Intervention: When, Why and How?

Written evidence from the Foreign Affairs Committee

As you may know, the Foreign Affairs Committee has been conducting an inquiry into "Government foreign policy towards the United States". We will publish our Report shortly. Post-2001 military interventions by the UK and US in third countries were one of our areas of interest. In the event, in our Report we discussed the implications of the two countries’ August 2013 decisions over possible military action in Syria but we did not discuss the general issue in any depth. This was partly because we were aware of your Committee’s current inquiry into intervention.

We understand that your Report on intervention is currently in preparation. In that light, we wanted to make sure that your Committee was aware of a letter that we received from the Rt Hon Hugh Robertson MP, FCO Minister of State, dated 14 January 2014, in response to a letter of ours posing questions about the Government’s understanding of humanitarian intervention and the Responsibility to Protect. We have published Mr Robertson’s letter on our website as evidence to our US inquiry (as USA 19, at We felt that it was an important statement of the Government’s position. The letter was picked up, for example, in the US international law blog (on 30 January 2014).

With respect to the US, two points arose in our inquiry that you may wish to be aware of as you consider your Report:

i. Our sense is that, when considering possible discretionary military interventions overseas, the UK tends to give greater weight to international legal considerations than does the US. This applies both to the executive’s internal deliberations and to the public presentation of the case for any proposed military action. This tallies with our wider understanding that legal advisers and considerations of international law play a greater role in FCO policy-making than in some other foreign ministries.

ii. Mr Simmonds’ letter confirmed that the UK Government is of the view that the use of force may be lawful even without an authorising UN Security Council Resolution, if action in the Security Council is blocked and the use of force is necessary to avert a humanitarian catastrophe. Our understanding is that the UK is almost alone among UN Member States in holding this view, and, in particular, that its position is not necessarily shared by the US. UN Member States apart from the UK may be more inclined to take the view that the use of force under these circumstances would not be lawful but might be legitimate (on the precedent of the NATO action in Kosovo in 1999).

The UK is still most likely to undertake discretionary military interventions overseas together with the US. It therefore seems to us that these differences in the two states’ approaches to relevant international law are also relevant to any general consideration of possible future discretionary military intervention by the UK.

We are happy for you to publish this letter as part of the evidence for your inquiry into intervention.

Rt Hon Sir Richard Ottaway MP


 March 2014

Prepared 3rd April 2014