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Humanitarian Intervention in the Nineteenth Century

Abstract and Keywords

The purpose of this chapter is to show that a number of interventions took place from 1815 to 1914. The chapter avoids the fabrication of a fil rouge connecting nineteenth-century interventions to more recent ones, including the one in Libya. They are not identical phenomena. The historian’s perspective emphasizes continuities and ruptures in the concept of the responsibility to protect, a term that is historicized in the chapter, and examines whether or not the amount of intervention that occurs in the present-day international system, or the seemingly original network of contemporary transnational relations, is anything but original.

Keywords: humanitarian interventions, European powers, Ottoman Christian minorities, European Concert

To the vast majority of nineteenth-century Western political elites and (elite) public opinion the term ‘humanitarian intervention’ would have been incomprehensible. What sounded bizarre and difficult to grasp was the combination of the adjective humanitarian with the noun intervention. Interventions were a common international practice throughout the nineteenth century; they could be legal or illegal, legitimate or illegitimate. In a world and, more specifically, in a European international system, where war was a regular feature of international relations, coercive interventions were not an exceptional phenomenon. For instance, the Holy Alliance, signed in Paris in September 1815 by the governments of Russia, Austria, and Prussia, was based on the principle that its members would intervene to protect the government threatened by internal disorders. The idea of protection in international relations and the idea of a responsibility to protect are certainly not an invention of the early twenty-first century. The history of how the adjective ‘humanitarian’ ended up qualifying a specific kind of intervention is the purpose of this chapter. Before discussing the core of this matter, one should dispel any idea of the ineluctability or teleological narrative about the intertwining of ‘humanitarian’ with intervention.

First of all the term ‘humanitarian’, for the first 50–60 years of the nineteenth century had a derogatory meaning in English as well as in French. Second, even after the 1860s, and just like today, humanitarian meant different things to different groups of people. In countries like Great Britain and France ‘humanitarian’ was something generally related to anti-slavery campaigns. It was a term happily used by campaigners, very reluctantly used by governmental authorities and policy-makers, and hardly used by the military. In the late nineteenth century, British and French activists who promoted the independence of Balkan nations used ‘humanitarian’ abundantly. So did all sorts of newspapers and magazines. ‘Humanitarian’ was the preferred adjective of relief groups, secular and (p. 20) faith-based, of charities, and of international associations, the ancestors of today’s non-governmental organizations (NGOs). Some of these groups were active at the domestic level, others, like the International Committee of the Red Cross or the Quakers were active transnationally. In this chapter I intend to explain why, throughout the nineteenth century, by humanitarian interventions, European political, juridical, and academic elites meant interventions against massacre, interventions to end atrocities or extermination of a specific group of people, Ottoman Christians. I wish to explain that these interventions were biased, selective, and limited ratione personae and ratione loci. Of course, when one examines these interventions from the perspective of the intervening states—which is only one of a multitude of possible perspectives—one cannot fail to notice that they had mixed motives. Discarding genuine motives a priori for an excess of cynicism would be a gross mistake; equally wrong would be a face-value analysis of contemporary documents asserting the purity, altruistic, and disinterested nature of such interventions.

The idea of an unsolicited and unrequested coercive diplomatic and/or armed reaction—or intervention—against massacre undertaken by a state or a group of states inside the territory of a target-state crystallized during the last 25 years of the nineteenth century. However, European (and US) policy-makers, international lawyers, academics, and pundits had different views on the relevance of jurisprudential cases and on their admissibility, legitimacy, and possible legality. Not surprisingly, the target-state as well as the victims of massacre held different views on the duties, rights, or responsibility to intervene or to protect. Nevertheless, Western policy-makers and academics, specifically those that came from or lived in Great Britain or France, agreed on something: they deemed interventions upon the ground of humanity (or interventions d’humanité), as an international practice that would not qualify as peaceful relations but was not exactly a war. If unsolicited, this act interfered in the internal affairs of a sovereign state and violated its domaine reservé. Target-states of interventions—mainly the Ottoman authorities, for reasons that I will elaborate on in what follows—put forward this argument systematically. To this objection European—intervening—powers did not respond directly. They did not contest it. They preferred to expand on the specific and unique objective of the intervention, and, de facto, they refrained from escalating the intervention into a full-fledged war, insisting on the temporary and exceptional nature of the measures they would or had undertaken. The official motivation of this kind of intervention was to end massacre, atrocity, and extermination or to prevent the repetition of such events. Such a motivation brought about the hotly debated issue of the responsibility—moral, political, legal, or otherwise—to intervene; and the issue of the limits of such responsibility. There was one point on which all parties involved tacitly agreed. The literature, official documents, and deeds I have examined do not refer to the possibility of preventive protection of potential victims of massacre. Nineteenth-century interventions were an ex post facto event whose objective was to protect civilian populations grossly mistreated by the target-state government, agents, or authorities.

Another preliminary point worth mentioning is that, in this specific geopolitical context, the adjective ‘humanitarian’ referred to the idea of ‘saving strangers’,1 of helping (p. 21) victims, of protecting foreign, apparently innocent, civilian populations. The practice of protecting nationals abroad existed and was well-established in the nineteenth century. This chapter does not deal with humanitarian relief related to natural disasters and does not examine instances of military interventions to protect a state’s own nationals from abuse, which was an established practice in the nineteenth century. This was the case in 1900 when the European powers undertook an armed intervention in China to repress the Boxer Rebellion. Their primary goal was to protect European nationals, not Chinese citizens. The intervention resulted in the protection of Europeans and of a number of Christian Chinese from slaughter. In the process, hundreds of thousands of innocent as well as combatant Chinese were killed by the expeditionary corps, and many women were raped en route to Beijing. Nonetheless, a thorough investigation into the history of the concept of the responsibility to protect should not leave aside natural disasters and the protection of a state’s own nationals. I believe that connecting the international and the domestic would reveal many things about the ways philosophical, moral, and later political ideas about protecting and saving developed and intertwined with ideas related to the role and responsibility of the state.

The preceding paragraphs have delineated the perimeter of this controversial international practice. I will now explore it more closely from the perspective of the intervening governments, the European ‘great’ powers, more specifically Great Britain and France. These two powers, together with Russia, were more actively involved than Austria (Austria-Hungary between 1867 and 1918) and Prussia (Germany since 1870) in the interventions that took place from 1815 to 1914. The European powers (the intervening states) pretended to be aiding humanity when they undertook coercive actions against the Ottoman Empire (the target-state) to end the massacre of Ottoman Christian populations. The story told from this vantage point first reveals that European powers systematically held the role of the intervening states; they decided the parameters, purpose, and duration of the intervention according to rules they felt comfortable with. Second, the Ottoman government and its local authorities systematically were in the position of the target-state; they could only play the role of the perpetrators, and were held responsible, by the European governments, campaigners, pundits, and academics, of reprehensible—horrific or barbarous, two adjectives often used at that time—massacres and other atrocities. Here I do not wish to enter the debate of whether or not this was the case. There is abundant evidence that other local populations committed massacres on a vast scale against Ottoman Christian populations and that the Ottoman authorities were unable or unwilling (a terminology I deliberately use, for it refers to the theme of this Handbook) to protect them. Historians have studied the case of the massacres of Armenians in the 1890s in detail. Because of its political and military weakness, when confronted by the European powers acting unanimously, the Ottoman government could hardly fight on a foot of equality. And there was no international tribunal where the matter could be discussed in a fair and just way. Third, victims of atrocities and massacre often realized that intervention meant rescue and, for quite understandable reasons, they were in favour of muscular intervention, which very seldom happened. When intervention took place, (p. 22) victims would not be part of any diplomatic negotiation between the Ottoman Empire and the European powers. The latter’s sympathy with Ottoman Christians remained superficial and marked by hierarchical visions of race and ethnicity. Fourth, Christian religion seems to have a played a crucial role in triggering these interventions. It is worth mentioning that the bulk of the information that reached European capitals, the ministries as well as the newspapers, was the same. European observers—very often missionaries—and diplomats reported on them. It was on the basis of those accounts, which might have been accurate or inaccurate, biased or impartial, detailed or vague, that European governments decided whether or not to undertake an intervention to save strangers. Finally, the reader of this chapter will have realized that I have deliberately refrained from making any reference to ‘massive violations of the most basic human rights’. Such terminology was not invoked during the nineteenth century. After 1945, we commonly refer to it when dealing with war crimes, crimes against humanity, genocide, and ethnic cleansing. None of these legal concepts existed during the nineteenth century.2 This equally applies to the terms ‘mass atrocity crimes’, ‘mass atrocities’, and ‘mass crime’.3 On the contrary ‘massacre’, ‘atrocity’, and ‘extermination’ were three terms commonly used during the nineteenth century. Of course, the concept of rights, including natural rights, stretches back centuries. Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, for example, justify helping others based on charity and their belief that all humans are created in God’s image.4

Before the Nineteenth Century

The idea of a duty or responsibility to help strangers did not emerge ex abrupto during the nineteenth century. During the Spanish conquest of America, Francisco de Vitoria put forward the principle of the ius defendendi innocentes a morte iniusta, which in his view was a humanitarian war permissible and just. It was a war waged in the name of the innocent against the tyranny of native leaders or laws, a tyranny consisting, for instance, of the sacrifice of innocent men or even of the killing of innocent men in order to eat them.5 Such a justification, Tzvetan Todorov argues, did not derive from reciprocity: even if this rule were applied to Indians and Spaniards alike, it was the latter who decided on the meaning of the word ‘tyranny’. The Spaniards, unlike the Indians, were subject and judge of the decision since it was they who selected the criteria according to which the judgement would be delivered. Spaniards decided that human sacrifice was the consequence of tyranny and they had a right to intervene to stop it; they also decided that massacres of local populations they undertook were perfectly legal and legitimate.6 This ‘civilizational’ asymmetry was very evident in the nineteenth century, when the European powers defined what was (and was not) a massacre and when an intervention could or could not take place.

After de Vitoria, Alberico Gentili and Hugo Grotius discussed the moral duty to aid and to wage a war on behalf of the oppressed subjects of another sovereign when (p. 23) the oppressed were powerless.7 During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the prevailing idea among legal scholars was to restrict the grounds for legal intervention of a state in the internal affairs of another.8 By the beginning of the nineteenth century, the principle of non-intervention in the domestic affairs of another sovereign state had become central in relations between European states. Nineteenth-century theory and practice of humanitarian intervention expanded on the edge of this very fundamental pillar of international relations. For the European powers, the Ottoman Empire was beyond the pale of civilization. This ‘despotic’ regime was not ‘civilized’ enough to share the rights and duties of international law. Europeans excluded that empire from the ‘Family of Nations’. As a consequence, the sacrosanct rule of non-interference in its internal affairs did not apply (or partially applied) to it; therefore, humanitarian intervention became permissible (not necessarily legal or illegal) because of that empire’s particular status. This is one of the reasons why hasty assimilation of nineteenth-century interventions with today’s intervention leads to some mistakes, including denying that concealed civilizational asymmetries still exist today.

Regarding the late eighteenth-century droits de l’homme et du citoyen, historian Samuel Moyn convincingly argues that they meant something different from today’s human rights. Those rights were part and parcel of battles over the meanings and entitlements of citizenship and depended on national borders for their pursuit, achievement, and protection.9 Nineteenth-century British and French cultivated elites included the right to life, property, equality before the law, and religious freedom among the natural rights of humanity. Some thinkers argued in favour of the universality of these rights, but none of the rights was universally protected through mechanisms of international enforcement. Arguably, humanitarianism and humanitarian intervention lie alongside the concept of the rights of man, although it would be wrong to draw hasty conclusions or misleading views of human rights in the nineteenth century. One should also be cautious about generalizing nineteenth-century humanitarian movements and their connection with humanitarian interventions. Throughout the nineteenth century humanitarianism cut across political orientations and was associated with religious and political projects as diverse as Quaker pacifism, Protestant evangelicalism, missionary projects, European imperialism, and movements promoting the self-determination of Balkan populations. The array of activities included under the label ‘humanitarian practices’ was diverse and ranged from charitable actions on behalf of poor people to full-scale military intervention. Interconnections between domestic, imperial, transnational, secular, and faith-based projects and movements, and those who were actively involved in promoting interventions against massacre in the Ottoman Empire show that global movements such as Save Darfur which came about when the doctrine of Responsibility to Protect was endorsed by the United Nations (2005) are not as new as they pretend to be, despite using technologies, such as the Internet and social networks unknown to their nineteenth-century predecessors.

(p. 24) The Abolitionist Campaign: A Meaningful Precedent

The campaign in favour of the abolition of the slave trade and of slavery, with its domestic, transnational, and international dimensions, projected humanitarian actions beyond national boundaries. This campaign and humanitarian interventions are closely connected. First, the abolitionists gave birth to the politics of pressure groups, including mass petitions, the publication of magazines and tracts, the holding of public meetings, appealing to public opinion, and founding of voluntary societies.10 Humanitarian interventions’ campaigners would use the same techniques. Second, the military operations undertaken by the British Royal Navy were the outcome of domestic political actions of influential pressure groups such as the Clapham Sect (or Clapham ‘saints’ as contemporaries derisively tagged the sect), led by William Wilberforce.11 Reformers succeeded in arousing sympathy and awakening moral qualms so powerfully as to mobilize political action that, though certainly coloured by self-interest, actually led to actions on behalf of people who were ‘other’ in the fullest sense.12 The role of public opinion was acknowledged in the 1815 public declaration of ministers of the principal European powers who regarded the African slave trade, ‘by just and enlightened men, in all ages, as repugnant to the principles of humanity and of universal morality’. They mentioned that ‘the public voice in all civilised countries’ demanded the suppression of slavery, and that the universal abolition of it was ‘conformable to the spirit of the age and the generous principles of the allied powers’.13 If, in the case of the abolition of the slave trade, campaigners and pressure groups were successful, in many other instances, throughout the nineteenth century, they would fail to exert sufficient pressure on national governments.

Third, military operations to suppress the Atlantic and Indian Ocean slave trade were the result of international agreement. As we know, the Royal Navy acted upon an international mandate. Similarly, nineteenth-century humanitarian interventions would be the result of an agreement between all the intervening states. Naval campaigns, like successive armed interventions, had very limited objectives and were biased and selective in several ways. For instance, the trade in slaves and slavery was not universally banned. The British government limited the military action of its navy to the abolition of the trade in slaves, not slavery itself.14 The British government had the slave trade trafficking labelled as piracy, making the slaves ‘contraband’ (i.e. property) and justifying its actions because maritime rights governing commerce enabled it to seize and board ships sailing under non-British flags suspected of carrying contraband slaves. The British navy undertook international policing actions against pirates rather than against a target-state. The scope of the military action was limited, with the exception of the destruction of the port of Algiers in 1816 to end the white slave trade in the Mediterranean Sea.15 Throughout the nineteenth century, there would not be a single intervention on behalf of African slaves on the African or American continents. British and other European (p. 25) governments did not regard black, non-Christian Africans as human beings whose rights should be protected in the same way as those of suffering Christians.

Instances of Nineteenth-Century Humanitarian Interventions

Thus far, I have pointed out that the doctrine of the just war, the idea of a right to life for each individual, the practice of international police action, and the organization of pressure groups and other philanthropic societies having humanitarian purposes all existed in the nineteenth century. What was specific to the international concept and practice of humanitarian intervention during that century, when nationalism rose, during the heyday of imperialism, of the struggle for mastery in Europe and beyond? Under what circumstances, if any, did the European powers consider massacre of foreign civilian populations sufficient motive to undertake a military operation? Can we find examples in the nineteenth century where states looked beyond their own territorial and colonial borders, beyond their own immediate economic and security interests, beyond realpolitik, to demonstrate that by acting to halt or avert new or continuing massacre and atrocity they indeed had ‘purposes beyond themselves’?16

It is difficult to give a straight answer to these questions. When the First World War started, a juridical doctrine of humanitarian intervention, though still debated and controversial, had been established. It referred to a jurisprudential corpus that by then was almost a century old. Among cases of humanitarian intervention or interventions d’humanité, European and US international legal scholars and political scientists listed the intervention of the European powers in Greece of 1827; the interventions in Syria and Lebanon of 1860–1; some of them referred to the intervention in Crete of 1866–8 and of the late 1890s; others included the intervention in Ottoman Macedonia of 1903–8. Late nineteenth-century European policy-makers would have agreed with such a jurisprudential list of cases, which does not necessarily mean that the adjective ‘humanitarian’ adequately describes the nature of any of these interventions. Of course, the intervening states had mixed motives, which triggered (or did not trigger) these interventions. Political leaders, state agents, and policy-makers saw saving the lives of strangers as an act of ‘moral capital’.17 They followed domestic political concerns (i.e. the decision of leaders and policy-makers to act according to the demands of public opinion), notwithstanding whether policy-makers empathized with the victims of massacre.18 As David Forsythe points out, states care about their international reputation, and ‘moral’ behaviour reinforces a positive reputation at home and abroad. Indeed ‘moral policies’ may compel further ethically motivated behaviour not originally envisaged by the state. In this way, a humanitarian morality can become politically useful and can reshape state interest in unintended ways.19 This might be said to have happened during the nineteenth century when interventions undertaken by European powers were selective and (p. 26) biased, directed to only saving the lives of a particular group of people (i.e. Ottoman Christians) and ignored the sufferings of other populations (Muslim populations living in Greece, in Crete or the Druze of Lebanon).

The Target-State and the Victims of Massacres

The list of alleged instances of humanitarian intervention demonstrates that the target-state was always the Ottoman Empire and the rescued strangers were always Ottoman Christian populations. During the period 1815–1914, the rationale for these interventions and the parameters of the discourse were inextricably bound up with the European perception of the Ottoman Empire and geopolitics pertaining to that region of the world, what the Europeans referred to as the ‘Eastern Question’. Throughout the nineteenth century, the European powers increasingly saw the Ottoman Empire as under their tutelage. To prevent or cure internal disorders in the empire, these powers took two self-interested solutions into consideration: its dismemberment (a radical remedy impossible to enforce for various reasons) or its ‘modernization’ through the implementation of reforms. The European powers increasingly deemed the Ottoman authorities as being unwilling or unable to implement the reforms they had suggested or tried to impose and viewed that Empire as a ‘rogue’ or ‘failed’ state, as some policy-makers would put it in today’s parlance. In urgent cases, for instance when violent counterinsurgency campaigns undertaken by the Ottoman authorities led to disturbances and massacre, the European powers authorized themselves to intervene militarily within the Ottoman borders. The intervening states established a causal relation between the outburst of uncontrolled or ‘savage’ violence taking place in one or the other provinces of the empire and the alleged failure to implement the ‘good-government’ reform programmes they kept submitting to the Ottoman authorities. The European powers held the Ottoman authorities responsible for having failed to protect the lives of Ottoman (Christian) citizens; more importantly, they considered that disturbances and massacres threatened peace in Europe. As self-appointed guardians of the system known as the ‘European Concert’, they felt responsible for its preservation. Prominent international legal scholar Lassa F. Oppenheim argued that humanitarian interventions were dictated ‘no less by sentiments of humanity than by the interest for tranquillity in Europe’.20

The European powers determined the existence of a given threshold (quantitative, the number of people slaughtered, and qualitative, the way they were killed, the kind of atrocities perpetrated against them) beyond which a massacre might trigger intervention. A host of criteria, systemic and local, domestic and international, ratione personae or ratione loci, determined whether or not a humanitarian intervention would take place. According to the intervening governments, and I am wondering whether today things have changed, the most important factor was not the protection of mistreated (p. 27) civilian populations (i.e. Ottoman Christians), but the compatibility of the intervention with the maintenance of peace in Europe. European powers’ peace and security had more weight than the right to life of Ottoman Christian populations. To put it in simple terms, if the intervention could lead to a war between the European powers, it would not take place; if this was not the case, coercive action, including armed intervention, against the target-state with the purpose of ending massacre might take place. The tension between collective security and the responsibility to protect victims of massacres (and other violations of the most basic human rights) has clearly not disappeared today and, in my view, produces contradictions, inconsistency, and hypocritical justifications for interventions and non-interventions alike.

Collective and ‘Disinterested’ Interventions

When examining nineteenth-century humanitarian interventions from the perspective of the intervening states, it becomes apparent that they were carried out collectively: this was the case in Greece (1827–8); in Lebanon (1860–1); in Crete (1866–8 and in 1896–1900); and in the Ottoman provinces of Macedonia (from 1903 to 1908). The European powers also collectively decided not to intervene on behalf of the Bulgarians (1876) and of the Ottoman Armenians (during the massacres of the 1890s, of the early 1900s, and of 1911), despite evidence of the massacres perpetrated on a massive and unprecedented scale. Before undertaking the intervention, European powers usually reached a collective agreement guaranteeing the ‘disinterested’ nature of the intervention. Disinterested meant that none of the European powers would seek any unilateral advantage, such as territorial conquest, through their military action. The military operation was not an act of self-defence, nor did it lead to a permanent military occupation or to a peace treaty signed with the target-state (which distinguished it from an act of war against the target-state). As Gary Bass maintains:

The great powers had to convince each other that their purported mercy mission was not just a foil for imperial expansion. So the intervening states had to impose limitations on themselves. There were a number of established techniques of self-restraint: delineating [the] sphere of justifiable intervention for each of the great powers, delegating to regional powers, putting time limits on humanitarian interventions, restricting the size of the military force, foreswearing diplomatic and commercial advantages from a humanitarian mission, and, above all, multilateralism. All of these devises helped make humanitarian intervention safer.21

This is certainly correct. At the same time it is worth mentioning that the intervening states decided about the humanity to be protected and disregarded; they decided about massacres to ignore or to consider for intervention. Furthermore, potential intervening (p. 28) governments weighted their self-interest against the possibility of reaching a collective agreement. This explains why none of the powers were ready to risk a war to save mistreated Armenian civilian populations, despite the considerable public agitations that took place in many European capitals and cities on their behalf in the late nineteenth century. If and when the European powers agreed on the terms of the intervention, they saved strangers from massacre, though Europeans often intervened too late. This was the case in Greece, when Navarino was irrelevant; it was the case in Lebanon, when the Ottoman authorities and imperial troops restored peace and tranquillity before the French troops landed in the late summer of 1860. It was also the case in Crete both in 1866 and at the turn of the century, when the naval operations and a few marines were not necessarily prepared to protect civilian populations. The European powers’ interventions were biased and selective; political compromise ended up in inconsistent military operations; ‘exit strategies’—a common term in today’s parlance—were often improvised. Unintended consequences of the interventions heavily affected local populations, both Christian and non-Christian. However, despite all these shortcomings the political solutions the European powers agreed upon with the Ottoman authorities in the case of Greece, Lebanon, or Crete, avoided—in the short- and medium-term—further massacres taking place.

Differences and Analogies between Humanitarian Interventions and the Capitulations

To some contemporaries, the idea of protecting the right to life of a restricted group of Christian co-religionists was reminiscent of the Crusades; to others it was the consequence of the Capitulations.22 In the late 1890s, in a very detailed study, the dragoman of the French Embassy in Constantinople, Georges Outrey, admitted that to some extent the origins of humanitarian interventions could be found in the Capitulations system. Outrey admitted that the Eastern Question was born as a religious question and turned into a political question which remained intimately connected to its religious aspects. Since the beginning of the nineteenth century, Outrey argued, that foreign intervention on behalf of Ottoman Christians, which at its origin was based on concession particulières (i.e. the Capitulations), transformed itself into something different, a ‘humanitarian intervention’.23 The Capitulations and intervention against massacre in the Ottoman Empire shared the idea of protecting Christians ruled by a ‘despotic’ and ‘barbarian’ government. The Capitulations were supposed to guarantee security and avoid discrimination against European nationals and protégés in ordinary times. Interventions against massacre were supposed to protect an entire Ottoman Christian community from becoming victims of massacre and atrocities at an exceptional time. The occurrence of massacres reinforced the idea held by European diplomats and policy-makers that as (p. 29) long as the Ottoman Empire remained ‘uncivilized’ and therefore unable to protect the rights of European residents and European protégés, the Capitulations should be maintained or even broadened.24 On various occasions, those who campaigned in favour of armed intervention to end massacre often made use of the rhetoric of the Crusades. They interpreted the Capitulations as a guarantee of the protection of fellow Christians from the ‘Infidel’ encompassing a right of humanitarian intervention.25 However, in times of massacre, both European policy-makers and diplomats refrained from claiming that the Capitulations gave a right of interference in the Ottoman Empire’s internal affairs to protect Ottoman Christians. International legal scholars shared the same view and never deemed the Capitulations as legal ground giving the European states a right to intervene upon grounds of humanity.

As British legal scholar Robert Phillimore put it, the question of a right of ‘religious intervention’ in the affairs of ‘an Infidel State on behalf either of Christians generally, or of a particular body of Christians’ did not exist.26 European international legal scholars as well as policy-makers were fully aware that the nature of the protection the Capitulations offered to specific groups or individuals had nothing to do with undertaking a military intervention on their behalf.27 Furthermore, whereas the Capitulations were unilateral, diplomatic, non-forcible acts, humanitarian interventions were coercive, often armed, and generally collective actions. The Capitulations were intended to protect nationals living abroad and groups of local protégés, whereas humanitarian intervention was intended to end massacre. The Capitulations—and more particularly the abuses the Europeans made out of these treaties—were the consequence of European imperial rivalries and one of many means to increase the political, cultural, religious, and economic influence of a single power in a given area of the Ottoman Empire, whereas collective humanitarian undertakings in which each power exerted some control on the others hindered the clear appearance of self-interest.

Meaningful Commonalities between Humanitarian and Imperialist Impulses

From a theoretical point of view, it is possible to draw clear lines and to define what is or is not humanitarian with respect to an intervention. Everything changes when one looks at real situations, when for instance, humanitarian and imperialist impulses of domestic constituencies tend to coincide. Many humanitarians, who supported imperial expansion at home, shared with European leaders few ‘compunctions about imposing changes on foreign countries’, including the Ottoman territories.28 Any restraint these leaders showed after an intervention had taken place was related to the political complexity of the ‘Eastern Question’ rather than the respect for Ottoman sovereignty. Both humanitarian campaigners and European policy-makers ignored the appalling record (p. 30) of violations of the right to life at home and in their respective colonies and the fact that equality before the law and religious freedom in their own states, let alone colonies, did not exist.29 They wanted the Ottoman government to legislate for equality and citizenship while, in a former Ottoman territory like Algeria, French authorities ruled in a far more intolerant, discriminating, and despotic way than the Ottomans had ever done. Europeans intervened militarily when the ‘barbarous’ Ottomans used the same ‘savage’ methods to repress insurrection they systematically used in their own colonies. This apparently schizophrenic and paradoxical behaviour is explained by the presumption of ‘superiority’ of the European civilization and the alleged ‘benevolent’ and ‘generous’ intentions of European colonizers,30 which justified the despotisme du sabre. According to the Europeans, the Ottomans lacked such ‘generous’ intentions. Hence, massacres of Ottoman Christians were totally unjustified and the European had an obligation—moral, political, and/or legal, according to different views of different authors—to do something. This obligation was forgotten if the risks of intervention were deemed to be too high by the intervening states.

Public Opinion and Humanitarian Interventions

Massacres of Christians aroused the interest of public opinion all over Europe, attracted sustained interest and attained political significance within the societies of potential intervening states. In some circumstances, those concerned found a way to address their concerns at the domestic and eventually at the transnational and international levels. Specific individuals made of the political questions related to solving the recurrence of massacre a priority that lasted beyond initial protests and eventually led to the setting up of organizations or institutional commitment. Every European state, even the autocratic Russian government, had to take public opinion movements into account. In the case of Great Britain, the growth of domestic mass media and faster communication were vital for the Philhellenes, an elite group that in the 1820s campaigned in favour of an intervention against the Ottoman Empire. The same is true for William Gladstone’s campaigners in the 1870s or Phil-Armenian groups in the 1890s who had access to more newspapers, with bigger circulation and farther reach. Throughout the century the electorate grew, too, which according to Bass meant more pressure on the British government to act.31 The hypothesis that public opinion mattered for each and every intervening state seems very reasonable indeed. However, it should be noted that public opinion could be manipulated, as it was in France under Napoleon III, who strictly controlled the French press in 1860 at the time of the intervention in Ottoman Lebanon.

In Freedom’s Battle, Bass claims that freedom at home helped promote freedom abroad, arguing that for the activists who campaigned in favour of intervention, military actions in the Balkans and elsewhere in the Ottoman Empire were intended to promote (p. 31) independence. This claim should be nuanced; European governments were not interested in freeing Balkan or Middle Eastern populations. The majority of European campaigners ignored the issue of bestowing freedom (i.e. independence) or referred to ‘freedom’ as the rights of Christians to be ruled fairly by a government respectful of their lives, their religion, and their equality before the law. On the one hand, new mass media played an increasing role throughout the nineteenth century as an ante litteram CNN. They fostered the undertaking of some humanitarian interventions (i.e. in the case of Greece in the late 1820s or Syria and Lebanon in 1860). On the other hand, on various occasions (i.e. in the case of the Bulgarian and Armenian massacres), despite an impressive mobilization of national and transnational public opinion no intervention took place.

Information about foreign atrocities coalesced with the interests and moral concerns of public opinion, and without the media’s interest public opinion would return to worrying about more parochial concerns. However, it remains that when reporters emerged as a distinct professional class with professional standards, humanitarian interventions took place less often than in the early nineteenth century. In my view, nineteenth-century humanitarian interventions were not necessarily products of increasing democracy, a free press, and the increasing importance of the principle of self-determination. In fact, the most likely conditions for such an intervention were in the conservative venues of the old Concert of Europe’s diplomacy. The rise of international law doctrines on intervention did not bring about an increase of this international practice for a number of reasons, mainly related to the nature and conditions of the international system in the late nineteenth century. It is precisely because of the centrality of the Eastern Question and the question of the survival of the Ottoman Empire, as a key factor for understanding the history of humanitarian intervention that instances of interventions should be compared and contrasted with instances of non-intervention. This is what scholars do when looking at recent interventions. They compare and contrast intervention in northern Iraq, ex-Yugoslavia, and Kosovo with non-intervention (or belated intervention) in Rwanda or Darfur or, more recently, the cases of Libya and Syria.


Nineteenth-century European political elites and policy-makers situated and understood interventions in terms of religious and/or political world-views that could not admit the indiscriminate killing of a religious community. At the centre of those interventions, one finds the attempt of the intervening states (i.e. the European powers) to respond to the suffering of others, whose ethnic and religious identity mattered.32 In 1908 René Pinon argued that humanitarian interventions were inspired by an abstract religious, philosophical, and humanitarian ideal. During the Crusades, humanitarian intervention aimed to rescue fellow Christians; during the nineteenth century, intervention underwent a major change because of the progressive secularization of politics (p. 32) in Europe. However, Pinon admitted, nineteenth-century humanitarian intervention had not entirely erased the feeling of solidarity among Christian peoples facing non-Christian peoples despite the fact that since the French Revolution, le droit des peuples and le droit de l’humanité was included in an older Christian ideal.33

European governments did not consider massacre, atrocity, and extermination of population as a wrong that needed to be redressed. These powers did not undertake coercive intervention against massacre in a systematic way. The widespread sentiment of identity or the empathy of a great majority of Europeans with suffering Christianity mattered as much as a specific perception of the perpetrators of the massacre. The Ottoman authorities and Muslim populations were ‘uncivilized’ anti-heroes and their indiscriminate killing of Christians corroborated the depiction of the Infidel’s ‘barbarity’. Nineteenth-century Western humanitarianism was about rescuing fellow Christians, about protecting their right to life, and about the white man’s burden and mission civilisatrice. There was no clear triumph of secular universalism over the boundaries of religion; in this respect nineteenth-century interventions differ from late twentieth- and early twenty-first-century interventions.

The international order born after the end of the First World War and the creation of the League of Nations should have brought perpetual peace worldwide. The League of Nations would not have allowed humanitarian interventions undertaken by a self-appointed committee of powers allegedly acting in the interest of all members of the Family of Nations.34 In theory, the new intergovernmental organization should have taken on the responsibility of humanitarian intervention as well as the protection of the most fundamental human rights all over the world.35 The new ‘Society of Nations’ should have given the sanction of social solidarity, on an objective basis, to the hitherto purely sporadic, isolated acts of ‘altruistic nations acting as enforcers of the law of nations’.36 Being capable of formulating and enforcing international law, the new Society of Nations should have limited national sovereignty, abolished the inequality of states, and hence prevented such ‘crimes against humanity’ as persecution, oppression, uncivilized warfare, injustice, and the slave trade. In the long term, the League of Nations would have enforced ‘the prevention and control of disease, the reduction of the opium traffic, and the mitigation of suffering throughout the world’.37 In this idealistic view, the League of Nations and its members would have taken on the responsibility to protect humanity.

In practice, as historian Mark Mazower points out, the new Society of Nations in Geneva still depended on the same civilizational hierarchies that had underpinned so much pre-1914 liberal thought.38 Even though ‘half-civilized’ states such as Abyssinia, Siam, Iran, and Turkey were now members of the League, it pertained only to the ‘civilized nations’ to guide ‘the less, or uncivilized, into the way of national self-realization’.39 The League of Nations never disposed of the political and military capacity to enforce humanitarian intervention worldwide.40 The ambitious idea of a League of Nations able to select and oversee the work of a single state mandated by the international community, as the agent of the League, to remove ‘unfortunate conditions violative of the most elementary human rights’ never materialized.41 The League of Nations did not provide (p. 33) for an extension of the Mandate System or a ‘policy of state-building’ in circumstances related to a humanitarian intervention. There was no mechanism entrusting the state members ‘either to assume the burden of the administration of the territory, or to constrain the unworthy sovereign to mend his ways’.42 The newfound international solidarity and increased integration and equality between states as well as the exercise, for the general welfare of humanity, of a new humanitarian intervention were never properly discussed at the League of Nations Council or Assembly. The alleged legality of humanitarian intervention through the development of new and enlightened standards of the social Law of Nations did not become a fruitful means for securing, through the international community, the redress of evils to which previous generations had been indifferent or blind. As Ellery Stowell noted in 1939, the barbarities perpetrated against Jews in several European states showed that intervention against a ‘great’ state was impracticable. Nonetheless, he argued, other means were available and applicable, such as the granting of asylum in missions and consulates. Stowell acknowledged that this measure did not amount to humanitarian intervention and pointed out:

Humanitarian intervention was of recent, but very vigorous, growth and tended to bind the whole world closer together in defense of elementary principles of justice. It is as yet a toddling infant that becomes stronger every day with the spread of communications. Even if the great development of national self-sufficiency and isolation should continue, this growth of humanitarian intervention will undoubtedly still go on, although it may be at a slower pace.43

The extermination of the European Jews and the other horrors of the Second World War proved Stowell’s prediction tragically wrong. Moreover, the 1930s abuses of humanitarian intervention by Fascist Italy in Ethiopia (a war waged with the ‘humanitarian’ aim of rescuing local populations from a ‘barbarian’ government) and by Nazi Germany, which justified the intervention in Czechoslovakia on humanitarian grounds (the protection of the Sudeten German minority mistreated by the Prague government), gave to this international practice a very bad press after 1945.44


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                                                                            (2.) Chesterman 2001, p. 30.

                                                                            (3.) Sémelin 2007, p. 323; Kenz 2005. Gareth Evans has reintroduced the term ‘atrocity’ in the debate on the responsibility to protect. See Evans 2008.

                                                                            (5.) Abiew 1999, p. 33.

                                                                            (6.) Todorov 1999, pp. 149–50.

                                                                            (7.) Philipson 1933, cited in Chesterman 2001, p. 14; Grotius 1925, cited in Chesterman 2001, p. 15.

                                                                            (8.) Vattel quoted in Chesterman 2001, p. 18.

                                                                            (9.) Moyn 2010, p. 29.

                                                                            (10.) Temperley 1974; Colley 2003, pp. 354–5.

                                                                            (11.) The sect was founded in 1782 by Henry Venn, vicar of Huddersfield; Zachary Macaulay, one of the first governors of Sierra Leone, a London merchant, and for 15 years manager of the Evangelical journal The Christian Observer; Henry Thornton, the wealthy banker and Member of Parliament for Surrey; James Stephen, a lawyer; and John Shore, Governor-General of India from 1793 to 1799.

                                                                            (13.) Grewe 2000, pp. 292–3.

                                                                            (14.) The British Empire outlawed the slave trade in 1807. It was only in 1833 that the colonial secretary, Lord Stanley, introduced a bill to abolish slavery in the empire. The abolition of slavery as a domestic institution of property rights was accomplished in each state where it had previously been legal without military intervention by other states.

                                                                            (15.) Löwenheim 2003; Thomson 1987, pp. 123–42.

                                                                            (16.) Evans 2008, p. 17, quotes Hedley Bull’s evocative phrase.

                                                                            (17.) Kane 2001, p. 7. Political scientist Kane defines moral capital as moral prestige—whether of an individual, organization, or cause—in useful service. Moral capital is a resource and derives its worth from its value and utility, from the moment when ‘moral prestige’ is mobilized ‘for the sake of tangible, exterior returns’. The concept of moral capital draws attention to the ways that moral distinction can become a source for power in the world, in the ways that it facilitates and legitimates action. Moral capital sustains and enhances the reputation of an actor or actors. A cause that has earned moral capital itself becomes a source of moral capital for other causes, and the association with people or causes that possess moral capital becomes a strategic benefit for moral standing or moral influence.

                                                                            (18.) Kaufmann and Pape 1999. Kaufmann and Pape argue that costly moral international actions related to the abolition of the slave trade and of slavery were an outcome of a domestic cry for moral reform, motivated mainly by parochial considerations; in other words, the fact of saving strangers was not central to ending the slave trade.

                                                                            (20.) Treaty between Great Britain, France, and Russia for the Pacification of Greece. Signed in London, 6 July 1827.

                                                                            (21.) Bass 2008, p. 360.

                                                                            (22.) The Capitulations were special commercial, legal, and religious favours originally granted to the Europeans by the Ottoman sultans in an era when there was no difference between Muslim and civil law in the Ottoman Empire. They allowed extraterritoriality for foreign merchants in Ottoman territory, who could organize themselves according to their own laws, except where disputes arose with Ottomans, and as long as their behaviour was not offensive to Muslims. The capitulatory system of legal and economic privileges for citizens of the Christian powers and their Christian clients living in the Islamic state would become a thorn in the Ottoman side, a prime symbol of external interference, compromising Ottoman sovereignty and helping to drive a wedge between Muslims and Christians. Bloxham 2005, pp. 11–12.

                                                                            (24.) Despagnet 1905, p. 395: ‘La différence absolue de civilisation et de religion entre les peuples chrétiens et les peuples musulmans ou de l’Extrême-Orient entraîne une telle divergence d’idées entre eux, au point de vue de la morale et du droit, que les premiers n’auraient jamais pu s’astreindre à la législation ni au pouvoir arbitraire et despotique des seconds; aussi, presque tous les gouvernements de l’Europe ont-ils passé avec ces derniers Etats des traités qui ont pour objet de soustraire, à peu près complètement, leurs nationaux établis dans ces pays à l’influence des autorités locales.’

                                                                            (25.) Wheatcroft 2004, p. 213.

                                                                            (26.) Phillimore 1879, vol. 1, pp. 620, 460–88. See also Shorrock 1976.

                                                                            (27.) Lawrence 2003, vol. 1, pp. 254–8; Fiore 1909, pp. 210–12. Here Fiore claims that the privilege of extraterritoriality is personal and cannot be extended to the point of covering entire consular districts, in which citizens of various states live protected by the Capitulations.

                                                                            (28.) Bass 2008, p. 344.

                                                                            (31.) Bass 2008, pp. 372–3.

                                                                            (33.) Pinon 1908, pp. 6–7.

                                                                            (35.) Graham 1924, p. 320.

                                                                            (36.) Graham 1924, p. 321.

                                                                            (37.) Graham 1924, p. 325.

                                                                            (38.) Mazower 2006, p. 558. See also Weitz 2008.

                                                                            (39.) Mazower 2006, p. 559.

                                                                            (40.) Stowell 1939, p. 733.

                                                                            (41.) Graham 1924, p. 326, argues that if the United States had undertaken a humanitarian intervention in the Ottoman provinces inhabited by Armenian populations such as it did in Cuba in 1898, such action would ultimately have led to the establishment of something like a type A mandate over those Ottoman provinces, regardless of the existence or non-existence of the League itself.

                                                                            (42.) Graham 1924, p. 326.

                                                                            (43.) Stowell 1939, p. 736.

                                                                            (44.) Writing to Prime Minister Chamberlain on 23 September 1938, Hitler noted that ethnic Germans and various nationalities in Czechoslovakia had been maltreated in the unworthiest manner, tortured, economically destroyed, and, above all, prevented from realizing for themselves the right of nations to self-determination. They were subject to the ‘brutal will to destruction of the Czechs’, whose behaviour was ‘madness’ and had led to over 120,000 refugees being forced to flee the country in recent days, while the ‘security of more than 3,000,000 human beings’ was at stake.