A Critical Approach to Humanitarian Intervention

In early June, PaCCS Communications Officer Kate McNeil sat down with Dr Karina Z Butler to discuss her work on an ESRC-funded project on humanitarian theory, which resulted in the book A Critical Approach to Humanitarian Intervention. This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity and concision.

Kate McNeil: How did you end up working on critical examinations of humanitarian interventions?

Dr Karina Z Butler: This work, and the book that came out of it, was primarily based on work I had completed during my PhD, where I was supervised by Dr Paul Williams and Prof Matthew Watson and my ESRC funded postdoctoral research, supervised by Prof Stuart Croft. My work questioned the consequential validity of the moral argument presented by the pluralist / solidarist dichotomy as well as, the solidarst argument put forward by the R2P project. 

What was the focus of your book, A Critical Humanitarian Intervention Approach?

The core argument of my book questions the moral content of the Solidarist humanitarian intervention approach associating it with an agreement to intervene militarily in an instance of humanitarian emergencies. Using Kosovo as a case study, I argue that military intervention in the crisis, can’t be considered in terms of a ‘moral action’ as it limits the act of ‘what the International Society can do’ to stop humanitarian emergencies. I suggest that the moral thing to do is to delve deeper into understanding the crisis, which in this case needed to be understood within the context of the global international economy. My aim, throughout my work, was to explore, deepen and improve our understanding of the limitations of solidarist thinking and theory.

The book itself is divided into four parts. I began by examining theories of humanitarian intervention; solidarist theory, and the role of the international community in economically re-structuring the former Yugoslavia. In the book’s final section, I explored how we might apply lessons learned in the context of military and humanitarian interventions in Yugoslavia to prevent similar situations in future. 

How did you go about conducting this research?

This project was theory, rather than fieldwork driven. My main method of study was document analysis, as I sought to understand and explain the economic crisis within the former Yugoslavia, and how other European countries played roles in causing those sorts of emergency in the first place. I didn’t buy the ethical argument that agreeing to intervene militarily in the former Yugoslavia should make it acceptable for the international society to intervene militarily in any other war-torn societies. I strongly believed then and still do that the very need for military intervention should be considered in terms of a failure of the international society not to have prevented it in a first place.  

What would you want those reading your work to take away from it?

I would like them to continue with the key message of my book, which is, finding ways of preventing emergencies from developing in the first place. I believe that this can only be achieved when we consider the working of the international political economy as having significantly contributed to what had happened in Kosovo. I think that my work demonstrates well the cost of the crisis, and how the ethical debate was presented, essentially, boiling down to a decision about whether or not to intervene. These legal debates and moral debates took on what I called a “problem solving” way of thinking, where the focus is on what can be observed rather than on ‘how the observed came about’. 

Prof Nicholas Wheeler has analysed what counts as a supreme humanitarian emergencies, and as I note in my book, he has noted that there are no objective criteria to help us decide at what point an emergency becomes a humanitarian crisis. Instead, reading Wheeler and Bellamy would lead you to conclude that human misery (the observable reality) is the criteria for intervention, laying the groundwork for ethical debates. Here, I need to reiterate that I am not saying that we should not stop these observable crises and we should not allow genocides ever to happen, but I get irritated when scholars even consider a military intervention as demonstrative of International Societies’ universal solidarity with the rest of the world to demonstrate that supreme humanitarian emergencies are not acceptable.

A moral argument dictated by the Kosovo case needs to be built through unraveling and picking apart strategies for preventing these situations from happening in the first place. That is where I feel the ethical arguments should be coming from. We need to understand better the role of international political economy in contributing to those crises so we can prevent them from happening in the first place.  

During crises, we see what is happening, and we are understandably emotionally moved. So, we end up making the argument that it is moral to intervene, and therefore we must intervene. We problem-solve to stop that specific atrocity from continuing. However, once the international society has gone in and intervened, it goes back to their thinking preceding the crises where ‘the political’ and ‘the economic’ are considered as two separate components. That needs to change. 

Do you think much has changed in this space since your book came out?

Other than the occasional conversation with someone who is interested in my work, such as researchers working at the Centre for Responsibility to Protect, I am no longer active in academia, so I have not closely followed where humanitarian theory has gone over the last decade. However, I think that the message of my book is still quite relevant. Indeed, I am reminded of it every day at work. As an ESOL tutor, I work with refugees who escaped from war-torn societies. Their personal stories reinforce many of the arguments I make in my book, for example, that a stable economy is fundamental to peace and security. Ten years down the line, the issues that I raised have not been addressed at all. 

We still need humanitarians and those working in international relations to take on a more critical way of thinking. I think we still justify a lot of unethical actions for the sake of an economic argument, and then turn around and act as though the security agenda is separate from the economics. Ultimately, based on my findings, I think it is a miracle that we have not had a crisis similar to that that occurred in Yugoslavia in other parts of Eastern Europe.

I will say, however, that the COVID-19 pandemic has given me some hope. This is the first time when politicians and prominent economic leaders seem to have registered that it will not be enough to just “fix” the pandemic, we must change the way we live. We need to think holistically and long-term in a way that is not necessarily just about prioritizing the economic side of things. We may finally just have to learn that functioning, sustainable societies in a global system cannot be driven solely by money.

Where has your career taken you since this book was published?

I took a career break to raise my family, and then, after finding that there were few opportunities for re-entry in academia for women who have taken time out to spend with their children, I began working in further education. I am now an English language teacher and teacher trainer. Discovering how easily the door to academia can completely shut when you take parental leave was incredibly disappointing. I still feel passionate about the need to improve things for women in academia and education, and I think that the international security community, and academia in general, need to do much more to make things possible for people who want to balance work with family life, and who are interested in contributing to debates and the creation of knowledge in part-time capacities or less conventional ways.

Dr Karina Z Butler is presently a Visiting Lecturer at Birmingham City University. You can find her on Twitter at @KarinaZButler1.