Non-military Intervention and Protecting the Vulnerable: Report on a Roundtable Discussion

Tasneem Jamal Defence & Human Security

Lynne Griffiths-Fulton

The Ploughshares Monitor June 2001 Volume 22 Issue 2

We live in a new world, in which all of us must begin to bear responsibility for everything that occurs.
– Vaclev Havel

In April, Project Ploughshares held a roundtable on intervention in complex humanitarian emergencies with participants from the NGO community, relief and development agencies (secular and faith-based), academia, and the Canadian government. Previously, Ploughshares had entered into the debate on humanitarian intervention via involvement in various international and national roundtables and workshops. Ernie Regehr helped produce a World Council of Churches document outlining the critical issues in the debate entitled, “The protection of endangered populations in situations of armed violence: Toward an ecumenical ethical approach.” As well, in March, Ploughshares produced a working paper written by Dr. Penelope Simons (2001), which surveys the international relations and international law literature on the subject. The April meeting, the first in a series of three, was undertaken to encourage a process of collective reflection that will contribute to the formulation of effective responses to the challenge posed by complex humanitarian emergencies. The proceedings of the discussion provide the background for this article.

Complex emergencies pose a major challenge to the international community. As the ferocity and frequency of deadly conflicts increase and the number of innocent people affected continues to climb dramatically, the need for enhanced understanding and capability in dealing with these crises was deemed, by participants at the April roundtable, to be one of the greatest challenges confronting the international community today. The focus of this first session on humanitarian intervention was on the non-military methods of intervention, which could and should be undertaken by the international community to protect and assist vulnerable populations.

It was noted that, too often, the term “humanitarian intervention” has been used to describe external military interventions in the internal affairs of a sovereign state. Much of the recent debate on this subject has revolved around the question of the legality and the morality of the use of military intervention for humanitarian purposes. So, there continues to be a reliance on military methods to resolve conflict. This preoccupation with military intervention, participants felt, needs to be redressed.

Participants pointed out that the term “humanitarian intervention” can encompass many different types of activities. According to the February 2001 WCC report, “…humanitarian intervention can be understood to mean a wide variety of actions which seek to protect civilian populations from grave human rights violations. Although most commonly understood to be multilateral military intervention in the internal affairs of a state, a broader definition needs to be developed.” And international relations scholars, such as Oliver Ramsbotham and Tom Woodhouse, have echoed these sentiments:

Humanitarian intervention is no longer adequately understood in the form of forcible international military intervention in the affairs of a state on humanitarian grounds. Instead, a much wider array of international actors (UN agencies, NGOs and new variants of UN forces) are all recognized as conducting humanitarian interventions in contemporary conflict.…

In reality, NGOs and humanitarian and UN agencies have been intervening across borders for decades. They continue to successfully use aid – food, shelter, health care, etc. – as effective entry points for non-military intervention approaches to situations of grave human suffering. Workers within these types of organizations are relied upon in current crisis situations. The motivation behind their efforts is the obligation to protect and assist vulnerable populations, in particular, those suffering from grave human rights violations where there is significant or total breakdown of authority due to conflict. A mixture of ethics and courage enables workers to endure the suffering around them, the risk to themselves, and the constraints put on their work. Unfortunately, the massacres in Rwanda and former Yugoslavia have underlined the challenges faced by the international community regarding the best possible means of intervention, as well as effective ways of ensuring that the obligation to protect and assist vulnerable populations is consistently acted upon.

A strong case was made by participants at the roundtable for NGOs to maintain a presence in conflict zones even when under threat. Their presence, it was felt, could help reduce the level of violence, show greater solidarity to local groups, and provide an international presence to watch and record what was happening. To achieve this, NGOs, UN agencies, human rights groups, and civil society institutions need to strengthen their ties to the local community in countries where the threat or commencement of armed conflict is a reality. In the past, their successes have, in large part, been built upon long-term involvement with partner organizations and local institutions, which are well placed to read the warning signs of impending danger. Their knowledge and understanding of the root causes of conflict can help organizations undertake steps needed to transform conflicts through non-violent means.

Discussants from faith-based and secular peacemaking organizations and networks discussed their efforts in conflict zones. It is apparent that today these non-violent peace teams are playing an increasingly important and often successful role in conflict mediation and resolution. The examples of Christian Peacemaker Teams and Peace Brigades International were described and held up as compelling models for non-military intervention, and their low-profile achievements should not be underestimated. Another method, sometimes referred to as private citizen intervention, involves individuals or small groups, acceptable to all parties to a conflict, mediating to help resolve crises. These efforts are appealing in their simplicity and extremely cost-effective when successful. High-profile citizens such as former US President Jimmy Carter, Desmond Tutu, and others have devoted themselves to promoting the ideal and practice of peacebuilding and intervening to resolve conflicts without resorting to force. Governments and regional and international organizations also undertake intervention through diplomatic channels that can include securing host state consent for foreign monitors, arms embargoes, economic sanctions, and the use of good offices.

Further suggestions, in support of non-military efforts, included

  • the formation of a non-violent peace force of world leaders who would meet with leaders involved in a crisis and could be led by a combination of high-profile peace advocates, Nobel Peace Prize winners, religious leaders, and world leaders committed to non-violent intervention in world problems;
  • assembling a civilian peace force of ordinary citizens – this civilian force would work with existing peace teams already in the crisis area.

Such groups could also engage in fact-finding missions, relaying their findings through public statements, media interviews, and direct advocacy work. They could be used to “shame” a government into improved behaviour or to encourage other governments to mount pressure on states in violation of essential human rights and humanitarian standards. It was pointed out that churches and ecumenical bodies are involved in this way over many different issues. Another discussant commented that it would be good to see large numbers of trained civilians also organized under the auspices of the UN carrying out mediation and track-two diplomacy efforts.

The discussion highlighted the many obstacles to non-state and state-led non-military interventions, not least of which are lack of political will and, as a result, inadequate funding. According to Rollie Keith, OSCE Monitor during the Kosovo crisis, there always have to be political alternatives to preventing war and crises, but they are, all too often, never tried. Obstacles such as these will continue to hamper humanitarian efforts but they should serve only to increase the international community’s commitment to finding new and more creative ways, like the creation of safe havens and humanitarian corridors, to deal with complex humanitarian crises.

There are reasons to be guardedly optimistic that the international community is moving in the right direction. Significant strides have been made in the area of international human rights law and humanitarian law. Treaties and conventions have been developed to deal more effectively with the affects of armed conflicts on refugees, internally displaced persons (IDPs), and children. One participant suggested that intervention should be seen as international law enforcement. In other words, greater enforcement of laws relating to genocide, crimes against humanity, and breaches of the Geneva Convention needs to be supported. It is encouraging to note that rape has recently been deemed a war crime. It is hoped that when the International Criminal Court is fully operational it will function as a deterrent to would-be war criminals. Closer attention must be paid to the early warning signs of conflict which stem from human rights abuses, such as the curtailment of freedom of speech, the dissemination of propaganda against a minority group, and the transfer and acquisition of property. The international community should be willing to take action to counter such activities whenever they become apparent. NGOs and civil society institutions should campaign to ensure that their governments are accountable for upholding their part as signatories to UN human rights treaties.

To this end, countries such as Norway, Australia, the Netherlands, and Canada have asserted, through their own state policies on human security, that states do have an obligation to protect the welfare of citizens outside their own borders. They also seek to uphold their responsibility as signatories to human rights treaties and conventions, and to find ways of pressing other countries to follow suit. Canada has also recently created The International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS) in response to the perceived need for more research and analysis on effective intervention and peacebuilding. Gareth Evans (2001), Co-chair of the Commission, commented in a speech that the focus of intervention should be the responsibility of the international community to protect victims of human rights abuses and seek to prevent their suffering in the first instance.

Whatever forms this non-military intervention took, participants were in agreement that it should have a long-term focus and engage grassroots organizations. Governments must be more willing to fund these initiatives and not dismiss them as ineffective because there are, generally speaking, few quantifiable short-term results. The question is how to hold the attention of governments and the general public in donor countries. So-called ‘soft’ politics is not often considered newsworthy. This lack of public exposure feeds into the hands of critics who never see the efforts that are undertaken before military intervention was embarked upon. The general public is not as supportive of disarmament programs, Truth and Reconciliation Commissions, or Amnesty letter-writing campaigns when these labours do not make headline news. In turn, governments who do not see that there is any ‘public concern’ can easily overlook a crisis. Organizations and civil society must, therefore, find more creative ways to engage officials.

One proposal was to ‘make friends’ with the media. Alongside traditional relief and development agencies the media are gradually emerging as key players in alleviating the plight of populations in crisis. Not only are they helping the international-aid and peacekeeping community respond more appropriately to emergency situations, they can also ensure that refugees and other victims receive the information they need to survive. The ‘CNN’ factor should not be underestimated. Forming relationships with journalists will enable stories to stay in the news longer and thus increase public awareness and enhance possibilities for fundraising and advocacy over a longer time span. This public pressure should, in turn, influence government policy. Organizations that can harness the media will contribute to making peace more ‘exciting’ and will thereby increase the attention given to their projects.

As well, working with civil society institutions at new conflict prevention mechanisms involving the arts was deemed to be very important by participants at the roundtable. NGOs need to strengthen their relationship with partner organizations that can be their ‘eyes and ears’ and local actors should be empowered to make key decisions, as they are the ones who will have to live with the consequences.

Perhaps more than at any other time in recent history, there is a great need for creative thinking about how to intervene and protect vulnerable populations, due, in part, to the nature of recent armed conflicts and crises. The complexity and severity of conflicts fought in the 1990s does not appear to be abating. These deadly, mainly internal, conflicts have conspired to limit or arrest the efforts of those bringing humanitarian aid to suffering populations via non-military means. In light of this, the lines are blurring between humanitarian and military activities. Some NGOs are resorting to relying on peacekeeping forces, private security companies, or even mercenaries to protect themselves and those they are seeking to assist. Those in support of greater politicization of humanitarian efforts have seen first-hand how their usual relief and assistance methods have failed to do what they are mandated to, that is, save lives. However, can humanitarian efforts ever be truly humanitarian if they are undertaken through the barrel of a gun? While some participants emphasized that the obligation to protect the vulnerable would, in certain situations, require external military intervention, the meeting stressed that, first and foremost, the international community should be spending more time, effort, and funding to develop the capacity and political will for effective non-military action to aid civilians in peril.

Greater acknowledgement amongst members of the international community that these non-military efforts are legitimate, useful, and even successful alternatives to military might is needed. In the case of complex emergencies, a combination of efforts may be needed to stop atrocities and restore the rule of law. How far one type of intervention can go without impairing another is, unsurprisingly, one of the key questions that participants at the April roundtable sought to address. Representing many different fields of expertise, participants made the case that, although there are no easy answers, continued moral reflection and exploration of this subject can improve the quality of decision-making and intervention in internal conflicts in the future.

However overwhelming the obstacles facing the international community over the issue of non-military intervention seem at present, the challenge to all those engaged in the debate should be to maintain their staying power and continue to grapple with this issue, and to increase their commitment to assisting and protecting the vulnerable. There is no guarantee that a non-military intervention will be effective enough to fulfill its objectives of relieving suffering and saving lives. In the future, when prevention fails and violence escalates, will the international community’s immediate reaction be to employ force, or will the preferred method to mitigate against armed conflict be the use of non-military methods of intervention? One participant raised the question of how far we must be prepared to go, and how much we must be prepared to risk, to meet the moral obligation to intervene when people are in peril. Perhaps, a participant suggested, there needs to be a greater willingness on the part of NGOs, UN agencies, and governments to sacrifice lives for the greater good. Project Ploughshares will continue to be engaged in efforts that seek an answer to this and other challenges on the subject of humanitarian intervention.



Evans, Gareth 2001, Preventing deadly conflict: the role and responsibility of governments and NGOs, public lecture, London School of Economics, 2 February.

Ramsbotham, Oliver and Woodhouse, Tom 1996, Humanitarian Intervention in Contemporary Conflict: A Reconceptualization, Polity Press, London.

Simons, Penelope 2001, Humanitarian Intervention: A Review of Literature, Project Ploughshares Working Paper 01-2, March.

World Council of Churches 2001, The protection of endangered populations in situations of armed violence: Toward an ecumenical ethical approach, February.

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