Is the French intervention in Mali even legal?

January 16, 2013

By Brian Lee Crowley
Macdonald-Laurier Institute
and Robert Murray
University of Alberta

OTTAWA, ON and EDMONTON, AB, Jan. 16, 2013/ Troy Media/ – Readers of the National Post might be forgiven for doing a double take at the news that the French, staunch opponents of American ‘unilateralism and illegality’ in Iraq, have launched a military mission to suppress an Islamic insurgency in Mali. And with the support of the Americans and the British, no less.

True, the situations are not strictly comparable: the French have the support of the Malian government, whereas the Iraq invasion was undertaken to depose Saddam Hussein. But was the French objection to the Iraq invasion not, at least in part, that it was illegal for national governments to intervene abroad militarily without the UN’s endorsement?

We must have missed the footnote establishing l’exception française in that country’s former African colonies.

But maybe the exceptions are not just françaises. In fact, maybe they’re not exceptions at all.

Take the 2011 Libyan mission. Support from civil society movements and the call for the end of oppression culminated with the UN approving intervention by NATO forces in that country. The Libya intervention has been heralded as a humanitarian success, as the UN Security Council overtly endorsed a mission based almost solely on humanitarian concern.

At the heart of the Libyan mission’s reputation as a model for humanitarian intervention was UN Security Council Resolution 1973. The Resolution allowed for a no-fly zone to protect civilians, and allowed NATO to assume control of the mission.

The uses of Chapters VII and VIII of the UN Charter in approving a mission and then delegating it to NATO show a mission grounded in international law, although the Russians and Chinese, among others, argued that NATO ended up going far beyond their remit, meaning that such Security Council authorization will likely be harder, not easier to get in future.

Then there is the awkward case of Kosovo, which proves that the UN is far from the sole source of moral legitimacy in the world when it comes to humanitarian crisis or even just armed intervention. The NATO intervention in Kosovo in 1999 is a perfect example of the UN being unwilling or incapable of acting in the face of genocide, and led to NATO member states launching their own intervention.

Under international law, NATO’s Kosovo intervention was not sanctioned and could therefore be considered illegal. But that didn’t stop NATO or Canada, which underlines that, when their national interests are at stake, governments will not allow inaction by the UN or any other international body to override their own judgment about how best to protect those interests.

In other words, the behaviour of states around the world has been literally ‘all over the map’ where intervention, humanitarian or otherwise, is on the table.

The ongoing crises in areas like Syria, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and the Central African Republic all remind us that intervention by western powers is selective at best, and has been based on no discernible theory or principle. Mali is an ideal illustration of how governments are just making it up as they go along.

French justification for the Malian intervention was that the Malian government requested assistance in combatting northern Islamist insurgents, unlike, say, for the Libyan or Kosovo missions. The point, though, is that no international institutions – not NATO, not the UN of which France and Britain are members – have approved their deployment.

As we try to work out the respective roles of national governments, the UN, and other international agencies in managing foreign interventions, the Mali mission highlights two indispensable lessons.

First, military interventions nearly always have unintended consequences. In the case of Mali, the strength of Islamist forces in the north has been greatly increased as new fighters have returned, ironically, from fighting NATO in Libya.

Second, Mali highlights once more that interventionism is an inherently selective strategy with little grounding in law or international institutions. As fighting intensifies, and calls for more western states to assist their allies become louder, the Security Council may be asked to rule on intervention yet again, but with no clearer principles this time than before.

These lessons serve to underline the fact that those arguing that there is an easy and straightforward line to be drawn between legality and illegality, legitimacy and illegitimacy, in Iraq and elsewhere, are engaging in wishful thinking.

Just ask the French.

Brian Lee Crowley ( is the Managing Director of the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, an independent non-partisan public policy think tank in Ottawa: Robert W. Murray is an Adjunct Professor of Political Science at the University of Alberta.

This column is FREE to use on your websites or in your publications. However, Troy Media and the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, with links to their web sites, MUST be credited.

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