Security Studies Program Seminar

Strategies of Humanitarian Intervention

Taylor Seybolt
United States Institute of Peace

19 September 2007


Questions: What explains humanitarian military intervention (HMI)?

Why does this matter?

Darfur is the premier example of the problems of HMI today.

Because of the stakes of HMI, we need to ask: “Can it be justified?” and “Does it work?

Have past HMIs been successful?

  1. “Success” here means the saving of lives in the short-term (i.e. how many people would have died if the crisis continued without the intervention). This study does not look at the longer-term implications of intervention, since the direct impact of intervention is much more difficult to measure. To study the direct human effects of intervention, we can examine 6 HMIs with 18 discrete military operations:
  2. For each of these cases, we can examine the causes of death and the circumstances and develop a careful estimate of how many lives were saved based on particular elements of the intervention.
  3. We find that 13 operations saved lives, while 5 failed to do so; still, because more people died than were saved, it is clear there are grounds for improvement.


Political consideration


Humanitarian Considerations

Focus on Victims

Focus on Perpetrators

Address Privation


Objective: assist aid delivery

Strategy: avoidance of conflict


Objective: protect aid operations

Strategies: deterrence, defense

Address Violence


Objective: save victims

Strategies: deterrence, defense, compellence


Objective: defeat perpetrator

Strategies: compellence, offense

4. Note that there are multiple choices of strategies for certain categories, but the aims and concerns of the intervener limit these choices.


Ultimately, four factors explain success or failure across the cases:

  1. Matching the political purposes with the military means employed. In Kosovo, the bombing was meant to help protect the Kosovar Albanians but we never prepared for what the Serb military might do in response.
  2. Matching the strategies of intervention with the needs of the local population.
  3. Political estimates of the strategic requirement of intervention, e.g. the use of deterrence when compellence is needed, the resource and risk requirements therein
  4. Finally, “facts on the ground” – what is clear in theory is not always clear in practice; mission creep can take place and novel strategies adopted by the aggressors.


  1. HMI can be justified, but only rarely
  2. Type of intervention and strategies pursued determine success or failure
  3. HMI is political, so success is more likely when political interests are at stake
  4. With a coherent strategy, HMI often succeeds in part but not in full



    1. One question sought to go further in understanding how the estimates of people saved were collected. Epidemiological methods were used to create a baseline and estimate how many fewer people died when the intervention happened. These methods appear to be most reliable in the case of disease rather than in violence. Violence is more difficult to estimate since it is likely to vary much more than disease.
    2. Another questioner sought to probe the rationale behind the right to protect. The liberal ideas underlying the right to protect are in contrast to the communitarian ideas behind the prohibition on genocide, so these ideas may at some level be in conflict. The focus on genocide may be in part a matter of convenience, given the existing force of the anti-genocide regime.
    3. The final question probed the possibility of examining intervention without considering the ultimate political results. While some interventions did end the war, calculating their total benefit would likely prove even more difficult than in the cases specified, so the benefits of these war ending interventions remains uncertain.

Rapporteur: Andrew Radin

back to Wednesday Seminar Series, Fall 2007