Humanitarian Intervention and Relief

Darlene Rivas

The phrase "humanitarian intervention and relief" reflects recent usage. Yet the types of activities that it incorporates have a long history. At times, natural disasters such as floods, hurricanes, or human-compounded disasters such as famine or war, have caused great human suffering and material damage, resulting in efforts to provide relief in the form of basic necessities such as food, clothing, and shelter. Despite the view that Americans have shown exceptional generosity, the practice of caring for the victims of disasters is as old as human communities and is widespread among cultures. The scale of the human response to human suffering has changed, however, largely because of the development of institutionalized structures to provide relief, and Americans have been at the forefront of such development. In the modern era, the idea that states or peoples should respond to victims of calamities in other states has grown dramatically. Especially since World War II, nongovernmental and intergovernmental organizations for humanitarian assistance have multiplied and become institutionalized.

Debates about humanitarian assistance abroad have increasingly focused on whether states have a right and even a duty to alleviate distress, and whether the acceptable means include forcible intervention to end suffering and protect human rights. Intervention implies interfering in a situation in order to change an outcome. It may or may not indicate the use of force in achieving its objectives, although in the recent past that has been a key issue in its definition. Humanitarian relief and intervention implies short-term rather than long-term action. In the period after World War II, however, what began as efforts to prevent imminent harm increasingly took on the character of efforts to promote social and economic development or provide longer-term protection of civilians during intractable civil conflicts. Nation building, efforts to promote economic and social development, and peacekeeping seemed to follow efforts at humanitarian intervention and relief, with the distinction between these efforts becoming increasingly blurred.

Both humanitarianism and self-interest have inspired actions by individual Americans and the U.S. government to provide assistance and relief to people of other nations. The idea that individuals, nations, or governments intervene purely to promote the well-being of other humans is contested. Some believe that the essence of being human is to be humane, to act out of compassion, kindness, and sympathy so as to aid fellow humans in distress or danger. Others, however, believe that people act only out of self-interest. Indeed, some biologists conduct research to understand what they deem as the aberrant behavior of individuals who sacrifice their personal interests for the good of others. Considerations of whether humans behave solely on the basis of survival mechanisms largely ignore moral and ethical studies, religious or otherwise. The most common position avoids extremes, holding that humans often act out of humanitarian impulses, but that these are neither purely altruistic nor purely selfish.

The question of how states or governments respond used to be less murky. National self-interest, including the promotion of the wellbeing of the state's citizens and its survival, has been the raison d'être for the state. Yet with economic, demographic, and technological change in the twentieth century, some observers suggest that the erosion of borders has created an international community in which old conceptions of national interest are inappropriate. The interrelationships of a global community, and increasingly common values as evidenced by the development of international law in support of human rights, seem to warrant international responses to human distress wherever it may be found.


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See also Foreign Aid ; Human Rights ; International Law ; Philanthropy .

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