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Humanitarian Intervention: Different faces of Foreign Policy of UK, USA, and India


Intervention in the affairs of another state on humanitarian grounds has been a subject of discussion in public international law since the 19th century Humanitarian intervention has been a growing process in International Relations, particularly after interventions by the USA in various nations. The thing is why and when one state will interfere in the affairs of the other. There are several aspects when talking about humanitarian intervention, such as political motives, geopolitical implications, and economic needs. This paper is about shedding some light on the interventions in the USA, India, and Russia context. Among these three states, two were the main powers that led to the cold war and India is one of the most successful post-colonial democratic nations which has emerged as the hub of growth and development. That’s why these three have been chosen for this study. What are the positives and negatives of humanitarian intervention and how does it affect the youth of both nations, the one that is intervening and the one where intervention is taking place?

What is Humanitarian Intervention?

Humanitarian intervention is the action undertaken by an organization (usually a state or a coalition of states) that is intended to ameliorate or fix the issue of extensive human suffering within the borders of a sovereign state. Such suffering frequently results from a government encouraging, supporting, or overlooking the mistreatment of groups under its control. When abuse occurs, it frequently takes the form of intentional, systematic violations of human rights, such as genocide, ethnic cleansing, and forced relocations. Humanitarian assistance is also possible when there is no functioning government and, as a result, no civil order.

In the name of compassion, it amounts to a deliberate and unwelcome violation of national sovereignty This is the main factor that gives rise to the heavy criticism of Humanitarian Intervention. Humanitarian intervention is a very easy way to enter and challenge the sovereignty of any state based on humanity. This factor makes it more debatable. Governments, international organizations, think tanks, and academic disciplines like international and comparative law, international relations, political science, and moral and political philosophy have all made it a prominent topic of discussion.

State Sovereignty and Humanitarian Intervention

Humanitarian intervention terminology and methods are not new. It has been the source of incessant arguments by lawyers, theologians, and philosophers for generations, even centuries. However, the present argument has Cold War roots and was sparked by several contentious military actions. The interventions of Vietnam in Cambodia in 1978, led to the overthrow of the murderous Khmer Rouge dictatorship, Tanzania in Uganda in 1979, which led to the overthrow of the despotic Idi Amin, and India in the Bangladesh War of 1971. The problem with these interventions is that most of the time they were done to meet the personal interests of the intervener, which in turn violated the international system of sovereignty. I would condemn this sort of intervention. Quoting article 51 of the UN Charter;

Nothing in the present Charter shall impair the inherent right of individual or collective self-defense if an armed attack occurs against a Member of the United Nations until the Security Council has taken measures necessary to maintain international peace and security..”

As a result, these operations fundamentally threatened the stability of the current international order.

But in the years following the Cold War, this idea of sovereignty as sacred came under heavy criticism. It was argued that tyrannical rulers shouldn't be permitted to conceal themselves behind national sovereignty and that the international community had a duty to act to stop the pervasive violation of human rights. This contention garnered widespread support. As stated by UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali, the 1990s was a decade of interventions: Iraqi “no-fly zones,” Somalia, Bosnia, Sierra Leone, East Timor, and Kosovo. The Iraq War (2003–11) was classified as a humanitarian intervention by some of its advocates such as the USA, demonstrating how wide the embrace of the term had become.

USA Humanitarian Intervention

The US has been quite selective when it comes to humanitarian intervention. A comprehensive amount of research was done to understand why the USA launched some humanitarian interventions and avoided others. For example, the surveys by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs found that Americans are largely supportive of humanitarian intervention, but vary in specific cases like sharing vaccines, combating hunger, and providing disaster relief. One can say that the USA has its political interests and, based on those, decided where to intervene and where not to. This is a very complex problem to understand. The US has advocated for fundamental human rights in social, economic, and political realms. The US has been acting as the champion of human rights and freedom. However, the country’s political interests may create biases and make them selective in intervening with other states. Alynna J. Lyon and Chris J. Dolan, in their paper titled “American Humanitarian Intervention: Toward a Theory of Coevolution” published in Foreign Policy Analysis mentioned that,

“With illustrative case studies of Operation Provide Comfort in Iraq (1991), Operation Allied Force in Kosovo (1999), and Operation Unified Assistance in response to the Asian Tsunami (2004), this study suggests that U.S. – led humanitarian interventions are part of larger episodes of engagementIt finds that altruistic interventions are often blurred with self-interested power pursuits.

Another factor to be considered is that there have been interventions (humanitarian or otherwise) from the West in non-westerncountries, while the reverse has never happened. The chart below illustrates the complete shape of US foreign policy and its priorities. (Source: The Chicago Council on Global Affairs)

ussian Humanitarian Intervention

The word "intervention" alone carries a distinctly unfavorable connotation in the minds of Russians. A cliche of official Soviet history for decades was the "intervention of 14 countries against the first state of workers and peasants" (1918–1922). It was believed that the Great Patriotic War (1941–1945) was a legitimate conflict against the Nazi interventionists. During the Cold War, interventions of all kinds were either planned or carried out by ‘imperialist and reactionary forces’ (in Korea, Egypt, Congo, Vietnam, Grenada, and so on). Together with the USA, the USSR was a member of the power blocs throughout the Cold War, and both of these nations have been at the forefront of criticism for their respective roles in the intervention fiasco. Russia has been quite vocal about Humanitarian Intervention. In the UN Security Council, the Russian Federation has repeatedly put forward in no uncertain terms its stance regarding humanitarian intervention and its concern that this novel idea might be applied improperly to push for Western dominance and regime change. Russia has always maintained that humanitarian intervention is a legal tool used by Western Powers to interfere in the sovereignty of other states. In the previous section, I described the same phenomenon when I mentioned the opposite nature of the humanitarian intervention and state sovereignty, which is the fundamental block of the international system. Thus, Russia used its veto powers four times to block resolutions on Syria that it perceived as damaging its ally, the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad.

The scenes changed completely when, on March 1, 2014, the Russian Federation deployed troops and armored vehicles to the Crimean Peninsula, a recognized territory of Ukraine, and occupied the region. In response to these developments, the UN stated that Russia’s actions violate the UN Charter (Article 2(4)) and called upon Russia to respect the “sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine”. Vladimir Putin claimed that the intervention was a response to “real threats” to Russian-speaking minorities in the region. This is the same argument made by other world leaders for a humanitarian intervention to stop the Syrian civil war.

Russia has carried out a lot of military interventions. The causes of those interventions change from region to region. In Europe and Africa, the reason for interventions is mostly the stabilization of the region. While in the case of the middle east and post-soviet Eurasia, it’s primarily concerned with combat and deterrence. Below is a graph that shows the number of ongoing Russian military interventions by year (1998-2018). (Source: RAND Corporation)

Discussing the recent invasion of Ukraine by Russia, this intervention has sent shockwaves to the entire world and has adversely impacted Ukraine. It has gathered the attention of the entire global community. Russia describes it as a humanitarian mission, citing that Russians and Ukrainians are one people. There are a lot of Russian-speaking people in Ukraine who, according to Russia, are under constant oppression and need to be liberated by their kin-state, which is Russia. Russia has for long been calling out the atrocious humanitarian interventions by western countries in Africa, Asia, and Eurasia. Russia was very vocal in talking about the reality of those interventions on international platforms. However, with the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Russia is using the same tool that Western powers were using to get inside the Middle East, Africa, and Asia.

Indian Humanitarian Intervention

Expectations are high for India to participate actively in armed humanitarian missions as a significant developing power. India has chosen its humanitarian interventions very carefully. It is because of the colonial past. India's aversion to the concepts of sovereignty and non-intervention, as well as its colonial history, have both had an impact on its position on humanitarian intervention. Due to the altered balance of power in the post-Cold War, India did not, however, embrace a vocal stance. Given this fact, its role in defending the rights of civilians and shielding them from massive atrocities is being examined. The philosophy of "Responsibility to Protect" (R2P), which was endorsed by the United Nations World Summit in 2005, is one of the most important areas where New Delhi's attitude and posture have been scrutinized. India’s role in the protection of civilians as an emerging power has received scholarly attention, but few of the analyses have addressed the significance of legitimacy in India’s approach to R2P and humanitarian interventions.

In the case of Indian humanitarian intervention, the first aspect to talk about is India’s intervention in Bangladesh. India’s intervention in the 1971 Bangladesh Liberation War has been noted as a humanitarian intervention to end the 1971 Bengali genocide, yet India has never justified its intervention. Therefore, an assessment as to whether India had altruistic humanitarian or national interest-driven intentions is vital to comprehend what motivates states to commit and invest their resources in wars that are reported of mass atrocity crimes like Russian intervention in Syria, US intervention in Syria, Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Yemen Theotivateon behind its involvement in the Bangladesh liberation war was India’s self-interest. The crucial aspect is that India was not equipped to accommodate ten million refugees, and at the same time there was an increase in immigration due to the Bangladesh Liberation War, so both Gandhi and the Parliament had fears over the refugees’ permanent settlement in India. India’s economic aid capacities would be severely hampered and depleted as a result, and its public infrastructure would become overcrowded and crumble. There were also concerns that the Bengalis living in India would band together with the immigrants to start a separatist movement there. Simply ensuring that Bengalis triumph was all India needed to combat all of this.


After all the discussion on humanitarian intervention. An important aspect of how most of the interventions are motivated by geopolitical and economic interests was found. This has been evident from all the events and experiences that have happened in the past, like India’s intervention in Bangladesh or the USA’s selective interventionMost of the time, the motives behind any sort of intervention were personal. Giving it the face of a humanitarian cause was just to encapsulate it under the banner of human values. From the study above some important was understood that concern the whole dynamics of intervention. Self-interest is the most important aspect of humanitarian intervention considering any state. Though the intensity and frequency of the interventions differed between USA, Russia, and India, but the primary factor was always self-interest. The power vacuum after the end of the cold war created a lot of conflicts around the world. To fill that vacuum and have its presence everywhere, the USA became the major intervener in the world. After all, it was the sole superpower with the disintegration of the USSR. Intervening in other states isn’t as easy as it sounds, but with the growing number of regional insecurities the phenomenon took off. By regional insecurities, I mean the growing instabilities in regional security complexes around the world. The imbalance of power and the security dilemma. In the end, the study provided us with a very simple explanation that there are no free lunches in IR and every state has its self-interest to look after.


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