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The consequences of inaction are intervention’s greatest proponent

July 2nd, 2015

by Julie Lenarz – Executive Director

It is no secret that the climate in the West is quite hostile towards any type of military intervention, mainly as a result of the long and bloody conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq over the last decade.

It is irritating and frustrating to find yourselves the recipient of every demand, to be called upon in every crisis, and to always be expected to get involved everywhere. Intervention is an extremely delicate matter and it is only fair to appreciate the complexity of it. There are many blurred lines. There are many grey zones. Action has consequences. But so has inaction. The consequences of inaction must not be neglected, ignored or forgotten, for they can sometimes have consequences even more devastating than the choice to take action.

The nature of war has significantly changed since the days of the great wars. Nowadays, we often find ourselves at war not with countries, but with groups which operate in ungoverned spaces, where anarchy and extremism have been left to fester unchallenged and where violence against innocent civilians becomes a daily occurrence without consequence or punishment. This is a trend that will only intensify and which we do not have the luxury of ignoring.

When we debate the question of war, it is of utmost importance to remember the many different types of interventions. You cannot compare a full-scale invasion of the kind we have seen in Iraq and Afghanistan to our intervention in Libya. Or to the air campaign currently being undertaken in Iraq and Syria. These are very much ‘apples and oranges’.

We almost exclusively focus on military campaigns that the majority would consider failures, rather than looking at different interventions and trying to learn lessons of what went wrong and what went right. The successful interventions, most notably Sierra Leone and Kosovo, are hardly ever mentioned anymore, despite many thousands of lives being saved and spectacular improvement witnessed in these former warzones.

What also happened in recent history, probably the most brutal reminder of the consequences of inaction, is the genocide in Rwanda in 1994 where 800,000 people were butchered over the course of 100 days, whilst international actors were left as paralysed bystanders, watching in horror, but failing to react.

Let that sink in. 800,000 lives extinguished in just 100 days.

The equivalent of three World Trade Centre attacks every single day for 100 days.

And so, yes, there are circumstances in which military action is legitimate and just, as well as down right necessary. Many will ask: but why are we intervening in country x, but not in country y? If we were trying to prevent such crimes from taking place all over the world all the time we would do little else than intervene.

True. But it is like saying: we cannot save all starving children. Let’s save none.

There are situations in which, when circumstances allow, we should and must take action.

Of course, military intervention has to be a last resort. The last resort. Whenever we have to resort to the use of force, we have already failed. War is always a symbol of failure. It means we have failed to contain a threat and a crisis from escalating to the point of no return.

Unfortunately, such situations are an undeniable reality.

Genocide, under international law, is defined as the crime of all crimes – the intent to annihilate in parts or in whole an entire people. Wipe them off the face of the earth just because they have the wrong ethnicity or religion.

We see that in Iraq and Syria right now. According to the UN, what ISIS has done to the Yezidi minority was attempted genocide and ISIS has successfully driven the last Christians – one of the oldest Christian communities in existence – out of Mosul where they lived for over 1600 years. ISIS are also accused of crimes against fellow Muslims, for the simple crime of being Shia. Being the wrong kind of Muslim. That is cleansing.

Acts of genocide can never be allowed to be purely internal matter, where it is considered ‘none of our business’. We cannot let the evil of ethnic cleansing stand.

The Iraqi army has proven unable to protect its citizens. Thousands of Iraqi soldiers fled when ISIS advanced. And the Syrian Government is clearly neither able nor willing to protect its people, responsible for hundreds of thousands of deaths.

Many will remain unconvinced: why do we have to police the world?

But if you do not see the moral justification, think about it in realist terms: We live in an extremely interdependent world where we cannot turn our backs on conflicts and the violation of human rights within other countries if we want still to be secure.

ISIS’ war has already reached us: Long before we got militarily involved in the conflict, a young man from Tunisia, who fought alongside ISIS, returned to Belgium and shot 3 people in a Jewish museum in Brussels. ISIS’ first victims on European soil. Many more were to follow.

Intervention has significant shortcomings and pitfalls. It is an imperfect tool to right wrongs. One key principle of any intervention must be: do no harm. If we get involved, we have to be significantly committed and try everything to get it right. Half-hearted measures can exacerbate the violence and can be just as dangerous as no action at all.

And often it also lacks a clear purpose. Again, Syria and Iraq are cases in point. It was right authorise air strikes against ISIS strongholds, but this is not the key to defeat them. Even with brave partners on the grounds, above all the Kurds, we will eventually have to consider an element of ground troop deployment, if we are serious about not only containing but eradicating ISIS.

Ask yourself if you really want to raise children in a world where genocide, ethnic cleansing and mass murder go unpunished? If we go down that road, what makes us different from any other creatures that do not benefit from a moral compass and cannot tell the difference between good and evil? If that is the position we are to take, is it simply innocent men, women and children we are abandoning and putting at risk, or also our principles and values we hold so dearly, and so many have fought and died for?

Image by Omar Siddeeq Yousif via CC BY 4.0

About Julie Lenarz

Julie is the Executive Director of the HSC and co-chairs the Security and Defence division. She tweets @MsJulieLenarz.