The consideration as to whether to intervene with military force to prevent war crimes often requires a judgment regarding the lesser of two evils.

In the face of ethnic cleansing and genocide, how do we assess the justification for external intervention and how it should be carried out? And who decides?

When a conflict or repression has reached such dire proportions, it is likely that the international community has missed earlier opportunities to de-escalate the crisis.

How can the church better witness to the imperative to resolve violent conflict and build peace?

Support for humanitarian intervention can be found in all major religions based on a belief in the integrity of each human being and a recognition of our responsibility for one another.

For example, Jesus told the story of the Good Samaritan who, at some cost to himself, helped a stranger of a different nationality.

As individuals, we do recognize in the homeless and bereaved victims of war, human beings who love and grieve like us.

So, we find support for the argument that wherever in the world women, children and men are being attacked indiscriminately, we cannot simply stand idly by.

One difficulty is that while individually we can and do act altruistically (and at other times reprehensibly), nation states act primarily in their national interest.

States may not commit personnel, money or political capital to providing security in other countries unless there is a clear national benefit in return.

If this is the case, then in what sense is a “humanitarian intervention” truly humanitarian?

The legality of an intervention is another consideration. In practice, for an intervention to be deemed legal, it requires that the permanent members of the Security Council (the United States, United Kingdom, Russia, China and France) do not exercise their right of veto.

In 1999 in Kosovo, ethnic cleansing of towns and villages was taking place, yet Russia could not agree to a Security Council resolution authorizing military intervention.

The U.S.-led intervention was, according to most accounts, illegal. But was it nevertheless legitimate? If so, do such actions undermine the credibility of international law? And what are the implications?

Burdened with such dilemmas, the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS) was established in 2000.

In 2005, a World Summit, attended by the largest number of heads of state that the United Nations has ever seen, adopted the Commission’s “Responsibility to Protect” framework, which reaffirmed that the responsibility to protect citizens falls firstly on the national government.

Responsibility might transfer to the international community only in very exceptional circumstances of genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes and ethnic cleansing.

Military intervention can be used as a last resort and only when nonviolent means of coercion, such as the use of sanctions, have failed.

No country or coalition can assume a “right to intervene,” and the focus of collective action (endorsed and regularly reviewed by the U.N.) must remain the protection of the civilian population.

So, might clearer consensus around some fundamental principles lead to better collective decision making in practice?

Possibly, but the performance of the international community since this time has not been encouraging.

In Libya, Col. Muammar Gaddafi’s forces were thought to have killed more than 1,000 unarmed protesters by early March 2011.

A Security Council resolution calling for a ceasefire had gone unheeded by the Gaddafi regime, and so the U.K., France and the U.S. brought a further resolution.

This resolution drew heavily on the Responsibility to Protect framework, making reference to the “responsibility of the Libyan authorities to protect the Libyan population” while authorizing the U.K., France and the U.S. to establish a no-fly zone.

Russia was cautious but secured an agreement that there would be no foreign occupying forces in Libya and allowed the resolution to pass.

Under a section of the resolution titled “Protection of Civilians” is a phrase authorizing the U.K. and its allies “to take all necessary measures to protect civilians and civilian populated areas under threat of attack.”

This was used not simply to protect civilians but also to bring about regime change. But we were not prepared for the long haul.

We dealt with the problem of Gaddafi by defeating the army and dismantling the state apparatus, causing the country to descend into a tribal civil war – leaving people even more vulnerable to the influences of Islamic State and al-Qaida.

It has caused a setback in the application of the Responsibility to Protect and it is likely that the use of this language in future Security Council resolutions will be little trusted as a result.

One lesson we might take from the experience of Libya is to avoid equating “humanitarian intervention” with resolving conflict.

The primary purpose of humanitarian intervention must be to restore order and provide security.

Those who have established no-fly zones or have tamed a national army that has been bombing civilians have needed, through necessity, to take sides.

We may need to consider, with respect to Syria, for example, that the same external actors may not be best placed to broker a political settlement due to their alignment toward parties to a conflict.

Furthermore, the wider challenge of national reconciliation is likely to be led by indigenous leaders and groups and must use the influence of those who have become marginalized because they chose to stand apart from the violence.

Finally, we should recognize the range of nonviolent strategies for humanitarian protection in the context of conflict.

They include human rights monitoring and evidence gathering so that human rights abusers can be brought to justice, education to build respect for human rights, negotiating security for the delivery of humanitarian aid, finding ways to enable the voices of women in conflict to be amplified, and sending international accompaniers to be present alongside oppressed communities to help deter aggressive actions.

Is it not also valuable for the church and its members, particularly in wealthy Western nations, to advocate for integrity in our trade and diplomatic relationships?

If serial abusers of human rights can be rewarded with lucrative economic ties, it should not come as a surprise if at some point in the future we find ourselves witnessing crimes that demand intervention.

Steve Hucklesby is policy adviser for the Joint Public Issues Team serving the Methodist Church, the Baptist Union of Great Britain and the United Reformed Church and specializing in, among other topics, international affairs, conflict and security. A version of this article first appeared in the Issue 1, 2016, edition of Mission Catalyst, a publication of BMS World Mission. It is used with permission.

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