Irresponsible Interventions

GENEVA – With France launching its third “humanitarian” military operation in as many years – this time in the Central African Republic – interventionism, which seemed discredited after the US invasion of Iraq, seems to have returned as an accepted norm in international affairs. Indeed, decades of relentless intervention have shifted the terms of debate, with recent operations justified by their achievability rather than their merit. To understand how this shift occurred is to see why, more often than not, such intervention has failed to attain its objectives.

As France’s recent actions demonstrate, intervention nowadays requires nothing more than a unilateral decree of humanitarian or counter-terrorism objectives, an atmosphere of urgency, and an ambiguous link to ongoing United Nations deliberations. A military operation might also be referred to the UN Security Council, but only after the fact, when the Council’s decision can no longer significantly affect events on the ground.

This is the upshot of an intellectual movement that began almost 35 years ago – and that has facilitated no fewer than a dozen interventions in just over two decades. In 1979, Jean-François Revel introduced the phrase “devoir d’ingérence” (duty to intervene); in 1980, Mario Bettati wrote of a “devoir d’assistance” (duty to assist); and, in 1988, the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution referring to “humanitarian assistance.”

In 2001, the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty, led by Gareth Evans and Mohamed Sahnoun, codified the concept of humanitarian military expeditions under the so-called Responsibility to Protect doctrine. Despite disputes over R2P’s legal basis, the doctrine gained rapid recognition – not least because the various schools of interventionism united behind it.