Humanitarian Intervention is a problematic instrument of foreign policy; its basis, formulation, and implementation are widely discussed, yet no consensus seems to have emerged so far. All major multilateral humanitarian interventions of this decade – Somalia, Bosnia, and, with qualifications, Rwanda – have proven more than problematic; only the operation to provide a safe zone for the persecuted Iraqi Kurds in the wake of the Second Gulf War has, under very particular conditions, been a relative success. Cautionary comments on humanitarian intervention and pessimism concerning the political feasibility of long overdue reform of the UN system seem appropriate in this context.
In this article I will argue that many of the problems typically associated with this new type of humanitarian assistance are in fact present in all kinds of humanitarian action. I will particularly dispute the claim that a politicisation of the humanitarian relief system lies at the root of the present problems. This claim has relevance only insofar as its bearing on all sorts of humanitarian action is recognised; there are no apolitical decisions in the field of humanitarian assistance. A similar point is made concerning the nature of practical problems supposedly raised by this “new humanitarianism”: practical problems in this field are merely indications of unresolved moral dilemmas haunting all forms of emergency relief.