The 2003 Iraq War: Was it a humanitarian intervention?

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The view that the 2003 Iraq War was a disaster has become a fixed point of agreement in public opinion. The decision of the United States, Great Britain and other Coalition forces to invade Iraq soured western reputations across the world, undermined confidence in the motives and accountability of governments and created a humanitarian crisis in Iraq. Each of the reasons proffered to support the case for going to war were flawed and have henceforth been demolished by the reality of the intervening wars. This article will focus on one of them – that it was an example of a justified humanitarian intervention. This article will conclude three main positions: that the Iraq War was not an example of a legitimate humanitarian intervention, that we should be wary of politicians and commentators who call their proposed war ‘humanitarian’ but also we should avoid the argument that humanitarian intervention is never justified.

The three main arguments made to support the war in Iraq were: the threat posed by Saddam Hussein because of his possession or pursuit of weapons of mass destruction, that the Iraqi regime was meant to have links with terrorist groups such as al Qaeda and that the war was just because it would save the Iraqi people from a serial human rights abuser like Saddam Hussein. The latter argument considers the Iraq War an example of humanitarian intervention, in which it is for the sake of the rights of Iraqi citizens that the international community intervene. Vickers and Kennedy-Pipe argue that:

‘as the other pretexts for war fell away or were discredited, the human security thesis was the last one standing. It remained the most compelling, and Blair argued that this issue alone required intervention from the international community, in much the same way as ethnic cleansing in Kosovo had.’ [1]

The fact that Saddam Hussein was a horrific and deeply inhumane dictator should never be forgotten. The numbers of Iraqi civilians killed by his regime are estimated to be around 290,000. [2] Such horrors perpetrated by Saddam Hussein’s regime were emphasised by proponents of the war. Labour MP Ann Clwyd wrote of the huge number of civilian casualties and refugees created by Saddam’s actions, that ‘these alone should vindicate the war.’ [3] When the point is put like this it can be difficult to disagree.

It is important that there are strict criteria for using military force in the aim of protecting human rights. This is because a broad and open-ended definition of humanitarian intervention allows leaders to go to war when the aim and likely outcome of war is not actually the rescue of innocents. It is especially important that international norms constrain the ability of states to intervene in other countries, because history shows that self-interested and destructive wars can be painted as benevolent and selfless acts. For example, Hitler claimed that it was for the sake of German nationals rights that he needed to send troops into Czechoslovakia. [4] Furthermore, even interventions that have the best intentions can, due to the destructiveness and unpredictability of war, undermine the determination to improve the rights of citizens.

Although Saddam Hussein had proven to be a serious human rights abuser, the 2003 Iraq War cannot be said to be a legitimate case of humanitarian intervention. Human Rights Watch argues that humanitarian intervention is only justified when there is ‘ongoing or imminent genocide, or comparable mass slaughter or loss of life.’ [5] This means that the 2003 Iraq War would not constitute a legitimate humanitarian intervention because ‘Brutal as Saddam Hussein’s reign had been, the scope of the Iraqi government’s killing in March 2003 was not of the exceptional and dire magnitude  that would justify humanitarian intervention.’ [6] Kenneth Roth argues that there were occasions when events in Iraq were so terrible that it was legitimate to intervene such as in the 1988 mass killing of Kurds. However, although it is undeniable that the Iraqis still suffered under a brutal regime it is important that ‘before taking the substantial risk to life that is inherent in any war, mass slaughter should be taking place or imminent. That was not the case in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq in March 2003.’ [7]

The consequences of 2003 Iraq War are an estimated 111, 407 – 121, 754 civilian deaths, 1.9 million displaced people within Iraq and 2 million refugees. [8, 9] A lot of this is due to insurgencies and terrorist attacks that followed the invasion. Although some may argue that no one could have predicted this, such a line of argument only proves the importance of adhering to international norms that prohibit intervention. It also highlights how culpable Coalition governments were for so failing to plan for the post-war situation. The huge suffering brought about by the war supports the case that acts of humanitarian intervention should only be used in very particular cases.

Although the Iraq War cast doubts over the foreign policies of western governments and of wars that are partly or wholly ostensibly humanitarian, this does not mean that humanitarian intervention is always wrong. The approach taken by Human Rights Watch, whereby humanitarian intervention is only justified in exceptional circumstances seems to tread the line between maintaining important international norms and also ensuring the human security of civilians. Iraq was not a legitimate war of humanitarian intervention and we should be careful of wars that are called this, but this does not mean that all foreign interventions are necessarily wrong.

Article by Ben Mackay. Edited by George Richards.


[1] Rhiannon Vickers and Caroline Kennedy-Pipe, ‘Blowback for Britain? Blair, Bush and the war in Iraq’ Review of International Studies p. 211



[4] Ryan Goodman, ‘Humanitarian Intervention and Pretexts for War’ The American Journal of International Law p. 113

[5] Ken Roth, ‘War In Iraq: Not a Humanitarian Intervention’ p. 1

[6] Ibid., p. 6

[7] Ibid., p. 2