Research Portfolio Post #5: Research Puzzle Proposal

I am proposing to research the causes of humanitarian intervention because I would like to find out why states and/or international organizations pursue (or do not pursue) military intervention in response to humanitarian crises, in order to help my reader better understand why some humanitarian crises result in military intervention while others do not.

Initially, the observation that not all humanitarian crises result/resulted in military intervention seemed to me a curious occurrence. Notably, the distinction of military intervention is an important one. Some humanitarian crises have provoked a variety of responses ranging from standard naming and shaming to economic sanctions and embargoes to unilateral military intervention and United Nations peacekeeping operations. To make this question more manageable, I have sought to focus on only military interventions (including those that are unilateral or those that involve coalitions or UN peacekeeping). Among these responses, it is interesting to notice how some humanitarian crises, despite receiving massive media attention, have only resulted in naming and shaming. Why is that so? Implicit in that question is why there hasn’t been a greater response, including military intervention. Therefore, the question also begs: what level of severity corresponds to (or at least legally warrants) greater action?

The International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty or the (ICISS) labels this concept the “Just Cause” threshold.[1][i]The 2001 report’s “Responsibility to Protect” (ratified by UN member states in 2005) discusses states’ obligation to protect the human rights of individuals in other states. This responsibility includes three pillars with the first being the responsibility of host states to protect and respect their citizens’ human rights and the second involving the obligation of the international community to assist those states in fulfilling their responsibilities should they be unable to meet them (an example could be delivering aid to a state that cannot meet the first pillar on its own).[2][ii]The third pillar, and perhaps most controversial, includes the Responsibility to React which involves the previously mentioned ways of intervening, which also list militarily as a last resort.[3][iii]This of course is a very concise summary of the most relevant dimensions of the Responsibility to Protect to the research question, though the report mentions other responsibilities “to prevent” and to “rebuild”.[4][iv]The third pillar, in assessing how to react, must refer to the Just Cause Threshold to determine the appropriate course of action proportionate to the severity and persistence of human suffering and the host states’ responsiveness to the international community and its own obligations to uphold human rights.[5][v]The “puzzle” in this question is not whether or not the international community has these thresholds/guidelines for action (however perfect or imperfect they may be) but why there has been such a variation in responses to different crises and by different states to the same crises (which could be said pre- and post-ratification of R2P). The question is not one regarding the existence or non-existence of international legal architecture, but one problematizing actor behavior in reaction to acute humanitarian crises. Additionally, considering the fact that despite the overall decline in number of interventions (by major and non-major powers) from during and after the Cold War (1945-1989 versus to 2005), there is also a puzzling increase in number of interventions by International Organizations, the causes of humanitarian intervention are not so easily answered.[6][vi]International organizations went from accounting for 57 interventions or (a mere 8.3%) to 87 interventions, which is an astounding increase to 20.5% of all interventions from 1989-2005[7][vii]. One must note, however, that these figures supplied by the source does not distinguish between humanitarian and non-humanitarian interventions. Still, this is even more puzzling when one attempts to speculate reasons behind such an increase. If one is lead to believe that the end of the Cold War meant less need to intervene by the US and the USSR/Russia in proxy wars, this may well explain the overall decline in interventions but not the subsequent increase by those initiated by international organizations. An unsubstantiated speculation could be an evolution of humanitarian intervention norms, but it is only that – speculation. This why studying the reasons states/international organizations intervene is ever more pressing and puzzling. Not only is the “puzzle” of extreme significance (as it concerns both theoretical concepts of peace/war and human rights as well as and material consequences on international peace and security), it is also one that is hotly contested by scholars.

The common assertion among realists is that the pursuit of humanitarian intervention (or any intervention for that matter), is an act solely meant to advance self-interest. While this may be a popular belief among human rights skeptics and anti-imperialists alike, it does not carry well into research. Seldom do complex social processes lend themselves to such reductive truisms. While interest and realities of cost/outcome may factor in to constrain the likelihood of an actor’s desire to intervene in humanitarian crises, scholars like Bellamy and Negrón-Gonzales point to social norms as playing a primary, if not central, factor in this calculus.[8]For instance, Bellamy observes the change in humanitarian intervention norms in Darfur as they have evolved since the US’ intervention in Iraq. He looks at how the status of the United States and the United Kingdom as “norm-carriers” has been diminished and how the language of R2P is more present in Darfur.[9]Importantly, Bellamy’s reference to norms is critical because the very way in which R2P was invoked suggests that this the phenomenon of intervention extends beyond straight-forward considerations of interests. Bellamy illustrates how states used the language of R2P’s Just Cause Threshold to argue in support and against intervention by arguing that the responsibility to protect has or has not been transferred form the host state to the international community; an interesting development that at times has been at odds with even states’ own stances on the issue (ie: the US was in favor of intervention but was against the transfer of the R2P from Sudan to the UNSC which would legitimate intervention).[10]Negrón-Gonzales builds on this by observing how states responded to the very norm of R2P in various ways ranging from of rejection, hard/soft feedback, and endorsement in the UNSC (without neglecting to observe how both high and low-salience states reacted by looking at how their interests in Libya and/or Syria informed their decisions vis-à-vis norm response).[11]Curiously, Binder broadens the scope from norm-actor interactions to looks at causal paths/processes using “fs/QCA to compare the SC’s response to more than 30 major humanitarian crises after the Cold War”, identifying the “testable explanatory conditions… [as] (1) the extent of a humanitarian crisis (2) the level of international media attention (3) the strength of spillover effect (4) the strength of countervailing power, and (5) the level of previous institutional involvement in the crisis.[12]While Binder looks considers “sunk costs” and path-dependence in service of the final variable, this study’s analysis is neither exclusively within the domain of rational/cognitive decision-making variables nor does it neglect/over-emphasize the role of norms or interest.[13]The sheer variety of ways scholars have approached this question, as well as the elusiveness of a single conclusion enjoying consensus, attest to its puzzling nature.

Finally, I will discuss my second question concisely. Bellamy observes how the US – despite the presence of legal legitimations of self-defense pursuant to Chapter VII, Article 51 of the UN Charter – “felt obliged to argue that Operation Enduring Freedom would improve humanitarian conditions inside Afghanistan”.[14]US Secretary of Defense Rumsfield’s, referring to the intervention in Afghanistan, reiterated this, saying, “that the Taliban and the al Qaeda made a practice of doing harm and repressing the Afghan people. The Afghan people were starved in some measure because the Taliban and al Qaeda stole humanitarian food aid and kept it from them” and that “[e]ven before September 11th, the united States had been the larger [sic] donor of food aid to the Afghan people…”.[15]As such my second asks why the United States used moral/normative justifications of humanitarian intervention in Afghanistan despite the existing of legally legitimate framings invoking self-defense.

Again, my questions are:

Why do states and/or international organizations pursue military intervention in response to humanitarian crises?

Why did the United States use moral/normative justifications of humanitarian intervention in Afghanistan despite the existing of legally legitimate framings invoking self-defense?

Another possible question could also be: What explains the substantial increase in number of interventions initiated by international organizations after the Cold War despite the massive decrease in overall number of interventions initiated by major and non-major powers?

[1]International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty. 2001. “The Responsibility to Protect.” Responsibility to Protect, 1–87.

[2]“About R2P.” 2019. About R2P: Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect. Accessed September 27.

[3]International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty. 2001. “The Responsibility to React.” Responsibility to Protect, 29-35.

[4]Ibid19, 39.


[6]Pickering, Jeffrey, and Emizet F. Kisangani. 2009. “The International Military Intervention Dataset: An Updated Resource for Conflict Scholars.” Journal of Peace Research 46 (4): 597.


[8]Bellamy, Alex J. “Responsibility to Protect or Trojan Horse? The Crisis in Darfur and Humanitarian Intervention after Iraq.” Ethics & International Affairs 19, no. 2 (2005): 31–54. Negrón-Gonzales, Melinda, and Michael Contarino. “Local Norms Matter: Understanding National Responses to the Responsibility to Protect.” Global Governance: A Review of Multilateralism and International Organizations20, no. 2 (2014): 255–76.

[9]Bellamy, Alex J. “Responsibility to Protect or Trojan Horse? The Crisis in Darfur and Humanitarian Intervention after Iraq.” Ethics & International Affairs 19, no. 2 (2005): 32.

[10]Ibid 46-47.

[11]Negrón-Gonzales, Melinda, and Michael Contarino. “Local Norms Matter: Understanding National Responses to the Responsibility to Protect.” Global Governance: A Review of Multilateralism and International Organizations20, no. 2 (2014): 262.

[12]Binder, Martin. 2015. “Paths to Intervention.” Journal of Peace Research52 (6): 724, 716. doi:10.1177/0022343315585847.

[13]Ibid 715.

[14]Charter of the United Nations, Chapter VII Article 51.

Bellamy, Alex J. “Responsibility to Protect or Trojan Horse? The Crisis in Darfur and Humanitarian Intervention after Iraq.” Ethics & International Affairs 19, no. 2 (2005): 37.

[15]Federal News Service. 2019. United States Department of Defense. Accessed September 30.

This also in turn reflects the sentiments in Mutua, Makau W. “Savages, Victims, and Saviors: The Metaphor of Human Rights.” Harvard International Law Journal42, no. 1 (2001): 201–45. It would be interesting to synthesize how Mutua’s SVS metaphor operates within a case, for instance.

One thought to “Research Portfolio Post #5: Research Puzzle Proposal”

  1. Mohammad — you have a very thorough post here detailing your proposed research puzzle. As is clear from your discussion, you will need to think carefully about concepts and definitions since you are working with many large and somewhat nebulous ideas (humanitarian intervention, military intervention, etc.). As you continue to read literature about the reasons that scholars offer for interventions it might be worth considering the situations themselves, as the situational difficulty or complexity of a given situation might be an important factor (and these things might change or vary in ways different than the polarity of the international system, for instance). Towards the end of your post there is a bit of slippage in the different outcomes that you propose to explain–investigating the reasons why states pursue intervention is a different outcome (or DV) than researching why a state might choose specific types of rhetoric to explain an intervention. Which of those broader phenomena presents the better research puzzle for your project?

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