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By Andrew Reynolds, 18 June 2014

Should Australia join a US led intervention in Iraq? Should this question be asked, Australia has much to consider. Australia needs to promote adherence to international law and in this case, explore all options with the United Nations Security Council before even considering any non UNSC-endorsed proposals. It remains in Australia’s interests to be seen as a supporter of multilateral rather than unilateral action.


Currently Iraq is in crisis. Groups of of Shiite militias belonging to the extreme Shiite Muslim al-Qa’ida splinter group ‘Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (Syria)’ (ISIS) have, in a short space of time, overrun much of Iraq. That ISIS – formerly known as al-Qa’ida in Iraq – could capture Mosul, Iraq’s second most important city in such a short space of time, is remarkable and has caught most of the world off guard. That Iraqi soldiers fled the ISIS attack in Mosul is even more disheartening and must be infuriating to the United States, who has invested US $25 billion in their training as part of their reconstruction efforts in Iraq. Moreover, seeing their state’s security forces fleeing must have been sickening to the thousands of Iraqis left behind, many of whom have died at the hands of the Shi’a forces.

With Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbot in Washington meeting with President Obama at the time, Australia suddenly found itself immersed in the United State’s nerve-centre as events were breaking.  Inevitably, the urgency of these events and their humanitarian implications led prematurely to talk of intervention. Questions of Australia’s involvement in a US led mission, inevitably, were asked. This even before the United Nations Security Council had met to debate a possible response to the ongoing crisis. The UNSC subsequently met and on 11 June issued a press release condemning the terrorist attacks in Mosul.

That such events should so quickly lead to talk of intervention is disturbing. From an Australian perspective, it is even more alarming that our nation should be posited as a potential coalition partner – such is the speed with which such events now escalate. As a middle power, Australia has limited military forces to contribute to such coalitions, and as a Southeast Asian state, has limited economic interests in the Middle East.

Amongst such hasty talk of interventions, it is worth reflecting on their legal status. Firstly, we need to distinguish between humanitarian interventions and peacekeeping, for the two are often confused. Essentially, an intervention occurs without the consent of the state. Contrastingly, peacekeeping occurs with the consent of the state. Under Chapter VII of the UN Charter, the UNSC is authorised to recommend humanitarian intervention (usually military) when events within a state pose a threat to international peace and security. Given this would supposedly leave states free to commit acts of atrocity including genocide, the debate culminated in the 2005 UN World Summit on the Responsibility to Protect (R2P), which has been adopted by the majority of states.

R2P was formulated in a bid to protect citizens from ethnic cleansing, genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity. However, despite its altruistic motives, the overarching outcome of the 2005 World Summit was that R2P does not trump the authority of the UNSC. Overwhelmingly, the 2005 Summit demonstrated the desire of most of the world – including the vast majority of the developing world – for their fundamental sovereignty rights to be respected. This means the right to non-interference from external powers.

The Charter of the United Nations enshrines each state’s sovereign right to non-interference and non-intervention.1 Article 2(4) of the charter expressly forbids the use of power against another state with two notable exceptions: the state’s right to self-defence and under actions authorised by the UNSC. As previously stated, for the UNSC to authorise such intervention, it must be shown that the acts on the ground pose an international threat to peace and security. As with Syria, given the potential of the crisis within Iraq to engulf neighbouring states, this would be the only current basis on which an interventionist resolution before Council could currently be proposed.

Also as with Syria, it is all but certain that such a resolution would be vetoed by Russia, and probably, by China.  With any UNSC resolution, a veto (vote against) any resolution by a permanent (P5) member2 effectively sinks any proposal before Council. This axial divide within Council between East and West remains the major sticking point within the UNSC.

Which leads us to three major reasons why Australia should reject any non UNSC-endorsed proposal to intervene in Iraq. Firstly, the legality of a US led, non-UNSC-endorsed intervention remains questionable under international law. As a state who frequently urges other states such as China to abide by international law, we cannot be seen to be selective in our adherence to international laws and norms. Moreover, as a form of soft power, hypothetically were Australia to reject any US proposal to join a US led intervention in Iraq, we would be seen to be embracing multilateral rather than unilateral action. Such a refusal would help promote Australia as a supporter of law adherence. Contrastingly,  supporting unilateral action would risk isolating us further from the developing world, particularly from our regional and neighbouring states in Southeast Asia and the Pacific, the majority of who are developing states.

Secondly, as we have learned from the 1990s decade of interventions, there is no such thing as a quick fight and interventions inevitably end up taking longer and costing more than first anticipated. Also inevitably, deposing one power – and in the case of Iraq,  where we have a jihadist network and potentially a failed state to address, two powers –  such interventions inevitably mire the intervening state in state—building  and reconstruction efforts, tasks which take years and which would be better left to multilateral institutions to address. Also as we have learnt, and most recently from failed US—led interventions in both Afghanistan and Iraq, such interventions simply do not work. Both Afghanistan and Iraq remain hotbeds of terrorism and exemplars of failed governance. Solving the world’s crises requires more than bullets and money.

Finally, overwhelmingly the developing world does not want such interventions. As the 2005 UN World Summit showed, interventions have a place, but only as a tool of last resort, and only after every alternative non—interventionist option has been exhausted. In the case of Iraq, we are seeing non—UNSC endorsed interventions being posed as a tool of first resort, a move which contradicts both international law and the expressed wishes of the developing world. Australia would do well to think long and hard before signing on to such interventions. Hopefully, we won’t be asked.

End Notes

  1. Alex J. Bellamy, Nicholas J. Wheeler, ‘Peace Operations and Humanitarian Intervention’ in Nick Bisley and Mark Beeson (ed.), Issues in 21st Century World Politics (1st edn., Basingstoke, United Kingdom: Palgrave MacMillan, 2010), 149.
  1. UNSC permanent member (P5) states: China, Russia, United Kingdom, United States and France
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