The Selectivity of Humanitarian Interventions


Subject Matter

At the end of the Cold War, the international community began to respond to gross violations of human rights with increased use of “supranational coercion.” In many cases, economic sanctions have been imposed, international criminal courts established, or humanitarian interventions carried out against the will of the affected states. In other comparable cases, astoundingly to the contrary, nothing of that sort has occurred. These discrepancies in the handling of both sorts of cases/humanitarian crises have left the international community open to charges of selectivity and applying double standards. In order to determine the actual extent of this supposed “intervention gap” (Kühne), this research project investigates systematically the transnational and supranational reactions to violent humanitarian crises. The next step is to determine the causes underlying the politics of selectivity which, from the standpoint of international relations theory, remain puzzling. To this end power-based, societal, institutional, and normative factors have been integrated into an explanatory model, which, at the same time, allows us to depict the reaction process of the international community in its various phases. The final aim of the project is to consider the impact of selectivity on the legitimacy of global governance.

Relationship to the research unit’s program

As a reaction to the apparent change in the nature of threats to international security (no longer at the forefront of such perceived threats are wars between countries, but rather internal conflicts, failed states, and international terrorism), and in accordance with the first thesis of the research unit’s program, international security policy has become increasingly transnational or supranational. Moreover, the relative decline in importance of wars between countries and the end of the East-West conflict have facilitated a basic shift in underlying international norms. Security no longer applies exclusively to the interface between countries (state security): rather, as a result of having expanded the term to include the security rights of individuals and groups (human security), security has become a behind-the-borders issue. State sovereignty has nevertheless remained intact as a basic principle of the international system. In cases where norms or principles collide, human rights or democratic rights considerations increasingly prevail over interdictions against the use of force or intervention. In accordance with the second thesis of the research unit’s program, against a backdrop of increased scope and authority of international institutions, on the one hand, and the ever-increasing demands of society for effective and legitimate global governance, on the other, the selectivity problem must necessarily lead to some sort of resistance. This project tries to show whether and to what extent the inconsistent handling of humanitarian crises might counteract the assumed trend toward progressive legalization of world politics, or whether critique and resistance might not also lead to some kind of institutional change in international security agencies.

Main content

Selected Publications

The Politicization of International Security Institutions: The UN Security Council and NGOs. WZB Discussion Paper No. SP IV 2008-305, Berlin: WZB. Volltext-PDF (erhältlich nur in English)

The Selective Enforcement of Human Rights? The International Response to Violent Humanitarian Crises and Gross Violations of Human Rights in the Post-Cold-War Era. WZB Discussion Paper No. SP IV 2007-307, Berlin: WZB. Volltext-PDF (erhältlich nur in Englisch)

Humanitarian Crises and the International Politics of Selectivity. Human Rights Review, 10 (3), 2009: 327-348.