The International Hand: Humanitarian Assistance and Intervention

A summary of humanitarian assistance and military intervention over the past 20 years, amidst ongoing global crises in Syria and the Horn of Africa.  

Background

When examining global humanitarian crises over the last several decades, the inextricable link between security and human rights concerns that permeates world dialogue and shapes policy choices becomes ever more evident.

The severe famine in Mogadishu and southern Somalia in 1992 was exacerbated by the corrupt rule of Mohammad Farah Aidid, and led to US military intervention backed by the United Nations. The intervention caused the death of 18 US soldiers, and the pullout created a power vacuum in the region and an increasingly dangerous regime change. In the case of the Rwandan genocide of in 1994, a slow and inadequate reaction by world leaders and organizations, lead to thousands of deaths that could possibly have been prevented with more international support.

Shortly after the genocide in Rwanda, another began to unfold in Bosnia. Then President Bill Clinton and his allies made the decision to insert US troops and NATO forces into Bosnia in 1995 to stop further ethnic cleansing after UN peacekeeping troops failed to prevent Bosnian Serbs from committing atrocities against the Muslim minority.

The most recent case of NATO intervention in Libya demonstrates how Western powers sought to avoid mass murders occurring by supporting rebel forces and carrying out targeted air strikes to protect civilians.

Why is Humanitarian Assistance and Intervention Relevant?

Each of these cases demonstrates both the capacity of world powers to intervene in major humanitarian crises and the required use of force that often accompanies human rights violations, mass killings, and genocide.

When examining current situations such as the rising death toll in Syria under President Bashar al-Assad or even the violence of the Egyptian military directed towards protesters in the last several months, the question remains as to what extent organizations such as the UN and NATO can and should intervene in these types of scenarios.

The previous cases show that world powers frequently choose to intervene in a variety of ways, but not necessarily in a timely or effective manner. The goal in such humanitarian situations is always to minimize civilian and military casualties, promote diplomacy, and restrict the spread of the crisis. In many cases, security becomes a high priority in carrying out these goals and in keeping with international law and practice.

Not surprisingly, though, failed military efforts in a country, or overstretched troops, can make leaders wary of using force. The death of 18 American soldiers and the infamous “Black Hawk Down” crisis, for example, is likely to blame for the lack of strong intervention in the recent Horn of Africa drought as well as the similar security concerns that plague parts of Somalia under al-Shabab’s rule.

Likewise, NATO and US forces’ humanitarian and security efforts in Afghanistan present a serious challenge to a military intervention in Syria when international forces are already facing current crises elsewhere.

From a leadership standpoint, the choice to intervene using force is a critical one that must take into account the history of the conflict, the severity of the crisis, and the likely effectiveness of armed involvement. Regardless of the final decision in these situations, the strong relationship between security, military intervention, and humanitarian crises remains an important one in the policy world.

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