Debating the Use of Force: When Should We Intervene to Stop Mass Atrocities?

 Royal Air Force Tornado GR4 aircraft leaves RAF Marham for operations overseas.
A Royal Air Force Tornado GR4 aircraft leaves RAF Marham for operations overseas. Photo: Cpl Babbs Robinson/Wikimedia Commons

No two crises in recent memory have done more to test the proper use of force by international actors than Libya and Syria. What kind of humanitarian crisis demands international military action, and what kind does not? When should international actors intervene in a recalcitrant country to protect civilians, and when should they not?  The contrast between international action in Libya and inaction in Syria has brought to light the problem of selectivity—the sense that international interventions to protect civilians are not based on consistent principles but on capricious politics. When it comes to military intervention, national strategic interest often trumps international humanitarian norms.

Last year, Robert Pape proposed a new “pragmatic standard for humanitarian intervention,” which stimulated a critique from Gareth Evans and Ramesh Thakur in the spring 2013 issue of International Security. A further response from Pape to Evans and Thakur was also printed.

How France ‘Set the Standard’ for Crisis Intervention

Armoured vehicle being unloaded from an aircraft. Photo: UK Ministry of Defence/Flickr.
Royal Air Force assisting France to move Military equipment to Mali. Photo: UK Ministry of Defence/Flickr.

A very senior British general said of Operation Serval in Mali that France had “set the standard” for crisis military interventions. Praise indeed and not easily given. One can always tell when a crisis is being managed to effect as the press lose interest.

The challenge Paris faced when four thousand French troops arrived in Mali in February was complicated to say the least. Tuaregs had taken control of northern Mali and sought separation. They were supported by a particularly nasty bunch of Islamists (Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and the Mujao) who had profited (literally) from the chaos in neighboring Libya. To make things worse the Malian Army, or what was left of it, was in meltdown and the country’s political system with it. Now, with the Tuaregs having signed a June peace deal, last year’s military coup leader having apologized and elections planned for 28 July, Mali has at least a chance of a future.

How did the French pull off this genuine military success?


A Reading List on: Military Intervention

Books in perspective: Flickr/darren 131

While the merits of intervention on humanitarian grounds can be debated, the capacity of states to wage war is not limited to those occasions where it can be justified, on that basis or any.  According to some observers, the first decade of the 21st century witnessed a reassertion — in places like Georgia and Lebanon — of this more old-fashioned form of intervention.  This syllabus on military intervention more broadly will help keep you abreast of these less sanguine developments.