Book Reviews - Michael Newman, Humanitarian Intervention: Confronting the Contradictions

Book Reviews

Michael Newman, Humanitarian Intervention: Confronting the Contradictions

Eric A. Heinze
University of Oklahoma
Newman, Michael. Humanitarian Intervention: Confronting the Contradictions. New York: Columbia University Press, 2009.

1 Much has been written about the subject of humanitarian intervention in the decade that followed the 1999 Kosovo intervention; and as we move toward the 10-year anniversary of the now well-known Responsibility to Protect doctrine drafted by the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS) in 2001, one wonders whether anything new can be said about this important topic. Michael Newman’s new book, Humanitarian Intervention: Confronting the Contradictions, attempts to make sense of the voluminous literature on humanitarian intervention by advancing a fundamentally critical examination of the various international policies on this subject by examining their impact on those states where humanitarian emergencies are most likely to occur — that is, on developing and so-called “transitional” states.

2 Newman’s main argument is that the various military interventions in recent years have had only limited success in bringing about an enduring peace in those states that were targets of such interventions and that this is because of the overly narrow conception of “humanitarianism” under which most advocates of intervention operate. Thus, the author’s main purpose is to advance a broader notion of humanitarianism that not only addresses the various acute and “conscience-shocking” crimes that we normally see as being grounds for humanitarian intervention but that also addresses the problems of global inequality and poverty. In this sense, Newman seeks to take a more macro approach to the problem of human suffering that avoids the all-too-common tendency to only address these problems after gross violations of human rights have manifested themselves.

3 Newman’s method in this study is to draw on the existing literature “rather than contributing original research into specific cases of humanitarian intervention” (p. 6) and is therefore best described as a broad survey of the topic that aims to “re-think” it, rather than one that addresses specific concerns arising from its practice. The first two chapters consist of broad reviews of well-known legal and normative arguments about the topic that prevailed both during and after the Cold War. This is followed in chapter 3 by a discussion of the conditions under which humanitarian intervention is said to be permissible, wherein the author concurs with the widely held view that the criteria for intervention should be highly restrictive. Yet this is where he begins to make his own contribution to the debate — that is, by arguing for his broader notion of humanitarianism that includes the structural causes of the human suffering at issue. Chapters 4 and 5 seek to flesh out this broader notion of humanitarianism by examining, respectively, the effects that neoliberal economic institutions and the trend toward political democratization have had on human welfare in the states of the global South and the shortcomings of the international governmental regimes that are established after the combat phases of humanitarian interventions have ended. According to Newman, these shortcomings reinforce the need to adopt a wider notion of humanitarianism, which the author subsequently does in his final chapter by endorsing the ideas of human security and the famous “responsibility to protect” doctrine. In sum, Newman argues that this broader notion of humanitarianism can provide a basis for human protection by not only providing legitimacy for using military force in truly emergency situations of human suffering but also by addressing issues of poverty and inequality, which are the root cause of the emergency situations that humanitarian intervention typically seeks to remedy.

4 Newman’s book is mainly a discussion of topics that have already been the subject of much scholarly inquiry and is therefore not a groundbreaking work in the same vein as, for instance, Nicholas Wheeler’s Saving Strangers (2000). It nevertheless makes a welcome contribution to the debate by incorporating insights from other areas of humanitarian studies into the discourse on humanitarian intervention that seek to get at the root causes of human suffering, rather than just addressing emergency situations, by which time the international community has already failed the vulnerable populations with whom it is concerned. Furthermore, this book is a highly accessible treatment of a very complex and oftentimes perplexing topic and, if nothing else, helps the reader make sense of it with an eye toward addressing the structural causes of human suffering, rather than dealing with human suffering after it has manifested itself. I would recommend this book to anyone interested in human rights and humanitarian affairs — both the specialist and non-specialist alike — and would consider it appropriate for classroom use in both graduate and advanced undergraduate university courses.

Eric A. Heinze is an Assistant Professor in the School of International and Area Studies at the University of Oklahoma.