CANBERRA – US President Barack Obama deserves unconditional support for his decision to use military force to protect the persecuted Yezidi minority from threatened genocide by marauding Islamic State (IS) militants in northern Iraq. The United States’ action is completely consistent with the principles of the international responsibility to protect (R2P) people at risk of mass-atrocity crimes, which was embraced unanimously by the United Nations General Assembly in 2005. The US military intervention touches all of R2P’s bases of legality, legitimacy, and likely effectiveness in meeting its immediate objectives.
In contrast to the original military intervention in Iraq – which touched none of these bases – the current US action, though lacking Security Council authorization, is being taken at the request of the Iraqi government, so there is no question of a breach of international law. And it would clearly seem to satisfy the moral or prudential criteria for the use of military force, which, though not yet formally adopted by the United Nations or anyone else, have been the subject of much international debate and acceptance over the last decade.
The criteria of legitimacy are that the atrocities occurring or feared are sufficiently serious to justify, prima facie, a military response; that the response has a primarily humanitarian motive; that no lesser response is likely to be effective in halting or averting the harm; that the proposed response is proportional to the threat; and that the intervention will do more good than harm.
The available evidence is that the many thousands of men, women, and children who have sought refuge in the Sinjar mountain range of northern Iraq are indeed at risk. They face death not only from starvation and exposure, but also from genocidal slaughter by the rapidly advancing IS forces, who regard the Yazidis as apostates and have already perpetrated atrocities unrivaled in their savagery. The US motive in mobilizing air power to protect them is unquestionably humanitarian. It is clear that no lesser measures will be sufficient, and the only question about proportionality that arises is whether the air strikes and supply drops will do too little, rather than too much, to address the emergency.