What it is: Military action by the armed forces of one or more countries, against another country, with the stated aim of protecting civilians. Its basic argument is that outside powers have the right, and perhaps sometimes the duty, to protect people in other countries who are being victimised. The United Nations, however, prohibits armed aggression against another sovereign state except for self-defence or to deal with a threat to peace.

What it means: There is no legal definition of humanitarian intervention by armed force, which means that such action is decided upon by the responses of national governments to particular cases. For example, 'ethnic cleansing' was being carried out in Bosnia in 1993 and in Kosovo (a province of Serbia seeking independence) in 1999; in both cases governments of countries in the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), particularly the UK and the USA, agreed that such victimisation of civilians must be stopped, and that military action was the way to do it. NATO, a military alliance created in 1949 to face the perceived threat from the Soviet Union and its satellite countries, was facing an uncertain future now the Cold War was over: its armies were available for work. In fact it was mostly the air forces who went to war. Bombers flew high overhead to drop supposedly 'precision' weapons, while ethnic cleansing was being carried out by soldiers and militias on the ground. NATO forces suffered no losses, but their attacks did kill civilians. In Bosnia the problems were especially complicated: there were several ethnic groups in violent conflict with each other, and ethnic groups in neighbouring countries were involved as well. But in the black-and-white view of NATO, Serbia was the hostile power, and its President (Slobodan Milosevic) the man responsible. NATO's military leader, US general Wesley K Clark, outlined NATO's intentions in terms that did not sound at all humanitarian: 'We are going to systematically and progressively attack, disrupt, degrade, devastate and ultimately - unless President Milosevic complies with the demands of the international community - destroy these forces and their facilities and support'. Thus 'humanitarian intervention' means that states can give themselves permission, for 'humanitarian reasons', to challenge the sovereignty of another - an action most NATO members would be outraged by if conducted against themselves. 'Humanitarian' interveners have also failed to consider the many possible consequences of their actions. Neither NATO nor the UN prevented genocide in Srebrenica in 1995, and Bosnia in 2003 was still a country in conflict. In Kosovo in 2005 Serbs and Albanians were still unable to tolerate each other, there was continuing violence, and crime (much of it violent and inhumane) was widespread. The people of both regions were coping with devastation, hardship and poverty. The suffering of civilians is almost always the result of complicated circumstances that simply can't be handled or relieved by a military 'surgical strike' - whether or not it hits its target. The attacks on Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003 provided disturbing evidence of this.

Think about it: It is easier for governments to reach agreement with each other about humanitarian motives, and it is easier to get the people's support for war based on them. Humanitarian relief was one of the main stated reasons given for the attack on Iraq in 2003, or became so when people in the USA and UK began to question the legality of going to war - though there were other regimes in the world as brutally oppressive or more so. Stated humanitarian aims can also disguise a government's other motives, both political and strategic. (It's important to think about why particular countries are chosen for 'liberation', even though shocking human rights abuses are known to be going on in others as well.)  How is it that people can persuade themselves that supposed humanitarian action can be successful when it's reliant on a method so deeply inhumane, so non-humanitarian, as war? In Bosnia and other countries that have suffered from ethnic cleansing, steps to recovery have in fact been most successful where civilians themselves have set up conflict resolution and other unarmed humanitarian projects. Not all violence can be stopped, but none of it can be stopped for good by violence. One political commentator at the time of Kosovo said that governments should 'resist the emotional impulse to intervene in other people's wars - not because they are indifferent to human suffering but precisely because they care about it and want to facilitate the advent of peace'. What did he mean?