Humanitarian–Military Intervention: An Oxymoron or a Necessary Means to Obtain Peace?

This article is the product of a month long interaction between two human rights activists, Boris Maksimovic and Sahra-Josephine Hjorth. It is our reflections on whether humanitarian intervention, in the shape of military action, is an appropriate tool to protect individual human rights, or if it is just a rhetorical illusion used to gain the necessary consensus for military action.  

"Humanitarian Military Intervention Is War, and Nothing Positive Can Come Out of It."
By Boris Maksimovic


“Bombing for peace is like fucking for virginity." Belgrade graffiti, 1999.

“Welcome to the world of oil”, said U.S. law professor David Crane, when he was asked why the US, the UK and other states blocked his intention to charge Gaddafi for crimes against humanity. This was attempted during the trial of former Liberian president Charles Taylor. Crane was the chief prosecutor, and he wanted to charge Gaddafi because:  “he was ultimately responsible for the mutilation, maiming and/or murder of 1.2 million people” during the war in Sierra Leone. But he was unable to press charges. Now, the situation is different, the international community, which is one of the euphemisms for the US, the UK, France and several other states, had discovered that Gaddafi is a ruthless tyrant and a dictator who is oppressing his own people and therefore he must go.

Humanitarian military intervention is war. It is not throwing bread on people or spilling holy water on them from planes, it is  an act of bombing and consequently - killing. We should reflect for a moment upon this because it seems that very few people understand this basic truth. As expert in international law Peter Vedel Kessing stated: “Humanitarian intervention is an international war and an international armed conflict. The particular reason is to protect individuals from atrocities. From a legal point of view it is a war.” Euphemistic terms do not change the essence of the action. It is about dying, about violence and death. Also, what Western countries often don’t see, or don’t want to see, is the post-intervention society that is extremely divided, economically ruined and captured by war traumas that need a lot of time to disappear-  even if the intervention is rated as successful, which is often not the case, like for instance in Somalia. 

Humanitarian military intervention refers to a state using military force against another state, when the chief publicly declared the aim of that military action to be with the purpose of ending human-rights violations being perpetrated by the state.. But, this is not a legal definition, because still there is no legal definition of humanitarian intervention. 

The major problem with every modern conflict is that every time we are being told that it is a unique case. But, because of constant repeating that every case is a unique case, we have the result that we do not learn anything from our past mistakes. One of the mantras of many politicians during the pre-intervention period was that we must not allow new Srebrenica or Rwanda to happen, but at the same time not allowing any comparison between Kosovo and Libya, two cases that are stunning in their similarity. 

Humanitarian intervention or the intentional misuse of human rights discourse?

"'It became necessary to destroy the town, in order to save it'." US Army Major Phil Cannella after the battle for Ben Tre.

Almost every human rights activist will agree that torture can’t be used on any human being, no matter how grave the consequences could be. But somehow, a big part of them would justify humanitarian military intervention - where almost one half of the people are being bombed. And almost every time it is the same discussion: “okay, there are some civilian casualties, but what would have happened if we had not reacted?”  Somehow, no one sees the contradiction between opposing torture and approving bombings. What is problematic with the support of human rights institutions or activists, is that they assure necessary consensus for something that can easily go in an unwanted direction, like for instance, an even more brutal civil war after the operation. 

What we are seeing is that the concept of “protection of civilians” is being used as a mantra that can justify almost everything: exceedingly high war costs, absence of exit strategy or, most absurdly, civilian casualties caused by NATO air strikes: "NATO regrets the loss of innocent civilian lives and takes great care in conducting strikes against a regime determined to use violence against its own citizens," said Lieutenant-General Charles Bouchard, commander of Operation Unified Protector. "Although we are still determining the specifics of this event, indications are that a weapons system failure may have caused this incident," he added, referring to the operation in Libya. 

At the same time we could hear the British defense secretary stating that “we have to take into account that we have used more expensive precision weaponry so that we minimize civilian casualties in Libya". He added: "I think that shows that we are on the moral high ground and that we place a higher value on human life than the Gaddafi regime." 

It seems that no one, at this moment, can give a clear answer about what the exact objectives of the intervention/war in Libya is. The initial rhetoric was not about a regime change in Libya,  and today it is about a regime change; Gaddafi is a threat to democracy and to the rule of human rights and therefore he must go. But, may we ask ourselves, how many dead civilians is Gaddafi worth? A few days ago, in The Guardian, we could read the following: “Britain and France have both rejected a call by Italy for a pause in NATO´s bombing of Libya to allow humanitarian aid to reach the civilian population”. Does this act reveal the true nature of the Libyan war?  How can the protection of civilians be enforced by starving them? We could read more: “The Italian foreign minister, Franco Frattini, had suggested that NATO's credibility was at risk after a number of civilian casualties in air raids, but his comments were given short shrift in London and Paris, where both governments instead urged an intensification of pressure on Muammar Gaddafi amid signs that allied air attacks are moving into a new phase in western Libya. NATO also said that the operations would go on.

According to the Guardian, Frattini told the Italian MPs: "With regard to NATO, it is fair to ask for increasingly detailed information on results as well as precise guidelines on the dramatic errors involving civilians”. The article continues to state that “NATO said it took the ‘utmost’ care in targeting while Anders Fogh Rasmussen, its Danish secretary-general, insisted attacks would go on. NATO will continue this mission because if we stop, countless more civilians could lose their lives," Rasmussen said.”It seems that NATO will do whatever it takes to protect civilians from the evil of Gaddafi, even if that means killing them. The main question that we must ask ourselves is what is the main concern of western countries in Libya? Is it the human rights issue or is there something else behind it? Why we are spending billions trying to overthrow Gaddafi while in the same time in Syria, Bahrain and Yemen we don´t do anything? During the discussion in the news program Deadline on DR2, associated professor at the Institute for Political Sciences at the University of Copenhagen, Peter Viggo Jakobsen, was asked to explain this and he answered: “But the reason why we are not doing so much in Saudi Arabia is, that it is also about the oil, and that we need the oil at a fair price. We want Saudi Arabia to open up for its oil, in case that Iran decides not to open up for their oil so that we will not get any problems with the price of the oil. But there is also an interest of stability. So we have interests of stability, some economic interests and some interests of human rights. So it is correctly observed that in the case where stability and economic interests are in conflict with the interests of human rights – in that case the interests of human rights will typically lose.”

Good intentions

“The road to hell is paved with good intentions.”

Most of the population that supports military intervention actually believes that the bombing of people can help to protect civil and human rights and their good intentions are not a matter of discussion. Reality is the problem because of one simple reason. Bombs don’t choose who to kill. Official NATO statistics tells us that that until now, in Libya, there are less than 50 civilian casualties as a direct result of NATO air strikes,  although there have been more than 5000 air strikes. A large part of the population actually believes in these numbers, partly because they have never been under air strike themselves, or partly because the war is represented as something sterile, precise and harmless for those who are not under attack.  But, those who know how it actually goes (for example, the author of these lines) know that there would have been much more casualties even if they had been bombed by stones, and not by cluster bombs as NATO usually uses. Every Libyan report about casualties is marked as Gaddafi´s propaganda, while every NATO report is supposed to be truthful. Statistics about the Kosovo war had shown that there had been huge discrepancies between NATO´s official statistics and Human Rights Watch’s (HRW) statistics. While NATO was claiming that there are just 50 civilian casualties HRW confirms the death of more than 500 civilians. Now, after twelve years, we see almost the same thing as back in 1999, when the Yugoslavian television was bombed and more than 40 workers were killed, because “television was spreading propaganda of Milosevic´s regime” now the same scenario happened, but this time NATO did not even admit that the Libyan state television was bombed, even though the building doesn’t exist anymore. Somehow it is logical that Gaddafi bombed one of his most powerful weapons – the television station. History is repeating itself. NATO is losing the media war and one of the reasons for this is the extremely huge gap between the artificial image of the war that is created in the media and the reality on the ground. Simply, it is logically impossible to have 5 000 air strikes without any civilian casualties.

Another huge problem is the refugees that are drowning in international waters, while the international navy is not doing anything to save them.  According to the Red Cross, several hundreds of them lost their lives trying to reach Italy: ”As many as 300 migrants are feared to have drowned earlier this week when the boat in which they were heading for Europe capsized off the Libyan coast, according to officials and news reports in several countries“. But this news is not something you are not going to hear during the prime time. 

The Danish case

The case in Danish politics, is that foreign military intervention is being used as a tool of confirmation of national sovereignty. A small state like Denmark uses a “more activist approach” as Anders Fogh Rasmussen defined it, in other words, more aggressive military approach, to gain more influence on the scene of international politics. Bo Lidegaard, former advisor of Fogh Rasmussen, illustrated his foreign policy with the next statement: “It is always in the interest of Denmark to stand beside the president of the US no matter who it is”. 

It is interesting to consider why after 150 years of peace, Denmark is now involved in three wars. And why there was not even one member of the parliament against intervention in Libya. Reasons for this are different. We can roughly divide it into three groups. One part of Danish population feels a certain type of guilt for being idle during the last decades, and also during the WWII. They see Denmark´s interventions abroad as a way to repair the damaged old fame of the leading human rights promoter in the world. In the eyes of this part of the population, military intervention, no matter how it is defined, is a sort of fight for the better world, and they think that Denmark and other democratic countries should use every possible chance to export democracy abroad by any means. The second part is not so militant but however feels a certain level of responsibility for the state of human rights, and thinks that Denmark should intervene where it is necessary to prevent escalation of conflicts, violations of human rights or massacres. And finally there is a minority which is against any intervention- but this group is not big enough to create any critical mass to put pressure on the government to abandon its interventionist approach.  

Therefore, we eventually have necessary consensus and the intervention can start. But, as time goes on some people change their opinions away from supporting intervention, because they realize what they get isn’t what they signed up for. Nevertheless, a change in public opinion has no effect, because the country is already deeply involved in a war, there is no exit strategy, and immediate cease-fire would mean defeat. A classical lose-lose situation. 

The Danes are not aggressive pro-military people, in fact Danes are very concerned about the state of human rights in undemocratic countries, and honestly convinced that these wars are just wars, for democracy, for human rights, for the rule of law, and who would not fight for such a noble things? The problem with the Danish perception of war is that the last war they could remember is the WWII. The Danish perception of the ongoing wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya is shaped by the media reporting, and the fact that the media is not objective enough, because usually reporters are settled in military bases, not just for security, but also because of economic reasons.  Newspapers and broadcast stations do not have enough resources to finance independent reporters form occupied countries, so they usually go along with the army - but that environment is just not suitable for independent reporting. As the result of this, the whole state supports something that looks like a war, but it is much more clean, sterilized, righteous and human. 

Intervention and how it should be

“War is an outdated way of solving problems!” Jan Oberg

The point of this article is not to prove that there should not be any foreign involvement in other states, but to question how come the decision to do something always includes bombs. Intervention must not necessarily mean a military intervention. The point is also to show what we as a human rights activist could propose as a solution instead of simply supporting the intervention and hoping that a protection of civilians can come as a side effect of bombing. During the last crisis in Libya, human rights organizations did not have clear standpoint and that certainly did not help to solve the problem, but rather to make it even more complicate. 

It is not true that the Libyan crisis started immediately when Gaddafi threatened to destroy Benghazi. This is typically western point of view, where a crisis is always seen as a moment without past or future, never as a result of some other events during a certain period of time. The only leader who tried to negotiate with Gaddafi was Hugo Chavez, and he was ridiculed in the international diplomatic circles and media. Every suggestion for the negotiations was rejected. Now, after four months of war we have proposals for negotiated solutions. The Swedish professor Jan Oberg, who is an expert on peace in conflict zones, made a “telegram-style short list of contradictions, foolish assumptions and flawed humanism” of what is being done and what could have been done. Some of them are as follows and taken directly from his writings:

1. We can’t meet, talk or negotiate with such a guy!

Scores of Western leaders have met him and seen him as an ally the last few years.

8. Using the idea of a No-Fly Zone to reduce Gaddafi’s military action.

Bombing his country so his resistance galvanizes and more Libyans support him.

9. Bombing in support of armed rebels/freedom fighters.

This support will make it more difficult for them to be seen as legitimate future leaders should they come to power thanks to Western military action.

17. Presumed, noble humanitarian concerns.

But not asking why and how the freedom fighters got all the weapons they did in no time which permitted them to take control of large parts of Libya. In other words, not digging deeper into consistent information that foreign special troops, such as the U.K.’s SAS have been operating on Libyan soil long before this happened.

18.Having very bad experiences with no-fly zones and interventions in somebody else’s civil wars - like Iraq and Kosovo. 

Anyhow doing the same again, insisting that Libya is a unique case.

Researches had shown that after the NATO bombing of Milosevic, support for him among the people had only become greater.

Opposition forces faced great problems regarding how to prove to the people that the future is in the EU, while NATO is bombing your country. Every foreign military intervention polarizes the nation – you are with them, or you are with us. Now, the same mistake is repeating once again. If it is supposed to be sustainable, action must come from bellow but using the democratic means. Any other way will end up in blood and atrocities. Western countries did not even think about Libyan opposition before they took arms.  Once they ceased to be a non-violent movement and became “freedom fighters” they have been given legitimacy. How much sense does it have, history will give its judgment. But then it will be too late.


And now, a little bit of personal experience. No war is a good war. Anything that is presented as a righteous war is just an ordinary lie. The last righteous war was WWII, but meaningless, as well as any other. Everything that came later was just the game of power, drowned in the blood of innocent people. Nothing that is achieved by bombing can be righteous. When I recall my childhood, one in which I spent my time preparing bags with the most basic belongs, in case w had to run away. At the same time, waiting for my father to come back home from the front. I don´t view myself as a victim, or the event as a trauma, but rather as an advantage. It helps me to understand war, and to feel compassion for all those miserable victims who are losing their lives in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, or in any other place where people are used as a pawns in someone else´s   game of chess. If you want to help somebody don’t bomb him, bombs don´t choose who to kill. If you want to help somebody or you become active for the Red Cross, or stand against the war because there is no such thing as humanitarian military intervention. There are so many ways to solve some problems but war is not one of them. When you are looking at the bomb from bellow there is no difference between humanitarian intervention and any other type of war. War is war. And nothing positive can come out of it.

"I Think - Therefore I Intervene."
By Sahra-Josephine Hjorth

“The sole meaning of life is to serve humanity." Leo Nikolaevich Tolstoy. 

I am an interventionist. I make this statement well aware that such a stance will make me quite unpopular with my dear colleagues and within the activist community. I, too, dream of a future world in which human rights are respected. But, contrary to the naïve views of my non-interventionist colleagues, I know that we will never reach this nirvana unless we are willing to use military means to protect (1) the current level of human rights protections, and (2) actively fight for even great and more widespread respect of human rights in every single corner of the world. 

The concept of intervention refers to the act of aggressively meddling in a situation which one is not directly involved in prior to the meddling. This concept is not new, nor limited to the field of politics or power play between states. As long a man has populated the planet, individuals, groups and states have intervened in people’s lives, or in the affairs of other states. Within popular culture, the concept of intervention has even served as an inspiration for several television programs, during which concerned parents, boyfriends, or teacher, more or less, force the beneficiary of the intervention to change some element of his lifestyle – and element which is deemed morally wrong, dangerous or illegal. Therefore, the idea that a concept with such widespread acceptance should suddenly pose a grand moral dilemma, during the immediate aftermath of the humanitarian intervention in Libya, is an interesting development. 

An interventionist is born 

The concept of activism was not something which I reflected much upon while I was growing up. I was born into the world of activism and politics, and it was not until my early teenage years, I realized that my friends from school did not attend demonstrations and rallies during weekends or holidays – but that they watched TV, played soccer and went hiking instead. Today, I believe that ‘activism’, as in the desire to change the political, economic and humanitarian injustices in the world, is something that was feed to me through my mother’s milk, a force so strong that it has stayed with me ever since. I, like most people, am a product of my upbringing. Some of the most formative experiences of my childhood have hugely influenced my personality and viewpoints. On May 8th 1986, at the age of 9 months, I attended my first demonstration, fighting for women’s equal rights. The years following would include demonstrations against racism, the EU and rallies for the advancement of workers’ rights.

Intervention is solidarity

The word solidarity is seldom used in reference to humanitarian intervention, which puzzles me. It is perhaps because of my mixed background and extensive travels abroad, that I view myself as a citizen of the world – a member of a united humanity. And within this framework, I have always felt solidarity with the struggles of man across the globe. Locally, I have emphasized the responsibility of well-functioning nation-states, to help individuals whose human rights are violated in broken states or as a result of repressive regimes. 

There are several key debates taking place about humanitarian intervention within the academic community today. I cannot touch upon them all, but one of the key debates questions the legitimacy of using military means to protect people’s human rights. Is it appropriate to use force to stop human rights violations? Should we even get involved in the domestic affairs of another state all-together? The answer is yeah. Hell yeah. 

I know, first hand, the affect grave human rights violations have on individuals, specifically my father who was imprisoned and tortured in Iran under Ayatollah Khomeini because he was an intellectual and a human rights advocate. I can, with no doubt in my mind, tell you that very second he spent in his prison cell, under the most dehumanizing conditions, he wished for someone to intervene on his behalf. Whether it should be an individual, a group of activists or a state was never the pressing debate for him. Nor did he care if such an intervention would violate the sovereignty of the Iranian state. 

I remember watching the movie The Boondock Saints back in 2001, a few years after its release. Remember how there is a catholic priest giving a sermon in the beginning? Well, he said something that has really stayed with me ever since I saw that movie 10 years ago: “We must all fear evil men. But there is another kind of evil which we must fear most, and that is the indifference of good men." I am an interventionist, and therefore I view myself as one of the ‘good guys’. I accept that there are some problems which simply cannot be solved by words, state-building, development or sanctions. And when we, as a last resort, are left with the choice of indifference or military action, for me, that choice is clear. 

There is a difference between war and humanitarian intervention!

A few days ago, I had the pleasure of having lunch with Daniel Korski, Senior Policy Fellow at the European Council on Foreign Affairs, whom reflected on the difference between traditional warfare and humanitarian intervention. He argued, in accordance with my personal views, that there is a significant difference between traditional warfare and humanitarian intervention. And claiming that there is no difference simply shows a lacking understanding of the strategic element of warfare. Traditional warfare is defined as an armed conflict between two states, usually with the purpose of expanding state territory or over the control of resources. A humanitarian intervention, using military means, is conducted with guns and bombs, but it is conducted with the purpose of protecting the civilian population, which leads to employment of different military techniques. An example of this is Libya, where the UN Security Council passed Resolution 1973/2011, which authorizes all means necessary in order to disable Muhammad Gaddafi’s capabilities and protect the people of Libya from being murdered. Therefore, we bomb the facilities and infrastructure Gaddafi intends to use to kills people – and thereby we make it difficult for him to continue down this particular path. This type of intervention is legitimate as long as Gaddafi is in fact committing crimes against humanity. Now is he? Absolutely. What is the evidence you ask? Well, according to the Huffington post, the Obama administration estimates that 30,000 civilians will lose their lives at Gaddafi’s hand before he is removed from power or killed. How many have been killed so far you ask? According to Al-Jazeera the death toll reached 10,000 in April. 

During an interview with Peter Vedel Kessing, Senior Research Fellow at the Danish Institute for Human Rights, he told me that UN representatives were sent to Libya, and that they in their newly published report state that “there were clear indications of deliberate atrocities against innocent civilians”. Should we allow the already slaughtered freedom fighters to have died in vain? Should we abandon the survivors? Leave them to rot in a lawless and increasingly violent Libya, like my father was left in his prison cell because none intervened on his behalf? Not on my watch! We should hold our heads high and remember that although we are not perfect, and war always results in a minimal loss of civilian lives (due to miscalculations) – we are not indifferent – we are fighting for their freedom with them.

Is there an ulterior motive for engaging in a Humanitarian Intervention?

I am often confronted with the conspiracy theory that humanitarian interventions are conducted for reasons that are not of a humanitarian nature. This is simply not true. This notion is often the result of a lacking understanding of the many differences between traditional warfare and humanitarian intervention – which I touched upon earlier. I can agree that, traditional warfare, for example labeled as a global war on terror, has been conducted for reasons that are not related to humanism. Afghanistan and Iraq were strictly political and economic. But this can come as no surprise – as they were not humanitarian interventions. 

Denmark and Libya 

I will gladly address the questions of whether there is an ulterior motive for the Danish participation in Libya. There is none which I can identify. When taking everything into consideration, besides for the humanitarian reasons for intervention, Danish involvement in Libya clearly makes no sense at all. It costs a lot of money. According to Icenews Denmark’s contribution to the no-fly zone alone has cost 4.2 million Euros and the cost of bombs has reached 5.4 million Euros. Moreover, Denmark’s involvement in Libya is threatening an otherwise stabilizing and increasingly prosperous trade relationship with Russia. So why do we do it? Kessing argues that our involvement is directly linked to notions of responsibility to protect; “responsibility to protect (R2P) was introduced in 2005. It clearly states the necessity to protect citizens against crimes against humanity. If the state [in which people human rights are being violated] is not willing or incapable of doing something about it; it is the responsibility of the international community to intervene, also with military means - but with the approval of the Security Council”. We do it because it is our duty.

My future

Towards the end of my conversation with Kessing, he told me that he is assured “there will be situation in the future where it is necessary to protect individuals from mass atrocities”. On the personal note, I am going to do my best to avoid that this really happens. When I have children, many years from now, I too will bring them to demonstrations and rallies. We will show solidarity to people who fight for their human rights, fight against oppression, racism and discrimination. I will teach them that they are a part of the united human species, and that we, as privileged citizens of a democratic state have an even greater responsibility to take up this battle against violations of human rights – also if this battle includes military means. I’m fighting for a better world; will I find you there next to me?




Neither of the authors argue against the idea of military intervention, or the fact that interventions will take place in the future. Boris feels that the concept of humanitarian intervention, is being misused for to push economic, political and other agendas that are not related to the protection of human rights – every time. He is convinced that nonviolence will always produce a more effective, legitimate and sustainable solution to a conflict. Sahra-Josephine, contrarily, rejects the notion that all conflict can be solved without military aggression and protection. She rejects that all states act based on self-interest, and plans a career within the field of security in order to ensure that humanitarian intervention in the shape military intervention will be based on principles of solitary and promotion of human rights. 

Collectively, we hope that the articles show readers how two activists, who both envision a future where human rights are respected, can greatly disagree on how that state of peace is best achieved.  It is clear that their personal upbringings and experiences living as a Bosnian Serb in Bosnia and a Danish-Iranian in Denmark have shaped both authors notions of activism, military intervention, politics and peace. We hope this piece has helped you shape yours.


Al-Jazeera (2011), “Libya death toll ‘reaches 10,000,’" Published April 19,

Black, Ian (2011), “UK and France dismiss Italy's call for pause in Nato bombing of Libya," The Guardian, 22 June,

Chomsky, Noam (2011) - Libya and the World of Oil, Truthout, 4 April

Daalder, Ivo and Robert Kagan (2007). “The Next Intervention," Published on Aug. 6,

Hopkins, Nick (2011), “Nato investigates claims of civilian deaths during Libyan raid," The Guardian, 19 June 

IceNews (2011), “Denmark’s Libya efforts cost millions in first fortnight," Published April 4,

Oberg, Jan (2011) “Libya - contradictions, foolish assumptions & flawed humanism, International Peace and Conflict," 21 March

Shenker, Jack (2011) Aircraft carrier left us to die, say migrants, 8 May, The Guardian

The Huffington Post (2011). “Libya Death Toll Could Be As High As 30,000: U.S.” Published on April 11, 2011,

Travis, Alan (2011). “Nick Clegg backs decision to not open Britain's borders to Libyan refugees," Published May 10th, The Guardian.


Andersen, Lars Erslev, Senior Research at the Danish Institute for International Studies, Friday June 24th, 2011. 

Kessing, Peter Vedel, Senior Research Fellow at the Danish Institute for Human Rights, Monday June 27th, 2011

Korski, Daniel, Senior Policy Fellow at the European Council on Foreign Affairs, Monday June 27th, 2011

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