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Published on February 5th, 2014 | by Lawrence Thompson
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When is foreign intervention justified?

Co-existence with genocidal dictatorships, totalitarian rulers or any form of autocratic leadership is neither tolerable nor desirable.

This seemingly axiomatic truth has rather straightforward implications. In places such as Bosnia, Kosovo, Iraq and Rwanda the international community were called upon to answer a moral imperative which transcends international law; an international responsibility to protect. However, numerous examples demonstrate a tragic reluctance to uphold this standard. Why? What are the arguments against a responsibility to protect?

There are many different arguments but I shall focus on two central challenges: effectiveness and hypocrisy. Underlying the first argument is an empirical claim: a decade of war in Iraq and Afghanistan along with recent events in Libya and Egypt has, so the popular wisdom dictates, proven the cynics correct. The examples of Kosovo and Sierra Leone are much clearer and for the purpose of brevity, I hope, self-evident. Intervention can be and was, effective.

More controversially, I wish to make the case for Iraq and Afghanistan. The unapologetic use of Western military power has failed to resolve the particular cultural disagreements within the Middle East; as Barack Obama once said of Iraq: “In the end, no amount of American forces can solve the political differences that lie at the heart of somebody else’s civil war.” It’s a misunderstanding which poisons political debate on this subject: the fight in Iraq was not just about two differing, tolerant parties vying for power.

This is patently obvious, for if both sides were reasonable or even tolerable then there would be no civil war; the conflict would be a political one. The “Insurgency” as they came to be known, was classified by Christopher Hitchen’s as Islamo-fascists trying to seize power by military means. The insurgency was populated by people who, without patronising you with platitudes, would have instituted a theocratic state which would have had no respect for the rights of minorities or women.

In short, their victory would represent a victory for the antithesis of Enlightenment thinking. Opponents of the war in Iraq sometimes defined it as an ‘American occupation’ but this characterisation begs the question: “Were we not preventing another dictatorship?” On what count do we interpret the insurgency as the legitimate voice of the people and yet disregard the wishes of the elected government of Jalal Talabani. This intellectual guilt can and deserves to be scrutinised further, however for the purposes of this account only one point is left. In a political world clouded by complexity, some things are morally simple: co-existence with dictatorship or fascism is neither tolerable nor desirable. It is very clear that the black flags which fly over Fallujah represent the true nature of the Iraqi insurgency.

As for the second charge: hypocrisy. It seems a truth, self-evident almost, that decisions must be taken on their merits. If North Korea were to intervene in China to stop genocide, it would be an intrinsically good thing for it to do. It would not absolve them of their crimes but who would insist their past blocks them from action in the present?

Perhaps the hypocrisy lies on the other side of the debate. The insistence that the UN Security Council must endorse military intervention lest it be considered illegitimate is a flawed idea. China and Russia both depend on the political equivalent of thugs to keep them in power and yet the United States, the United Kingdom and France must ask their permission before saving the lives of the people of Homs, Srebrenica or across the plains of Rwanda. It is not a serious proposition to assume that China and Russia are the West’s moral equivalents, yet this is what the structure of the UN Security Council presupposes.

As axiomatic as “co-existence with genocidal dictators is neither tolerable nor desirable” may be, the West must also set conditions on when intervention will take place. These four conditions shall suffice: the invasion of another territory, violation of the Genocide convention, granting safe harbour of terrorists or the violation of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty. The breaking of these conditions permits that government’s sovereignty over a state to be considered null by the international community. Outside of these conditions, military intervention is unjustified. This does not however, disqualify the international community from imposing sanctions, refusing to do business and most importantly, ending the nauseating promotion of arms sales which the Cameron government in particular has insisted upon doing.

In the end, we must live by a creed set out by John Rawls: “in a just society the liberties of equal citizenship are taken as settled; the rights secured by justice are not subject to political bargaining or to the calculus of social interests.” For this reason we must confront the repeatedly discredited arguments against foreign intervention.


Please note that all blog posts do not represent the views of Catch21 but only of the individual writers. We also aim to be factually accurate and balanced across all content taken as a whole.

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About the Author

From the West Midlands, currently studying Philosophy and Politics at the University of Leeds. This blog will concern itself with International Politics and issues facing young people. My main interests are in Middle Eastern and Pacific Asian politics.

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