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Foreign intervention and the UNSC

By David Donaldson - posted Wednesday, 5 December 2012

Foreign intervention in a sovereign state, military or otherwise, will always be controversial. And so it should be. But the international community needs to improve its capacity for monitoring and acting to prevent mass atrocities, a record that has proven patchy in the recent past. Australia's election as a non-permanent member of the United Nations Security Council should be used as an opportunity to tackle some of these problems.

From the 1994 Rwandan genocide to the current Syrian civil war –in which 40,000 to 50,000 are thought to have died– to the recent UN finding that the Sri Lankan army deliberately targeted civilians towards the end of the civil war there in 2009, madmen continue to act with impunity in the killing of their own people. There have been examples of intervention successfully preventing imminent atrocities, too- Iraq in 1991, Kosovo in 1999 and Benghazi in 2011. Nonetheless, we are all too often reminded that even in an age when the number of those killed in conflicts around the world is decreasing, government-sponsored atrocities continue.

In theory, according to Chapter VII of the UN Charter, the UNSC must authorise military intervention in another country, though this was not the case for either the invasion of Iraq or the NATO-led Kosovo war. Inevitably, as the Security Council is dominated by the five unelected permanent members –the United States, Russia, China, United Kingdom and France, also known as the P5– the geopolitical reality that the UNSC is merely a grouping of states, and is thus subject to national interests and politicking, limits its ability to take action that would conflict with the strategic interests of P5 members.


The merits of action in the Syrian case aside, it has proven incredibly difficult for the Council to produce even rhetorical condemnation of the Syrian regime for killing its own citizens en masse, let alone to threaten any kind of intervention. But while governments make such decisions partly based on strategic concerns –Syria is Russia's only friend in the region, so Russia consistently blocks anti-Assad resolutions, for example- international pressure can help swing the balance in favour of the humanitarian. Although middle powers such as Australia cannot stop powerful states from doing as they please, a combination of international pressure and calls for transparent decision-making can make it more difficult for regimes to justify supporting murderous dictators.

Apart from formal processes and behind-the-scenes jockeying for influence, the flow of information about circumstances on the ground in conflict zones plays an important role in persuading states to make decisions in the interests of the people. The more publics know about what is happening, the more likely it is that powerful countries will be pushed to act responsibly. The more information known by Council members, the better their capacity to make sensible decisions.

Although the UN Secretary General's office has since 2004 employed a Special Advisor on the Prevention of Genocide, the role remains under-resourced and bureaucratically challenged. More funding would help in the formulation of good policy. The implementation of better interstate information-sharing mechanism would also help states co-ordinate and share knowledge to help prevent atrocities occurring.

Following the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, and the long wars they engendered, it is also important that those advocating for military involvement are held accountable for their views. One way to do this is to require interventionists to answer to the six criteria raised in the 2001 Responsibility to Protect report on intervention: that permission is being sought from the right authority; there is just cause for action; parties have the right intention; intervention is being pursued as a last resort; proportional means are used in the action; and that there are reasonable prospects for success. Where any of these criteria cannot be met –and in many cases they will not be- armed involvement more than likely should not take place.

Experience has shown that in the collective process of leaders convincing themselves that military action is necessary, many practical questions are swept aside in a tide of wishful thinking. Regardless of the ethics of military intervention, the possibilities for actually achieving the goals of the mission (for example, eradicating terrorism in Afghanistan) are frequently left behind in the rush to gain public approval. Australia should advocate for the importance of these criteria in formal UNSC decision-making processes, which would help to keep the great powers accountable.

And it's not all about military intervention. Although they may not attract the public attention and excitement generated by expensive, dangerous invasions, diplomacy and peacekeeping play an important role in stopping communal tensions reaching the point where the big guns are brought out.


The deployment of UN troops in Macedonia between 1992 and 1999 is seen as one such example of successful preventive intervention, nipping a nascent war in the bud. Currently there are 16 UN peacekeeping missions across four continents, which, despite some problems, have done a good job preventing tensions flaring up and civil wars re-starting. Several African countries in particular would likely be experiencing ongoing bloodshed if it were not for the blue berets.

Nonetheless, UN peacekeeping missions continue to remain relatively poorly funded– especially when one considers the blood and treasure potentially saved by heading off the need for direct military intervention. Australia, which has a good peacekeeping track-record with its history in East Timor and the Solomon Islands, should use its seat to make sure these important missions receive the funding and support they need.

Australia has a worthy history when it comes to the United Nations– stretching all the way back to Doc Evatt, the former Labor leader and fourth president of the UN General Assembly. The non-permanent seat will be a great opportunity for Australia to play its part in resolving some of the great problems of international politics, among which foreign intervention is one of the greatest.

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About the Author

David Donaldson is a Masters International Relations student at the University of Melbourne. He is also Deputy Editor of the Australian Institute for International Affairs' Quarterly Access magazine. David is interested in politics and queer issues.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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