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Last Updated: 05/03/2011
The Theory and Practice of Humanitarian Intervention and the Interest of Western Powers: Liberia, Darfur, Rwanda, Iraq, and Libya
Jerry M’bartee Locula

After arguing for the importance and potential of humanitarian intervention to bring about a more just world, Jerry M’bartee Locula critically reviews its application (or lack thereof) by the United Nations Security Council in relation to political and economic interests, particularly those of the permanent five members -- USA, UK, France, Russia, and China. As such, the discussion draws on the experiences of Liberia, Sudan (Darfur), Rwanda, Iraq, and, most recently, Libya.

In the vicinity of International Law, two significant achievements have been made since the beginning of the 21st Century. The first was the coming into force of the statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC) on July 1, 2002.[1] Effort surrounding this accomplishment extends back to the Nuremburg Trials,[2] where human rights campaigners advocated for justice against perpetrators of war crimes and crimes against humanity during World War II. The next relevant development in international edict was the overwhelming approval from member states to accept the principle of humanitarian intervention, which was one of the outcomes of the Global Submit and inaugurated in September 2005.[3] Humanitarian intervention challenges the global community with the moral responsibly to act in the face of human rights violations that may occur in member states. As Secretary General Kofi Anna puts it, “The 2005 World Submit is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for the world to come together and take action on grave global threats that require bold global solutions. It is also a chance to revitalize the United Nations itself. It is, in short, an opportunity for all humankind.”[4] In the context of recent interventions, however, the question arises as to whether or not it actually is working in the interest of all humankind. Are the real global threats being targeted in the world poorest areas where in fact diseases, poverty, human rights violations and bad governance have become the reigning order? Well, our current social, economic, political, and cultural surroundings give an unmistakable answer.

By examining the theory and practice of humanitarian intervention, this paper will show how the standard has differed from the original intents and practice. In short, humanitarian intervention has turned into a tool in the service of Western interests through the absence of international political will on the part of the Security Council and the politics of selectivity as to where humanitarian intervention should occur, regardless of need. In this article, Liberia, Darfur, Rwanda, Iraq and Libya are critically reviewed in the context of the principle. It asserts that the international community has forfeited its responsibility to act justly.

Humanitarian Intervention and Its Purpose:

Humanitarian Intervention is always met with criticism, both when it takes place and when it fails to happen.[5] Paradoxically, both these objections are defendable, as evidence shows that the principle has been applied unjustly in some cases, and irrationally was not implemented in others;[6] even in cases of compelling need.

Brian Lepard defines humanitarian intervention as "the use of military force to protect the victims of human rights violations."[7] My perspective is that humanitarian intervention is not only the reactive military intercession during human rights exploitation, but the ability of the power holders at the international front to do all within their individual and collective states’ powers to intervene as early as possible. For me, humanitarian intervention should be more proactive than reactive.

The ultimate intent of humanitarian intervention is to protect the human entity from potential and ongoing abuses and whatever violations that maybe. Notwithstanding, the politics of interest among the five permanent members of the Security Council has led the institution to fail on many international assignments.

Humanitarian intervention has not only raised eyebrows when it is applied or not, but questions have come forward regarding the human rights abuses that are also intentionally and unknowingly committed in the face of the exercise itself. In my personal view, there are cases where this may be a necessary evil, as state actors and their repressive regimes have been known to use their populations as a shield. People have lost their lives in previous interventions and the same will happen again, but this could be seen as a sacrifice for liberation. Circumspective of this, I am only presenting my heartfelt perspective, which supportive of humanitarian intervention, but highly critical of the hidden motives of intervening powers, particularly Western states.

The Potential of Humanitarian Interventions:

To begin with, let us review the instruments that were at the disposal of the Security Council before 2005 and could have been administered to thwart the genocide in Rwanda. Under Chapter Seven, the Security Council had sufficient and relevant legal authority to put stop to any action that threatened international peace and security.[8] Rwanda was left alone to face the most horrible carnage of the 20th century.

An apparent reality associated with the implementation of international decisions through the Security Council is that the P5’s interests and benefits often conflict with its ability to best serve humanity – the purpose for which it came into being.

Despite the practical problems of humanitarian intervention, it remains a significant operation if its overall objectives are to counter human rights abuses and create safety for the unarmed civilians; even if states are opposed to its application. Most states that reject the principle of humanitarian intervention are at the forefront of human rights abuses and fear prosecution under international law, and hide behind the concept of sovereignty.

Logical individuals will agree with me that over many decades of dictatorships; especially during the 1970s and 1980s either in Africa, Eastern Europe, Central Asia or in Latin and Central America, tyrannical leaders and their oppressive regimes, covered themselves under the blanket of sovereignty as they mercilessly unleashed terror against their own people whom they were called to serve either through elections, stolen powers and/or perpetuation in that elected capacity or existing brutal regimes. This was one of the critical pillars from which the schema of this principle of humanitarian intervention and the International Criminal Court (ICC)[9] were engendered.

In 2005, at the United Nations Global Submit, the international community reached a turning point on the issue of global responsibility in protecting populations in the midst of human rights abuse within states. This is a procedure that is legitimate after all measures, including diplomatic exertion, threat of the ICC, and other sanctions have proved futile – a modernization of the “just war” concept.[10] Authorization from the Security Council also legitimatizes such mission.

As part of the international human rights revolution, the birth, theory and practice of humanitarian intervention is indeed a welcome venture. It even has greater exercises to be conducted in contemporary international political governance if and only if the implementation is as attractive and good as the instrument. I believe that the principle is becoming relevant because democracy is dying a slow death in many nations, as demonstrated through autocracy and other forms of human rights infringement. But the theory and practice are not coherent. They continue to contradict based on interest.


When the new international legal culture emerged in 2005, my conviction was that governance could improve at every level regarding the application of power by states over their citizens with the trepidation that sovereignty would be disregarded by international forces if states did not fervently deliver the goods of democracy. I was positive that the international community would thereby rule out the game of selectivity and apply the principle within the borders of any nation where respect for human rights was not guaranteed and where there were potential threats to human rights. To my surprise, as well as to the dismay of the world, that has not been the case. To begin with this analysis, I would personally dislike to not mention my own country, Liberia. Even though the Liberian case took place in the 1990s and the human rights abuses were not amountable to Rwanda, the Security Council had the authority and moral impulsion to intervene directly in Liberia, but did not do so.

In the Liberian case, the collective efforts of the Security Council were never generated to protect the people of that West African state during its darkest hours. The Sub Regional Organization, The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) led the operation[11] through its military arm, ECOMOG, with little backing from the United Nations. The Security Council did not appear nor authorize an international intervention force because there was nothing to get from Liberia in the form of oil or other commodities of significant economic interest to powerful countries. Liberia, like Rwanda, was left in the cold.

Years later, in 2003, the Security Council authorized peacekeeping intervention in Liberia, resolution 1509[12], although one may argue that it was only a way for the US to protect its interests related to the Firestone Rubber Plantation,[13] the world’s largest rubber company.

Darfur, Sudan:

I will not also fail to refer to Sudan’s Darfur Region; Africa’s newest genocide[14] field where the Security Council passed a few inconsequential resolutions and made light-weighted condemnations,[15] but refused to act. Let’s agree that Sudan has plenty of oil that would have trigged the authorization of international intervention on the part of the Security Council. It is no doubt that the Security Council could have moved in Darfur, but as part of the double standard game at that level, two of the P5, China[16] and Russia[17] being the importers of arms along with other military hardware to the Khartoum government and exporters of oil from Sudan, did not use their positions to prevent the unjustifiable killings. Resolutions and major decisions were always vetoed by those two Security Council permanent members. Veto powers at the Security Council are used in cases like this to maintain the balance of power in favor of the P5 at the detriment of weaker states and their citizens.


Let us confer about Rwanda. The Rwandan genocide took place in 1994 before the approval of humanitarian intervention principle in 2005 at the United Nations World Submit in New York. On the other hand, if critically digested, the principle of the United Nations is to preserve international peace and security.[18] It is also a matter of fact, as indicated in Chapter Seven, that it must act against anything that stands in the way of the peace. It has already been argued that the International Community had the power and all the necessary international implements to have prevented the carnage that occurred in that East African State. Critics, including leading rights advocates and institutions, had alerted the world that genocide was unfolding. The disinterestedness of the Security Council organization has led reform to come knocking at its door.

Let me note that the senseless bureaucracy – the slow to act culture at the organization is one of its weak points. Research has indicated that “the Security Council passed Resolution 918 in May 1994, which increased the UN strength in Rwanda to 5,500 troops, nearly six months passed before the force was eventually deployed, by which point approximately 500,000 Rwandan civilians had already been killed.”[19] In another quarter, it has been noted this way, “The genocide in Rwanda could have been prevented. There were many steps that the international community could have taken to prevent the genocide that would not have involved military action.”[20] The genocide left heavy causalities on the citizens and the nation at large. According to statistics, by the time the genocide ended, 800,000 Tutsis along with moderate Hutus were massacred in about 100 days.[21] Others say that this amount is understated. Beside the failure by the United Nations Security Council to take collective action to prevent the genocide in Rwanda, the United States of America, the world’s greatest power – the world’s greatest democracy, a nation with all the military, communication, financial resources to have stopped the slaughter, has also been accused of not doing much in the event to have saved the lives of Rwandese.[22]

The assertion has been made that “There were plenty of early warnings” of the Rwandan genocide, but they were systematically ignored.[23] Sustained arguments have shown that “in the spring of 1992, the Belgian ambassador in Kigali, Johan Swinner warned his government that the Akazu, a secret group of Hutu Power advocates organized around the President’s wife, ‘is planning the extermination of the Tutsi of Rwanda to resolve once and for all, in their own way, the ethnic problem….’”[24] All these landed on deaf ears and the country sailed into the blood share.

Research has revealed that “Solidarity within the UN was practically nonexistent with regards to Rwanda. Most countries had no investments or anything to gain from helping Rwanda, so little was done.”[25] This is the nature of the so called “Security Council” and the game of choosy interests it has and continuous to demonstrate.

Iraq: United States and Coalition of the Willing:

On the question of the complex and unjustified military overrun of Iraq by the US-led “coalition of the willing”, it is clear that the Security Council did not endorse the action; however, it did not even try to stop the US and its allies from transgressing Iraqi’s sovereignty and seriously compromising the security of its people. On several basic points, it is not possible to divorce US interest from the UN interest.

It is worth mentioning that, had Saddam Hussein been around to encounter the current wave of political revolution that is sweeping the entire Arab world, and it happened that his loyal security forces fired at either peaceful or aggressive protesters, intervention could have being very likely in Iraq, initiated and sponsored by the United States and Great Britain. I am convinced that such resolution could have never been vetoed, because the P5 could have known the benefits it was going to arrive at from the intervention in return. Even if such a resolution was vetoed, the few would have gone for the interest of the oil as they did. This is where I am usually frustrated to say that the Security Council is a gigantic political and economic enterprise at the expense of its member states.

When the coalition of willing invaded Iraq, I remembered President George W. Bush of the United States on television encouraging Iraqis not to set their oil wells on fire.[26] This was a live television broadcast which was transmitted in Arabic. Within the course of that time, especially after ally forces had taken over the greater portion and strategic locations in Iraq, there were ships headed from Iraq with millions barrels of oil. This is the kind of intervention the so-called super powers conduct.

Libya: Humanitarian Intervention and the Oil:

Some may argue that the Libyan intervention is justifiable on the grounds that its very ambassadors at the United Nations defected[27] and called for the imposition of no fly zone over the country as a way of limiting Gaddafi’s capabilities to hold on to power and to stop the wanton killing of protesters. But it is also important to investigate the intent of the ambassadors. Firstly, it is probable that the ambassadors defected because they do not want to be called to answer questions before any court of international jurisdiction as part of the Moammar Gaddafi’s regime. Secondly, they too may be interested in having real state powers, on the same level as that of Gaddafi and his family. Also, one could argue that the ambassadors’ defections were encouraged from other quarters since Moammar Gaddafi has long remained an international target.

The no fly zone over Libya was established through Security Council Resolution 1973[28] with 10 votes with 5 abstentions.[29] The mission has arguably reduced the extent of civilian causalities by Libyan forces, but the killings continue, and there is little indication that they will stop soon.

Significantly, like Iraq in 2003,[30] it has been revealed that a ship loaded with tens of thousands of barrels of oil departed a port in the rebels’ stronghold city of Benghazi.[31] Formulating questions as to where will this oil will end up is not too practical for me, because for sure they are heading to the West. One might infer that the proceeds from the oil shipment maybe set for the exchange of military equipments to help strengthen the rebels’ positions against Gaddafi. In fact, the United States has just committed US$25 millions to the rebels as non-lethal assistance.[32] Despite the difficult economic situation the US government faces, doesn’t seem to mind spending new money and deepening its international debt through warfare under the disguise of protecting civilians. Mind you, this is not for nothing. Im, a 16 years old Muslim girl has asked, “Why is the U.S. government giving $25 million dollars to Libyan rebels while trying to cut social security? […] I can tell you that definitely the US wants Libya's oil.”[33]

In the Libyan case, we are also seeing the global danger of the Security Council granting legitimacy to non-constitutional groups and rebels, as they gain grounds to unseat established governments. This type of authenticity rebels groups are obtaining is perilous and against the norms of international good governance. Instead, the Security Council must encourage rebel groups to take power through democratic means.

Whether the Security Council has the aptitude to determine the measure as a just intervention without any underhanded international criminal motives, hold NATO accountable for its actions, and ensure the human rights of Libyan citizens, let us all watch and see what will happen.


The point I am surfacing here is that the so-called International community pushes the agenda for intervention in certain countries if they are sure of receiving comfortable dividends in return, usually in the forms of natural resources or the protection of western interests. But if they stand little to gain in political or economic terms, powerful countries will find themselves lacking in “political will”, never mind how grave the catastrophe maybe. To save face, they will pass powerless resolutions while abuses continue and human dignity is disgraced.

If the call for good governance and human rights is to be answered on a global scale, the United Nations must live up to its core values, which call for the maintenance of international peace and security. This requires that the double standard and game of selective intervention must come to a halt. In the strongest terms, the Security Council must divert from the use of humanitarian intervention as a way to achieve selfish interest, as we have seen in Afghanistan, Iraq, and in Libya today.


[1] The Peace and Justice Initiative, Towards Universal Implementation of the ICC Statute, available at: (accessed on April 25, 2011)

[2] Sixty Anniversary of the Nuremburg Trials, Online Dimensions, A Journal of Holocaust Studies, available at: (accessed on April 26, 2011)

[3] United Nations General Assembly Resolution, 2005 World Submit. Available at: (accessed on April 26, 2011)

[4] The 2005 World Submit, available at: (accessed on April 26, 2011)

[5] The Responsibility to protect, Report of the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty: available at: (accessed on April 25, 2011)

[6] The Journal Humanitarian Assistance, New Humanitarianism With Old Problems: The Forgotten Lesson of Rwanda, available at: (accessed on April 25, 2011)

[7] Victoria J. Barnett, The Dilemmas of Humanitarian Intervention, available at: (accessed on April 23, 2011)

[8] Jerry Locula, Graduate Thesis, University for Peace, “State Sovereignty and the International Moral Responsibility to End Mass Atrocity: A Case Study of Darfur, Early 21st Century Killing Field of Africa, June 28, 2010

[9] ICC Statute: Part 2-Jurisdiction, Admissibility and Applicable Law, available at: (accessed on April 25, 2011)

[10] Just war theory, available at:,or.r_gc.r_pw.&fp=8b88437e675bc1a (accessed on April 25, 2011)

[11] The Journal of Humanitarian Assistance, ECOWAS and the Sub Regional Peacekeeping in Liberia, available at: (accessed on April 25, 2011)

[12] United Nations Security Council Resolution 1509 on Liberia, available at: (accessed on April 28, 2011)

[13] International Labor Rights Forum, Firestone Rubber Plantation in Liberia, available at: (accessed on April 28, 2011_

[14] Genocide in Darfur, Sudan,, Calling on Congress to Stop the Genocide, available at: (accessed on April 26, 2011)

[15] Jerry Locula, Graduate Thesis, University for Peace, “State Sovereignty and the International Moral Responsibility to End Mass Atrocity: A Case Study of Darfur, Early 21st Century Killing Field of Africa, June 28, 2010

[16] BBC News, China Defends Arms Sales to Sudan, available at: (accused on April 26, 2011)

[17] The Los Angeles Times, China and Russia Faulted for Sudan Arms Sales, available at: (accessed on April 26, 2011)

[18] What is the purpose of the United Nations? Available at: (accessed on April 26, 2011)


[20] Prevention of Rwandan Genocide, available at: (accessed on April 23, 2011)

2. BBC News, Africa, Rwanda “Rwanda: How the genocide happened?” Available at: (accessed on April 23, 2011)

[22] Prevention of Rwandan Genocide, available at: (accessed on April 23, 2011)

[23]Gregory H. Stanton, “Could the Rwandan Genocide Have Been Prevented?” available at: (accessed on April 23, 2011)

[25] Prevention of Rwandan Genocide, available at: (accessed on April 23, 2011)

[26]War and Media Disinformation: The “Rambling Three Page Letter”. Available at: (accessed on April 26, 2011)

[27] Herald Sun, Stories Start here: Libyan Ambassador at the UN Defected, available at: (accessed on April 26, 2011)

[28] UN Resolution 1973, available at: (accessed on April 25, 2011)

[29] Security Council SC/10200, available at: (accessed on April 25, 2011)

[30] BBC News, Iraqi First Oil Export Due, available at: (accessed on April 25, 2011)

[31] Libyan rebels say need four weeks to assess damage to oil fields, available at: (accessed on April 25, 2011)

[32] U.S. to give Libyan rebels $25 million in non-lethal, available at: aid (accessed on April 25, 2011)

[33] “Why is the U.S. government giving 25 million dollars to Libyan rebels while trying to cut social security?” available at: (accessed on April 25, 2011)

Jerry M’bartee Locula, Human Rights and Governance Officer, Lutheran Church in Liberia – Trauma Healing and Reconciliation Programme.