Reflections on humanitarian intervention

After participating in the summer school for comparative conflict studies in Belgrade, I can conclude that this summer is off to a great start. I participated in the track ‘from intervention to non-intervention: the triumph of state sovereignty over human rights?’ led by dr. Maxine David from Leiden University. The course addressed four core themes in the study of humanitarian intervention (sovereignty, legitimacy, legality, human rights) through a comparative case study of Bosnia, Kosovo, Darfur, and Syria. For me, the program was relevant, intense, highly valuable, and David is an inspiring lecturer who pushes you to think beyond your preconceptions and disciplinary training.  I can highly recommend anybody who is interested in learning more about the history of contemporary conflict and humanitarian intervention, the Balkans, or transnational justice to go next year. In this post I will share with you some of my reflections and insights from the course.

My personal learning objective of this summer school was to think through my own judgement of intervention and to peel back the different layers of complexity surrounding conflict. Although the main aim of humanitarian intervention is to prevent war atrocities and to secure and ensure peace, they can never be separated from the interests of states. My pre-summer school Self would argue that the existence of geopolitical interests is evidence that there is no such thing as humanitarian intervention and that therefore we should reject the legitimacy of the United Nations (UN). However, I’m going back to the Netherlands with a more informed perspective on humanitarian intervention, and may need to adjust my strong opinion.

On the whole, I think I’ve become less cynical and negative on the necessity of intervention, but my feelings on this conclusion are mixed. I think that this shift can be ascribed to our in-depth study of conflict in an attempt to move beyond the geopolitical context. To really understand a conflict is to understand the human side of conflict. One thing that really resonated with me was the necessity to identify and name what happened to people in the Bosnian war in 1992 -1995, and the Srebrenica case in particular: genocide and ethnic cleansing. Downplaying the events by not naming the atrocities denies victims’ voices to be heard. By silencing these voices we diminish the events and cannot prevent them in the future.

However, I believe we should be careful by stating that warring parties are engaging in violent conflict because of ethnic divides, or ancient hatreds. In the case of Bosnian Muslims and Bosnian Serbs, it leads to the question how long these tensions have existed. As is seen in illustration 1, pre-war Bosnia has regions with mixed ethnic diversity, a sign that there were communities where people with different ethnic or religious backgrounds were able to live together. It raises the question to what extent the tensions between groups due to “ancient hatreds,” or by the interest of several political elites. Thus, it stresses the need to look at tensions between groups within a particular state, which leads to the question how long these tensions have been here. What I take with me for my own research is that I should look at the national history of a state, previous conflicts and enabling conditions that provide feeding ground for these tensions: cultural difference, language, forced nationhood, inequality, or economic instability. Instead, we should compare more explicitly the role of careful framing and selection in situations leading up to violent outbreaks, and hold those leaders accountable. For instance, in the case of Bosnia and Kosovo, we should not forget the accountability of leaders such as Slobodan Milošević, Radovan Karadzic, and Ratko Mladic. I believe that in the end, acknowledging the human side of war and its accompanying atrocities is what drove the development of international law, what serves a double purpose: prevention, but also justice for victims.

This responsibility trails into Serbian leadership today, as our group discussions made clear that many of the military leaders of the 1990s are still active in diverse governmental institutions today. I am very thankful for the insightful discussions, because I would not have this local insight without the extensive talks with our Serbian and Bosnian classmates. On the other hand, I am aware that this information is anecdotal, and that I cannot base my judgement on these experiences. However, scholars such as Kerr (2005) voice similar concerns in dealing with accountability and justice in the post-conflict reconstruction for Bosnia and Serbia. Problematic in this reconstruction is the lack in credibility and legitimacy of the ICTY: ‘A 2002 study based on interviews with 10,000 people found that in the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, 51% trusted ICTY, while in RS only 4% did’ (International Idea quoted in Kerr 2005, 325). Studying the national context of Serbia, the ICTY is considered ethnically biased and anti-Serb, and in this culture of denial, even government officials have denied the genocide in Srebenica (Kerr 2005, 325). As far as I can see, this raises two important concerns for the future. One, the lack of accountability and denial of events signals the presence of what Galtung (1990) calls ‘cultural violence’, which may prohibit post-conflict reconstruction. Second, this trigger may also enforce negative attitudes towards other groups. For instance in the attitudes towards refugees arriving in Serbia today.

What I learned from our group discussions was that an analysis on humanitarian intervention should include a comparative approach between conflicts that analyses the reflexive ability of governing bodies. What can we learn from comparing the failure of intervention in the Bosnian case, and the failure of intervention in the Kosovarian case? Both have failed in different ways. One way in which Bosnian case failed was in the extension of human suffering, exemplified in the genocide in Srebrenica, ethnic cleansing in the country, and the extensive violations of human rights. One way where the case of Kosovo failed was in the illegality of its intervention. However, in comparison to each other, where NATO failed to deliver air support in the Srebrenica case, they did respond more quickly by intervening through airstrikes in Kosovo. Kosovo was a success in the sense that its military intervention through airstrikes have acted to avoid human tragedy (Solana 1999). But considering the civilians killed during these bombings and the aftermath of refugees (Chinkin 1999), I cannot help but ask myself: at what cost? How you judge these failures also hinges on the measurement of success. But as Paris argues (2014, 574), since the demonstration of effectiveness hinges on reasoning what could have happened if not for the intervention, the question of success is a structural intrinsic problem in humanitarian intervention.

From a broader perspective, another measure for success would be to compare how the culmination of conflicts relates to the creation of specific measures to prevent such atrocities. In an attempt to ensure prevention on the future genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity, the ‘responsibility to protect’ (R2P) framework was conceptualised and presented at the World Summit in 2005 (Paris 2014). A possible point of criticism is that it forces us to think of war in a linear fashion. This may be problematic since it implies that the construction of these values have a clearly defined origins, and suggests a chronology with a beginning and an end. However, I side more with the type of analysis done by scholars such as Michel Foucault (1975), who acknowledges the existence of complex, mundane and multiple origins. Further research could analyse the genealogy of R2P, what it means in the current context, and how this meaning changed through the different frameworks and measures of the UN. Understanding this evolution also sheds light onto the way in which the UN tries to learn from past experiences and conflicts.

In the end this summer school raised more questions than answers. Things I will take with me from this summer school are: seeing the reflexive politics of humanitarian intervention through a comparative approach; analysing the complexity of war through different lenses on a local/national/global level; and emphasising the human side of warfare. Combined, these views have led me to reconsider my hard, leftist, anti-imperialist perspective that advocates the dissolution of governing bodies, to perhaps a more realist form of criticism that tries to improve these structures.



Chinkin, Christine M. (1999) ‘Kosovo: A ‘Good’ or ‘Bad’ War’, American Journal of International Law, 3(4): 841-847.

Foucault, Michel (1977 [1975]) Discipline and Punish, translated by Alan Sheridan, New York: Pantheon.

Galtung, Johan (1990) ‘Cultural Violence’, Journal of Peace Research, 2(3): 291-305.

Kerr, Rachel (2005) ‘The Road from Dayton to Brussels? The International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia and the Politics of War Crimes in Bosnia’, European Security, 14(3): 319-337.

Paris, Roland (2014) ”The Responsibility to Protect’ and the Structural Problems of Preventive Humanitarian Intervention’, International Peacekeeping, 21(5): 569-603.

Solana, Javier (1999) ‘NATO’s Success in Kosovo’’, Foreign Affairs, 78(6): 114-120.

United Nations (n.d.) Charter of the United Nations. Available online [accessed 06 July 2016].


Illustration 1

Wikimedia (n.d.) Ethnic makeup of Bosnia and Herzegovina before and after the war. Available online [accessed 06 July 2016].

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