The Unintended Consequences of Humanitarian Intervention: Civilian Deaths, Disease, Sexual Abuse

UN Peacekeepers in the Central African Republic | Photo by ALEXIS HUGUET/AFP/GETTY IMAGES

In theory, humanitarian intervention holds symbolic and moral value as a tool to reinforce global standards of peace. In practice, however, intervention at the hands of states and international organizations can be counterproductive to a nation’s recovery. The unintended consequences of intervention—including civilian casualties, the spread of diseases, and sexual exploitation—are a result of the international community’s negligence. Given the failure to protect the communities we claim to serve, reform must be enacted to redefine the scope of humanitarian intervention. 

Civilian Deaths

Since the 1990s, humanitarian intervention has evolved from the delegation of basic aid, such as food, water, and medicine, into the process of restructuring a country’s political and economic framework. This transition was justified, in part, by global efforts to counter terrorism. With the expanding definition of humanitarian intervention, the rate of civilian casualties has risen dramatically, particularly in the Middle East, where the United States conducted over 11,000 airstrikes against ISIS from 2014 to 2016. To better understand the evolving implications of intervention, we must examine how the casual use of military force during the US involvement in Afghanistan lead to a loss of civilian lives and the subsequent failure to report their deaths. 

In an independent New York Times investigation, journalist Azmat Khan exposed the human cost of the US drone strikes in Afghanistan as she reported that one in five strikes contributed to the death of civilians, but half of all incidences surveyed did not implicate a single ISIS target. Proving the strikes to be ineffective and detrimental to the safety of Afghan communities, Khan’s civilian death toll came out to 31 times higher than what was officially reported under the Obama administration. There has been little evidence of any US effort to communicate with the remaining survivors.  

This appalling reality can be attributed to drones as the preferred tool for intervention and a lenient authorization protocol justified by the pressure to combat ISIS’s expansion. Seeking a military advantage, the US chose to use drones because they lessened American casualties by allowing operatives to combat remotely. This method prevented the US from gathering the accurate and reliable intelligence necessary to engage with lethal force. Furthermore, as a result of dismissing the requirement for high-level approval before strikes, a culture of casualness, detachment, and neglect grew ever deeper. 

In light of this, Khan’s reports find that the US military consistently failed to conduct due diligence before carrying out strikes. Records show that in specific instances military personnel thought cotton at a gin was “white bags of ammonium nitrate” at a “homemade explosives factory,” and an elderly female was an “adult male ISIS fighter.” In one instance, a family’s entire home was bombed because operations saw “enemy personnel” dragging a heavy object, which they later discovered had only been a child. It follows that the bombing of civilians is not a series of mistakes, but a pattern of recklessness. Military officials analyzed data through a lens of fear, falling victim to confirmation bias and carrying out uninformed drone strikes at the cost of civilian lives. 

It can be concluded that the implication of prioritizing a temporary military advantage over civilians is catastrophic to the very goal of creating international peace and security. In this case, the intervening state is not liberating the population from violence, but concocting it. By bombing non-combatants and failing to acknowledge any wrongdoing, the United States is radicalizing generations to come whose anti-Western sentiment will be well-founded in the reality of their own experiences. The paranoia of living in a region overtaken by radical insurgents is appalling, but the looming fear of being bombed in an airstrike, to no fault of your own, is equally as criminal. If powerful states want to intervene as the guardians of oppressed citizens and not aggressors, it would be wise to place the value of civilian lives above the opportunity for a military advantage.

Spread of Disease

The next major consequence of humanitarian intervention concerns the spread of diseases and, in one specific case, a failure by the United Nations to take immediate action. In 2010 a cholera epidemic was brought to Haiti, which was grappling with widespread poverty and a recent earthquake. As a part of a disaster relief initiative, Nepalese peacekeepers were imported and unknowingly brought cholera to the island where their base leaked contaminated sewage into major rivers, killing 10 thousand and affecting 80 million. An unreleased report by the UN discovered that one-fourth of all peacekeeper bases were still dumping their waste into water sources as late as 2014

While ignorance and inadequate UN infrastructure can be blamed for the initial outbreak, the problem could have been contained by tracing its origins and warning the public of compromised rivers before investing heavily in water sanitation. Unfortunately, the outbreak was not made public until journalists uncovered the scandal and used mounting evidence to publicize the UN’s knowing involvement in this health disaster.

In 2011, thousands of Haitian cholera victims petitioned the UN for redress, but were swiftly dismissed with little explanation. Angered at the organization’s evasive behavior and insensitivity, the cases were then taken to the federal court of New York where the UN failed to appear under claims of diplomatic immunity. The UN’s outright denial of responsibility illustrates the disregard for the essence of humanitarian assistance and a deplorable attempt to shield its reputation. The intervention proved ineffective and counterproductive to minimizing disaster bringing into question the unchecked powers of the UN which lacks accountability to the people whom it serves.

Sexual Abuse

The last crisis we will analyze is the sexual abuse scandals that have plagued peacekeeping operations in countries like Liberia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. In a study performed by researchers in Liberia, it was found that over half of the female refugees surveyed engaged in transactional sex, and over three-fourths of these encounters were with UN peacekeepers. Such staggering numbers reveal the widespread nature of sexual interactions between locals and UN representatives, who according to regulation, are prohibited from interacting with civilians outside of work. When analyzing the correlation between peacekeepers and sexual exploitation, it was discovered that a woman was 3% more likely to engage in her first transactional sex encounter if peacekeepers were present

Among many issues, this raises concerns about the rate of sexually transmitted diseases and gender-based violence, as refugees are high-risk populations. While already grappling with violent conflict, a lack of resources, and displacement, young people are susceptible to exploitation in exchange for basic needs. It is imperative that we acknowledge that individuals in this position of hardship are unable to truly offer consent. Those who are taken advantage of, exposed to STDs, and then left to raise the children of their abusers, will be forever imprinted by a traumatic and financially straining experience. Along with them, the UN’s legitimacy erodes, intervention serves as a façade for exploitation, and locals become dependent upon peacekeepers for financial stability, risking economic destabilization after the UN’s eventual withdrawal.  

Furthermore, the UN rejects the responsibility to investigate and prosecute its workers as the system reserves that power for the peacekeepers’ home countries. Without the authority to discipline their own troops, UN missions are ripe for corruption. An extensive PBS documentary discovered that underage boys in a Central African refugee camp were coerced by French soldiers into performing oral sex in exchange for leftover food, which demonstrates an appalling and publicly known violation of mandates. However, few peacekeepers have been charged and the avenues for reporting inappropriate behavior remain vague. It can be concluded that the existing power hierarchy and, lack of reporting,  paired with the UN’s reluctance to investigate victims’ claims have cultivated a culture of rampant sexual abuse. 


The theoretical goal of providing aid to combat humanitarian disasters is well-founded in our collective responsibility to protect human rights and promote international stability. The protection of said rights should not be executed at the expense of civilians’ well-being. We ought to reconsider the goal of humanitarian intervention and ask ourselves whether or not we are truly bettering the lives of the people we intend to aid, assist, and protect. 

On one hand, it seems that our current practices cause more harm than good; on the other, it would be absurd for powerful states with available resources not to intervene at all. If we reframe the discussion, we will see that both options, militarized intervention, and abstinence, are extreme forms of engagement. Perhaps our answer lay somewhere in between. Prior to the discovery of any possible solutions, however, we must come to the consensus that reform is necessary. As we continue forward, it will be essential for us to take civilian lives more heavily into consideration, ensure that accountability measures exist and mistakes must go punished, and finally, support local grassroots organizations to encourage lasting change, not short-term fixes.