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Atrocities: when does the world intervene?

If we want to solve global problems, we need to know about both the theory and the practice. How does the international community make decisions about military intervention, for instance? Why is it such a complex process? Professor Herman Schaper has represented the Netherlands at the United Nations and NATO. He gives his colleagues and students a peek behind the scenes of international decision-making.

Wrangling over military intervention

Various war zones around the world issue the same cry for help. Why is it so difficult for the international community to take action? Not only has Professor Herman Schaper acquired considerable knowledge of this field, as a diplomat he was closely involved in international decision-making.

Military intervention is one of Schaper’s fields of expertise. ‘The international community constantly wrangles with the question of when military intervention is justified. In 1648, at the end of a long religious war in Europe, the principle was established that a country is sovereign and other countries may not interfere in the domestic affairs of a state. The development that events in one country affect another one began to gain currency, and this can justify intervention in a sovereign state if the situation has become completely out of hand.’

Responsibility to Protect

An important modern tool that authorises military intervention under international law is a UN Security Council resolution. ‘In 2005 the UN took a step further in establishing grounds for such a resolution when it established the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) principle: the responsibility of a ruler or state to protect its people from genocide, ethnic cleansing, war crimes and crimes against humanity. And if the state of such a country fails to protect its people from such crimes or violations - or worse still is responsible for them -  the international community can intervene. In a considerable number of cases since, R2P has led to the unanimous decision to intervene, in countries such as Libya and the Côte d'Ivoire. But R2P is the subject of much discussion too. In recent years Russia and China have expressed opposition to R2P, arguing that the Security Council makes improper use of this principle to topple governments.’

Player on the world stage

Alongside theoretical knowledge, Schaper possesses a wealth of practical experience. When he was Permanent Representative at the UN in New York from 2009 to 2013, the Netherlands was not a member of the Security Council. ‘But in such times a small country can still be a player on the world stage. Groups of country representatives regularly leave the city for informal brainstorming sessions about military and other interventions. Depending on your position, you as a country can sit at the negotiating table and brainstorm in small groups. If you as a country have good ideas about and experience in a particular area and show that you are doing something – such as providing money or military support – you can define problems and suggest solutions. Very good results have ensued from such sessions, such as the birth of the Millennium Goals and, further back, the peacekeeping missions. Although there are many such missions now, the term does not occur in the original UN Charter. A small country can also play a role as a member, or even chair, of what is termed a group of friends for certain topics. The Netherlands is chair or co-chair of the groups of friends on R2P and food security. And finally the Netherlands obviously plays a role as a member of the EU, which in many cases acts as a single block.’

Schaper disseminates his knowledge in his teaching and lectures. He is also a member of the Senate of the Dutch Parliament on behalf of the D’66 Party. He says that in some ways this post is comparable with his work as Permanent Representative. ‘We recently met politicians and experts on European security. There might be a European Defence Union in which countries work together, share technology and carry out joint military missions. We use the knowledge that we acquire here for discussions within the party as well as with other groups.’

Herman Schaper (right) on a working trip to the Uruzgan Task Force Source: Wikipedia