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The Limits of Humanitarian Military Interventions: Innovation and Transformation in the Age of Complexity

Fabrice Guerrier wrote “The Limits of Humanitarian Military Interventions: Innovation and Transformation in the Age of Complexity” as part of the 2015 Humanity in Action Diplomacy and Diversity Fellowship

The term “Humanitarian Military Intervention” is defined as the use of force across state borders by another state intended to prevent and/or end violence and atrocious human rights violations on civilian populations without the authorization of the state within whose territory the intervention is applied. (1) The International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS) formed the emerging Responsibility to Protect (RtoP) Doctrine in an Outcome Document published after the 2005 United Nations (UN) World Summit. (2) The ICISS designed this new and innovative approach to utilize military interventions for humanitarian objectives when a state is not able to protect their own citizens from crimes against humanity. (3)

Humanitarian military interventions are extremely controversial and are becoming ineffective, as our world becomes increasingly more globalized and complex. Humanitarian military intervention’s bureaucratic nature lacks the ability to adapt to the fast changes of complexity. This securitized form of intervention doesn’t have the capacity to address the root causes of the destructive cycles of violence fueling intergenerational ethnic and sectarian divisions. During President Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech in 2009, he remarked that “the old post-war architecture is now crumbling under the weight of new threats.” (4) The challenge is to find innovative strategies for humanitarian military interventions that fill the current gap between outdated concepts of peacekeeping and full-scale military operations that have long-term negative impacts on civilian populations. (5)

The current dominant policy agenda around a militarized form of intervention is undermining the RtoP doctrine’s credibility, western governments’ soft power, and perpetuating an increase in violent extremism. To adequately meet the long-term needs and demands of people who inhabit deeply divided and traumatized societies, humanitarian military interventions have to be tied to an effective strategy that includes forms of local participation, which can mitigate the complex elements unknown to outsiders.

This paper proposes that the Architecture of Peacebuilding provides the missing linkages toward a more holistic application of the RtoP doctrine and use of humanitarian military interventions. Therefore, it argues that local participation and a multi-dimensional impact are key.  


Constraints of Humanitarian Military Interventions


Article 2:7 of the UN Charter was founded on the principle of non-interference. Non-interference means the UN or another state will not intervene in a state’s internal affairs unless the state declares war, or whether the UN is authorized to do so by the UN Security Council (UNSC) under Chapter VII of the UN Charter. (7) Through the UN principle of non-interference, a sovereign state can have complete jurisdiction within its territorial borders, however the RtoP doctrine was formed by the ICISS in 2005 to legitimize the international responsibility to protect populations suffering from serious harm. (8)

The Responsibility to Protect is one of the central dominant normative languages of interventions and it encompasses three specific elements: firstly, the responsibility to prevent, in addressing the root causes of internal conflicts and all that can create crises that put large groups of people at risk; secondly, the responsibility to react, to use what is necessary to address human needs through coercive measures like economic sanctions, judicial prosecutions, political tactics, and, as a last resort, military intervention; thirdly, the responsibility to rebuild, especially after an intervention to provide support in long-term recovery and reconciliation and to address the root causes of what brought about the conflict in the first place. (9) Prevention remains the central tenet of RtoP, but as said by Gareth Evans, a co-chair of the ICISS, “the current forms of interventionism have been narrowly defined within the realms of security and national defense.” (10) Traditional languages of security leave out the concerns of ordinary civilians and in the process large amounts of wealth are diverted to military and national forces, while failing to prevent and protect citizens from structural drivers of instability: disease, social conflict, chronic hunger, unemployment, inadequate shelter, environmental hazard, and crime. (11)

Military humanitarian interventions have been directly successful in saving the lives of civilians from mass killings and atrocities, but they are rarely capable of helping a government, civil society, and civilians to achieve long-term sustainable peace. (12) Since there’s a dominant militarized policy agenda around the application of RtoP, we still have a long way ahead in actualizing the normative aspirations of this doctrine.

In 1994, more than 800,000 people were killed in the Rwandan Genocide. (13) General Romeo Dallaire, commander of the United Nations Assistance Mission for Rwanda (UNAMIR) peacekeeping force at the time, made strong appeals to stop the massacre. (14) Romeo sent numerous cables to the UN Secretariat detailing credible evidence from a Rwandan government informant of a plan to murder all Tutsis residing in Kigali, Rwanda. (15) The international community knew that something horrible was underway in Rwanda through the rise in violence, tension, and extremist anti-Tutsi rhetoric. (16) Two major human rights reports were published in 1993, describing massive arms distribution to the population and the details of a government-backed massacre of over 2,000 Tutsi. (17)

In April 1994, after the presidents of Rwanda and Burundi died in a plane that was shot down, the army declared it was in charge and within days government troops and civilian death squads begin slaughtering Tutsis. (18) Dallaire demanded more peacekeeping troops on the ground by calling to 82 member states, but received nothing. (19) After two weeks of debate the UNSC voted to reduce Dallaire’s small force by 90 percent. (20) The disastrous failure of the international community, that neither prevented nor reacted in a timely fashion to the Rwandan genocide, was brought on by its rigid bureaucratic nature and the lack of political will. The International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty and the RtoP doctrine was formed for the sole purpose of preventing another “Rwanda” from happening. 

In 2011, the rise of violence in the Libyan uprising and Muammar Gaddafi’s inauspicious rhetoric, describing the protesters as insects and publically telling his personal forces to “attack protesters in their homes,” increased international pressure to prevent a massacre of civilians and grave crimes against humanity. (21) The RtoP doctrine was evoked by the international community, which directly led to the passing of the United Nations Security Council Resolution 1973. (22) The transatlantic alliance of NATO was deployed to stop Gaddafi’s forces and to provide support to the rebels. Soon after the fall of Gaddafi’s regime and his death, a transitional government was established. (23) What was marked as a successful and model application of the RtoP principles, proved wrong when the situation quickly worsened soon after the NATO members ended their operations in October 2011. (24) The intervention failed to take into account Libya’s highly fragile and dependent economy, as 90 percent of economic revenue came from the production and export of oil. (25) Libya today is marked by constant political and social unrest, a humanitarian crisis that has uprooted millions from their homes, two governments fighting for control, and several hundred thousand militiamen involved in violent extremist actions. (26) 

The NATO-led humanitarian military intervention in Libya had no clear strategy to support the country’s long-term reconciliation of coming to terms with its past nor understood the quintessential importance of the responsibility to rebuild in the post-Gaddafi era. Securitized humanitarian military interventions are often unable to adapt to the complexity and emerging political, social, and economic dynamics on the ground.


The Architecture of Peacebuilding


Western governments, NGOs, donors, and UN agencies are incapable of finding new, innovative, and transformative solutions because their focus is on what is being done, rather than looking at the complexities of the system as a whole, as well as identifying pathways toward solutions that could contribute to peaceful and efficient local collaboration. Rigid hierarchical structures of a militarized policy agenda and the old traditional language of security are preventing a systemic change at a deeper level. To understand social complexity and to fully adhere to the holistic application and original intent of RtoP’s three elements: the responsibility to prevent, the responsibility to react, and the responsibility to rebuild, a paradigm shift is needed.

All living systems, including organizational and social systems are “chaotic.” As a result, conflicts and crises cannot be approached through a mechanistic and predetermined intervention. (27) Humanitarian military interventions have to be adaptive to the complex and emergent characteristics of conflicts by strategically tying them to a web of collaborative relationships formed at the local community level. John Paul Lederach, a key scholar in the field of peacebuilding, wrote in the Moral Imagination, “We must embrace complexity, not ignore or run from it. We must recognize that one activity and process is embedded in a complex system that has multiple actors pushing processes at multiple levels at the same time.” (28) Consecutive studies and evaluations have discovered that local capacities can make a critical difference in the success of humanitarian intervention. (29)

The field of peacebuilding was born out of a need to increase local participation in the transformation processes of conflicts and crises. The architecture of peacebuilding encompasses the overlapping agendas for peace and development. It contains elements of conflict management, adaptive leadership, conflict prevention, conflict transformation, peacekeeping, restorative justice and trauma healing, state-building, and humanitarian and development assistance. (30) Peacebuilding is therefore not undertaken by one sole actor, but by a group of stakeholders who are actively involved in the transformation of a society or region, both before, during, or in the aftermath of conflict. (31) 

Peacebuilding is not a new concept. It was first studied and explored in the 1970s by Johan Galtung, a Norwegian sociologist. (32) His work “Three Approaches to Peace: Peacekeeping, Peacemaking, and Peacebuilding” brought out the notion of negative peace as the absence of war and positive peace as increased social justice and the creation of a culture of peace among people across societies. (33) As a concept, peacebuilding was further popularized in 1992 by the late UN Secretary-General Boutros-Ghali when he defined peacebuilding in the UN Agenda for Peace as “actions that are taken to solidify peace and prevent relapse into conflict.” (34) The theory and approach of Peacebuilding acknowledges that the risk of deep violence often remains ever-present, despite the sending of peacekeeping military forces, humanitarian aid/interventions, or the signing of a peace accord. (35)

Peacebuilding is not a panacea and definitely is not rid of the mistakes, errors, and challenges of transforming regions embedded in complex turmoil. Séverine Autesserre writes in Peaceland: Conflict Resolution and the Everyday Politics of International Intervention that “expatriate bubbles” and the “bunkerization” of peacekeeping missions can increase already lacking interaction the local communities and create alienating boundaries that are both detrimental to the mission staff and the local population. (36) There is still a large gap between the theory of peacebuilding and what is implemented on the ground. Peacebuilding processes can still fall into the trap of the bureaucratic and hierarchical nature of international systems.

However, the architecture of peacebuilding can provide strategies that foster local participation with multi-dimensional impact. Consequently, a greater focus on “prevention” can bring long-term stability and a more sustainable impact on development and aid provided before, during, or after a humanitarian military intervention. 

Firstly, humanitarian and development assistance, including peacebuilding, can catalyze economic prosperity by creating systems and ways to empower local people to generate new businesses and therefore enhance and contribute to the flow of money.  Innovation and economic prosperity are limited by restrictions and corruption that benefit small groups of people in the system and take away agency from local communities.

Secondly, Restorative Justice (RJ), a key element of peacebuilding, implements a more socially and emotionally conscious form of justice that is rooted in the responsibility of each stakeholder involved. RJ challenges the traditional punitive forms of justice and asks different sets of questions, such as: Who has been hurt? What are their needs? Whose obligations are these? What are the causes? Who has a stake in the situation? What is the appropriate process to involve stakeholders in an effort to address causes and put things right? (37) RJ addresses the needs of the victims, offenders, and communities involved through a participatory method establishing community-led forms of justice that are essential to addressing psychosocial and traumatic dimensions of a conflict. 

Thirdly, peacebuilding addresses the common problem of diversity, which is a root cause of many sectarian and ethnic conflicts today, by involving many stakeholders from different levels of society. Peacebuilding also brings diversity through numerous adaptive approaches that are inclusive, for example art-based forms of strategic peacebuilding through music, visual arts, and other creative activities have often been marginalized within the field as “soft approaches.” (38) Arts-based peacebuilding as strategic nonviolent actions have a powerful and transformative impact. They provide a space to discuss social and political issues, as well as change the dynamics in intractable interpersonal, inter-communal, national, and global conflicts (39).

Further, implementing conflict transformation strategies allows an engagement of all stakeholders through mediation to move through the conflict together by acknowledging differences in looking at unique cultural characteristics and beyond their own positions and interests. In doing so, stakeholders can create and reach common ground through an understanding of their collective needs and shared values.

Lastly, an essential process of peacebuilding is people’s ability to reconcile and come to terms with the past through speaking truth and demanding justice. Structural violence targeted at minority groups often causes trauma that is passed between generations and beyond the generation concerned. Dialogue on historical events plays an essential role in healing the wounds of the past and catalyzes a critical shift in societal consciousness by engaging people’s deeper reflective impulses on their personal understanding of themselves. 

In the Building the Future of Humanitarian Aid: Local capacity and Partnerships in Emergency Assistance Christian Aid Report, Christine Knudsen from the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) says, “What is clear is that new models of partnership and preparedness will be required to respond to the crises of the next decade, with a focus on the frontline capacities of communities, authorities and civil society.” (40)

The listening project of the Collaborative for Development Action (CDA) initiative, which interviewed participants in 20 counties, over 6,000 local recipients, and came away with a clear conclusion that local people want a more active role in their own development; they want to “discuss together, decide together and work together.” (41) To reduce the long-lasting negative impacts that military humanitarian interventions have, a key policy agenda needs to be crafted and centered around peacebuilding processes. It needs to secure local buy-in and local participation, build local capacity, and ensure the sustainability of communities’ ability to tackle long-term issues in the wake of interventions and the outbreak of conflicts.

Small changes are beginning to take place, for instance with the Summit on Countering Violent Extremism (CVE), hosted by US President Barack Obama in February 2015. US strategy has shifted slightly and there has been more interest in addressing the enablers of violent conflicts and bringing about a more community-oriented approach of change. (42) For the first time, in July 2015, a coalition of the top 41 US non-governmental peacebuilding organizations published a joint response to the US Global Countering Violent Extremism Agenda (43) and mentioned that “civilian-led development, prevention and peacebuilding that support locally-led solutions to the root causes of insecurity are chronically underfunded, especially in relation to military efforts.” (44)The coalition stressed that prioritizing securitized responses over investments to address the structural causes of instability risks the US CVE strategy repeating the same mistakes as other post-9/11 stabilization initiatives. (45) 

Humanitarian military interventions have had disastrous consequences and there are strong limitations to their ability to adapt to complexity and effect long-term sustainable change. If western governments and intergovernmental agencies want to move closer to the normative aspirations of the RtoP Doctrine, they need to take a serious look at investing more in the vast architecture of peacebuilding by supporting local participation and multidimensional impact. This would allow the decision-making power of developing long-term change, transformation, and innovation to be in the hands of local communities directly affected by conflict.




Many thanks to Boukje Kistemaker for her dedicated efforts in reviewing earlier versions of this article.


About the Author


Fabrice Guerrier is the PEN Haiti Fellow at PEN American Center. He received his MA in Conflict Transformation from Eastern Mennonite University's Center for Justice & Peacebuilding in 2015, where he worked as a Graduate Research Assistant at the Zehr Institute for Restorative Justice. He has field research experience working with Fambul Tok International in postwar communities in Sierra Leone. He is a board member of Coming to the Table, an organization working on racial reconciliation whose mission is to address the legacy of US Slavery. Fabrice has interned at the U.S Department of State's DRL and has also worked as an Economic Affairs intern at the United Nations Office of Least Developed Countries. He received his BS in International Affairs and a Leadership studies certificate from Florida State University.


1. Taylor B. Seybolt, Humanitarian Military Intervention: The Conditions for Success and Failure (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), 5-6.

2. Eve Massingham, Military intervention for humanitarian purposes: does the Responsibility to Protect doctrine advance the legality of the use of force for humanitarian ends? (International Review of the Red Cross, 2009), 804. 

3. Ibid.

4. "Remarks by the President at the Acceptance of the Nobel Peace Prize" (The White House, Dec. 10, 2009), accessed Dec. 17, 2015, https://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/remarks-president-acceptance-nobel-peace-prize.

 5. “Responsibility to Protect,” (International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty), accessed Dec. 17, 2015, http//www.responsibilitytoprotect.org/ICISS%20Report.pdf/.

6. "Charter of the United Nations,” UN News Center, June 26, 1945, accessed Dec. 17, 2015. http://www.un.org/en/charter-united-nations/.

7. Ibid.

8. “Responsibility to Protect.”

9. Ibid.

10. Ibid.

11. Ibid. 

12. Eve Massingham, Military intervention for humanitarian purposes: does the Responsibility to Protect doctrine advance the legality of the use of force for humanitarian ends? (International Review of the Red Cross, 2009), 6. 

13. Ken Shiffman, “As Genocide Raged, General’s Pleas for Help Ignored,” CNN, Dec. 10, 2008, accessed Dec. 19, 2015, http://edition.cnn.com/2008/WORLD/africa/11/13/sbm.dallaire.profile/. 

14. Ibid.

15. Ibid.

16. Peter Uvin, “The Failure of the International Community to Prevent Genocide in Rwanda,” (Global Policy, Aug. 1998), accessed Dec. 19, 2015, https://www.globalpolicy.org/component/content/article/190/39856.html.

17. Ibid. 

18. Ken Shiffman, “As Genocide Raged.”

19. Ibid. 

20. Ibid.

21. "The Lessons of Libya," The Economist, May 19, 2011, accessed Dec. 19, 2015. http://www.economist.com/node/18709571?story_id=18709571.

22. Luis Peral, Implementing R2P in Libya- How to Overcome the Inaction of the UN Security Council (Institute of Security Studies, March 2011), 1-2. 

23. Alan J. Kuperman, "Obama's Libya Debacle," Foreign Affairs, April 2015, accessed Jan. 5, 2016, https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/libya/obamas-libya-debacle.

24. Joel Gillin, "Libya Is Yet Another Reason to Be Wary of Humanitarian Interventions," New Republic, Feb. 18, 2015, accessed Dec. 17, 2015, https://newrepublic.com/article/121085/libya-no-model-humanitarian-intervention.

25. Jose Luengo-Cabrera and Florence Gaub, “Libya: Crude Implosion” (Institute of Security Studies, Feb. 2015), 1.

26. "Crisis in Libya,” Inernational Coallition for the Responsibility to Protect, accessed December 18, 2016. http://www.responsibilitytoprotect.org/index.php/crises/crisis-in-libya#violence.

27. Margaret J. Wheatley, Leadership and the New Science: Discovering Order in a Chaotic World (Oakland: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2006).

28. John Paul Lederach, The Moral Imagination: The Art and Soul of Building Peace. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), 33.

29. Katherine Nightingale, Building the Future of Humanitarian Aid: Local capacity and Partnerships in Emergency Assistance (Christian Aid, 2012), 5. 

30. The Peacebuilding Unit (African Centre for the Constructive Resolution of Disputes, 2015), accessed May 4, 2016, http://www.accord.org.za/home/accords-work/peacebuilding/.

31. Ibid.

32. In the United Nations Peacebuilding: An Orientation Report (UN, 2010), 3-5.

33. Ibid.

34. Boutros Boutros-Ghali, The United Nations Secretary General An Agenda for Peace Report (UN, 1992), 5-7.

35. In the United Nations Peacebuilding.

36. Severine Austesserre, Peaceland: Conflict Resolution and the Everyday Politics of International Intervention (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, Jan. 1, 2014).

37. Howard Zehr, The Little Book of Restorative Justice (The little books of Justice & Peacebuilding, 2002).

38. Lisa Schirch and Michael Shank, Strategic Arts-Based Building (Peace History Society and Peace and Justice Association, 2008), 3-4.

39. Ibid.

40. Katherine Nightingale, Building the Future of Humanitarian Aid: Local capacity and Partnerships in Emergency Assistance (Christian Aid Report, 2012), 7.

41. CDA: Collaborative Learning Projects, “Initial Findings from the Listening Project,” accessed Dec. 17, 2015, www.cdainc.com/cdawww/pdf/other/lp_2page__initial_findings_from_the_listening_project_20100803_Pdf.pdf. 

42. A U.S. Humanitarian, Development and Peacebuilding Statement on the U.S. Global Countering Violent Extremism Agenda (Alliance for Peacebuilding, July 20, 2015), 1-3. 

43. “Building a movement to Address Violent Extremism,” accessed Dec. 17, 2015, http://www.state.gov/r/pa/prs/ps/2015/09/247449.htm.

44. Ibid.

45. Ibid.

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