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An Ethical Checklist for Military Intervention

Large-scale loss of life shocks our collective conscience.* The developing situation in Ukraine, the Central African Republic (CAR) and South Sudan have triggered loud and frequent calls for military intervention. This month, these calls were heeded in the Central African Republic. The United Nations Security Council announced its decision to intervene. The mission has been given the catchy name: the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in the Central African Republic, or MINUSCA for short. 10 000 troops, 1800 police and 20 corrections officers will be deployed. [1] The news has been greeted with jubilation on many social media sites.
This post is a note of caution. 

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.[2] 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.[3] In the last few years, the United Nations has made some positive steps to prevent this.[4] 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.

*A quick caveat:  The use of terms such as ‘our’ or ‘we’ in this post are not intended to denote the ‘West’ or the ‘international community’, as they are sometimes used in discussions of military intervention. I am talking to fellow peers who are considering arguing in favour of or against military intervention.

[1] See Aljazeera http://www.aljazeera.com/news/africa/2014/04/un-approves-peacekeepers-car-2014410141916684418.html
[2] Seybolt, Taylor, B. Humanitarian Military Intervention: The Conditions for Success and Failure. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008.
[3] 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
[4] http://www.stopvaw.org/un_peacekeeping_missions


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  1. Thank you Katie for this post, it touches on a topic I spent several years researching on how to train peace-keepers to prevent genocide and resolve conflict without inciting further violence. I want to say that before engaging on this UN sponsored research project I questioned how much these types of considerations were being discussed when deciding whether or not to intervene and if so with what kind of force. While I only know the situations to which I was given access to study, I do believe that the lessons of Srebrenica and Rwanda (especially thanks to the intense campaign started by Romeo Dallaire to get these questions debated) have led to significant changes and that these four questions, among many others, are studied. What I would want to add to your post is that I think the problem is that this reflection remains internal to the UN and ought to be shared with the public. What are your thoughts on this?

  2. Yes, I agree that these questions are increasingly studied. However, I am skeptical that the answer is 'yes' in the majority of the cases in which the United Nations have intervened. And certainly not in the arm-chair commentary, calling for intervention, that appear so frequently on media websites. I would strongly encourage that these sort of debates be made public. And most of all, and something which I could not give serious consideration to in the post, is that the perspective of the 'peace kept' be considered.

  3. Katie, really interesting and timely post. Your overall call for caution seems very plausible to me. Thus, my query aims only to open a discussion point with you. Early in the post, you say that “all other efforts…must be exhausted”, and the driving point throughout is that we should not intervene unless there is reason to believe intervention will be successful. My query, in a sense, is whether these points are (at least a fraction) too strong and should be more comparative. You say that the evidence on successful interventions is limited and that there are clear and troubling costs (not least loss of life). But, presumably, there are a host of clear and troubling worries (including, again, loss of life) connected to the alternatives too. If these issues are what concern us, I wonder if the assessment should be more relative than absolute. E.g., perhaps 2 might read “does military intervention have a *higher chance* of *reducing* the violence than the available alternatives (including doing nothing)?” Do you see my thought? (In a sense, you seem to move this direction in how you phrase 1, so perhaps my point does not run terribly in contrast to what you wish to conclude; but I was a bit unsure given the way I read the text and thought it would be worth discussing.)

  4. Academiakillsme

    Dear Katie, I (more or less) agree with what you said, even though it looks to me like an academic piece ment to raise endless debates and to hamper prgamatism, as they all do… However, I believe that there is a great a difference between military interventions under Article 39 and peacekeeping operations which you mentioned here. The latter are traditionally consensual operations without an offensive mandate, where troops are only able to act in self defence and which usually have a moderate, if not insignificant impact, on the prospects for peace in a given country. Looking for example at the operations related to Sudan (and South Sudan), which add up to a ridiculous 20 billion dollars in expenditures (most of them staff costs) from 2005 onwards, one can notice that there were barely any achievements. Most of this can be attributed to the lack of a clearer and more rigid mandate for these operations. Peacekeepers typically just walz around the country, barely protecting civilians "under imminent threat of danger" and do address the roots of the conflicts. On the other hand, if you look at the DRC with last year's out of the ordinary offensive peacekeeping mandate, you can see a few results – mainly due to the offensive brigade's achievement in getting the M23 rebels to agree to a ceasefire, which in turn relates to the credibility of the operation. This however does mean that peacekeeping operations would have to take sides, landing the entire mandate in a very gray area. But we do need to acknowledge that debates, traditional peacekeeping operations, countless failed attempts to reach peace agreements or other wannabe diplomatic means do not suffice for the today's approximately 45 million displaced and the countless dead. Waiting is never an option and there is never a value in war, simply never. With regards to fights for freedom or so – these are barely the focus of UN peacekeeping and civil wars which result from them just usually highlight the international community's indifference and tacit support of totalitarians. What I would simply like to point out is that yes, interventions can bring about a lot more harm than good, as you well pointed out due to a lack of proper political will or unrealistic expectations, but leaving conflicts to play themselves out is just somewhat a complicity to murdering civilians. I believe that wat is needed is more pragmatism and a tougher approach towards belligerents, but NOT impassivity.

  5. Hi Katie, to take up a line that is similar to the one Andrew raised: I wondered whether you could say more about the epistemic standards that you’d suggest for making these evaluations. Your four questions look extremely plausible to me, but I imagine that in practical cases (when there are usually time pressures) it is really decisive *how* certain you want to be about your answers to all these questions. If you want to go for complete certainty, you’ll probably end up never intervening anywhere, because one can *always* raise doubt about one of your questions. Also, parties to the conflict might have an interest in muddying the waters of whatever evidence there is in order to answer questions 1) to 4). So there could be a danger that high epistemic standards are abused by those who gain in the case of non-intervention. Do you see a systematic way for taking these questions into account, or do you think that it depends on good judgment in concrete cases?

  6. Katie, thanks for the post. I share Andrew and Lisa's concerns. Also, I wonder if you could say more about what constitutes a successful intervention. You refer to Doyle and Sambanis definition in terms of ending of violence, ensuring stability and establishing preventive institutions. Couldn't one put success simply in terms of saving lives/ preventing more suffering? This leads me to another question, it seems to me that when thinking about military intervention we always end up thinking in consequentialist terms (intervention is justified only if it brings about the best outcome). Can we/should we think about this differently? For instance, does it matter that the victims request intervention?

  7. Thanks Katie. You said that you argument is primarily aimed at people "arguing in favour of intervention" and that they should consider the four tests before doing so. I was wondering whether you think the four tests should also be used more broadly than that, perhaps at the level of institutions (e.g. the UN Security Council)? Or if that's best covered by different criteria?

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