Carrie Booth Walling, All Necessary Measures: The United Nations and Humanitarian Intervention (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013), 320pp.

Reviewed by Kurt Mills (Senior Lecturer in International Human Rights, University of Glasgow)

Why do states intervene militarily to stop genocide and other mass atrocities? Under what conditions will they do so, and under what conditions will they take no action? The latter response seems more prevalent than the former, but if we are serious about protecting human rights in the most serious situations of mass killing and threats to civilians, we need to understand the reasons for both action and inaction. Many attempts to answer the question focus on material factors – do the major powers and others have the interest to deploy their considerable resources to protect people in conflict? Others, however, focus on ideational explanatory factors, in particular changing and strengthening human rights norms and the evolving relationship between human rights and sovereignty.

Carrie Booth Walling’s book All Necessary Measures: The United Nations and Humanitarian Intervention falls into the latter camp. While recognizing material factors and the importance of so-called rationalist explanations of state behavior in humanitarian intervention, she argues that these do not tell the whole story. Rather, constructivist accounts, which focus on ideas and norms and their ability to constitute state interests and actions must also be taken seriously. She argues that changing human rights norms, the altered relationship between human rights and sovereignty, and new understandings of the use of force have led to a situation where discussions about, and the practice of, humanitarian intervention, have become much more possible and prevalent. Indeed, she argues that there is little material upside to humanitarian intervention most of the time, and so there must be something else going on.

These are not new arguments, but where Walling makes her mark is by looking at the question of humanitarian intervention through the lens of debates in the UN Security Council. She argues that arguments matter – that is, how situations are described and the justifications put forward for action or non-action are a significant indication of whether or not intervention will happen. She thus focuses on discourse in Security Council debates, examining how Security Council members framed their arguments in eight cases: Iraq after the first Gulf War, Somalia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Rwanda, Kosovo, Sierra Leone, Darfur, and Libya. Her research includes detailed analysis of publicly available information on how these situations were debated in the Security Council, including statements from state members and Security Council Presidential statements which, while not binding, are consensus documents and provide insight into the thinking of states.

Walling looks at the types of arguments and framing used by members of the Security Council. She develops a typology of causal stories to examine how states attempt to control narratives to support or undermine arguments about humanitarian intervention. She uses predication analysis, “which focuses specifically on the ‘language practices of predication – the verbs, adverbs and adjectives that attach to particular nouns.’” (p.22) In other words, how is, for example, a particular conflict described and understood – conflict, genocide, chaos, etc.; each of these terms has embedded within them certain understandings of a conflict. “Conflict” is more neutral – it says little about the dynamics, exactly what is going on, who is responsible, etc. It does not necessarily demand a response. “Genocide” seems to be the one word that demands a response – which is why the US was so careful in not using it during the genocide in Rwanda – although, it may also be deployed with an explicit understanding that it does not demand a response, as US Secretary of State Colin Powell indicated when describing the conflict in Darfur as genocide. “Chaos” is passive – it has no antecedent, no cause, no identifiable perpetrators – and thus, too, does not demand a response. It is sometimes used to describe the humanitarian crises which exist alongside, and are created by, “conflict” and “genocide.” As such, it does not demand a response to the violence itself, but rather to the humanitarian consequences of violence. In other words, it demands food and water and medical care rather than peacekeepers.

In the Security Council, members tell stories to each other about the causes of conflict, and these stories have an immense impact on how conflict is framed and the potential responses. Walling identifies three types of causal stories – intentional causal stories, inadvertent causal stories, and complex causal stories – that Security Council members tell to frame a situation of conflict and atrocity situations.

Security Council meeting
Photo Credit: UN Photo/Devra Berkowitz

In the first, there is an identifiable perpetrator or perpetrators of harm. The violence is both “deliberate and systematic,” and thus there is a possibility of stopping the violence by deploying resources to stop the perpetrators or ensuring accountability for specific individuals. Intentional causal stories engage with a specific set of international normative scripts surrounding human rights law and international humanitarian law. They thus support understandings of state sovereignty which focus on responsibility rather than immunity. When these types of stories are told by Security Council members, the likelihood that there will be a humanitarian intervention increases.

Inadvertent causal stories relate to situations where purposeful action is taken but has had unintended consequences. Thus, two or more parties are engaged in a conflict, but the purpose of the conflict is not to harm people – e.g. engage in genocide or otherwise target a particular group of people. All parties are morally equivalent and responsibility for harm is diffuse. Thus, it is hard to identify particular levers to stop a conflict or to hold anybody accountable. Palliation – providing food, water and medical assistance to those affected by the conflict – is the order of the day, rather than intervention to stop the conflict.

Complex causal stories include multiple sources of causation or “complex systems of interaction or complicated institutional or historical patterns.”(p.26) There may be intentional harm and collateral damage. They are “confusing, chaotic or tragic.” (p.27) Such a story is passive in that it is not possible to identify particular perpetrators. There is little sense that the situation can fruitfully be remedied, so that policy prescriptions are equally passive – calls to end the violence or observation and documentation of violations. It supports the status quo, and supports traditional understandings of sovereignty which is immune to outside interference.

Thus, if all member states – or at least the veto powers – tell an intentional causal story, there is more likely to be action, as in Libya. If there is disagreement and contestation, as in Darfur or Syria, for example, it is less likely that there will be action – or at least action which actually addresses the root causes of the violence.

Along with causal stories, Security Council members tell stories about sovereignty, which identify sovereign authority in a country as either legitimate, illegitimate, or lacking. The important issue is where sovereign authority is located. Is it located in the state? If so, there is unlikely to be an intervention. If civilians become the sovereign referent or if there is no sovereign authority identified – as in Somalia – an intervention might be more likely. As is demonstrated in this book, understandings about sovereignty and human rights are mutually constituted – and the baseline for this mutual constitution has changed.

Indeed, the very detailed case studies demonstrate evolution in understandings about sovereignty and human rights. Again, others have made similar arguments, but the theoretical framework here provides insight into how this evolution has occurred at the highest pinnacle of global power.

Official Security Council debates do not lead to humanitarian intervention. They are, as Walling points out, scripted events. Actual decisions are made behind closed doors. But official records can provide insight into what members are thinking. It is increasingly difficult to publicly justify inaction in the face of mass atrocities. Indeed, members are limited in what they can actually say in debates and statements, which must correspond to institutional norms. This is not to say, of course, that it does not happen. Syria is the perfect example. Yet, Syria also supports one of Walling’s main conclusions after Libya – future discussion “will focus on determining where legitimate sovereign authority resides when considering whether and how the council will fulfill its responsibility to protect.”(p.42) Certainly questions of sovereignty and authority have been central to debate over Syria. The fact there is disagreement over this issue has made any real action to address the situation via the Security Council impossible. But, of course, this disagreement is driven by many other things, including a perception of overreach in Libya, old fashioned state interests on the part of Russia – and other key players – and other contingencies. Indeed, Walling recognizes this. But she also argues that norms and interests are mutually constituted. And it is this mutual constitution that makes it harder – but obviously not impossible by any means – for arguments regarding state sovereignty to trump arguments about human rights and protecting civilians.

As a piece of constructivist scholarship, this book demonstrates that norms do matter in international relations. It would be appropriate for scholars, upper level undergraduate and postgraduate students, and practitioners seeking to understand changing norms about human rights and sovereignty and the role the UN Security Council plays in this evolution.