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Brussels, November 2007

Ethical aspects to conflict interventions

Raising issues from theories and frameworks questioning when and if an intervention should occur

Five strands of arguments for non-violent conflict intervention

The ethical issue is even more complex than the question of international law, since it is inseparable from political issues. I would like to distinguish five strands of arguments: the argumentation derived from the Christian principles of “Just War” (1), the argument of at least doing no harm Mary Anderson’s project put into the core of its work, political arguments around hegemonialism and neo-colonialism (whose interests, whose values?), ethical considerations proposed by principled nonviolent theoreticians and practitioners, and last not least the customary right to action in solidarity as defended by actors of civil society all over the world. Most of these strands combine the basic question of the conditions under which intervention is permitted (if at all) with the questions of the how. In fact, since the first is often seen to depend on the second (like in the teaching of Just War), these two are very difficult to separate.

1. The principle of just war

It has often been pointed out that the principles of Just War (bellum iustum) that specify the conditions to be met if a war is counted as a just war,(2) have been used rather to justify war, not to limit it(3). Nevertheless, it is obvious that the criteria of bellum iustum are very much alive still, in spite of being said to be out of date in the time of assured mutual destruction by nuclear weapons. Not only politicians, philosophers and political scientists refer to them again and again when discussing war and humanitarian interventions (4), also much of the pacifist debate refers to criteria like “not all other means have been tested” / “there would have been alternatives to military intervention” (principle of last resort), “you are fighting only for your preserve your own” (principle of just cause), or “look at what atrocities you have committed/how you have escalated the conflict and not done any good” (principles of just means)(5).

The British political scientists Lewer and Ramsbotham(6) have proposed ten framework principles for humanitarian intervention drawing both from the bellum iustum criteria and several codes of conducts developed by humanitarian aid agencies. They mean these principles to be of equal validity for military and non-military interventions:

  • 1. The Principle of Minimum Humanitarian Standards (Just Cause)

‘Where there is unacceptable denial or violation of human rights, actual or threatened, the international community has a duty to attempt redress and a prima facie right to intervene, subject to the condition laid down in principle nine.’

  • 2. The Principle of Human Flourishing (Just Ends)

‘The aim of such intervention should be the impartial promotion of sustained human flourishing throughout the affected region’.

  • 3. The Principle of Appropriate Means

‘The means employed should be appropriate - that is, they should be a) necessary, b) sufficient, c) proportional, and d) legitimate.’

  • 4. The Principle of Local Enablement

‘The intervention should be conducted in terms understood and accepted within the region and in such a way as to strengthen and support those working locally to resolve conflict and build peace.’

  • 5. The Principle of Consistency

‘Intervention should be consistent across different conflict situations and relevant experience should be cumulatively transferred.’

  • 6. The Principle of Reflexivity

‘Interveners’ motives and previous behaviour should be compatible with the professed purpose of their intervention.’

  • 7. The Principle of Complementarity

‘Interveners actions should be mutually complementary.’

  • 8. The Principle of Accountability

‘Interveners should hold themselves accountable to the international community for their intervention, since it is from the international community that they derive the authority to intervene.’

  • 9. The Principle of Contingency and Graduated Response

‘Where possible, intervention should be preventive, nonviolent and with the consent of all parties. Where this is not possible, additional criteria should be met as appropriate at the relevant decision-points, without prejudice as to the outcome.’

  • 10. The Principle of Universality

‘The principles which govern just humanitarian intervention should be endorsed by the international community.”(7)

Having the question of the right to intervene as a starting point, these criteria also include proposed rules on the how an intervention should be carried out in order to be legitimate. This how may be found in many codes of conducts and other publications on NGO interventions. Specifically, principles of becoming active only on invitation, of putting local actors first, and of being guided by the principles of international human rights may be considered as consensus in the conflict intervention community today(8). There is the growing acknowledgement of the fact that only those who have the conflict are can solve it, and that the role of international intervention is to support the local actors in finding this solution(9).

2. The argument of doing no harm - Mary Anderson’s project

More unassuming in comparison to these codes, as proposed by Lewer/Ramsbotham and others, is the doing no harm approach of Mary Anderson’s Local Capacities for Peace Project proposes. What she outlines for humanitarian and development aid, may be translated directly to conflict intervention in general: Anderson argues that the minimum objective should be what medical doctors pledge: “First, do no harm”(10). Given the fact of how much harm such projects may do (the case studies commissioned by Anderson’s project give ample examples), this rule should not be taken lightly. Often it is not so easy to do no harm, and it is much less easy to speak of positive outcomes and attempted effects.

On the other side there is what has been called the “Droit d’ingérence” as the ultimate legitimating of humanitarian action: “Humanitarian action is by definition universal. Humanitarian responsibility has no frontiers. Wherever in the world there is manifest distress, the humanitarian, by vocation, must respond.” (11) The “duty to intervene” is considered an ethic, and it has its consequences, for example at least in the eyes of Doctors Without Borders the abandonment of neutrality if necessary.

3. Political arguments around hegemonialism and neo-colonialism

The fourth line of arguments around the legitimacy of conflict intervention concentrates on political interests the interveners might have. There is the term peace colonialism (12)and the accusation not to deal with the real causes of conflict that lie in our (Western/Northern) societies with which advocates of nonviolent intervention find themselves confronted. Specifically anti-imperialist analysts and activists argue that those who then intervene in them first cause most interventions in war(13). Therefore, legitimate activity against such wars should rather take place in the hegemonies of Northern countries, and targeted against the governments and international business.(14)

It is true that the majority of nonviolent interventions took place in settings of immense international publicity and interest. Lacking statistics it has to remain an unproven assumption that there is a direct relationship between NGO projects of conflict intervention, and the attention the conflict finds in the international media, and on the level of governments/international community. But the connection jumps to the mind if you compare cases like Yugoslavia and let’s say Liberia or Congo - one with immense attention and one with only limited, regional attention. The reason why some cases find more official attention has of course as much to do with the influence of mass media as of political interests. As long as nonviolent conflict interveners set their priorities the same way, they leave themselves open to the accusation of being led by mass media rather then by serious analysis.

On the other hand there are the political goals of nonviolent interveners that have to be taken into consideration making a decision on when and if to intervene. I am referring to the issue of co-operation or non-cooperation with military intervention forces. While this is not a problem for the majority of NGOs being involved in what is coming to be called complex peace operations, it is a problem for those groups and organisations with an explicit nonviolent approach. For those who reject all use of force, and whose goal it is to abolish war and the military, it may present an ethical dilemma to find themselves working hand in hand with military peace-keepers, accepting their protection, joining in the task to rebuilding after war. There are three views: One is that strengthening the civil part of such operations might eventually lead to making the military unnecessary at all. The other is that co-operation legitimises the military and the use of force, and therefore must be avoided.(15) The German Forum Civil Peace Service has taken a third stance in that debate: It simply refuses to compare Civil Peace Service to the military, because civil conflict resolution in their eyes follows another logic, and cannot be compared to military operations. Any comparison with military interventions would only lead to the legitimisation of the military.(16)

4. Ethical consideration proposed by principled nonviolent theoreticians and practicioners

A fifth element to look at when discussing ethical implications of conflict intervention is what principled Gandhians have to say. The debate on international (military) interventions often went along the lines “We have to do something”, and the accusation directed at pacifists that they preferred to “do nothing”, being interested only in keeping their own hands clean instead of assuming responsibility for the whole.(17) The answer from Gandhi (18)and those influenced by him always has been that non-violence is a third way beyond the choice between violence and doing nothing. That is nothing else than an ethical justification for acting, and therefore also for nonviolent intervention. Nevertheless, there has been, specifically from the side of Gandhians, strong criticism of interventionism. Weber mentions Vinoba Bhave who believed that “the citizens of a country which maintains an army have no right to conduct satyagraha in another country”(18). This is a radical statement, but in my eyes one which should not be dismissed too easily as being irrelevant. There is at least the issue of credibility at stake when NGOs concentrate rather on problems far away from their own country than trying to do something about those problems they are closest to, and therefore might have the most possibilities to influence.(19)

5. The customary right to action in solidarity

As sixth and last point in this discussion I would like to mention something which in my observation has often been referred to, but to my knowledge has not made entry into any more theoretical works yet: It is what I would like to call the customary right to action in solidarity as defended by actors of civil society all over the world. For example, in the discussions the Council and Triennial Conferences of War Resisters’ International (20)has had over the last eight or nine years on conflict intervention, very often intervention was contrasted with solidarity. (21) The role of nonviolent activists, so runs this argument, would be to support those groups and individuals having the same goals in other places, and fight together for justice and peace. In if not identical but similar wordings these are the objectives of most activists’ networks around the world, or, in other words, to be asked as the basic legitimisation for doing something. The right of citizens to work together over borders for the same objectives, and often in spite of their governments who do not want them to do so, is something rarely questioned by the activists themselves, and which may be one of the fundamental principles of international true democracy.

Where do these different arguments leave us in terms of ethical legitimisation of conflict intervention? I think the first thing which has become clear is that there is no easy, ready-available recipe, because while some of the thoughts outlined above fit together, others do not: To start with those which have some consistency: There is, as a minimum, the rule of doing no harm. Then there are different criteria that might have to be fulfilled in order to decide if an intervention is appropriate at all. Lewer/Rambotham tried to phrase these criteria into ten principles based on the principles of bellum iustum. Some of these principles define criteria about the how of an intervention, as do several codes of conducts, which have been developed by humanitarian and conflict resolution organisations. The political question if an intervention undertaken by nonviolent activists might in fact support the political, strategic or economic vested interests their country (countries) have in a conflict, could be seen as an elaboration of the principles of just cause and ends.

But the two last points raised above are rather thorns in the flesh of this picture: Neither Vinoba Bhave’s statement about having the right to work somewhere else, nor the question of actions in solidarity are easily dealt with in the framework of general criteria. The outcome of the weighing of these different arguments is something beyond research. Only those sharing common values will be able to agree on any ethical statement. Being asked certainly should be considered a necessary but not sufficient condition for intervention, because given the diverse interests of civil society (and state) actors in any country of the world, it is usually easy to find someone to invite you. But this alone does not exclude that the intervention might be harmful, unjust or just useless.


  • (1) : Based on the teachings of Augustine, they only became systemised in the Middle Ages, first to justify the crusades. See Engelhardt 1980:80 pp.

  • (2) : Lewer/Ramsbotham 1993:55. The seven conditions of just war that are usually recognised are: just cause, just/peaceful end, proper authority, right intent, ultimo ratio, proportionality and discrimination (between combatants and non-combatants).

  • (3) : Engelhardt 1980

  • (4) : Dougherty/Pfaltzgraff 1996:200 pp., Fuchs 1995

  • (5) : Unpublished study the author has been doing on the pacifist-bellicist debate in 1995.

  • (6) : Lewer/Ramsbotham 1993, specifically p. 97 pp.

  • (7) : Lewer/Ramsbotham 1993: “p. 98

  • (8) : International Alert 1998, several articles in Evers (ed) 2000

  • (9) : Mary B Anderson: “No one can ‘make’, ‘keep’ or ‘enforce’ anyone else’s peace. People and societies must create the conditions on which they base their own peace.” (1996:14)

  • (10) : Anderson 1996:21 pp.

  • (11) : Dr. James Orbinski, President of the MSF International Council, at his Nobel Peace Price speech in Norway on 10 November 1999 (

  • (12) : Wanie/Hartmann 2000, Berndt/Speck 2000, Simons 2000

  • (13) : Here is not the place to enter into the argument of political interests more deeply. See Schweitzer 2000, Chomsky 1999, Hippler 1996 for arguments.

  • (14) : See e.g. different leaflets and brochures produced around the actions in Seattle 1999.

  • (15) : Berndt/Speck 2000

  • (16) : “Stichwort ZFD und Militär”, paper from 1998. This paper is based on an article written by Konrad Tempels, “Zivile Potentiale zur Stärkung ziviler Strukturen. Anmerkungen zu qualitativen Unterschieden zwischen Militäreinsätzen und dem Wirken von Friedens-Teams.", unpublished, ca. 1998

  • (17) : This refers to the famous distinction the sociologist Max Weber made between ‘ethic of conviction’ and ‘ethic of responsibility’. To adhere to an absolute ethic is to take actions (or non-action) in keeping with that ethic without regard for their consequences. See Dougherty/Pfaltzgraff 1996:64. Harijan, 9.2.1947, found in: My Life Is My Mes¬sage, 1988

  • (18) : Weber 2000:p. 35, quote from Vishwanath Tendon, The Social and Political Philosophy of Sarvodaya after Gandhiji, Vranasi:Sarva Seva Sangh, 1965, p. 195

  • (19) : This argument plays a part in the debate on the European Civilian Peace Services, some of them wanting to develop internal projects side by side to international ones because of this.

  • (20) : See the Minutes of the WRI Councils and Triennials from 1993 to 2000.

  • (21) : See also Simon 2000.