What Is The Most Appropriate Role For International Actors In A Conflict Society?

Using a specific case to illustrate my argument, and with reference to debates about international norms, international law, morality and/or responsibility, I attempt to make a case for humanitarian, military or diplomatic intervention.

Following the theme of conflict societies and the role that foreign nations and international actors should play, whether a military, an diplomatic intervention or a purely humanitarian role is best, an international actor’s role begins before conflict transformation can take place.

The aim of this title is to highlight the most appropriate role for international actors to play in a conflict society. With such a wide range of examples and contexts it is therefore important to be highly specific. For specificity within this paper, I will use the United Kingdom’s (UK) position on emergency humanitarian intervention (which from this point will be stated as humanitarian intervention) and the responsibility to protect, as a lens in which to critically analyse first the concept of intervention and the international norms and laws that surround the commonly accepted necessity of human security. By building upon and perhaps criticising works by Charles Manning and Nick J. Wheeler; I will challenge the norms that encompass the act of intervention, and the concepts of humanitarianism and sovereignty to better understand the most appropriate role for international actors within a conflict society. 

Both morally and logically the appropriate response to any conflict or violent action should always place the protection of human lives above all other actions to be taken in a conflict society. Without the protection of human life: the stability, transformation and development of a conflict society is null and void, as without a population a society cannot exist, let alone function. Within the realm of these principles the resulting intervention should be one based on humanitarianism. Furthermore, while the term international actors within the realms of humanitarian intervention can include non-governmental organisations (NGOs) like the Red Cross and Oxfam, my focus will be the actions of international state actors, primarily the UK. This is to avoid undermining the expansive reach and effort taken by these particular NGOs and others in the humanitarian effort, that act with almost full autonomy. In order to answer the overall question effectively, the following questions will guide this papers discussion. What norms surround and guide humanitarian intervention? And who protects them? Whose responsibility is it to act when human rights are violated? What form of action is necessary, and is it legitimate? 

What norms surround and guide humanitarian intervention? 

There are many debates that frame both the need for international norms and the challenge that these norms can create when discussing conflict intervention. Questions of legitimacy, sovereignty and agenda impact the way conflict intervention is both discussed and viewed practically (Wheeler, 2000). Norms are understood internationally and therefore practical application of such understandings can be impacted. Without political context, the enactment of humanitarian intervention would rely solely on the norms understood by the international community. As humanitarian intervention relies on four key principles: humanity, impartiality, neutrality, and independence the actions taken by the international community if choosing to act should be restricted to acting within their responsibility. With humanitarianism the basis for humanitarian intervention norms actions of humanitarian assistance and protection within conflict societies should be based on morality only, and should use its four guiding principles to best protect the referent object, in this case human security. It argues that the humanitarian should remain independent of the political, and the military, in essence, apolitical and peaceful. With “no frontiers” humanitarian intervention is a “universal…vocation” (James Orbinski, 1999:1).

Can these norms be deconstructed?

Understanding that the “communal imagining” of societal norms such as sovereignty, following a constructivist approach, lends itself to the argument that participating in the shared understanding that these concepts are conjured into existence (Manning, 1975:19). 

If we take this argument and apply it directly to humanitarian intervention the result is to question everything about it. The norms constructed are taken as internationally defined concepts that then make them actionable. If we deconstruct these norms of sovereignty as Manning does, what is left? Rather than states and the sovereignty that they are deemed to possess being solely responsible for the protection of their citizens, it is possible to suggest that the barriers that have previously held the international community and NGO actors like Oxfam and Red Cross from crossing conflict borders are no longer present. In fact, the deconstruction not only questions the sovereignty claimed by states within the international community, it challenges their internal sovereignty. Without a sole responsibility to protect its citizens Yemen and more importantly its people would be the responsibility of the wider community. The ideas of community responsibility for the protection and security of human life are theoretically promising, and not only encompasses the ideas voiced by Orbinski (1999) but the purer principles of humanitarianism as an international mind-set. The practicality within the context of politics, despite being principally being based on impartiality and neutrality would not necessarily benefit acts humanitarian intervention or protection. As the states would remain, so would their vested interests, with the loss of responsibility that is placed upon states to protect their citizens, the need for humanitarian intervention could increase.

And who protects the norms?

Given legal status on an international platform by the United Nations (UN) General Assembly in 1948, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights among others provide grounds for the international norms that encompass the freedom and security of people. The respect for these norms does, however, require the rule of law to be established at both the national and the international level (Office of the High Commission of Human Rights (OHCHR), 1996-2018, International Human Rights Law). Legal ratification, however, does not always guarantee the protection of human rights. Prominently debated is the international communities ability to uphold these rights and to enforce them where necessary. The closest international infrastructure with the potential capacity would be the International Court of Justice (ICJ) at The Hague. Even the ICJ either acts as an advisory when invited by the UN Assembly, or states, that are either members of the UN or are parties to the specific case, submit cases that the ICJ then undertakes. This interlink between UN member states and the lead judicial body responsible for sanctioning or prosecuting those who deny their citizens or people their human rights, underlines the lack of impartiality and neutrality throughout what has become the internationally understood humanitarian norm. 

The failure of humanitarian intervention and the policies that surround actions taken in its name by international state actors, are not only seen in the weak infrastructures that propose to defend it, but also ingrained in policy itself. The creation and ratification of the UN’s Responsibility to Protect (R2P) policy in 2001 saw the international community aim to create a framework that would be usable in the case of a humanitarian crisis. However, as is often the problem with ratified policy the failure of actions that follow such a framework tend to influence that framework’s future utility. The failure of R2P within Libya, too strongly influenced the actions of the UN in later conflicts, like Syria with total inaction by the UK and in Yemen with misguided military influence veiled as humanitarian aid. Failure once, sets to influence the actions of state actors regardless of the growing humanitarian crisis within any visible conflict.

Whose responsibility is it to act when human rights are violated? And what form of action is necessary, and is it legitimate?

The use of Yemen as a case study is important to understand this paper’s primary focus on The UK’s appropriate role as an international actor in a conflict society. It is specifically important as a point of learning within the international debates around intervention, on exactly what not to do. From the outbreak at the beginning of 2015 to September 2015, the UK has earned over six billion pounds from their weapons trade with Saudi Arabia during Yemen’s on going war (Blume, 2017, War Child UK). By providing weapons to Saudi Arabia, the UK has enabled the continuation of conflict, with the two years of war in Yemen claiming the lives of “1,300 children” with “2,000 more injured” and continued attacks on schools and medical facilities, leading to millions at risk of cholera and famine (Blume, 2017, War Child UK). The British weapons manufacturing companies primarily involved, BAE Systems and Raytheon, while “profiteering from the deaths of innocent children” are widely defended by British politicians and business leaders. The then Defence Secretary Michael Fallon MP (2017), outlined his hope for the UK to “take a bigger share of the international defence market”, while Liam Fox (2017), the International Trade Secretary was heard to defend the “ethical trade”. From international weapons trade deals to public defence of the results of these deals, the role the UK has taken with Yemen in the framework of humanitarianism undermines the humanitarian norms entirely. 

With what we know now in the like of military influence and vested interests, both economic and political, in the area, the necessary action should have been solely humanitarian. To go as far as military intervention should only be enacted in extreme cases (International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty, 2001, The Responsibility to Protect). 

Despite the four pillars of humanitarian intervention being humanity, impartiality, neutrality, and independence, actions taken by the UK rejects all four of these principles through vested interests and profits made from a continuation of conflict (ICRC, 2009; Blume, 2017). Should it then be moral, or responsible to make an international standpoint of humanitarianism, through the use of international aid, while ensuring that the violent actors within the specific conflict remain well armed to continue the conflict? If it economically and politically benefits a specific state for a war to continue, can this state be truly impartial, neutral, independent or even respectful? Regardless of the clear separation from the norms of humanitarian intervention, these are the official actions taken by the UK within Yemen (Hanlon, 2006). How are we to establish an appropriate role for international actors within a conflict society, if an internationally leading state like the UK cannot abide by the principles of the humanitarianism?

This is not to say that the principles of humanitarian intervention are impossible to abide in practice. The action taken by Vietnam within the borders of Cambodia in 1978 is a prime example that even with the primary motivation of defence and self-protection, therefore a vested interest, the actions taken by the Vietnamese at a time when the international community had largely remained silent highlights the utility of humanitarian action. Through the invasion of Cambodia by Vietnam, the Khmer Rouge regime led by Pol Pot which had resulted in an estimated “1.7 million to 2 million” Cambodians losing their lives from 1975 to 1979, was overthrown (United to End Genocide, 2017).

The role of the international community within a conflict society, if there is one, should be based on guiding policy, provide food and human security, and preserve essentially humanity. Examples of ill-guided intervention on the part of the UK during times of conflict are clear, with the support of foreign allies with weapons, and the defence of those who seek to promote the UK’s agenda is a scene all too familiar when it comes to discussing norms and examples that surround conflict intervention. The UK’s role in Yemen, as a case study provided evidence to the apparent failures of the UK so-called ‘humanitarianism’. With the failures of the UK within Yemen becoming clearer it is possible to question if the actions taken by primary actors are immoral can the protection and security of citizens within a conflict society be deemed as humanitarian? In the case of Yemen the harm caused by the UK would ultimately outweigh the benefits of its humanitarian aid. While this paper does not seek to undermine the policy of humanitarian intervention as a whole, the main line of argument has been throughout that the institutions and individuals who claim themselves as proponents of this policy often undermine it themselves. The weakness of infrastructural support for human rights protection and the ingrained vested interests of states that enact humanitarian intervention in spite of its basic principles that oppose it, seek to undermine a highly important action used to protect and secure the world’s population. Overall, it is important for the framework for humanitarian intervention enacted by the international community to be more strictly confined to the basic principles on which it is based, it is therefore unequivocally key that the separation of international interests from humanitarian ones should be the primary focus for all actors proposing to intervene in any conflict society.

Image Credit: Canva Images


Blume, R (2017), Available at: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/yemen-war-saudi-arabia-human-rights-british-weapons-trade-uk-6bn-war-child-report-crimes-civilians-a7953496.html (Accessed: 20th February 2018)

Hanlon, J. (2006) Civil War, Civil Peace (Published: Ohio University Press)

International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (2001) The Responsibility to Protect Doctrine Available at: http://responsibilitytoprotect.org/ICISS%20Report.pdf (Accessed: 12th February 2018)

International Committee of the Red Cross (2009) Available at: https://www.icrc.org/eng/resources/documents/misc/fundamental-principles-commentary-010179.html (Accessed: 13th February 2018)

Manning, C. (1975) The Nature of International Society, 2nd edition. (Published: MacMillan, London)

Office of the High Commission of Human Rights (2018), Available at: http://www.ohchr.org/EN/ProfessionalInterest/Pages/InternationalLaw.aspx (Accessed: 3rd March 2018)

Orbinski, J. (1999) There is no such thing as military humanitarianism [1999 Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech] Peace Magazine, Winter 2000. Vol 16, Iss 1; pg. 8. (Accessed from module resources: 10th February 2018)

Wheeler, J. N. (2000) Saving Strangers: Humanitarian Intervention in International Society (Published: OUP Oxford University Press)

United to End Genocide (2017) Cambodian Genocide, Available at: http://endgenocide.org/learn/past-genocides/the-cambodian-genocide/ (Accessed: 22nd February 2018)


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