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  • Writer's pictureBashshar Haydar

The Bias against Humanitarian Intervention

At least half a million people have been killed in Syria over the last six years of conflict. Thousands have also been imprisoned and tortured to death. It has been described as the biggest humanitarian disaster since WWII, with cities, towns, and villages destroyed, and over 10 million refugees and displaced people inside and outside Syria. The claim that the international community has failed to act morally and responsibly by failing to intervene at an earlier stage in the conflict is gaining more credibility. Many of those who were skeptical of the need or usefulness of humanitarian intervention in Syria are reconsidering their position in light of the carnage, albeit a bit late in the day.

I do not argue here that intervention ought to have taken place in Syria. Rather I aim to identify some of the factors underlying the reluctance of politicians and leaders to support humanitarian interventions in general. These factors, I think, have played a significant role in the case of Syria. The presence of these factors, I will argue, results in a general bias against intervention. This bias unjustifiably raises the political cost of intervention in comparison to non-intervention.

Since the Rwandan genocide in the 90s, attitudes towards humanitarian intervention have been on a roller coaster. Whenever something seriously bad happens and nobody intervenes, the appetite for intervention increases. When an intervention goes badly, the reverse happens. We are often at the mercy of the last episode of intervention. The high confidence in interventionism post Rwanda was shattered after the Iraq and Afghanistan experiences. The latter two military operations, it must be said, were justified on grounds of self-defense (or ‘preemptive’ self-defense) and not on the basis that a humanitarian disaster was occurring or imminent. When the WMD basis for intervention in Iraq proved baseless, there was a shift towards what might be described as humanitarian justification in the broadest sense, including implementing long-term regime and political change. In any event, Iraq’s legacy of failure has undoubtedly loomed large, leading to interventionism being discredited in the minds of many.

Although the appetite for humanitarian intervention is affected by yesterday’s interventionist dramas, there is also an interesting asymmetry between our attitudes to interventions and non-interventions. The asymmetry consists of a systematic bias in favor of non-interventions. I will argue that although part of this asymmetry is grounded in valid moral and political considerations, a significant component is baseless. Acknowledging this doesn’t mean the biases will vanish. But identifying these asymmetries does allow us to anticipate them and, perhaps, to compensate for them to a certain extent.

The high confidence in interventionism post Rwanda was shattered after the Iraq and Afghanistan experiences.

The first asymmetry is between our perceptions of failed interventions and successful ones. Failed interventions tend to make a bigger impression on us and play a larger role in subsequent discussions of interventions. Successful ones, on the other hand, tend to have a smaller legacy and impact. In fact, one could say that the more successful the intervention, the less likely it is to leave a trace in our political and moral consciousness.

For example, consider Iraq in the early 1990s. ‘Operation Provide Comfort’, carried out by the US and its allies in northern Iraq in 1991 was a successful intervention by all accounts. Yet, that affair hardly features in subsequent debates about interventions. Operation Provide Comfort took place after Saddam was defeated and driven out of Kuwait. Many Iraqis started to rise up against Saddam both in the Kurdish north and among Shiites in the south. In order to protect the Kurdish areas from the advancing army of Saddam, the US forces established a strict no-fly and no-drive zone over the north of Iraq. The operation succeeded in protecting the civilians and the uprising in that zone. Moreover, the Kurdish areas gained political stability and relative security for years to come, including during the most turbulent times after the 2003 US invasion of Iraq. Yet, despite its success, and perhaps because of it, Operation Provide Comfort is practically non-existent in public debates about humanitarian intervention. While it might get mentioned occasionally by specialists in the topic, it is virtually absent from the wider, and more influential, public context.

So why do successful humanitarian interventions tend to vanish into oblivion? One possible explanation is our lack of access to the relevant counterfactual scenarios. We cannot know, in other words, what would have happened had the US and its allies not intervened. However, while this might explain why successful interventions do not leave much of an impact on us, it does not explain the asymmetry with our attitudes to failed interventions. After all, there is a similar lack of access to the relevant counter-factuals in the latter cases too. Moreover, this is not a particularly convincing explanation in the case of Operation Provide Comfort, since we do have a reasonably good sense of what would have happened in the absence of the intervention. In the years prior to the operation, Saddam’s regime had dropped chemical weapons on the Kurdish population. It was clear that Saddam was both willing and capable of using all types of weapons against a rebellious population. Moreover, we know what happened in the very same year, to the Iraqi Shiites in the south, when the same type of protection was not offered to them. Saddam killed tens of thousands of Shiites in an attempt to end their rebellion. An inability to make the relevant comparisons, then, does not seem to account for the relative obscurity of Operation Provide Comfort.

A more promising explanation of the above asymmetry is that bad things tend to leave bigger traces in our collective conscience than good things. Occasions in which people are injured or killed are likely to be remembered more than those when they are saved. While this might work as an explanation, it hardly serves as a justification for the asymmetry. If harmful acts are morally important and worth taking notice of, then acts of preventing those harms should be treated as equally important. Thus, the bias in favor of remembering bad things over good ones might be psychologically grounded, but not morally justified.

The second asymmetry in our attitudes concerns our perceptions of failed interventions and failed non-interventions. Failed interventions tend to leave more of an impression than failed non-interventions. For a failed non-intervention (i.e. failing to intervene to prevent a crisis) to leave a noticeable trace on public debate and political collective conscious, the failure needs to be a massive one. The fact that the US forces failed to protect the Shiite in the south of Iraq in 1991, for example, left almost no such trace. It takes humanitarian crises of the size of Rwanda and Syria for people to even start considering and registering non-intervening as a failure. The same is obviously not true of failed interventions. It does not take a staggeringly high body count for a failed intervention to have a lasting presence in the public arena.

Why do successful humanitarian interventions tend to vanish into oblivion? One possible explanation is our lack of access to the relevant counterfactual scenarios.

It might be argued that the above asymmetry can be justified by appeal to the moral distinction between ‘doing harm’ and ‘allowing harm’. While a failed intervention is a case of doing harm, failing to intervene is only a case of not preventing harm. Since we are justified in assigning greater moral weight to harm than failing to prevent it, so the argument goes, we are justified in giving more weight to failed interventions than to failed non-interventions.

The crucial assumption here is that interventions that fail are analogous to typical cases of doing harm, where one aims at harming others. But they are not, unless one makes other assumptions as well. A failed intervention is an attempt to prevent harm that fails. It fails either by simply not succeeding in its rescue mission, or by making things even worse. In either case, however, the act of intervening is not morally equivalent to acts that aim at harming others. In general, we do not judge a rescue attempt that fails the same way that we judge actions that aim at causing harm. It is also not clear that we would even judge genuine but failed attempt to rescue others, but which end up doing more harm, much more harshly than not trying to rescue them at all.

Perhaps there is a further underlying assumption at work here, namely that the motives or aims behind humanitarian interventions are never those of saving others. On this view, “so-called” humanitarian intervention cannot be treated as attempts to rescue others, and so failed interventions are in fact morally equivalent to acts that aim at harming others. If the assumption here is simply that states do not have pure humanitarian motives, then even if it is admitted it does not suffice to undermine my argument. It is enough that states can have, as part of their larger strategic aims, the tactical aim of rescuing others, even if they are not motivated by altruism. If this is granted, then we can plausibly describe states as acting with the aim of rescuing others. On the other hand, if one holds the view that rescuing others can neither constitute an ultimate or a tactical aim, one is effectively denying the possibility of humanitarian interventions.

The third asymmetry regarding humanitarian interventions is related to the previous two and is concerned with the criterion of success. The bar for success for interventions tends to be set very high, and consequently very low for their failure. For an intervention to be perceived as successful, it needs to achieve all its aims with minimal casualties to interveners and civilians, as well as securing peace and democratic stability in the targeted country. Anything short of that is easily considered a failure. The opposite is true of non-interventions. As noted above, for a non-intervention to be considered a failure, or even considered at all, the result must be pretty horrible. Even then, there will remain many doubters, as with the case in Syria.

A comparison between the attitudes that many people exhibited towards Syria and Libya, provides a useful illustration of the above asymmetry. When some tried to argue for intervention in Syria during the conflict there, the response was often: ‘but look at what happened in Libya’ or ‘we do not want another Libya’. This was an odd thing to say in light of the facts in these two countries. As to which one of the two is the bigger humanitarian crisis, Syria wins hands down over Libya on every count: the number of people killed, tortured, refugees, displaced, and homes destroyed, even when this is adjusted for the size of the population. Just think of how many Libyan refugees appear at the coasts and borders of EU countries. Yet the assumption seems to be that the intervention Libya is a bigger failure on part of the international community than the non-intervention in Syria. This can only be explained in light of the above asymmetry in the criteria of success (and failure) between interventions and non-intervention.

The above three asymmetries are, by and large, unjustified biases against humanitarian interventions. Thus, they unjustifiably raise the political cost of such interventions. Given that successful interventions leave almost no traces in the public imagination, whist unsuccessful ones cast a dark and long shadow, and given that the criterion of success for intervention is treated as much higher than that for non-interventions, politicians and decision makers, especially in democratic countries, will be very reluctant to take the risk of supporting interventions. This will be true even in cases where there is a compelling moral case for intervention. Syria, in my opinion, is one such example.

Disclaimer: Any views or opinions expressed on The Public Ethics Blog are solely those of the post author(s) and not The Stockholm Centre for the Ethics of War and Peace, Stockholm University, the Wallenberg Foundation, or the staff of those organisations.


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