This is lesson four of six on humanitarian intervention.

Here are links to the other five:

Ethics & Politcs of Humanitarian Intervention:
Lesson 01-01, Lesson 01-02, Lesson 01-03

Intervention: From Theories to Cases:
Lesson 02-01

The Evolving Norm of Humanitarian Intervention:

Lesson 03-01, Lesson 03-03


In this second part of the course we consider some distinctive and general dilemmas associated with two post-cold war cases of humanitarian intervention, and one memorable case of non-intervention. We consider first an intervention often remembered as a disaster (Somalia, 1992). Next we discuss the great tragedy of the decade, the Rwandan genocide (1994), to which the international community let itself be a mere "eyewitness" or "bystander." Finally we look at an intervention that is often referred to as, in several respects, an impressive success (Kosovo, 1999). Part of the purpose of this case-study section of the course, however, is to question whether these conventional historical summaries always amount to fair representations of the complex events of each case.

This week centers on the intervention in Somalia, which provides a particular opportunity to discuss the relationship between humanitarian action and domestic, democratic politics in the United States.

The east African state of Somalia fell apart in 1990–1, following the collapse of its dictatorship, with power falling into the hands of rival clan leaders. Most of the country, and notably the capital, Mogadishu, descended into lawlessness. The vulnerability of the Somali people—and thus the magnitude of the humanitarian crisis—was exacerbated still further by drought. Thousands died or suffered malnutrition.

In December 1992, the UN Security Council voted that a military intervention be undertaken "to establish a secure environment for humanitarian relief operations." The resulting U.S.-led intervention, in its initial stages, was arguably an encouraging success—saving many Somalis from starvation, at the cost of few lives.

But by spring 1993, gun battles were raging between international forces and Somali factions, causing the death of noncombatant Somalis and U.S. and other foreign soldiers and journalists. The loss of U.S. life especially—in the events seared into the public consciousness by the movie Black Hawk Down—was thenceforth regarded as "disproportionate." The reading is light this week to allow students time to watch the movie ahead of class.

The international operation in Somalia could have been a success story for the idea of humanitarian intervention, but is remembered as a disaster, with consequences for future international responses to humanitarian emergencies, not least in Rwanda.


30-minute lecture on intervention in Somalia, drawing on the below readings and ethics questions.


In-Class Activities
Lecture and discussion

Assignments to Be Completed in Advance
Alberto R. Coll, "The Problems of Doing Good: Somalia as a Case Study," Carnegie Council (1997)

Chester Crocker, "The Lessons of Somalia: Not Everything Went Wrong," Foreign Affairs (May/June, 1995)

Watch: Black Hawk Down (2001)


A. Did the U.S. and UN military intervention in Somalia "fail"? Where, in particular, were the "failures"?

B. Why might it be important that humanitarian interventions are regarded as being in the national interest of the intervening state? Why might the connection between interests and interventions be insufficient from the point of view of global humanitarianism? Why might it be dangerous?

C. Was the Somalia intervention in the U.S. national interest? Was it in the Somali national interest? Might it have been better in the long term—for U.S. interests and Somali individuals—had a ruthless, determined leader been allowed to rise to power via clan violence?

D. How does the absence of a government in Somalia at the time of the intervention change the calculations interveners might have made about the ethics of the intervention? Whose right to non-intervention was the international mission rejecting?

E. What do the decisions to intervene in Somalia and the subsequent decision to withdraw tell us about the relationship between domestic politics and humanitarianism?

F. How should citizens weigh the importance of funding, through their tax contributions, the pursuit of solutions to problems at home vs. problems abroad? Which are more "urgent"?

G. What might be some advantages and disadvantages of the way that certain wars and military interventions live on in public memory?

For further discussion questions about the intervention in Somalia and the related ethical dilemmas, see the teaching notes provided in Alberto Coll's Carnegie Council case study (assigned).


J. Bryan Hehir, "Intervention: From Theories to Cases," Ethics & International Affairs 9 (1995)

Thomas Weiss, "Chapter 2: Humanitarian Interventions: Thumbnail Sketches," in his Humanitarian Intervention (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2007)

Nicholas Wheeler, "Chapter 6: From Famine Relief to 'Humanitarian War,'" in his Saving Strangers: Humanitarian Intervention in International Society (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000)

Dominic D. P. Johnson and Dominic Tierney, "Chapter 8: The U.S. Intervention in Somalia," in their Failing to Win: Perceptions of Victory and Defeat in International Politics (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2006)