The Liberal Defence of Murder, By Richard Seymour

This book provides a powerful critique of "humanitarian intervention" and of those liberal intellectuals who support it. The term has become a buzzword, a subject of mainstream media debate. There are few contemporary crises where it is not proposed that the answer is to dispatch Western troops. Richard Seymour argues that Western military intervention in what we today call the developing world has a long history. While the public justification for these interventions has often been "humanitarian", he suggests that the reality has been anything but.

He highlights some important issues that challenge conventional wisdom. Seymour reveals that many great "liberals" of previous centuries were strong supporters of colonialism and empire, apparently untroubled by the violence that made it possible. John Locke, who devised the principles underpinning the British political system following the Glorious Revolution of 1688, also developed principles justifying the Empire and supported colonial slavery. Similarly, John Stuart Mill believed that some societies were "backward" and should be considered exempt from the doctrine of liberty, and that "despotism was a legitimate mode of government in dealing with barbarians".

We are also reminded of the sheer scale of Western violence and brutality during the colonial period. From India to Indochina, north Africa to Central America, the colonial powers were responsible for widespread repression and exploitation that contributed to the deaths of millions. While Seymour is wrong to suggest that today's liberal supporters of international intervention are driven by neo-colonial motives or attitudes of racial superiority, in many parts of the developing world the colonial legacy still resonates.

Fast-forwarding to the present day, Seymour highlights the way in which advocates of military intervention have often distorted the facts to present a simple media narrative of a clash between good and evil, and therefore to increase the moral pressure on key governments to act. He is correct to say that the reality in Bosnia, Kosovo and Darfur was and is more complex. He is also right to chastise those liberal intellectuals who appeared to lose all sense of judgement in their enthusiasm for the intervention in Iraq, and who became frighteningly blasé about the gruesome humanitarian consequences of the war.

But if the book is insightful and instructive in these respects, it is much weaker in others. In the years since the Rwandan genocide of 1994, in which 800,000 people were killed in three months, and shamed by the world's passivity in response to this crisis, a growing number of governments and individuals have grappled with a core question. What is an appropriate response on the part of outsiders to mass atrocities or large-scale suffering within a nation state? The Liberal Defence of Murder simply does not address this question.

Some of the best thinking around this issue remains the work of the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (2001), set up at the instigation of Kofi Annan. Yet Seymour makes only one fleeting reference to this highly influential work. The Commission argued that where sovereign states were unable or unwilling to protect their people from massive and avoidable suffering, the responsibility passed to the international community. This principle was endorsed by world leaders at a meeting of the UN General Assembly in 2005.

The concept of a "responsibility to protect" is seen to embrace three distinct, but related, responsibilities. First, there is a responsibility to prevent: to address the root and direct causes of internal conflict and human suffering. Second, there is a responsibility to react: "to respond to situations of compelling human need with appropriate measures, including, in exceptional cases, military intervention". Third, there is a responsibility to help rebuild following a conflict or humanitarian crisis.

While the Commission argued that intervention should be viewed across a spectrum of policy actions, debate around humanitarian intervention has focused disproportionately on coercive military action (without the consent of the host government). While in some circumstances, such action may be the only means left for preventing or ending abuses, these instances are actually very rare. Even in these cases, before any action is undertaken, we should be sure of its legality and have considered carefully whether it might make the humanitarian situation worse, not better.

In the majority of cases, other policy instruments make more sense, not least support for equitable and sustainable development. This may be less headline-grabbing than military intervention, but in most instances likely to be more effective. The risks of large-scale political violence are significantly higher in poorer countries than in better-off ones. Poor countries are more vulnerable to financial and environmental shocks, which can be a powerful trigger for conflict.

Environmental pressures, including water and land scarcity, will be further exacerbated by high population growth. And rapid urbanisation can be a source of profound social unrest. These wider issues have not attracted the attention they deserve from either supporters or critics of "humanitarian intervention", although investment in combating poverty and promoting effective, accountable institutions can help prevent, contain or resolve large-scale violence and suffering.

The Liberal Defence of Murder does not address these broader development issues either. But this timely, provocative and thought-provoking book should encourage supporters to reflect much more self-critically on the mixed history of international intervention, both in the colonial period and today.

David Mepham, writing in a personal capacity, is director of policy at Save the Children