Humanitarian Intervention: Confronting the Contradictions

Newman, Michael
C. Hurst & Co., London, 2009, ISBN 978 1850659747, 256 pp.
Reviewed by or other comment: 

Kelling, Fiona

As the title suggests, Michael Newman's recent contribution to the debate on humanitarian intervention highlights the contradictions confronted when approaching the volatile subject of military intervention. The controversy surrounding humanitarian engagement is politically and ethically complex, and the issue of intervention for human-protection purposes could be said to be one of the most controversial and difficult of all questions relating to international relations. Newman therefore does an admirable job of surveying multi-faceted and interwoven issues with a humane yet penetrating pragmatism.
The book is written in answer to the 'large number of people uncertain as to how to reconcile their opposition to recent Anglo-American policy with their belief that “something must be done” to protect populations at risk' (p.6). The consequences of intervention, or the lack thereof, touch on the core of human dignity and our universal responsibilities, while simultaneously challenging the fundamental rights of states to determine their own future, creating strong polemics and deep divisions on both sides of the debate. While some view the notion of humanitarian intervention as a necessary means of protecting people at risk, others see it only as a covert form of neo-imperialism. Newman is highly critical of the theory and practices that have dominated Western interventionist politics, but he rejects the assumed dichotomy of either extreme and aims rather to re-address the scope of humanitarian intervention in both theory and practice.
The content is usefully chronologically structured, allowing for a presentation of the debates in their historical context and an exposition of key challenges as they have emerged. Newman begins with the contradiction in terminology itself, outlining the principles of humanitarianism and how they may seem to conflict with militarised intervention. Within this he reveals the underlying tension in all potential interventions, and the difficulties in weighing up the consequences of action or inaction. He goes on to consider some of the less palpable incongruous factors, including the difficulty of upholding both the rights of nations to determine their own future and an international responsibility to counter acts 'that shock the moral conscience of mankind' (Chapters 1 and 2); the fundamental contradiction between the profession of humanitarian ideals and the actual outcomes of intervention (Chapters 3 and 4); and the contention that those who possess the greatest international power in solving disputes often play a key role in creating or exacerbating crises and conflicts (Chapter 5). These factors are brought together in a broadened understanding of the 'Responsibility to Protect', adopted by the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS) in 2006 (Chapter 6).
This is the essential value that Newman adds to the whole debate. The 'Responsibility to Protect' approach shifts the focus away from the 'right to intervene' and on to a responsibility to take preventive action. While Newman applauds the possibilities inherent in this new approach, he urges us to broaden our conception of humanitarianism further, claiming that '…concentration on the atrocities that might conceivably require a military response enables the rich North to continue evading its responsibility for contributing to the situation in which such crimes may occur' (p. 6).
The risk that he claims we are facing is that the responsibility to protect is being interpreted too narrowly, in its focus on political and ethnic violence. He therefore convincingly articulates a wider notion of 'human security' and encourages us to develop a concept of intervention which also provides protection from poverty, degradation, and disease. Fundamental human security is endangered not only by overt violence and conflict, but also by policies and practices that undermine people's capacity to develop. Humanitarianism must, therefore, not merely respond to immediate suffering but open its eyes to the causes of that suffering, both those originating locally in the society in question and those arising from structures of economic and political power in the wider world. Only through addressing these structural difficulties can we begin to truly uphold our 'responsibility to protect'.
Given the number and complexity of the arguments involved, and the conflicting factors that have to be taken into consideration, Newman should be applauded for devising a logical structure for his book. Clear introductions and summaries of each chapter help the reader to navigate a way through the argument. In parts the book does become rather theory-heavy, but this is partly a result of the wide range of literature on which he draws and the number of comparisons and approaches presented - which constitute overall a definite strength of the book.
Newman admits that he does not add any new material per se or contribute a specialist study, but he hopes that through drawing upon a wide variety of material and fields he can add something to the discussion from a multi-disciplinary perspective. Indeed, the broad range of material covered in the book will appeal to students of international relations, conflict studies, politics, and development studies. Nevertheless, as well as providing a stimulus to academic discussion, it is easily accessible and will also appeal to the general reader interested in examining some of the issues in greater detail.
To conclude, given the pitfalls of dealing with such a loaded topic, this book has a very significant value in offering a way in to discussion. Moreover, it rekindles a fragile but tenable hope for future prospects of relieving some of the current contradictions facing the contemporary world.