Why do states intervene in some humanitarian crises and not others?

by Thisuri Wanniarachchi


Syria’s broadening civil war and the developing conflict in Ukraine have raised new debates about the international community’s responsibility to support humanitarian intervention by states and made the world rethink why states choose to intervene in some crises and not others.   Humanitarian intervention always occurs within a complex structure of conflicting norms and values that decide whether and how it happens. Humanitarian intervention is often supported by influential human rights conventions that have extraordinary control in contemporary global politics. It is often weakened by the moral duties of politicians to protect their state,   in collision with other values states hold close, such as self-determination. Humanitarianism, on its own, never offers a reasonable explanation of an intervention. Only through inspecting the larger picture in which humanitarianism rests, together with state policies, trends and motives, can we begin to understand its effects. In this paper I plan to discuss the the reasons why states selectively intervene in humanitarian crises, by observing the foreign policies and behaviors of two powerful  nations,   China and the United States in the recent past.

The officially stated goals of the foreign policy of the United States, as mentioned in the Foreign Policy Agenda of the U.S. Department of State, are “to build and sustain a more democratic, secure, and prosperous world for the benefit of the American people and the international community.” In addition, the United States House Committee on Foreign Affairs states as some of its jurisdictional goals: “export controls, including nonproliferation of nuclear technology and nuclear hardware; measures to foster commercial intercourse with foreign nations and to safeguard American business abroad; international commodity agreements; international education; and protection of American citizens abroad and expatriation.” U.S. foreign policy and foreign aid have been the subject of much debate, praise and criticism both domestically and abroad.

The US is by far the world’s largest humanitarian donor. In 2000, US relief aid totalled nearly $1.2 billion, around a third of all humanitarian assistance.   Due to its philanthropy and extraordinary military, economic and global political power,  in the light of a humanitarian crisis the world turns to the United States.  However the case of Libya always shadows America’s interventionist history.

In 2011 the UN Security Council invoked the “responsibility to protect” doctrine and adopted Resolution 1973, endorsing a no-fly zone over Libya and authorizing member states to “take all necessary measures” to protect civilians under attack from Muammar al-Qaddafi’s government. Western-led air strikes ultimately overthrew Qaddafi from power and provoked criticism from Security Council members like Russia that the R2P doctrine was cover for a regime change strategy. Experts say such sentiments, combined with concern about the way Libya’s upheaval spilled over into the region, have given pause to humanitarian interventions backed by regional or global bodies.

 As an emerging superpower, China’s foreign policy and strategy is significantly different. China officially states it “unswervingly pursues an independent foreign policy of peace.”  the People’s Republic of China, guides the way in which it intermingles with foreign nations.  As is China, carries a huge fire in her belly. Deep-seated resentment over unequal and unfair treatment by Western powers still irks, and there are disputes regarding sovereignty over Taiwan, and border disputes with India and Japan. However by the 21st century China, with the second largest economy in the world, has become a major favor in world economic affairs, and is increasingly influential in Asia and Africa.

 In the recent past, China has shown much interest in fragile economies. Economies with potential but are going through a rough patch due their country’s political instability led humanitarian crises such as Sudan, Sri Lanka, and Pakistan. The two Sudanese states, especially South Sudan are in desperate need of investments for development. With more than US$12.5 billion invested in the petro-sector, much of it in the disputed Abyei and South Kordofan oilfields, China has both substantial leverage and vulnerability. China’s concern for stability is motivated out of pecuniary self-interest, of course, but other factors that make Beijing vulnerable also determine China’s behavior on Sudan.




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