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The Drama of Humanitarian Intervention

Natalie Joy Marrer

6. A drama without resolution

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Or, later, the knight grows up and looks back with sad wisdom on what once seemed so daring, so bold. (Kennedy 2009, 100)

1This is the second half of the quote used in the introduction to present the drama of humanitarian intervention. It points to a trajectory of maturation of the saviour, an evolution from unreliability towards reliability, which presupposes self-reflection. It would assume that the hero understands that narratives have the ability to simultaneously ‘strip away and create humanity and inhumanity’ (Windsor 2015, 767). However, it is questionable whether the hero can live up to these expectations. But maybe, we can.

2Normally, a conclusion summarizes the main arguments and drives home the critical points. However, I think it has become quite apparent what I have grown to believe throughout this process of spilling ink. The drama of humanitarian intervention unfolds in a world where morality, politics and law collide – there is no clear-cut resolution or conclusion. There continues to be struggles over the control of the narrative, vacillating between the extreme poles of rejecting the idea of humanitarian intervention outright as an oxymoron inviting deceit and glorifying it as heroic and compassionate altruism that shows a will to incur risks to save the victims without gains (Heraclides and Dialla 2016, 1).

  • 1 For example, it seems that sometimes the US is used as a scapegoat for failures of the internationa (...)
  • 2 The title for the final chapter of this paper is inspired by Slaughter 2009, 3.

3In contrast to the traditional approach, I would rather ask what you have learned. The notion of humanitarian intervention might intuitively appear admirable, yet appeals to it should not ‘lull our critical faculties to sleep’ (Elshtain 2001, 24). The goal of this paper has been to provide indices for unreliable narration, although it should be clear that no state or organization is always unreliable. My intention was not to forever cast the hero in the constraining villain role, but to point to rhetorical contradictions which neither human rights nor humanity law are able to solve.1 In a sense, both constitute meta-narratives based on humanity, which are blind to their own narrative aspects and fail to question their own supposed neutrality and inherent paradoxes. Unreliability is always contextual, perspectival, subjective and purposeful, which also has a clear impact on which legal position is advanced. George Lakoff writes that ‘metaphors can kill’ (Lakoff 2003). But what do they kill? Probably many of the innocent civilians the operation shrouded in just-war terms was meant to protect, but also our critical thinking when the unreliable narrator uses rhetoric which artfully triggers cognitive frames and meta-narratives, promising an era of human rights for everyone. I have criticized the idea that the story ends up being more about the saviour than about the victim of human rights abuses, who claims that he can bridge the gap between the ‘ideal and real’.2 But it is also about us. What makes a narrator unreliable for you? Is it rather a question of legitimacy than legality, as I have suggested? Do you agree that intervention narratives do not principally operate in the realm of state systems, rational facts or law, but rather in the ‘realm of identification, imagination, subjectivity and emotion’ (Orford 2003, 159)?

4The moral of the story is: Stay awake and critical.


1 For example, it seems that sometimes the US is used as a scapegoat for failures of the international community.

2 The title for the final chapter of this paper is inspired by Slaughter 2009, 3.


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