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The myth of military might in R2P choices

Discussions on R2P – and even the terms of the debate – tend to privilege the military option, though there is little empirical basis for thinking military strikes will best deter those harming civilians. Protection strategies need a deeper analysis of all potential levers of influence. A contribution to the openGlobalRights debate, R2P and the Human Rights Crisis in Syria.  Español,العربية

Dona Bozzi/Demotix. All rights reserved. 

In the debate over “Responsibility-to-Protect”, assumptions, cultural myths and language conspire to promote unwise military action. The effectiveness of military responses to conflict has become unconsciously and widely assumed. Are military responses so popular because objective scientific study has proven their efficacy? Or does this debate mostly reflect the daily teaching in many cultures throughout the world, that the bigger stick always wins? The promotion of violent force as the problem-solving option of last resort pervades popular culture from Hollywood to school history curricula. And it pervades this debate.

R2P proponents insist that their doctrine prefers non-military approaches. But the language of the debate suggests otherwise: robust by definition means strong and healthy, but in the international community’s debate over approaches to conflict it is usually a synonym for military and violent. The double-edged phrase last resort implies both that the military option has great risks but also that if all other means fail, this is the one that will work. Gareth Evans’ piece in this debate, for instance, refers to the military option as something to be considered when “no lesser measure” is available.

With thousands of lives at stake, why would we settle for “lesser measures?” Such language, so frequently used even by those who are honestly committed to civilian protection, inevitably supports calls for military action, even if it is unwise. The implicit message is that the only really serious action is military action. Everything else is weak and half-hearted.

This language also invites world powers like the US to clothe their military aspirations in humanitarian rhetoric, regardless of whether their intent or final impact helps civilians on the ground. Syria, with its consistent support to Hezbollah, has been considered an enemy by the US for decades.  Can we seriously be considering that the US is all of a sudden engaging now out of concern for Syrians civilians? The US is already engaged militarily supporting one side in this war, and the civilian death toll has only increased as a result. If anything, the debate regarding how best to protect civilians in Syria is much too late – the balance of consequences for civilians should have been assessed before the first military or political support was offered to the rebels, back in 2011.

I have had the opportunity to spend some time in the Democratic Republic of Congo in recent years, assessing strategies for the protection of civilians, in a situation where the international community and the UN have put all their eggs in the military basket. Many Congolese themselves are also desperately hoping for military salvation. Yet after a decade of blue berets and billions of dollars spent, civilians remain totally vulnerable to privations from armed groups as well as from the (UN-supported) Congolese military. This year the UN was faced with broad-based pressure to do something more. Despite there being no objective assessment of the real protective impact on the Congolese people of the current militarized approach, the only “new” strategy they could come up with was to strengthen the military approach and approve a UN force with an explicit offensive mandate: more military, more “robustly” offensive.

Interestingly, a recent study looking at a different type of conflict – resistance movements against repressive regimes – suggests that in the last hundred years, unarmed resistance movements were more successful at achieving their objectives than armed ones. (Chenoweth, Erica, and Maria J. Stephan. Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict.)  With adequate research, the hypothesis of a correlation in international interventions between military force and protective impact might be shown to be valid, or it might not. But in the meantime it is largely a myth, a heuristic simplification that gives us a too-readily-available and simple answer to complex situations. It is also a myth that gives many people hope, because we deeply wish that there were a quick solution to the human suffering we are witnessing in the conflicts that prompt these debates.

Decision-makers truly concerned with protecting civilians need to recognize this unconscious assumption that privileges the military option. Rather than reacting to knee-jerk pressures to do something, or to do more, policy decisions should be based on a careful context-based analysis of each particular case, and an extremely cautious assessment of reasonable expectations of consequences. This kind of assessment is necessary before military action, before economic sanctions, or any other pressure.

Those in power who order atrocities - whether President Assad or an armed group leader in the Congo - are most often interested in sustaining or increasing their own power. Such power is political, economic, and military and it depends on their relationships with others. A strategy to protect civilians must examine the real interests of these people, identifying all the political, economic and military relationships they have that present opportunities for leverage. From that analysis, a nuanced and more complex strategy would combine the range of tools of leverage available. These in turn would be tailored to maximize their combined impact, and the strategy would assess the projected balance of consequences with an emphasis on minimizing negative impacts on civilians.

Those in power who order violence against civilians are usually linked to a range of powerful economic interests, and may be even more sensitive to economic pressures than to military ones. (In fact, external military threats can sometimes serve to strengthen domestic support for a targeted group – consider how Hezbollah has benefitted from Israeli attacks on Lebanon.) Economic sanctions are not a panacea, either, and may well in some cases hurt civilians far more than can be justified by their impact. Further, just as military decisions tend to be based on geo-politics divorced from the interests of civilians, decisions about economic measures tend to be skewed in the interests of economic power brokers for whom sacrificing profits for humanitarian gain is unacceptable. It should not be surprising that we cannot control the arms trade, for instance, when huge multinational interests in the US and Europe make so much money from it; or that we have difficulty fully implementing other kinds of “smart” sanctions even when they have UN Security Council backing. The fact that sanctions so seldom effectively target the wealthy, but instead too often inflict greater suffering on the poor, is no accident.

The point here is not that economic measures are better or worse than military ones, but rather that there is no self-evident hierarchy among them. If wise decisions are to be made, the costs and benefits of different measures must be carefully assessed, based on past experiences and on the real dynamics of each current context. But this is not what is happening. Instead, the debate is dominated by myths, bias and rhetoric. The crucial assessment of the expected balance of consequences has become a phrase for soundbites, rather than an analytical prerequisite to action.

As long as the military option is perceived as more potentially effective than it is in reality, and economic and political pressures considered less effective than they might be, unwise decisions result. That is the fundamental nature of bias. 

About the author

Liam Mahony is the author of Proactive Presence: Field Strategies for Civilian Protection and co-author with Roger Nash of Influence on the Ground: Understanding and strengthening the protection impact of United Nations Human Rights Field Presences." He has done extensive fieldwork in many countries, and is a pioneer in the theory and practice of international protection. A former lecturer in Human Rights at Princeton University, he co-founded Fieldview Solutions and through it has led analysis and training for hundreds of UN and NGO protection staff deployed in conflict zones.

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