Humanitarian intervention is a controversial concept in international politics because it often involves one country intervening militarily in another country, which requested the intervention. Tony Blair, former British prime minister, equated humanitarian intervention with the concept of "Responsibility to Protect." This type of intervention began to be used more frequently in the 1990s and early 2000s.
Following the Persian Gulf War of 1990-1991, the suppressive measures imposed by Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein on rebellious Kurdish and Shiite groups persuaded first France, and then the U.K. and the United States, to launch a humanitarian intervention to prevent wholesale massacres in Iraq. As a result of the operation, Iraq withdrew its military forces from areas that were predominantly Kurdish, and accepted, albeit unwillingly, a Western-imposed no-fly zone in both the northern and southern parts of the country. Convoys began distributing aid in Iraq, especially in the Kurdish north.
The concept of humanitarian intervention is controversial because it creates a context in which one country can justify invading another and deposing its leaders. A situation could arise in which a government might exaggerate or exploit a humanitarian crisis to justify an otherwise unjustifiable takeover of another country. In response to this risk, many international organizations have developed a conservative perspective on military interventions in conflict zones or even in totalitarian countries, where the primary goals of those leading the intervention might not actually be to alleviate the humanitarian plight of people in the afflicted area.
The United Nations leads many humanitarian missions. Because of the organization's self-imposed limits on the use of force in conflict zones, its peacekeepers have been criticized as ineffective and even counterproductive to stopping major war crimes. United Nations peacekeepers serving in Rwanda in 1994 were accused of having acted unethically by using limited force, thereby allowing murderous mobs to carry out the Rwandan genocide.
The international community carried out interventions during the 1993 famine in Somalia and during civil wars in Haiti and the former Yugoslavia. Each case had dramatic political implications and was met with mixed success. The operation in Somalia, mostly led by American troops, is considered a failure by many Americans although it was but operational successful. "Black Hawk Down," so called after the title of a film about the incident, ended the lives of 17 American servicemen and induced the hasty withdrawal pf U.S. forces from the country.
In Bosnia, three years of air and sea monitoring by NATO, as authorized by the United Nations, was followed by a sustained air campaign against Bosnian Serbian forces who had been responsible for several high-profile massacres of ethnic Bosnians. This intervention forced a peace agreement between the two sides and left a military force occupying Bosnia through 2004.
Many have argued there is compelling reason to establish an international army, presumably under the authority of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC). This force would represent the international community in the event that the UNSC approves a forceful intervention. In a 2004 article, Kai Bird points out that at that time, the United Nations was managing 17 peacekeeping missions, all of them hastily put together and aimed at maintaining international legitimacy.
The creation of a permanent force would shorten reaction time in the event of a crisis and increase the chances of preventing a genocidal event. Critics have conceded that, despite the lack of an established force, there should be no hesitation to prevent such a disaster as it unfolds and military intervention should never be completely disqualified as a response. As Richard Falk has said, "...in the face of massacre and genocide there should be no hard-and-fast rules that preclude response".
Critiques of this idea emanate from many sources. Social philosopher Noam Chomsky has scoffed at the idea as either ignoring or projecting American influence onto the United Nations Security Council. He argues that intervention would be selective on the one hand, and at other times inappropriately in the interest of the United States. Falk has expressed similar opinions. However, the fact that the United States could not authorize its own 2003 invasion of Iraq on humanitarian grounds undermines Chomsky's and Falk's arguments.
The 2011 intervention in Libya was criticized as being typically selective, with France accused of seeking prestige and other Western countries of protecting their infrastructure and energy investments. These comments came in the wake of the Arab Spring, when several countries experienced situations in which the government brutally suppressed its own citizens, similar to that done by the Libyan regime. Alternatively, the ineffectiveness of NATO forces sans the United States military has strengthened the argument that a multilateral force should be created so as not to burden only one country or give any country too much power to intervene in international conflicts.