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

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 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.

Pape argues that there is need for a new principle to guide decisions about international interventions because the standards of the Genocide Convention and the responsibility to protect (R2P) have failed in opposite ways. He argues that whereas the genocide standard sets the bar too high for intervention, making it unlikely international action ever takes place, R2P sets it too low, justifying intervention for almost any crisis where civilians are at risk.

Pape’s standard of “pragmatic humanitarian intervention” holds that an international military campaign against a sovereign government is justified for the purpose of protecting civilians only if the following three preconditions are met:

1) At the time of intervention, there must already be “[a]n ongoing campaign of mass homicide sponsored by the local government in which thousands have died and thousands more are likely to die.” This means that preemptive action is never justified, no matter how imminent mass violence appears to be.

2) International actors must have “a viable plan for intervention with reasonable estimates of casualties not significantly higher than peace time and near zero for the intervening forces.” Pape is adamant that cost—both human and material—is a legitimate factor to consider when determining whether or not to intervene.

3) Finally, any proposed intervention must include “a workable strategy for creating lasting local security, so that saving lives in the short term does not lead to open-ended chaos in which many more are killed in the long term.” Military intervention always carries unknown consequences. The pragmatic standard insists that care must be taken that the moral imperative to save lives now does not result in even more lives lost later.

In applying his new standard to current crises, Pape argues that Libya met the standard of pragmatic humanitarian intervention in 2011, but Syria, up to now, has not, as there are no low-risk options for international actors. Thus, while Pape touts his standard as something that is badly needed, it is not immediately clear how its application would have changed matters for the two most critical recent cases.

Yet, it is not so much the principles of the pragmatic standard that Evans and Thakur take issue with. Rather, their main critique concerns Pape’s quick dismissal of R2P and his return to the older, divisive language of humanitarian intervention, which dominated the debates of the late 1990s. Humanitarian intervention focuses on the rights of interveners, they argue, while R2P is people-centered and emphasizes the responsibility of both states and the international community.

But Pape argues that R2P lacks a clear standard for the level of atrocities that merit intervention, and thus it allows for the violation of state sovereignty in almost any instance when a population is “suffering serious harm,” including in the case of a natural disaster. However, Evans and Thakur rightly point out that this criticism is based on an early understanding of R2P and ignores the principle’s evolution since its original articulation in the 2001 Report of the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS).

Pape is right to criticize the original ICISS benchmark of “suffering serious harm” as too broad, and Evans and Thakur say as much. But R2P has become more specific since its reiteration in the 2005 World Summit Outcome Document. Since then, it has been established that R2P relates only to genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing, and crimes against humanity, and intervention under the rubric of R2P is legal only when it is authorized by the UN Security Council. In practice, this has proven very difficult to obtain. In fact, Evans and Thakur argue that since 2005, the dominant scholarly opinion of R2P has been that it is too restrictive—that it has actually set the bar too high, not too low, as Pape insists.

Pape’s critique of R2P is indeed weak and oddly out of date, but the need for improved standards to define when armed interventions are necessary is real and worth further consideration. The contentious debates over Libya and Syria have made this patently clear.

In recent years, a consensus has formed around the principle of R2P, but this has not translated into agreement about how it should be applied, especially with regard to the use of force. The question is how best to comply with the responsibility to do something, to avoid being a bystander when international action could make the difference in saving thousands of lives.

Evans and Thakur note that the ICISS process did identify a series of prudential criteria on the legitimate use of force. And they argue it was a mistake not to include a reference to this in the 2005 World Summit Outcome Document and subsequent Security Council resolutions. Indeed, the adoption of such criteria, they say, “remains unfinished international business.” A pragmatic framework that includes more specific thresholds of violence, permissible costs, and goals for long-term strategy, along the lines that Pape identifies, could contribute to this effort.

While following the pragmatic standard would have resulted in the same decisions on Libya and Syria, coming to those decisions via a recognized process of operational standards would have clarified the decision-making process and helped to prevent the sense that only pure politics were at play, thus strengthening the norm against mass atrocities over the long haul.

International interventions will always be decided on a case-by-case basis with due consideration of strategic interests. Sometimes there will be intervention, and sometimes not. But some agreed-upon standards of when action is called for and when it is not can clarify the process and lessen the sense that the decision to act is completely capricious. Every case is different, but some cases are more different than others, and specific standards can help make action more likely (if not automatic) when it should happen and less likely (if not impossible) when it shouldn’t.

A pragmatic standard à la Pape could help, but, as Evans and Thakur say, there is no reason to “reinvent the wheel.” At present, the responsibility to protect still provides the best basis in international policymaking to move this critical debate forward.

This is a cross-post from the IPI Global Observatory.

Adam Lupel is the Editor and a Senior Fellow at the International Peace Institute. He tweets at @ALupel.

For additional reading on this topic please see:

Syria and WMD: Deepening Uncertainty

Avoiding the Slippery Slope – Conducting Effective Interventions

Über die Responsibility to Protect zum Regimewechsel

For more information on issues and events that shape our world please visit the ISN’s Weekly Dossiers and Security Watch.

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