UNU Event Focuses on the Use of Force in Defence of Human Rights

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  • 2013•11•14     Tokyo

    In this video, filmed before the event reported on below, Professor Mats Berdal is interviewed by UNU Office of the Rector Junior Fellows regarding the use of force in defence of human rights.


    In a public discussion at United Nations University Headquarters on 1 November 2013, Professor Mats Berdal and UNU Rector David M. Malone explored the normative and geopolitical factors behind the increased use of military force for humanitarian purposes. The topic of the event was “From Sarajevo to Benghazi: The Use of Force in Defence of Human Rights in the Post-Cold War Era”.

    From the Balkans in the 1990s to the present-day situation in Syria, this increase is widely seen as linked to a larger shift in international relations that favours human rights and the justice-related provisions of the UN Charter over more traditional state-centric conceptions of sovereignty. Yet the use of force, or even the threat to use force, in support of humanitarian objectives remains highly contested.

    The sources of violence during civil war and armed conflict can be related to both greed and grievance. Conflicts may be the result of a desire for economic gains, but may also be fuelled by issues relating to religion, ethnicity, and/or social class. The reason for armed conflict may not be about winning the war, but rather about creating an instability that confers legitimacy on actions which under times of peace would be considered criminal.

    These functional incentives for the continuation of violence underline how important it is to understand the interaction between greed and grievance. It is not a question of one or the other, but rather both at the same time.

    Civil wars are never static. In the case of Syria today, for example, Prof. Berdal argued that military intervention would be particularly difficult due to the complex nature of the situation on the ground, which has been transformed over time with political and economic interests intertwined. Meaningful intervention requires a fuller, contextual understanding of political interests.

    The conflict in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, which has claimed the lives of an estimated five million people, offers another compelling and tragic example. Protecting civilians goes hand-in-hand with the necessity to develop a coherent political strategy — yet what is the final political objective, or “end state”, of any given military intervention? Put another way, Prof. Berdal highlighted the importance of distinguishing between what force can do and what force can achieve.

    The event concluded with a particularly fruitful exchange between the discussants and the audience. Questions addressed whether or not humanitarian intervention is entering a new era and how it could be improved, the relevance of regime change in ending civil wars, and the role of democracy in armed conflicts.

    On the latter topic, Prof. Berdal noted that the process of democratization in and of itself can generate conflict. The path to democracy can sometimes be violent, and its definition may mean different things to different people —, an important point to understand, he explained, when examining the causes of civil conflicts and proposing solutions to them.

    The event was followed by a lively reception offering those present the opportunity to engage with Prof. Berdal and network among the crowd.

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    To learn more about the issues discussed in this lecture, please watch the video interview with Prof. Berdal embedded at the top of this report.