Intervention and Genocide Prevention


In his essay Perpetual Peace, Immanuel Kant wrote that democratic states will be naturally averse to war - it is the people who suffer from conflict, and they will therefore avoid war at all costs. Although the nature of war has changed a great deal since the 18th century, this claim seems to be borne out by the facts in the 20th century. This decline in warfare is a tremendous achievement. However, the other side of the coin is increasing reluctance of civilian populations to support intervention when it is morally necessary. The aftermath of the Iraq war shows that people are highly sensitive to failed interventions, but they are not equally touched by successful interventions and failed non-interventions, and this poses a problem for genocide prevention advocates.

In the Spring of 1999, the Serbian police and Yugoslav army conducted a coordinated campaign of violence to expel Albanian citizens from Kosovo. A genocide was in progress. Fewer than 10 years after the United Nations failed to intervene to prevent the genocide of the Tutsi population in Rwanda, an ethnic minority was once again under threat within the reach of the great powers, and there was no provision in the international law to justify the unilateral NATO intervention which would prevent further atrocities. When NATO chose to intervene, the world avoided a grotesque tragedy, and Kosovo has some lessons to teach about the future of genocide prevention. Although we should always be wary of war-like governments and the tendency to unjustified interventions, it is equally important that Western governments are prepared to act when civilian lives come under threat. We need to take the dangers of non-intervention as seriously as the dangers of intervention.

Unfortunately, the 21st century so far has been replete with indications that the pendulum swings against humanitarian intervention. The failures of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have convinced Western populations that any intervention is typically a recipe for disaster, however, this idea is misleading and unduly cynical. Boots on the ground can be a constructive way to achieve humanitarian goals, as Kosovo has proved. Yet there are forms of humanitarian intervention which are effective but not militaristic. A primary role of peacekeepers is to ‘get inbetween’ conflicting groups, to make atrocities more difficult and to ease tensions. Another is to assist constructive efforts, like building hospitals. The most recent contributions of UK peacekeeping personnel to South Sudan have taken these forms.

As military technology improves, even militaristic interventions need not be long-term commitments on the ground. Targeted strikes can succeed at beheading genocidal political movements like ISIS, as well as undermining attempts to commit atrocities. With the destruction of chemical weapons facilities in Syria, the UK has shown that it can achieve these goals with minimal long-term commitments. Emphasis on these facts may be the first step to showing the constructive possibilities of humanitarianism.

In the context of these new possibilities of intervention, the failures of non-intervention are just as important as failures of intervention. Rwanda is an obvious example, where knowledge of an impending genocide of the Tutsis was not sufficient to convince the UNSC to act on the matter and to intervene - the subsequent carnage killed 800,000. Rwanda is not alone, Darfur was similarly devastated when Western states failed to intervene, resulting in 300,000 deaths. It is important that civilians in the West come to feel the urgency of atrocity prevention in these cases as keenly as they feel the desire to avoid unjustified conflicts. Creating a peaceful and just world is a matter of intervening when it is right as much as abstaining from unnecessary conflict.


This blog post was written by Tom Ryan, STAND UK's Policy Coordinator.