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Unit IX: The Ethics of Humanitarian Intervention

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Author: Maura Ryan
Lecture Notes for Unit IX: The Ethics of Humanitarian Intervention


This week’s topic is an exercise in what is often called “applied ethics.”  The article you read by Fr. Kenneth Himes takes the broad principles/themes of Catholic Social Teaching and applies them to the question of humanitarian intervention. Under what circumstances would intervention in the affairs of a sovereign state be justified? Under what conditions would we argue that there is not just a right but a duty to intervene? 

The 1994 Rwandan Genocide

The 1994 Rwandan genocide provides a compelling context within which to think about Hime’s criteria for the morality of humanitarian intervention (96-105). In a period of just about 100 days, from May to mid-July, an estimated 800,000 Tutsi and moderate Hutu were killed by their Hutu countrymen. According to UNICEF, 300,000 of these victims were children. In addition, 95,000 children had been orphaned. Despite numerous calls for international intervention, the UN Peacekeeping Forces on the ground did not receive sufficient support to end the killings. In fact, following the murder of 10 Belgian Soldiers in late April, the UN Force was reduced from 2,500 to 270.  In July, 1994, The Tutsi RPF forces capture Kigali and The Hutu government flees to Zaire. Along with the Hutu government, some 250,000 refugees fled Rwanda.

The story of the Rwandan genocide is a story of cruelty and abject horror. But it is at the same time a story of the courage of Hutus and others who resisted the evil around them and acted to save as many lives as they could. One such story is depicted in the movie, Hotel Rwanda, the true story of Paul Rusesabagina, a hotel manager who gave refuge to over a thousand Hutsis.              

There are several good documentaries on the Rwandan genocide, e,g. the PBS-made The Ghosts of Rwanda.  In addition, there are several web sites which provide background on the social, political and economic factors at work in the genocide.
Excellent resources can be found at the PBS Website on genocide.

For a look at the children of Rwanda today, see:  UNICEF Website on Rwanda Genocide


Today, the crisis in Darfur is prompting many people to call for international humanitarian intervention.  Since 2003, tens of thousands of Darfurians have been killed by government forces in an effort to quell rebel activity. More than 2 million people have been displaced. Recent reports suggest that African Union Forces are not large enough or well enough equipped to establish or maintain peace in the region.  Click here for more Information on Darfur   

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