Intervention: When, Why and How?

Written evidence from Dr James Pattison, Senior Lecturer in International Politics, University of Manchester

Short Bio: Pattison is an expert on humanitarian intervention and the responsibility to protect (R2P). He is the author of James Pattison (2012) Humanitarian Intervention and the Responsibility to Protect: Who Should Intervene?, Updated Edition (Oxford: Oxford University Press) and James Pattison (forthcoming) Humanitarian Intervention, Sage ‘Major Works’ Series, Four Volumes (London: Sage). He co-convenes the BISA working group on intervention and the responsibility to protect and has published numerous articles on this topic.

Short summary: This evidence addresses the legitimacy of intervention and, in particular which agents should engage in humanitarian intervention in the future. It surveys NATO, states, the UN, PMCs and regional organisations. It draws on my book Humanitarian Intervention and the Responsibility to Protect: Who Should Intervene?, which I have sent independently (if this has not been received, please contact


1. Amongst currently existing interveners, NATO would probably rank as the most likely to be legitimate. This is because of its effectiveness, which can be seen both in its success in previous missions (such as in Bosnia and in Kosovo) and in its level of military infrastructure. In Bosnia, the 1995 NATO air campaign forced the Bosnian Serbs to agree to peace after three unsuccessful years of UNPROFOR intervention. In Kosovo, although NATO’s bombing campaign at first escalated the extent of the Serbian oppression, it avoided the ethnic cleansing on the scale of that seen in Bosnia. The effectiveness of these two operations was no coincidence. NATO has tremendous military and logistical resources (including a well-equipped rapid-reaction force, the NATO Response Force). In addition, when NATO does intervene, it tends to do so with the commitment to ensure, firstly, a rapid resolution to the humanitarian crisis and, secondly, long-term peace and stability.

2. In addition, NATO intervention is likely to be internally representative. Its decision-making depends on consensus; each member state must consent to the use of force. Every NATO member state is a democracy and democratic states are most likely to be responsive to their citizens’ opinions on the use of force.

3. That said, NATO has faced two major challenges that have raised doubts over its purposes and capabilities. The first is disagreement over potential members of NATO, most notably the former-Soviet states Ukraine and Georgia. This has called into question the unity and direction of NATO, and its role in the post-Cold War world vis-à-vis Russia and the EU. The second is the difficulty that the International Security Afghanistan Force (ISAF) has had in securing the requisite troop numbers. Certain NATO members, such as Germany and Italy, have been reluctant to contribute their troops both in general and in the Taliban strongholds of the south (Whitlock 2009). This has raised doubts over whether any future humanitarian intervention conducted by NATO would have sufficient commitment. This should be put in the context, however, of what is already a sizeable and sustained commitment of NATO members in the notoriously harsh conditions of Afghanistan.

4. Despite these challenges, if it is willing to intervene, NATO is still likely to be the most legitimate agent, primarily because of its effectiveness. What matters most for legitimacy is the intervener’s likely success at halting the humanitarian crisis and NATO is, at the moment, the agent most likely to be successful, given its substantial military, political, and financial capabilities.

States and coalitions of the willing 

5. The track record of humanitarian intervention by states and coalitions of the willing is somewhat uneven, but, on the whole, shows that they tend to be effective (Seybolt (2007: 271–2). On the one hand, the following interventions by states and coalitions of the willing were probably not effective: the US-led mission in Somalia to protect humanitarian corridors in 1992; French intervention in Rwanda in 1994, which was too late to stop the genocide and instead halted the advance of the Rwandan Patriotic Front-a Tutsi force, thereby allowing the unchecked exodus of the interahamwe murder squads to DR Congo; and the 2002 French intervention in Côte d’Ivoire to halt growing violence, which has arguably exacerbated the situation.

6. On the other hand, the following interventions by states and coalitions of the willing were probably successful: India’s 1971 intervention in East Pakistan that brought an end to the Pakistani oppression of Bengalis (Wheeler 2000: 55); Tanzania’s 1979 intervention in Uganda that removed Idi Amin from power (Wheeler 2000: 111); France’s 1979 intervention in the Central Africa Republican that engineered a bloodless coup against Emperor Bokassa (ICISS 2001b: 63); the creation by the US, the UK, and France of safe havens and no-fly zones in northern Iraq to protect the Kurds in 1991; the Australian-led 1999 intervention to protect the East Timorese from the Indonesian army after the Timorese had voted for independence; and the British intervention in Sierra Leone in 2000 to prevent the United Nations Mission in Sierra Leone (UNAMSIL) from collapse.

7. Overall, then, the number of successful interventions by states are greater than the number of unsuccessful interventions. Can we expect this trend to continue? Much depends on which particular state intervenes. In particular, many mid- and large-sized Western, liberal democratic states have the required military and nonmilitary resources, and are therefore likely to be effective. But this effectiveness is likely to be limited: a number of these states would face a high level of local resistance. Where it does intervene, it is likely to face extreme local opposition (which can harm the chances of a successful outcome) and lack local perceived legitimacy. Similarly, ex-colonial masters intervening in their former colonies may also be highly unpopular amongst the local inhabitants. Such states may also lack global perceived legitimacy, which will also harm an intervener’s likely effectiveness. Conversely, non-Western states, which might face less resistance, are limited to intervention in nearby or neighbouring states at best, given their lack of resources

The  UN

8. The discussion that follows will consider intervention by the UN itself, rather than UN-authorized humanitarian intervention. The latter option-Security Council-authorized intervention-encompasses a number of possible interveners, including NATO, states (or coalitions of the willing), and regional organizations. To provide a more detailed analysis, I consider these options individually.

9. UN interventions have been subject to a number of criticisms, which have led many to doubt its suitability to carry out humanitarian intervention. To start with, when the UN has intervened itself, the results have often been mixed at best. The following three interventions, for example, are often highlighted for their questionable effectiveness. First, in Bosnia as many as 230,000 people died during the UNPROFOR mission (ICISS 2001b: 94). Second, the UN mission in Rwanda, UNAMIR, was unable to prevent the genocide of Tutsis and moderate Hutus, and was even downgraded in the middle of the killing. Third, the 1999 UN intervention in Sierra Leone, UNAMSIL, was unable to stop the atrocities committed by the RUF and was at the point of collapse until the British intervention in 2000 (ICISS 2001b: 109).

10. The lack of success of these missions is frequently attributed to the way in which UN operations are undertaken (e.g., Seybolt 2007: 273). Rather than having a standing army of its own, readily available for quick deployment, the UN has to rely on ad hoc contributions of troops from member states. Member states are reluctant to commit their soldiers and, as a result, UN missions often do not have enough troops to fulfil their mandates. An example is the recent United Nations Mission in Darfur (UNAMID), which has had real difficulties in getting up to its full strength of 26,000 personnel. Western states, in particular, have shown a reluctance to contribute troops, which is unfortunate since their troops tend to be the best trained and to have the most equipment (Bellamy and Williams 2009).

11. Furthermore, the system of ad hoc troop deployment is laborious. First, it takes time for states to decide whether they will volunteer troops. If they do decide to commit troops, deployment can be painfully slow. In addition to delays in deployment, it can also take the Security Council much time to authorize a UN intervention in the first place.

12. When the troops do actually arrive, they frequently lack the necessary equipment. They also tend to lack standardized equipment and many have inadequate training (Kinloch-Pichat 2004: 176). In the field, there is frequently a lack of clear lines of command and control, so that it is not clear whose orders troops should be following, the orders of the UN commander or the orders of their national commander. Troops also have trouble integrating; the multinational make-up of the force means that troops speak different languages and have different cultures (Kinloch-Pichat 2004: 176–7).

13. It is important not to overexaggerate these problems. There have been several improvements to the UN’s procedures and capabilities. For instance, the Security Council is now more willing to give its troops a civilian protection mandate supported by Chapter VII authorization (unlike many of the UN operations in the early 1990s). Under the current UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-Moon, the Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO) has been reorganized and the Department of Field Support has been created, which aims to provide financial, logistical, and technical support and expertise to UN peace operations. The UN has also improved its flexibility, being able to shift forces between missions (e.g., from Liberia to Côte d’Ivoire). In addition, it has worked to improve its forces’ fidelity to the principles of jus in bello. The DPKO also highlights its relative cost-effectiveness: ‘[w]hen costs to the UN per peacekeeper are compared to the costs of troops deployed by the United States, other developed states, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) or regional organizations, the United Nations is the least expensive option by far’ (UN 2008b: 2).

14. Moreover, the difficulties that UNAMID has had in getting up to strength in Darfur and the reluctance of certain Western states to contribute to major UN peace operations should be put into the context of what is a boom time for UN peace operations. According to the DPKO (UN 2009), as of May 2009, there are 114,577 troops, police, observers, and other officials serving on 16 UN peace operations. Moreover, the frequently highlighted inefficiencies of the UN are, in practice, often overshadowed by the understated, but notable, successes that it has with its peace operations. Even in the three operations discussed above, which are often presented as examples of the UN’s ineffectiveness, UN intervention was partially effective and clearly better than no intervention at all. First, in Bosnia, the UN intervention provided humanitarian aid to 4.3 million victims and frustrated the war aims of Bosnian Serbs and the Milosevic government for a greater Serbia (Gizelis and Kosek 2005: 370; ICISS 2001b: 94). Second, in Rwanda, Roméo Dallaire was widely credited for protecting a number of civilians, who would have been slaughtered if it were not for his leadership. Third, the UN mission in Sierra Leone, even though it needed support from the British, has since largely stabilized the country and has helped to establish a war crimes tribunal.

15. Overall, then, the UN has a significant resources gap because of its reliance on ad hoc troops and this gap undermines its effectiveness. Although the UN is not the most effective agent, even its interventions commonly regarded as ineffective have achieved some measure of success. And, given its recent improvements, we can probably expect humanitarian intervention by the UN to have some success in the future. Indeed, the UN may sometimes be the most legitimate intervener, particularly when intervention by NATO or militarily capable Western states would face international and local resistance.

Regional and subregional organizations 

16. In general, intervention by regional organizations has had varied results. The central problem is that the majority of regional organizations do not possess the infrastructure, expertise, mandate, and finance to tackle effectively a humanitarian crisis (Diehl 2005). Of course, as with state intervention, much depends on which particular regional or subregional organization intervenes.

17. Article 4 (h) of the Charter of the AU allows for the AU to intervene in grave circumstances (war crimes, genocide, and crimes against humanity) in countries that have signed up to the treaty. There are also proposals for an African Standby Force, in the control of the AU, to be in place by 2010. This would comprise five brigades of around 4,000 military personnel that would be able to respond to a variety of crises (P. Williams 2008: 314). If put in place, this could be seen as a notable step towards realizing the much-heralded ‘African solutions for African problems’.

18. But, although a great improvement on its predecessor, the Organization of African Unity, the AU suffers from massive shortfalls in funding and equipment, and has relied heavily on external funding and equipment. For instance, the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) had difficulties in deploying its authorized strength of 8,000 troops, largely due to financial and logistical constraints (Center on International Cooperation 2008: 3). Similarly, its mission in Darfur, AMIS, faced serious shortfalls in military equipment, resources, and even basic supplies, and, as a result, was unable to do much to halt the janjaweed raids on the local population. Accordingly, the ‘African solutions for African problems’ view is misleading, since, as Paul Williams (2008: 316–18) asserts, the problems are not solely African-under the responsibility to protect they are global-and the solutions cannot be solely African either, given the limited capacity of the AU.

19. ECOWAS is perhaps the most notable subregional organization for humanitarian intervention. It plans to develop a 6,500-strong standby force as part of the African Standby Force, which would give it the ability to deploy 1,500 troops within 30 days, to be followed by the remaining 5,000 troops within 90 days (Holt and Berkman 2006: 69). Previous interventions by ECOWAS, however, have had questionable effectiveness. Although its intervention in Liberia in 1990 (ECOMOG) successfully pushed back the rebel advances and restored law and order in Monrovia, it became more like a party in the conflict and was unable to establish authority in the interior (ICISS 2001b: 81–4). In addition, its peacekeepers allegedly committed abuses against a number of civilians and suspected rebels and provided arms support to factions opposed to Charles Taylor, thereby aiding the proliferation of rebel groups (Nowrojee 2004). Similarly, although its 1997 intervention in Sierra Leone was able to restore the ousted president, rebels remained in control in rural areas and continued to brutalize the civilian population and, in 1999, overran Freetown, murdering thousands before ECOMOG could regain control (ICISS 2001b: 107). ECOWAS has also intervened in Côte d’Ivoire, but its efforts stalled and it has had insufficient resources and ultimately necessitated French intervention (Nowrojee 2004). Thus, although ECOWAS has been willing to undertake a long-term engagement in the country concerned, like the AU, and as the recent action in Côte d’Ivoire has demonstrated, it ultimately lacks the funding and resources to intervene successfully.

Private military companies

20. The final option is to hire private military companies (PMCs). There are three sorts of role that PMCs could play in humanitarian intervention (see Gantz 2003; P. W. Singer 2003a: 184–8). The first is the most likely: PMCs could be used in a noncombat capacity to bolster another intervener’s military capabilities. They could provide logistics, lift capacity, military training, communications, and other support services. In doing so, they could improve this agent’s effectiveness or make an intervention possible that would otherwise struggle to get off the ground. For instance, a regional organization lacking in lift capacity could hire a PMC to provide transport for its troops. Some of the normative concerns surrounding the use of PMCs are perhaps less serious in this first sort of role, since the PMC would not be providing frontline combat services. Nevertheless, there are still concerns over the openness of the processes by which PMCs win their contracts and the potential for conflicts of interest (Singer 2003a: 151–68).

21. By contrast, the second and third roles involve PMCs in combat. In the second role, PMCs could provide troops or bolster another agent’s intervention. For instance, a UN force that is struggling to receive sufficient contributions of troops from member states could hire a PMC to fill the gaps. In addition, PMCs could provide a rapid-reaction force to intervene in response to humanitarian crisis whilst a larger, more long-term UN or regional organization force is being put together. Or, they could be hired to protect key officials and infrastructure. In this second role (like the first), then, PMCs would not be undertaking intervention themselves. Instead, they would be part of a larger, hybridized force, the benefits of which I will discuss in the next section.

22. In the third potential role, PMCs would undertake humanitarian intervention by themselves. A PMC (or several PMCs) would be hired by a state, a group of states, or an international organization to intervene, to resolve the crisis, and to rebuild afterwards. It is currently unlikely that a PMC would be employed in such a role. To start with, it is doubtful whether PMCs currently have the capacity to take on such a role. Most firms could not deploy and organize the size of force necessary for a major operation (i.e., over 20,000 personnel). There would also be notable political obstacles to PMCs undertaking humanitarian intervention by themselves, given the current levels of political opposition to their use (especially in the Global South).

23. Furthermore, the use of a PMC in a combat role poses several normative concerns. These include the potentially profit-driven intentions of a private force, which may distract from the humanitarian objectives, and the lack of regulation of the private military industry, meaning that private contractors can violate principles of external jus in bello largely with impunity (Pattison 2008b: 150–3). The use of PMCs also raises concerns over an intervener’s responsibility of care for those fighting on its behalf. Deaths of private contractors are seldom covered by the media. Political leaders are often less concerned about the loss of private contractors than regular soldiers, and private contractors do not receive the same level of support if injured in action (Krahmann 2008: 260). In addition, private contractors have frequently failed to receive the correct equipment promised to them when signing up (such as flak jackets) and, accordingly, have been at much greater risk than necessary. Moreover, PMC are unlikely to be effective when undertaking a combat role. Although they might have the requisite military muscle, they are likely to lack many of the other qualities of effectiveness necessary for successful intervention, such as nonmilitary resources, a suitable post-war strategy for building and maintaining a peaceful resolution to the crisis, and, more indirectly, perceived legitimacy at the local and global levels (which may be harmed by the perceptions of the force as mercenaries).


Hybrid solutions 

24. A growing trend has been for humanitarian intervention to be undertaken by agents acting together in hybrid operations. There are three forms of hybrid operation. The first, ‘sequential operations’, involve different interveners succeeding each other. This includes what ‘spearhead’ operations, where Western troops prepare the security environment on the ground in order to hand over to the UN or a regional organization. Examples are the Australian-led intervention in East Timor (INTERFET), before the establishment of the UN transitional administration, and French Operation Licorne in the Côte d’Ivoire before the arrival of the ECOWAS force. Second, ‘parallel operations’ involve interveners operating in response to the same crisis, but under different command. Such operations often involve a more militarily capable Western state providing additional enforcement capabilities or the threat of such force. Examples include NATO action in Bosnia in support of UNPROFOR, British action in Sierra Leone in support of UNAMSIL, and Operation Artemis in support of MONUC in DR Congo in 2003. The third, ‘integrated operations’, involve interveners operating in response to the same crisis under unified or joint command, such as the UN-AU operation in Darfur (UNAMID).

25. There has also been a growth in supportive arrangements, where one agent assists another’s intervention. These involve, first, the supply of equipment and training by another intervener to bolster capacity, such as the US’s Global Peace Operations Initiative, which aims to provide 75,000 extra peacekeepers worldwide. Second, they involve the provision of funding and equipment (including from PMCs) for a particular operation. For instance, the EU provided $120 million for the AU’s force in Darfur and NATO provided lift capacity (Piiparinen 2007: 371).

26. Hybrid operations and supportive arrangements can combine the strengths of particular agents and, as a result, perhaps offer the best hope for effective-and legitimate-humanitarian intervention. On the one hand, they provide Western states, NATO, and the EU with a politically viable way to intervene without committing themselves to a drawn-out occupation. On the other hand, they offer the UN (and regional organizations) much-needed funding and military capability (including access to the rapid-reaction capabilities of the NATO Response Force and EU battlegroups), and can utilize the UN’s expertise in longer, peace-building operations. In addition, hybrid operations enhance flexibility and can make possible an intervention that would otherwise struggle to get off the ground (such as the AU’s operation in Darfur). Indeed, some of the most successful interventions have been part of a larger hybrid operation (e.g., British action in Sierra Leone and the Australian-led intervention in East Timor). In fact, most recent humanitarian interventions have been hybrid missions and future interventions can be expected to continue to rely on a combination of agents. Hybrid solutions have, for these reasons, been receiving much support.

27. Some, however, see such solutions as a way for Western states to circumvent their duties. Even when the West does provide military personnel (such as in a spearhead role), these troops, Bellamy and Williams (2009: 52) argue, might save more lives if they were integrated into a larger UN operation. As such, although the increased flexibility and the potential combination of strengths of hybrid options can be beneficial, they should not be seen as a panacea. It is important that they are not regarded by the West as a way of avoiding contributing troops. Moreover, hybrid solutions can be only the sum of their parts and the parts-the individual agents-suffer from a number of problems.

Reform: Strengthening Regional Arrangements


28. Particular attention should be paid to the strengthening of African regional organizations, such as the AU and ECOWAS, given the large number of humanitarian crises on this continent and the general reluctance of other agents to intervene in what are regarded as African quagmires. There are a number of potential improvements that might be made. The first concerns the funding of regional organizations and, in particular, the AU. As it stands, the AU relies heavily on external funding for peace operations, but this is ad hoc and unreliable. Jakkie Cilliers (2008: 158–9) proposes that there be a single point of entry for international funders wanting to assist the AU which would replace the current donor scramble and duplication of efforts.

29. The second improvement is the further training of African troops in peacekeeping with programs such as the Global Peace Operations Initiative. This would help to overcome some of the previous problems with African peacekeepers’ abuse of civilians (Nowrojee 2004), as well as broadly developing African capacity for peace operations.

30. This relates to the third, most obvious improvement: increase the military resources of regional organizations. The AU, African subregional organizations, and the EU have begun to address their lack of capacity with development of the African Standby Force and the EU battlegroups respectively, both of which, when fully operational, will offer notable rapid-reaction capability. But, although already ambitious, the 25,000 troops projected for African Standby Force will probably need to be increased further, given the number of conflicts in Africa and the need for a sustained troop presence (and the expected increased reliance on this force). Likewise, although a positive development, the capacity and size of EU battlegroups need to be increased (perhaps to include greater lift capacity and logistics) so that the EU can successfully intervene to tackle large-scale humanitarian crises beyond its borders.

31. A fourth improvement would be to increase cooperation between agents, that is, further ‘hybridization’. As Ban Ki-Moon (2009: 28) argues in his report on the responsibility to protect, Implementing the Responsibility to Protect, increased global-regional collaboration is key to operationalizing the responsibility to protect.

32. It is important that these proposals for strengthened regional organizations-and in particular African regional organizations-would not lead to the rest of the international community completely washing their hands of other regions’ crises (Bellamy and Williams 2005: 195; Weiss 2001: 423). Other agents, such as states and the UN, still have a moral duty to undertake humanitarian intervention even if there are regional mechanisms in place. In anticipation of this problem, it would be judicious, firstly, to strengthen regional organizations’ capability to intervene even further so that other agents’ lack of willingness to intervene would not be too detrimental, and, secondly, for regional organizations to highlight that they may not always be able to act and that other agents still may have the responsibility to protect.

October 2013

Prepared 28th November 2013