How to Understand the Responsibility to Protect

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Since the international community found itself stepping in to try to stem burgeoning humanitarian disasters in Libya and the Ivory Coast, much has been made of the principles behind the interventions. A cadre of liberal internationalists (in Europe, often lapsed socialists) saw in the two countries — particularly in Libya — a mandate for necessary action. Reports even claim the acronymed French intellectual Bernard Henri Levy—so savvy a self-promoter that media simply refer to him as BHL—was the main force behind French President Nicolas Sarkozy leading the push for air strikes on Muammar Gaddafi’s tanks and heavy artillery. Adding to these appeals were calls from Washington neo-conservatives, kept relatively quiet since the realities of Iraq punctured their regime-changing zeal, banging the gong once more for a decisive, military solution.

The theoretical principle that gets invoked by one and all now is the international community’s “responsibility to protect” — or R2P as its known in policy circles. R2P governed the guiding rationale of the two recent Security Council resolutions that sanctioned action against both the Gaddafi and Gbagbo regimes. It’s a principle that has been veritably codified by the U.N. since 2005, when, remembering the horrors of Rwanda and Srebenica, heads of state and government in the U.N. General Assembly all reached consensus at a 2005 World Summit on the responsibility to protect populations from “genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity.”

On the outside, R2P seems simple enough—it’s a moral and legal framework for the world to stop horrible atrocities from taking place. But that clarity belies a deeper debate about what R2P actually should stand for. According to the doctrine’s most keen advocates, the international community’s responsibility to protect should rarely be seen as a license for war.

The dominant understanding of R2P has been shaped in the past two decades by the vociferous moralizing of figures like France’s former Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner, founder of Medecins Sans Frontieres, and even Tony Blair, who famously articulated his own “Blair Doctrine” justifying NATO’s intervention into Kosovo during a 1999 speech at the University of Chicago. “This was more what we call ‘humanitarian intervention,’” says Edward Luck, special adviser to U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon on the responsibility to protect. “It implies there are bodies piling up and you can’t sit back and borders can’t stop you and military action is on the table.”

But many nations, particularly those in the developing world, are wary of this sort of muscular logic, detecting the echoes of an earlier imperial moment of interfering Western powers. Not for nothing to do a host of rising powers like China and Russia harp on the claims and rights of their own sovereignty. So Luck points to a “second route” he and others have deployed to define R2P. “It’s to look at what the very idea of sovereignty means. Sovereignty isn’t simply the right to do what you want to in your country. Chief among the real responsibilities of a sovereign state is to protect the people in its territory.”

In both the escalating conflicts in Libya and the Ivory Coast—where the U.N. eventually launched its own attacks using helicopter gunships—it became clear that the regimes in question were not living up to such a standard of sovereignty —rather, they were imperiling countless people within their borders. Gaddafi was using air power against his own civilians, threatening to “cleanse” Libya house to house of its “cockroaches,” while militia loyal to Gbabgo were targeting supposed ethnic outsiders. Luck says that the U.N. repeatedly “warned Gbagbo that widespread, systematic assaults on civilian populations may constitute crimes against humanity.” But those warnings were brushed aside and the crisis grew to such a point—with reports of hundreds, probably thousands killed, and over a million fleeing their homes—that action had to be taken.

But R2P advocates are at pains to emphasize that these scenarios are not the major testing grounds of the doctrine. Says Luck:

Once it’s clear that national authorities are manifestly failing to protect against the threat of war crimes and massacres of populations, there’s a responsibility of the international community to respond. This is not always — or often — through reactive and coercive military force. You’re supposed to find peaceful means first, economic sanctions, political persuasion, and so on.

Negotiations and diplomacy have calmed a number of recent potential humanitarian disasters that quickly fell off international frontpages. The so-called “R2P toolbox” was in full use when the international community exerted the right levers of pressure on the military in Guinea in 2009 and early to 2010 to walk the country back from a startling outburst of civil strife and reports of mass rape. Free and fair elections were held last year. In 2007-8, political divisions in Kenya fueled days of ethnic bloodletting. But an intervention led by former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan eventually doused the flames. Says Luck:

In the case of Kenya, appeals were made to politicians, saying “your people are inciting violence and you’ve got to stop that incitement.” And, as was the case there, the violence ebbs and the situation gets better and people elsewhere forget about it.

But there are scenarios when R2P shouldn’t to be brought to bear. In 2008, when the devastating Cyclone Nargis ravaged Burma’s Irrawady Delta region and claimed over 100,000 lives, many in the international community, including Kouchner, invoked R2P and argued for a humanitarian intervention on the grounds that the country’s repressive, opaque military junta was indifferent to the suffering of its people. As grim as the situation was, R2P advocates like Luck said then and now that this was a blatant misuse of the principle, since it had little to do with the threat of genocide or war crimes. Too often, the doctrine gets tied up with the desire of some to launch a righteous war.

Sapna Chhatpar, deputy director of the International Coalition for the Responsibility to Protect, an alliance of NGOs that advocate R2P, says that “it was really unfortunate” when Blair invoked R2P in his speeches in the build up to the Iraq war. “What we’re trying to make sure is that the focus is never about any speficic interest of a nation-state. We’re focused on prioritizing the well-being of civilian populations—it’s about them, not the state.”

While the current interventions seem to follow the wishes of those who want to see outright regime change in Libya and the Ivory Coast, the Security Council resolutions say little about forcing a transfer of power. “The responsibility to protect is about protection of everyone, it’s a principle that’s fundamental to building societies of tolerance, mutual accountability and peace,” says Luck. “It’s not a political document to be used against one side or the other.” But that’s still a hard sell at a moment when there are U.N. boots on the ground and embittered demagogues snarling in retreat.