Do International Interventions Create New Forms of Conflict?



In 2007, Canadian lawyer Philippe Leroux-Martin witnessed what was probably the biggest political crisis in Bosnia and Herzegovina since the end of the war – in 1995 – while working for the Office of the High Representative. Bosnian-Serb representatives opposed passing a set of reforms to strengthen federal power, which was supported by Bosnian Muslims and the international community. The failure to pass the reforms showed how entrenched ethnical divisions still were in the country.

The Bosnian crisis motivated Leroux-Martin to reflect on the role of international intervention in complex conflict and post-conflict situations. His recently published book, Diplomatic Counterinsurgency: Lessons from Bosnia and Herzegovina, analyzes how interventions from foreign powers to end armed conflict can actually create new forms of conflict.

In this interview with ICTJ’s Hannah Dunphy, Leroux-Martin delves into the book’s main points and reflections, some of which might be considered controversial, such as the concept of “non-violent war” and “diplomatic counterinsurgency.” He also makes recommendations to the international community – including transitional justice practitioners – on how to conduct interventions more efficiently.


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The concept of “non-violent war” has sparked discomfort among some members of the international community. Yet Leroux-Martin argues that an intervention might be successful in ending armed conflict with military force, but that does not necessarily stop conflict as such. “In these contexts war tends to transform itself into a non-violent war, a specific form of non-violent conflict which is being weighed by war-time elites and constituencies in order to achieve or pursue a war-time objective,” Leroux-Martin said.

A key to successful interventions, in Leroux-Martin’s opinion, is not to underestimate the intensity and complexity of the conflict. In the case of Bosnia and Herzegovina, that was a mistake the international community made, he says: “Had we been more conscious that we were managing a power arrangement that constrained the evolution of a non-violent war, I think we would have been more ready to accept that these changes that we were looking at would trigger very, very strong reactions.”

By being aware and understanding the dynamics and nature of “nonviolent wars,” Leroux-Martin explained, international actors are in a better position to anticipate the evolution of conflict and the impact that they will have on it. That has big tactical and strategic implications, such as on timing, resources, and what alliances to develop.

To transitional justice practitioners, Leroux-Martin sends the following message: “When you intervene in complex conflicts, you never do transitional justice in isolation. You interfere with a very intense conflict, and you are bound and destined to trigger reactions within this context. You may be very well neutral in your intentions, but you’re never neutral in your effect.”

PHOTO: A French UN soldier sets up barbed wire in one of the UN compounds in Sarajevo Friday, July 21, 1995. (Enric F.Marti/AP PHOTO)