Intervention: When, Why and How?

Written evidence from Mary Kaldor, Professor of Global Governance, Civil Society and Human Security Research Unit, London School of Economics and Political Science


1. In the aftermath of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, there is considerable and understandable reluctance to commit UK forces to intervention in other parts of the world. Yet the current situation in Syria, characterised by massive human rights including the shelling of civilians, forcible population expulsion, sexual violence, the provocation of sectarianism, the growth of jihadism and of criminality, the use of chemical weapons, not to mention the risk of the spread of this type of violence, illustrates the perils of non-intervention.

2. The dilemma is generally posed as a choice between intervention and non-intervention. But the issue, in my view, is what type of intervention. There is a difference between war-fighting interventions, including air strikes, which are necessarily on one side or the other and which necessarily risk civilian casualties, and what might be described as humanitarian or human security interventions. A human security intervention aims to dampen down violence not to intervene on one or other side, to minimise all loss of life, to protect and assist the victims of violence and, where possible, arrest rather than kill those responsible for violence. Human security is about the security of individuals both in physical and material terms. Human security is what people experience in rights based law-governed societies.

3. This type of intervention ought to be the centre piece of the UK’s strategic thinking. In our interconnected world, it is no longer possible for nation-states to guarantee their security unilaterally. Our security depends on global security. Traditionally armed forces were designed to meet the threat of armed attack by a foreign enemy against the UK or its allies. To-day that threat is remote. The main risks, which might require the use of military force, are growing zones of insecurity, like Syria, characterised by a mix of political or sectarian conflict, human rights violations and criminality.

4. In the UK, we do have a comparative advantage in this type of intervention because of the experience in Northern Ireland, Bosnia, Sierra Leone, and elsewhere. Our ability to contribute to this type of intervention contributes in important ways to the UK voices in international fora (probably more so than expensive symbols like Trident). At present however, it is the traditional capabilities that have been ring fenced in spending cuts undermining our capabilities in this area.


5. There is a case for intervention in situations of genocide, massive violations of human rights or ethnic cleansing. To be legitimate interventions have to be approved by the United Nations Security Council.

6. What is to be done if some members of the Security Council block intervention on geo-political grounds? There is an argument for developing a legal mechanism for dealing with exceptions but most importantly, any such mechanism would have to deal with the ‘how’ as well as the ‘why’ so as not to provide a legitimation for classic military interventions. Interventions under the rubric of ‘Responsibility to Protect’ or human security cannot risk the lives of those they are supposed to be protecting. A No-Fly Zone is not the same as a No Kill Zone. The intervention in Libya, for example, was authorised by the Security Council with explicit reference to Responsibility to Protect (UN Security Council Resolution 1973). However, as in Kosovo in 1999 the international community relied entirely on air strikes and essentially became the military arm of the rebels. The air strikes did prevent an attack on Benghazi and helped, after six months, to lead to a rebel victory in Tripoli. Even if the strikes are very precise, however precise, there is always some collateral damage. and of course military conflict causes suffering. Violent regime changes also give disproportionate political power to those with guns. A human security approach would have focussed on the direct protection of civilians, establishing a protected zone in Benghazi, for example and creating space for a peaceful political process.

7. Would a different approach in Libya have made it easier to take action in Syria, as some argue? Probably not. It can be assumed that Russia and China oppose intervention in Syria not only because Assad is their ally but also because they fear the success of domestic protests. But a different approach in Libya might have reduced the opposition to intervention and shifted the debate from geo-politics to the humanitarian situation in Syria and the illegitimacy of the tactics used by the regime as well as the opposition. Instead of discussing the rights or wrongs of the rebels, the international community should be focussed on how to stop the killings. The agreement on chemical weapons may be a step in that direction.


8. A Human Security intervention is focussed on two goals [1] :

i) Protecting people, minimising loss of life and meeting human need rather than on defeating enemies. It is people-centric and not enemy-centric. Of course, force may have to be used against those who attack civilians, but the use force should only be defensive and where possible, those responsible for the violence should be arrested rather than killed. An emphasis on, for example, kill or capture, merely provokes more violence. The aim is to dampen down violence not to win.

ii) Intervention has to aim to establish legitimate political authority; that is the only way human security can be sustained. This means creating space for a peaceful political process and engaging with civil society. Those who carry guns are not the same as those who hold political authority and who are capable of generating trust. By civil society I mean those who care about the public interest –local municipal or tribal or religious leaders, teachers, doctors, women’s groups or youth groups. In Syria, the rebels are not necessarily those who took part in the protests. They consist of defecting soldiers, young men who have taken up arms to protect their families, jihadists and Islamists, Kurdish militias as well as criminal gangs. Many of those who took part in the protests believed strongly in non-violence; they knew they could never defeat the regime militarily. It is those people who are now providing humanitarian aid, negotiating local cease fires, keeping schools and health care centres open, providing legal aid. It is these sorts of people that need to be involved in a political process.

9. To achieve this goal, intervention forces are needed that are composed of officers who have both military and civilian skills. Civilian skills include humanitarian workers, health workers, police, legal experts, as well as technicians. There needs to be a big increase in the number of women participating in these forces in order to change the extremist gender dynamics of contemporary violence that legitimises violence against civilians includes visible and systematic sexual violence. There also needs to be a whole of government approach in providing backing to such forces.

10. In terms of resources, there has not to be an increase in civilian capacities and a restructuring or ‘rebalancing’ (to use the current term) of military forces.

11. Is such an approach feasible? Actually this is more or less the approach that was taken in Northern Ireland. It was not possible to bomb Belfast or to carry out excessively kinetc attacks on the IRA because Northern Ireland was part of Britain. Fundamentally the core of human security is the attentiveness to human well being that citizens expect to receive in their own countries. It is about treating Syrians as though they were British.

November 2013

[1] The Principles of Human Security are described at length in the Barcelona and Madrid reports: ;


Prepared 28th November 2013