Intervention: When, Why and How?

Written evidence from Oxford Research Group


· An enormous burden of proof is incumbent in the decision to commit the UK to use force abroad. The legal and evidentiary threshold for intervention and how appropriate data is gathered and assessed need to be clarified. This must apply equally to use of force by ‘unmanned’ systems as to troop deployments.

· The consequences of applying, as well as removing, force are destabilising and hard to predict. Any decision to seek military intervention, as well as to end it, needs to be preceded by rigorous conflict analysis to understand the probable and possible impact on all actors and subjects.

· The UK is not always perceived positively overseas, a legacy of British interventions in scores of countries over several centuries. The UK should work more with non-traditional partners, not least to build their capacity to manage conflict regionally. Focusing procurement on offensive power-projection systems like aircraft carriers is likely to inspire competition rather than confidence abroad.

· Military intervention is a failure of diplomacy and often inappropriate. The UK should invest in prevention-as-intervention, including relevant training of diplomatic and military personnel. It should nurture sensitive early warning and response mechanisms in conflict-prone regions, including locally embedded and trusted mediators.

· The UK has a responsibility when using military force to record casualties arising from its action and the wider conflict. This has pragmatic as well as moral dimensions. The UK should set guidelines for evaluating informatio   n produced by casualty recording organisations, and for relaying the UK’s information requirements.

1. Introduction

1.1 Oxford Research Group (ORG) is a UK-based charity that provides information, analysis, methodology, policy advice and mediation in order to promote a more sustainable approach to global security. ORG currently runs or hosts programmes working on: sustainable security and alternatives to militarisation; the implications of remote control warfare, including ‘drones’; casualty recording; and mediation of several conflicts in the Middle East. ORG has previously provided written evidence to the Committee on its 2010, 2011 and 2013 inquiries into the Strategic Defence and Security Review and National Security Strategy.

1.2 This submission will focus on five issues critical to the future of the UK’s intervention strategy:

· the threshold of evidence necessary to justify and trigger intervention, including ‘remote’ interventions;

· understanding the consequences of intervention, non-intervention and disengagement;

· alliances, perceptions of the UK and the appropriateness of who intervenes;

· preferable alternatives to military intervention; and

· the responsibility to record casualties as part of intervention.

2. Burdens of Proof – It matters how the UK decides to intervene

2.1 The UN Security Council is the only international body legally empowered to mandate military action other than national self-defence. However, it is possible that there may be occasions when the Security Council is unable or unwilling to reach a consensus view on intervention when the UK government considers all other avenues to, for example, protect civilians or prevent genocide have been exhausted. Such cases are likely to be exceedingly rare. Indeed, this was not the case over Syria, in which diplomatic avenues had not been fully explored. As such, there is an enormous burden of proof incumbent on any state that seeks to commit its military forces to combat without explicit UN mandate. This includes proof that all other means of exerting sufficient influence have been considered, tried and exhausted.

2.2 The parliamentary debate over military action in Syria and the intelligence debacle over weapons of mass destruction in Iraq highlighted the ongoing lack of clarity over the evidence necessary and sufficient for UK governments to justify and commit to military intervention. Intelligence, at least in relation to Iraq, was politicised, incomplete and inaccurate. In both cases, the legal evidence presented to parliament was a heavily edited summary of legal advice to the government and highly disputed by many scholars of international law. In the case of Syria, there was also considerable confusion over whether the government’s case was legal or moral. Issues of punishment (for war crimes), protection (of civilians) and deterrence (of WMD use) were all cited by the government. Parliament should work with data providers from the intelligence and legal communities as well as civil society to understand the availability and limitations of data on conflict and issues such as WMD to establish what evidentiary threshold is necessary and sufficient for the UK to commit its forces to combat.

2.3 High visibility ‘boots on the ground’ or ‘air superiority’ interventions are not the only kind of interventions that require high level authorisation. Low visibility interventions such as the use of Special Forces and unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAVs) also constitute a choice to use deadly force in external jurisdictions and must be open to domestic scrutiny and the rule of international law. As with US drone strikes in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia, such ‘discrete’ intervention is highly likely to have high profile negative repercussions on the image of the UK in targeted countries. Setting thresholds for the legitimate use of such remote and autonomous technology is of vital importance as the Royal Air Force and Royal Navy re-equip with such combat systems in the next generation.

3. Consequences of intervention

3.1 The key lesson to learn from post-2001 UK military interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya is the primacy of unforeseen consequences and the probability that violent action will provoke violent and often unpredictable reaction. Conceived as a decisive and limited duration operation to ‘liberate’ Iraq, Operation Telic lasted eight years, cost the UK some £10 billion [1] , 179 military lives and some 5,800 wounded [2] . While the operation met all its tactical objectives, it was a strategic catastrophe, pitching Iraq into a sectarian civil war that has claimed anywhere between 115,000 and 461,000 civilian lives [3] , greatly extended Iranian and al-Qaida influence, and destabilised the wider region, not least Syria. Intervention in Libya constrained (and overthrew) the Gaddafi regime but it has not secured the Libyan population, territory or weapons stocks. Instability, weapons, radicalised combatants and violence have since spread to Mali, Algeria, Tunisia, Niger, Nigeria and Syria.

3.2 Any decision by the UK government to seek military intervention - on any scale -needs to be preceded by rigorous conflict analysis to understand the probable and possible impact on all actors and subjects, not just the combatant parties. This analysis must be subjected to scenario testing and the range of potential outcomes communicated effectively to government and parliament. This needs to include consideration of possible consequences within the target country (e.g. regime change, sectarian violence), consequences for neighbouring and regional states (e.g. proliferation of weapons, outflow of combatants), and consequences for the UK as well its citizens and assets abroad (e.g. to its reputation and ‘soft’ power; targeting by militants). Comparable analysis and scenario planning are also needed to consider the consequences of not intervening and the consequences of maintaining or removing UK forces from a post-conflict context.

3.3 The Building Stability Overseas Strategy (BSOS) is a welcome contribution to UK policy on a range of prevention and intervention options, primarily outside the military sphere. Similarly welcome are the Joint Analysis of Conflict and Stability and elements of the National Security Strategy (NSS) and International Defence Engagement Strategy (IDES). However, there remains a lack of strategy on planning for the aftermath of military intervention: post-conflict recovery and (re)construction. The challenges and risks of disengagement have been poorly integrated into assessments and planning of military interventions. This has been very obvious in the aftermath of UK/US interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as the reticence to take decisive ‘state-breaking’ military action in Syria. The UK needs to pay as much attention to how it transitions successfully from military to non-military involvement in conflict contexts as to the transition to military intervention.

4. Alliances – It matters who intervenes

4.1 In considering military or other forms of intervention, the UK must be acutely aware of how it is perceived in the rest of the world, especially outside of its traditional sphere of influence and alliances. Whereas government policies stress British traditional cultural, linguistic and diplomatic ties to large parts of the world, these are often born of imperial ties and may be seen as anachronistic or neo-colonial, much as French intervention in Côte d’Ivoire has been resisted by Ivorians. The welcome afforded to UK forces in Sierra Leone could not be expected in, for example, Zimbabwe, Iraq or Afghanistan, where British troops evoke quite different historical memories and responses.

4.2 Whether or not NATO remains an appropriate forum for ensuring the external defence of the UK mainland and North Atlantic, the use of NATO branding and structures to intervene well outside Europe – notably in Libya and Afghanistan – may be inappropriate and bolster perceptions abroad of Western or European unilateralism, neo-imperialism or crusading. Issues of inter-operability and command will remain paramount but the UK needs to consider much closer partnership with democracies well beyond Europe and the ‘old’ or ‘white’ Commonwealth. Unlike a generation ago, it is no longer the case that democratic and human rights considerations limit UK forces to cooperating ‘safely’ with European, North American and Australasian militaries.

4.3 Wherever practicable, regional ownership should be the guiding principle of conflict management, including intervention, under the UN Charter. At present, this is not realistic in all regions, given incomplete or ineffective regional security institutions. However, important progress has been made in many regions, including Africa, Latin America and the Pacific. Investment in and mentoring of conflict management and response institutions, especially for upstream conflict prevention, will bolster capacity and confidence (including in the UK) in unstable regions. Implementing and reviewing the IDES provides an opportunity to rethink how the UK can best support capacity-building of regional security architectures in unstable areas as part of the UK’s strategy for prevention-as-intervention. In the long term, such actions are likely to be far more beneficial to UK and global security interests than funding offensive weapons systems, overseas bases and power projection capabilities.

4.4 The UK’s commitment to prioritising offensive and long-range weapons systems such as the F-35 Joint Combat Aircraft, Queen Elizabeth class aircraft carriers, submarine-launched cruise missiles and UCAVs predisposes the UK towards offensive intervention well beyond its borders and region. Such systems inspire destabilising competition (arms races) as well as deterrence. Instead, the UK should prioritise defensive weapons systems and the ability to use its air and naval assets, including aircraft carriers, for UN peacekeeping and humanitarian missions.

5. Alternatives to military intervention

5.1 There are always alternatives to the use of military force, which must be considered a failure of UK strategies for influence by peaceful means. The changing landscape of global insecurity requires that UK strategies be informed by a sustainable security analysis of the drivers of global insecurity in the long-term and what kinds of intervention are appropriate to mitigate them. As the NSS acknowledges, climate change is a reality and will radically change our environment, the extent and types of crises we face this century. Intervention through mitigation and adaptation strategies can reduce effects and impacts and save lives. Demographic change and scarcity of resources – food, water, energy, industrial materials – must also be recognised and can be mitigated through policy choices. Economic and political marginalisation of the majority of the world’s population is the biggest driver of armed revolt and radicalisation and requires a commitment to inclusive development, not least governance, security and justice provision.

5.2 Diplomacy and development are the first lines of defence for any country interested in promoting peace outside of its borders. Commitments to increase, sustain and prioritise UK development aid for fragile states are welcome. However, reductions in spending on diplomacy in real terms and relative to defence are counter-productive, as is our diplomats’ increased orientation towards promoting trade, not least the oil and arms industries. Working with the MoD, DFID and other agencies, the FCO should increase its capacity to work with civil society and international counterparts to recognise, prevent and resolve conflicts overseas before they become deadly or provoke calls for military intervention. Such early and peaceful intervention should recognise that excluding perceived enemies like Iran, Hamas, Hezbollah and the Taliban from dialogue increases the chances of facing them in violence.

5.3 The UK should mainstream training on conflict analysis, prevention and management for all personnel from FCO, MoD, DFID and SU working in or on fragile states. Applying defence tools to stabilise and reform post-conflict or fragile environment, as outlined in the 2012 IDES, will require a rethink of training within the armed forces. This should emphasise language training (the MoD recognised lack of trained military linguists as a ‘pinch point’ for operations in its 2012 Annual Review), cultural and historical understanding, regional specialisation, operating amongst communities in urban environments, and understanding and appreciation of longer term development or conflict prevention strategies. This would benefit both in-country operations and partnerships with non-traditional partner countries.

5.4 Early warning and early response mechanisms are crucial to the prevention and resolution of conflicts well before military intervention becomes an option. Unlike in domestic dispute arbitration, mediation in international conflict is usually only put in place after deadly conflict has entrenched positions and undermined the will for reconciliation. A preventative approach to international mediation is much preferable. Just as there are peacekeeping and peacebuilding institutions of considerable efficacy available under mandate of the UN and regional organisations, the UK should consider widening the potential for early international intervention through resourcing and training teams of trusted mediators at national, local and international levels in conflict-prone regions. Such mediation needs to be early, discrete, focused on underlying causes rather than manifestations of violence. Mediators need to be familiar with local narratives, sensitive to culture, language and gender, and embedded as appropriate within the society. The experience of the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) through its Conflict Early Warning and Response Mechanism (CEWARN) in sensitive border regions of the Horn of Africa is one example of this approach in action.

6. Responsibility to record casualties

6.1 The UK’s intervention strategy should incorporate mechanisms that can contribute to a thorough understanding of harm, which would provide both pragmatic and moral benefits. One means by which this understanding can be achieved is casualty recording: the systematic and continuous recording of deaths to the level of incident and individual detail, with public acknowledgement of those killed. Casualty recording provides insight into the nature and extent of harm against a given population. It is one of the most important indications of how a conflict may be evolving and the impact, or effectiveness, of the intervener's strategy. Neither the intervener nor independent civilian agencies can develop an authoritative record alone; data needs to be combined from multiple sources, including from intervening military forces. Such data is crucial, whether the UK’s intervention is diplomatic, military, humanitarian or development-oriented. As the 2012 dispute between NATO and the UN Commission of Inquiry on Libya over whether NATO air attacks caused civilian casualties demonstrated, protecting civilians from harm cannot rest on assurances and good intentions alone. It must be supported by accurate assessment and reporting of realities on the ground.

6.2 Protection of civilians requires assessment and evaluation by the intervening parties themselves in order to determine whether this is being achieved. In the case of military engagement, pre-strike planning should include setting up a mechanism to track harm and record deaths caused to the civilian population as a result of combat operations. Doing so would enable the UK to uphold its commitments under International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights Law insofar as casualty recording is a means by which accountability can be maintained. Moreover, recording casualties of an entire conflict environment would enable the UK to better understand the wider impact of its operations, such as whether protection is realised, and whether the original threats to civilians have been undermined or have changed.

6.3 Any authorisation of intervention should require commitment by the UK to investigate attack sites as well as casualties of the broader conflict. Although this is a direct responsibility of states involved in the conflict, states may also provide support to civil society organisations that are doing such work. As there are already civil society organisations undertaking casualty recording in a number of conflict environments, the UK should develop guidelines for evaluating information produced by such organisations; guidelines relaying the UK’s information requirements; as well as guidelines for engaging these organisations.

October 2013

Oxford Research Group is an independent non-governmental organisation and registered charity, which works to promote a more sustainable approach to global security. ORG has been building trust between policy-makers, academics, the military and civil society since 1982. ORG and its internationally recognised consultants combine detailed knowledge of security issues, together with an understanding of political decision-making, and many years of expertise in facilitating constructive dialogue. More information can be found at:

[1] According to UK Treasury figures of June 2010, the UK had spent £9.24 billion on the Iraq intervention since 2003. UK forces completed their withdrawal in May 2011.

[2] MoD casualty figures to end of 2009. Not all wounded were wounded in combat.

[3] The lower figure is based on Iraq Body Count’s documentation of 114,973 to 126,121 civilian deaths by 7 July 2013. The upper figure is from the University Collaborative Iraq Mortality study of 2013, based on a random sample survey and includes excess mortality from causes of death additional to direct violence.

Prepared 28th November 2013