International military intervention

13 November 2013 | ResolutionPossible

This is the third blog in our ‘Armed conflict’ series. Here we pose the question: Should foreign troops intervene in domestic or regional tensions or conflicts? When do we decide to get involved and when do we believe it is up the country itself to resolve the issue?

An Indian UN peacekeeper stands on Mount Goma: Guardian/Jessica Hatcher

Indian UN peacekeeper stands on Mount Goma, DRC. (Photo: Guardian – Jessica Hatcher)

Over the past few months the debate about international military intervention has intensified. The alleged use of chemical weapons in the suburbs of Damascus, Syria, served as potential justification for US, UK and various other countries to send troops to Syria. The threat of chemical warfare has diminished, but the debate on intervention continues with the emphasis on intervention based on ‘moral grounds’.

The debate around whether or not international armies should intervene in Syria came at a time when, in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), the UN troops launched military action against the armed group M23The UN force in DRC, MONUSCO, was initially a peace keeping mission without a mandate to engage in actual fighting. This was changed in recent months. Last week the M23 surrendered in Uganda, following defeat at the hands of the UN-backed Congolese armed forces.

Although the history and political contexts of the conflicts in Syria and DRC are very different, the concept of international military intervention, for example US military intervention, needs to be looked at in a wider context.

National interests

In order to understand the reasoning behind a military intervention, it is necessary to explore the national interests of the intervening country. As President Bill Clinton famously said in 1994, seven weeks into the Rwandan killings:

“Whether we get involved in any of the world’s ethnic conflicts in the end must depend on the cumulative weight of the American interests at stake”.

Furthermore, Monique Mujawamariya, a human rights activist from Rwanda who fled to the US in 1994, was told by a US official that

“the United States has no friends. The United States has interests. And in the United States there is no interest in Rwanda. And we are not interested in sending young American marines to bring them back in coffins. We have no incentive.”

It is therefore not surprising that today many people are sceptical about US motives to send troops into other countries such as Syria. If it is still the case that the US is unwilling to intervene unless there are national interests at stake, then what exactly are these national interests?

Historical context

It is not just about national interests. Consider the failure to respond to the Rwanda crisis in 1994 and the outrage it caused worldwide. After a complete failure of the 1993 operation in Mogadishu, Somalia, the US was reluctant to enter into a similar scenario in Rwanda only a year later. Upon being asked why the US did not intervene in Rwanda in 1994, President Clinton responded,

“I think that the people who were bringing these decisions to me felt that the Congress was still reeling from what had happened in Somalia […]. And I feel terrible about it, because I think we could have sent five, ten thousand troops in and saved a couple of hundred thousand lives. I think we could have saved about half of them”.

This had an impact on the international community’s policies on military intervention. The Clinton administration, other governments and UN officials from that time have openly admitted they regret their decision not to take action, apart from evacuating ex-patriots. MONUSCO, the UN mission mentioned above, is the UN’s biggest peace keeping mission in the world. It is worth noting that the reason it is based in eastern DRC, bordering Rwanda, is due to a crisis that stems directly from the events in Rwanda in 1994. The guilt and accusations surrounding the failure to intervene in April 1994 appear to remain a factor in decisions regarding intervention today.


Protest against US intervention, Syria

Protest against US intervention, Syria. [Photo: REUTERS, via The Indian Express]

Protest against the UN in DR Congo

Protest against the UN in DR Congo. [Photo via Rising Continent]











There is another side to the story as well. What do the civilians want? Do we know what the people on the ground in Syria want the international community to do – not just the ones taking up arms and being vocal, but the ordinary, unarmed, unheard civilians? Many people in Goma, eastern DRC, claimed that UN peace keepers shot at innocent civilians during a protest about the Congolese government’s negligence in protecting civilians. People also stormed the UN compound out of protest. “The UN came here to protect civilians, there is nothing they are doing here. We don’t want them”, said one of the protesters.

ResPoss asks

When is military intervention justified? Is it ever? Is it worse to stand by and watch a conflict unfold while civilians suffer, or is it better to intervene, even at the risk of harming innocent people and potentially making matters worse?

What justification can we give to the people in Goma who stormed the UN buildings? If a UN soldier and an M23 fighter are perceived as just ‘men with guns’, what difference is there between the two in the eyes of civilians?

What motivates a UN force to change its mandate from peace-keeping to combat, like MONUSCO did in the DRC?

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