This summer my 2-year-old daughter and I were looking at a world map together. I would have liked to tell her something about the different continents and countries (about all the different languages, the food, music, local customs), but wasn’t able to because the sight of the map prompted only thoughts such as “There is war here, there are people starving there, refugees drowning here…” So I remained silent. We are currently overwhelmed by negative news. Almost everywhere things seem to go awfully wrong: more than 65 million refugees worldwide, 470000 deaths in Syria, the terror of ISIS, right-wing populists gaining more votes everywhere, Donald Trump for president, the Brexit, growing child poverty in Europe’s strongest economy (Germany), burning asylum seeker centres… (I could go on and on). Of course, the news we get through the media has always been mainly negative, but now it seems to have reached a new dimension. Whether this impression is accurate or not, it is certainly unsettling, raising perturbing questions: How long will we still be able to live in peace and with our basic human rights protected? Will the fear of terrorist attacks soon be part of our daily lives? Have all attempts after 1945 to create a more peaceful world been in vain? What kind of world will my children find themselves in? To what extent do our governments and we carry responsibility for what is going on? What does justice require from us as individuals? Is there a moral justification for focusing on one’s own comparatively small problems and not trying to help solving the big, global ones? How many resources are we allowed to spend on our own children? These kinds of questions are far from new, but they currently pose themselves with particular urgency.
More than a million migrants and refugees have crossed European borders in the last year, posing yet another challenge to European unity. There is one thing that really strikes me in the public debate about how to deal with this huge influx: people tend to take it for granted that the legal distinction between “refugees” and “economic migrants” and the differential treatment that goes with it are morally justified. There is a broad consensus that, of course, we have to grant asylum to people fleeing from the horrors of the Syrian civil war, but that we are justified in refusing asylum to people escaping from poverty. But is there a morally relevant difference between taking refuge from poverty and escaping from war? I do not think that there is, and hence believe that the differential treatment of the two groups is unjust.
The legal point of reference for the distinction is the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, which, as amended by the 1967 Protocol, defines a refugee as
“A person who owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country; or who, not having a nationality and being outside the country of his former habitual residence as a result of such events, is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it”.
I do not understand the intricate dynamics of the conflict in the CAR. And, most likely, neither do you. This is the point. I will argue that without an in depth and detailed understanding of the conflict, and a certain (and well grounded) belief that an intervention will successfully stop the violence and do more good than harm we should not be calling for the deployment of military troops. When we argue for the use military force, we accept that troops can kill and, if things go wrong, be killed. The question of when military intervention is ever justified is not an easy one.
Before even considering the deployment of foreign military troops, all other efforts to stop the conflict, both internal and external to the country, must be exhausted first. Such efforts include internal peace processes; diplomacy; supporting local, regional and international pressure to end the conflict; divestment; and many many more.
Given the shaky record of military interventions, we should be skeptical about using military force to end violent conflict. There have been cases in which military intervention, aimed at preventing the conflict, has made the situation worse. In Bosnia the United Nations peacekeeping force was implicated in enabling the massacre of 8000 Bosniaks. In Somalia, the United Nations sanctioned military intervention exacerbated the conflict and arguably killed more civilians than the concurrent delivery of humanitarian aid saved. Doyle and Sambanis (2006) conducted a large-scale quantitative study to evaluate the success of military interventions. They found that United Nations Peacekeeping operations can improve the chances of peace. However, overall, they show that the record is ‘mixed’. Of the 121 peace operations they analysed, 63 were failures and 53 were successes. By ‘success’, they mean the end of violence and a degree of stability. On a more rigorous definition of success, which includes the introduction of institutions that prevent a re-ignition of the conflict in the long term, the results are much worse. In addition, they note that it is difficult to be able to determine if, of the 53 successes, the military intervention caused the ending of the conflict. This should be enough to dampen our enthusiasm for launching military interventions.
However, assuming that no alternatives to stopping the violence exist, some interventions may be able to facilitate an end to conflict. So, before the call to intervene is made, what should we consider? The difficult part of making a judgement is that we have to make a predictive claim that military intervention can do some ‘good’. I will now outline some of the issues that need to be considered.
Firstly, can the violence actually be stopped?
The interveners need to have enough resources and political will to get the job done. Common sense dictates, and there is a lot of research to back this up, that military intervention costs money. The resources need to be appropriate to the task in hand. A military campaign to stop countrywide violence in Luxembourg is going to take a lot less resources than a military campaign to stop countrywide violence in Russia. In addition, stopping violence can’t be achieved over night. Consequently there needs to be sufficient political will, in terms of being prepared to lose troops’ lives, to stay in the country long enough and to bear the financial costs of the intervention.
Even more importantly, it is all very well to have sufficient resources, but can a military intervention actually stop the parties from fighting? If the conflict can’t be resolved or ‘won’, even with the best intentions and all the resources in the world, there may be no way of ending the violence. Therefore before arguing in favour of intervention, there needs to be a detailed analysis of the causes and reasons for the continuation of the conflict. Are there distinct and identifiable parties to the conflict? How many are there and what are their interests? How are they likely to respond to military intervention? Will they be incentivised to stop or will they start fighting more ferociously? Has there been military intervention in the conflict before? Will the memory of previous intervention attempts make ending the violence more easy or difficult? What are the chances of a military victory, by either party to the conflict or the intervener? In the event of interveners successfully ending the violence, will the conflict simply reignite when interveners leave the country?
Each conflict is different, with specific political causes, actors and dynamics enabling its perpetuation. Sometimes an additional military actor, even one with benign interests, will only serve to heighten the feeling of insecurity of the belligerents and increase fighting in a country. This deserves close attention before sending troops in with the aim of ‘saving lives’.
Secondly, there may be reasons to value the fighting.
The parties might be fighting for a good reason. For example the conflict could be caused by a liberation struggle; a fight to overthrow colonial oppressors; to remove an authoritarian dictator; to give rights to oppressed minorities. We should consider that there may be wider social goods, beyond an immediate concern to save human lives, that are important. As a result, letting the conflict continue, or even providing support to a particular side, may be the best option.
Finally, what about the unintended side effects of a military intervention?
There can be good side effects. Military intervention could signal to other would-be-atrocity-committers that they won’t get away with it. However, other side effects are more ambiguous. Large military peacekeeping operations leave a significant economic footprint in a country. A recent study by Carnahan et al. (2007) suggests that the economic impact is often positive. However as current evidence remains inconclusive, potential economic impact should be considered.
A more harmful side effect, now well documented, is the growth of human trafficking when large-scale military operations are deployed. In the last few years, the United Nations has made some positive steps to prevent this. However, the risk still exists. Before an intervention, there should confidence that the chances of success outweigh the potential risks of the introduction of a large number of foreign troops into a country.
Deciding whether or not to intervene is a hugely complicated question. A multitude of factors need to be considered. And this blog post is by no means exhaustive. I have not raised important questions of government consent, the popular opinion of those living in the country of intervention and many more. But, to make my point simple and clear before arguing in favour of intervention, at the very least, we need to be able to answer yes to the following questions:
1) Are there no better alternatives to stop the violence?
2) Does a military intervention have strong chances of stopping the violence?
3) Are we sure that the conflict should be stopped?
4) Are we prepared to accept the possible unintended consequences of intervening militarily?
This blog post is not an argument against military intervention per se. Rather a call for careful and serious consideration of these questions before supporting military intervention. My suspicion is that in the majority of cases where the United Nations and other organisations have intervened the answer to all of these four questions has not been ‘yes’.
This is not meant to be pessimistic. There are many other actions, outside of military intervention, that we can take to try and end large-scale human suffering. As citizens we can call on our governments to stop supporting violent regimes and selling arms in zones of violent conflict. However, when violence does erupt, despite the horror we feel at seeing fellow human beings suffer, we may have to face the stark reality that, right at that moment, military intervention is not the correct solution.
 Seybolt, Taylor, B. Humanitarian Military Intervention: The Conditions for Success and Failure. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008.
 Mendelson, Sarah, Barracks and Brothels: Peacekeepers and Human Trafficking in the Balkans, Washington DC: CSIS, 2005. Found at: http://csis.org/files/media/csis/pubs/0502_barracksbrothels.pdf