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26 January 2017

We agree with Jo Cox: Britain must not shy away from intervention overseas

Alison McGovern and Tom Tugendhat have completed the report the Batley and Spen MP was working on at the time of her murder. 

By Alison McGovern

This article is based on work begun by Jo Cox, the late Labour MP for Batley and Spen, who was tragically murdered last June and Tom Tugendhat, Conservative MP for Tonbridge, Edenbridge and Malling. One of the inspirations behind the report was an article Jo read in the New Statesman in 2015 arguing that Britain should do more to bring the Syrian war to an end.

The article forms part of a longer report, “The Cost of Doing Nothing”, which is released today. Following Jo’s death, Ali McGovern joined the project to ensure that it continued in the same bi-partisan spirit. Today, former Prime Minister Gordon Brown launched the report at the think tank Policy Exchange. He commented:

‘In her last speech in the House of Commons, Jo Cox said that “sometimes all it takes for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.” Nothing is more important than the responsibility of each state to protect their populations from genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing, and the responsibility of the international community to act if a state is unwilling or unable to do so.’


In the wake of the war in Iraq, a new anti-interventionist consensus has emerged in sections of the main UK political parties and elements of the press. Despite being from different political parties, with different views on many things, this anti-interventionism causes us both concern. It is a revival of long-held views, combined with a heightened sense of helplessness and doubt about Britain’s place in the world. It unites some strange bedfellows, from members of UKIP through to the Stop the War Coalition, and by denying Britain the ability to shape events beyond its borders, it has dangerous implications for our own national security and the safety of civilians around the world.

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Of course, it is vital that we learn the lessons of Iraq and Afghanistan. These conflicts provide good reasons for treating the issue of interference in the affairs of other states with the greatest caution. But the correct response is not to refuse ever to act again: it is to push ourselves to make better judgments about how and when we engage. Furthermore, we must not be selective in our reading of history. We must also learn the lessons of Rwanda and Bosnia, where genocide was allowed to take place, and Kosovo and Sierra Leone, where Britain played an important and honourable role in preventing large-scale violence.

If we take a broader view, we realise that the past does not teach us to turn away completely, but to engage earlier, more comprehensively, and in concert with others. It shows that intervention – of any sort – should be predicated on an understanding of the complex drivers of instability and the detailed local and national context. And it suggests that we should commit to use the tools of diplomacy and deterrence wisely, while recognising that they will be most effective if backed up by a willingness to use military force as a last resort.

In 2005, all UN Member States committed to protect their populations from ‘genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing’, and agreed to ‘encourage and assist states in fulfilling this responsibility’ using ‘appropriate diplomatic, humanitarian and other means’. This landmark development, known as the Responsibility to Protect (R2P), was something that Jo Cox campaigned for. It reflected a recognition that sovereignty – and the principle of non-intervention in the affairs of another state – could not be sacrosanct if there was a risk that a leader or government might murder its own people. Instead, it assumed that the claim to sovereignty was dependent on certain responsibilities, such as the protection of civilians from large-scale violence. This agreement included the understanding that military force might sometimes be necessary to halt ‘mass atrocities’. However, its real intention was to create norms – including a more expansive notion of sovereignty – which would not require the use of force to uphold.

The UK is able to wield significant ‘soft power’ to protect civilians because of our position as one of the Permanent Members of the UN Security Council, our world-leading Department for International Development, our commitment to spend 0.7% of national income on aid (and our experience of doing so to help prevent conflict), our excellent diplomats, and even our organs of cultural influence such as the BBC. Where this soft power fails, economic and diplomatic sanctions and arms embargos can be successfully deployed. However, all of these important deterrents rely for optimal effectiveness on the backing of the credible threat of military force.

The willingness to act to prevent mass atrocities – and, by extension, the willingness or capacity to intervene militarily in exceptional circumstances – is an essential element of Britain’s grand strategy. For Britain to retain a positive influence in the world, and to preserve its status as an effective ally, we must be prepared to engage in other countries’ affairs. We must keep military intervention as a legitimate tool in our foreign-policy toolkit. The fundamental belief that Britain can have a positive influence in world affairs is something that has defined our foreign policy in the past, and should remain so in the future. As we prepare for Brexit, with many new international challenges emerging beyond Europe, it is ever more critical that we recognise this, and commit to thinking more seriously and rigorously about how we can affect the outcomes for civilians in conflict and retain the ability to operate overseas.

In the past few years, the quality of our national debate on conflict prevention and foreign policy crises has deteriorated, and has too often been reduced to cliché. It is common now to conflate complexity with interminability, and intervention with the use of force. In some of the debates on Syria, we have had the near equivalent of filibustering by doctrinal anti-interventionists. Talk of ‘exit strategies’ and ‘end states’ in every instance has blinded us to the wider picture. It has fostered the illusion that the UK can opt out of fundamental challenges facing our friends and allies, or vast swathes of people suffering in an ever-more connected world.

We owe it to those involved to do better and to address each question on its merits, with a full consideration of the facts. We cannot simply stand by in cases of war crimes, crimes against humanity, or genocide. Knee-jerk isolationism, ideological pacifism and doctrinal anti-interventionism are not in Britain’s national interest, nor in the interests of the weakest and most vulnerable in the world. The current crisis in Syria shows clearly that both action and inaction are a choice and each has a consequence; it also shows what happens when the Responsibility to Protect is shirked.

Intervention – military and otherwise – has been an irreducible part of British foreign and national security policy for over two hundred years. Lurches to instinctive non-intervention have also been part of our foreign-policy cycle. But the long view shows that the UK has done better, both for itself and the wider world, when it has championed international law, human rights and notions such as the ‘international community’ and ‘responsibility to protect’. This engaged and activist foreign policy is part of our national identity, and these values are something that other countries associate with us, and expect us to uphold.

It is highly misleading to say that interventionism does not work or that it does not save lives. History provides us with positive, negative and mixed examples: we need to learn from them all. The importance of intervention for humanitarian purposes, and of the international community’s responsibility to protect civilians wherever they were, reached its zenith in the UK in the late 1990s. Since then, Western intervention has become discredited and, in the wake of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, populations and politicians have, understandably, come to regard it with deep suspicion.

Of course, Iraq undoubtedly demonstrates the perils of intervening militarily in the internal affairs of another country. The US-led invasion in 2003 was justified by its proponents on the grounds of the threat posed by Saddam Hussein, and the violation of UN resolutions by his regime. As Saddam had committed atrocities against his own people, the prospective ‘liberation’ of the Iraqi people was also held out as a desirable outcome. The bombing campaign, which began in March 2003, quickly overwhelmed Iraqi forces and led to the collapse of the Iraqi government. Saddam was captured in December of the same year and executed three years later. However, the unintended consequences were grave. The power vacuum following his downfall created the circumstances for widespread sectarian violence and a lengthy insurgency against coalition forces.

The US formally withdrew all combat troops from Iraq in December 2011, having lost nearly 4,500 servicemen and women. The UK pulled out in 2009, having lost 179 soldiers. Figures for Iraqi civilian casualties vary widely and are disputed but are estimated to amount to at least half a million over the eight-year period. Regrets about Iraq focus on the fact that the invasion went ahead without UN sanction and in the face of widespread public opposition, and the belief that the evidence of an ‘imminent threat’ was deliberately exaggerated by the UK government under Tony Blair. The recent Chilcot report also identified serious failures of post-war planning.

Although it was a different type of intervention, the Western experience in Afghanistan between 2001 and 2014 offers another cautionary tale and further underlines just how elusive ‘success’ can be. The US decision to invade Afghanistan was made in the wake of the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in New York and on the Pentagon, and was justified on the grounds of national security. The aim was to deprive al-Qaeda of a safe haven and to depose the Taliban regime that had hosted them. Britain supported the US from the start, and was later joined by other allies, before the main campaign became a NATO-led operation.

The Taliban government fell quickly in the first phase of the war, after which ‘nation-building’ became a declared aim of the Western-led coalition. Since then, a series of insurgencies and counter insurgencies have claimed thousands of lives and undermined attempts to negotiate a stable peace. The ISAF mission (including Britain’s combat mission) officially ended in 2014. It was replaced by Resolute Support, a NATO-led train, advise and assist mission. As of September 2016, this included includes over 13,000 US and Coalition personnel, with the American contingent numbering around 7,000 regular troops; the UK also has a small training mission (and support elements) based in Kabul. There are additional US forces supporting counter-terrorism operations in Afghanistan. The country remains unstable, and at least a third of the territory is not under government control or influence. As of late August 2016, over 3,500 coalition soldiers had been killed in the war, as well as an estimated 30,000 Afghan national security forces (ANSF) members, and approximately 31,000 civilians.

The failures and losses of Afghanistan and Iraq have undermined the idea that humanitarian outcomes can be delivered by military intervention. This, in turn, has fed the view that military intervention itself is flawed, and has led to increased wariness towards the efficacy of military intervention. Furthermore, it has contributed to a sense that intervention is always a military affair, as opposed to taking a number of forms, including diplomacy and aid. Finally, the idea of ‘nation building’ has been severely dented by the fact that it proved so costly and difficult in both Afghanistan and Iraq. Humanitarianism, interventionism and nation building are separate activities, but in the wake of Iraq and Afghanistan many people view them as linked. The dominant interpretations of and responses to Iraq and Afghanistan are justifiable. However, they are also oversimplified: they reflect a failure to take into account the existing violence in each country, and the losses and suffering that would have occurred if intervention had not taken place.

It should be remembered that Afghanistan was already riven by conflict before the Western invasion, and brutalised by many years of war (particularly by the Soviet campaign of the 1980s). And although casualty figures for the 20 years of civil war before the intervention are difficult to come by, the various estimates and descriptions of suffering must also be considered. Similarly, before 2003, Iraq was marked by the legacy of the Iran-Iraq War and the First Gulf War, and deeply scarred by the brutal dictatorship of Saddam Hussein, who was responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of his own citizens.

Libya provides another example of the complexities and potential pitfalls of the use of military force to protect civilians. In 2011, the then leader, Colonel Gaddafi, was threatening to murder anyone in the city of Benghazi who was connected to the Libyan Revolution. The UK was part of a broad-based coalition that intervened to stop this. The Arab League requested the intervention and the UN Security Council passed a resolution on the basis of Responsibility to Protect, meaning that the NATO-led mission was widely perceived as legitimate. In comparison to Iraq and Afghanistan, the action was swift and decisive. Gaddafi’s forces were no match for the coalition: the threatened massacre of civilians in Benghazi was prevented, and then Gaddafi himself was captured and killed by rebels in October, just seven months after the start of the intervention.

However, the operation quickly became controversial. Even before Gaddafi’s downfall, UN Security Council members began to trade accusations of mission creep. Russia claimed it had been hoodwinked by the US into authorising the use of force and that the real motivation for intervention had been regime change. The aftermath of the war proved complicated, with various militias continuing to fight for control of territory among themselves and with the new state security forces. On 11 September 2012, Islamists attacked the US consulate in Benghazi, killing the US ambassador and three others. Five years on, the situation is still volatile and although a new UN-backed Government of National Accord is in place,its authority is contested by other Libyan factions. The UK and its allies have been criticised for failing to properly evaluate the 2011 rebellion and its chances of leading to a stable future, and for allowing an international action, initially designed to protect civilians, to morph into an effort to achieve regime change. Critics argue that failure to support the post-Gaddafi government hastened political and economic collapse and paved the way for the eventual rise of ISIS in North Africa.

This view is understandable, and there is clearly much to regret about what came to pass in Libya. It is, however, possible to see things in a different light if we consider what might have been. The intervention almost certainly saved tens of thousands from slaughter by Gaddafi and the current level of violence is nowhere near the genocide he threatened to unleash. What Libya very clearly teaches is that humanitarian arguments can be made for both intervention and non-intervention and that although the perspective of some may be negative, for the Benghazi citizens whose lives were directly threatened by Gaddafi’s credible pledge to murder them ‘street by street, house by house and wardrobe by wardrobe’, the intervention was a success. What followed was not.

Beyond Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya, there are examples of successful intervention. This suggests we should take a broader view when considering the case for – or against – the use of military force to protect civilians. For example, the establishment of a no-fly zone in northern Iraq in 1991 successfully protected the Kurds from Saddam Hussein’s genocidal air attacks. This British-led initiative (which, notwithstanding RAF’s contribution, was dependent on US airpower for enforcement) averted massacres and the Kurds are now playing a pivotal role in helping to roll back ISIS. More recently, in 2014, the RAF was a key contributor to the successful series of international airdrops to Yazidis stranded on Iraq’s Mount Sinjar, which helped break the ISIS siege and saved thousands from slaughter.

The 1999 NATO intervention in Kosovo to protect tens of thousands of Kosovar civilians threatened by Serb leader Slobodan Milosevic’s campaign of ethnic cleansing is another example of success. It was controversial at the time because it went ahead without a UN Security Council Resolution. Yet NATO’s Operation Allied Force was launched only after all diplomatic means had been exhausted and when not to act would have legitimised Milosevic’s actions and undermined the credibility of Western institutions. There were flaws in the design – including the lack of ground troops – but overall the impact was positive: a humanitarian disaster was averted, nearly one million refugees were able to return home, and ethnic cleansing was stopped in its tracks. The NATO intervention paved the way for the creation of new country and peace for the Balkans.

The British intervention in Sierra Leone in 2000 also provides an example of what can be achieved by taking decisive action in favourable circumstances. During a brutal civil war, the rebels of the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) were waging a campaign of terror against the internationally-recognised government, using child soldiers and rape as an instrument of war. When the RUF rejected a peace agreement and threatened the capital, Britain provided vital support to the Sierra Leone Government and the UN peacekeeping mission on the ground, successfully repelling the RUF advance and paving the path to peace. General the Lord David Richards, who, as then-Brigadier, was in operational command of that mission, put success down to ‘deploying a well-trained and adequate military force so quickly that the problem is paralysed’. An enabling legal and political framework (under the UN), along with unity of command and devolution of control to military forces on the ground, were the key factors in General Richards’ success.

There are also times when we did not act and the outcomes were disastrous. Bosnia and Rwanda – where the UK and international community sat back while hundreds of thousands of civilians were being killed – were formative in Jo Cox’s thinking, and clearly demonstrate the price of inaction. Jo also spent time in Darfur and really believed in the ‘never again’ mantra that emerged after the Rwandan genocide. And she and her husband Brendan were closely connected to Bosnia and Croatia, which they visited every year to work with orphans from the war. In both Rwanda and Bosnia, earlier and more decisive Western engagement – including militarily – could have prevented suffering and brutality on a horrific scale.

We are concerned that these lessons are not being heeded today in Syria, where it is estimated that more than half a million Syrians have been killed in the fighting, another two million have been displaced, and many more are suffering daily under the most egregious conditions.

In 2013, a decision was taken by the UK not to intervene in the early stages of the Syrian Civil War, after a government motion was defeated in the House of Commons. That vote – coupled with President Obama’s failure to follow through on his pledge to act if President Assad crossed the US-designated ‘red line’ of using chemical weapons – set the scene for what followed: regional destabilisation, an unprecedented refugee crisis, further horrific humanitarian suffering, and the emergence and growth of ISIS. Western inaction also allowed others to fill the void: Russia’s involvement since September 2015, and in particular the continued air support that President Putin provides to the Assad regime has prolonged the war and vastly increased casualties. In particular, the suffering and losses of the people of Aleppo were not inevitable. They followed from decisions taken – and just as significantly, decisions postponed or avoided – during the preceding years.

In acknowledging defeat in the 2013 vote, the then Prime Minister David Cameron said, ‘the British parliament, reflecting the views of the British people, does not want to see British military action. I get that and the government will act accordingly.’ And yet it is worth noting that this public opposition to intervention pre-dated the appearance of ISIS, the vast refugee crisis and the November 2015 terrorist attacks in France. Since then, with these developments bringing the conflict closer to home, public attitudes have shifted with more people thinking that we should have acted before the situation became more complicated, and the humanitarian suffering more entrenched.

As Members of Parliament, we must of course listen to and reflect the views of our constituents. But we must also lead the national debate and highlight the consequences of decisions. We must use our expertise and knowledge to make informed decisions, even if we think they will be unpopular. And rather than being too sensitive to short-term fluctuations in public opinion, we must think deeply about Britain’s place in the world, its historical position, future security, and its commitment to the Responsibility to Protect. As Edmund Burke MP famously told the voters of Bristol in 1774,‘Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.’ This is particularly the case in foreign policy where swift and decisive action is sometimes the best means of preventing conflict.

So what can we learn and how can we move forward? Much as we may not want to confront it, the deteriorating international environment means we are likely to face more calls for intervention. The link between the ‘home’ and ‘away’ components of our national security has never been more pronounced and the collapse of international order, as well as civil war and violent conflict have an immediate negative impact on our own security, and that of our allies. The humanitarian imperative to act is as powerful today as it was in the past, if not more so. A willingness to act is often the best means of preventing conflict in the first place. This lesson is too often forgotten. As Jo argued passionately, ‘focusing on civilian protection will also make a political solution more likely’ in places like Syria, Yemen and Iraq.

Ultimately, in the face of humanitarian catastrophe, both action and inaction have consequences. To risk the lives of our soldiers and cross the borders of a sovereign country by intervening in the affairs of another nation is perhaps the most serious decision a government can make. But standing aside from modern conflicts can create other grave dangers, from vast population movements to acts of violence fomented in ungoverned spaces.

Furthermore, inaction, like action, can have second-order consequences, not least in demonstrating our willingness or otherwise to defend our allies and our interests. A willingness to act remains a key foundation stone of credible deterrence too. In so far as we value ‘red lines’, many of which the UK played a role in establishing at the end of the Second World War, it is incumbent upon us to retain the willingness and the wherewithal to enforce them. To allow genocide or ethnic cleansing to take place, or chemical or biological weapons attacks against civilians to go unchecked, is to preside over a steady deterioration of ethical norms. To watch a permanent member of the UN Security Council flagrantly ignore the basic rules of the organisation is even worse: it threatens the very international order the UN sought to establish after the Second World War and makes further conflict more, not less, likely.

The notion of ‘world order’ evokes an image of a balance of power between powerful nations, and implies the existence of certain moral parameters. It is in those eras when a growing number of actors have transgressed moral as well as legal ‘red lines’ that we have come under most danger ourselves. Sustaining a commitment to prevention with a capacity to intervene militarily reinforces all the measures that stop short of military force – from soft power pressure and diplomacy, to aid, development and capacity building. The more we look willing to intervene, paradoxically, the less we may be called upon to do so. In the words of the Roman writer Vegetius, if you seek peace, prepare for war.

In the end doing nothing is not good enough. As Jo said in her last speech in the Commons, paraphrasing Edmund Burke MP: ‘Sometimes all it takes for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.’ Drawing on the examples outlined above we suggest some guiding principles for how Britain can act to uphold its responsibility to protect civilians and prevent mass atrocities:


  • Military intervention should be saved for only the most egregious and appropriate cases; there are many other forms of pressure which can be effective.
  • We should act early, on the basis of a thorough analysis of the conflict dynamics, and in concert with other actors, wielding diplomatic tools first.
  • Responding quickly to unfolding events can save the most lives. Ethnic cleansing and mass atrocities often occur in the early phases of conflicts, as in Bosnia.
  • Interference in the affairs of other states is an inherently political act and cannot be devolved solely to the diplomatic or military professionals: we should take a cross-government approach, drawing on the knowledge base and capabilities of all relevant ministries and agencies.
  • Any intervention – military or otherwise – should be predicated on a clear strategy, with a clear goal, that calculates the probability of success and takes into account the cost of not acting.
  • In the case of military intervention, the strategy should acknowledge at the outset the long-term challenges of reconstruction, political reconciliation, and economic development.
  • Whatever form intervention takes, states should set explicit and limited political goals and communicate these clearly to other actors (including their opponents) to avoid violence spiralling beyond control.
  • Legitimate humanitarian interventions must ideally, and where appropriate, be supported by as broad a coalition as possible and comprise international, regional, and local actors.
  • Allies should anticipate and have the ability to withstand opposition from domestic constituencies and demands for early exits.
  • If force is needed, using the appropriate level to avoid retaliation and further conflict is essential. Overwhelming force deters and ultimately saves lives – both of combatants and civilians.
  • The credibility of military intervention depends on access to enough military power to back up a commitment to protect civilians and to prevail even if things do not go according to plan.


This list is clearly not exhaustive, and working through it will not guarantee the right decision. But it is a start, and points to what should be borne in mind when faced with a situation where civilians’ lives are at risk. It suggests we should think more in terms of preventing violence and maintaining certain moral parameters rather than assuming full responsibility for winning the war, overthrowing a regime, or liberating a nation. We should be prepared to engage earlier, use more sanctions, and forge stronger alliances with those who have influence; as well as do more to provide humanitarian assistance in the form of relief. And where these measures fail, we should be willing to enforce restricted airspace, no-fly zones, or safe-havens.

We should also recognise that the UK cannot assume responsibility for everything. Britain did not cause the massacres in Rwanda or Bosnia, and was not responsible for Afghanistan’s collapse into civil war, which long predated the intervention of 2001. The UK should choose to act when we have some ability to influence the situation in hand, when doing so aligns with our national interest, and where we have a reasonable chance of success. We should accept and assert that our action does not absolve nations of responsibility for determining their own futures: if the UK intervenes to prevent genocide in another country, this does not mean that all future problems in that country are the UK’s responsibility. A ‘responsibility to protect’ does not always equate to a ‘responsibility to rebuild’. Individual nations and people each have agency and must be treated as such.

Today, we should steer a middle path between the excesses of military interventionism of the 9/11 era, and an unthinking anti-interventionist reflex; avoid adventurism and overstretch, but recognise the role of the UK in maintaining a rules-based international order. The UK should pursue a foreign policy that emphasises activity rather than introspection and retrenchment. A robust commitment to prevention, which draws on our skills in the fields of development and aid, is a better fit for Britain and the world we find ourselves in, than a lazy and short-termist consensus around non-interventionism. A commitment by all parties to move in this direction would be a fitting legacy for our tireless, brave and humanitarian colleague, Jo Cox.

Alison McGovern became Labour’s representative in Parliament for Wirral South in May 2010. In September 2016 Alison was elected co-chair of the all-party parliamentary group Friends of Syria. She was a good friend of Jo Cox. Tom Tugendhat was elected as the Conservative representative in Parliament for Tonbridge, Edenbridge and Malling in May 2015. Before becoming an MP, Tom was in the British Army and served in both Iraq and Afghanistan. The first draft of this report was a joint project between Tom and Jo.


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