of leftist scholars and activists, some of whom became fervent supporters of the invasions of Afghanistan (2001) and Iraq (2003), were convinced that mass atrocities, incidents of genocide, and massive abuses of human rights around the world needed to be stopped through armed interventions for the sake of humanity (çubukçu 2018). Therefore, in the 21st century, humanitarian war has become synonymous to war-making (and vice versa), and integral to understanding the changing economic, geopolitical, and warfare organization in the world. While the legitimacy of humanitarian wars continues to be a matter of fierce legal debate in policy and scholarly circles, humanitarianism has proven to be a complex enterprise embedded into the political economy of the organization of warfare (Duffield 2014).

Introducing humanitarianism into warfare, under the banner of “humanitarian war,” at the end of the 20th century coincided with the global restructuring of power and hegemony, the changing nature of geopolitical competition, the expansion of neoliberal capitalism, and the increasing complexity of state organization/mobilization for warfare (Malesevic 2010; Duffield 2014). The innovation of defining militarism as humanitarianism and war as peace has been used to legitimate the protracted presence of foreign armies in Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, Libya, Yemen, and Syria in the first two decades of the 21st century, with the increasingly visible presence of militaries, businesses, and humanitarians from the non-Western world as well, more specifically Russia, China, Turkey, and the oil-rich Arabian Gulf countries, which are altering the Western-dominated international system of security (Snetkov and Lanteigne 2015; Ziadah 2019).

Humanitarian war has normalized the extraordinary circumstances of war by turning large swathes of lands in the Global South into sites of “emergency,” “recovery,” “stabilization,” and “reconstruction,” where the legal and illegal/extrajudicial networks of warfare, humanitarian assistance, business, trade, banking, trafficking, and smuggling are all entangled through increasingly sophisticated and securitized new technologies (Andreas 2008; Duffield 2014; Kaldor 2012; Nordstrom 2004).


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