The Weakness of the Responsibility to Protect as an International Norm


The Weakness of the Responsibility to Protect as an International Norm

Jan 7, 2014 8 min read

Former Executive Vice President

Kim R. Holmes was the Executive Vice President at The Heritage Foundation.
The international doctrine called the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) has a checkered history. It first appeared in the 1990s in response to the U.N.’s perceived failures to stop mass murders in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia. It gained traction in 2005 when the United Nations General Assembly adopted a non-binding R2P resolution over U.S. objections. Then, in 2011, the Obama administration repeatedly cited it as justification for the air campaign in Libya. Although the White House has not invoked the doctrine with respect to Syria, it remains committed to the idea as a matter of principle.

Much is at stake as to whether the United States officially accepts R2P as an international norm. Some wish to engrain that principle by restructuring our nation’s defense, arguing that the U.S. armed forces should be retooled to fight humanitarian wars as “required” by the R2P doctrine. Retired Major General Margaret H. Woodward and Lieutenant Colonel Phillip G. Morrison recently wrote in Joint Force Quarterly that R2P represents a “revolution in global politics and the role of the United Nations (UN) as a global leadership body.” For that reason, they say, we must “find new ways to harness violence in the pursuit of our [U.S.] objectives.”

But, before we begin readjusting our military objectives and operations to the standards of R2P, we need to understand the implications.

All too often the benevolent intentions of the doctrine are used to gloss over hard questions. Does R2P rest on an accurate understanding of the role of the United Nations and the international community in security? Does it reflect a proper understanding of the purposes of warfare? Does it align with the federal government’s constitutional obligation and most basic duty: to provide for the common defense of the nation? What are its implications for U.S. and others’ national sovereignty? Is it even an international normative principle—one that provides, as principles are supposed to do, consistent moral, political, and strategic guidance in most cases of international conflict involving civil wars and crimes of governments against their own peoples?

Let’s take the U.N. question first. The United Nations was established in 1945 as a body of nations who recognize the sovereignty of other nations. Article 2 of its Charter states: “The Organization is based on the principle of the sovereign equality of all its Members.” Nevertheless, it was also recognized from the beginning that there would be instances when the international community, operating through the United Nations Security Council, would be called upon to intervene (i.e., violate a nation’s sovereignty) to restore international peace and stability.

Specifically, Chapter VI of the Charter empowers the Security Council to call upon “parties to any dispute, the continuance of which is likely to endanger the maintenance of international peace and security” to resolve their differences through “negotiation, enquiry, mediation, conciliation, arbitration, judicial settlement, resort to regional agencies or arrangements, or other peaceful means of their own choice.” If such efforts fail, Chapter VII of the Charter specifies that the Security Council may authorize additional actions to “maintain or restore international peace and security,” including “complete or partial interruption of economic relations and of rail, sea, air, postal, telegraphic, radio, and other means of communication, and the severance of diplomatic relations.” If those measures failed, the Security Council is empowered to “take such action by air, sea, or land forces as may be necessary to maintain or restore international peace and security. Such action may include demonstrations, blockade, and other operations by air, sea, or land forces of Members of the United Nations.”

U.N. peacekeeping operations are grounded on this authority. Those operations now comprise a substantial portion of the work and resources of the organization. The most recent peacekeeping budget surpassed $7.5 billion with the U.N. currently deploying nearly 100,000 uniformed personnel from various countries on 15 peacekeeping missions.

Over the last 60 years, additional international conventions and United Nations’ resolutions have also established norms and standards of international humanitarian law. These include the Geneva Conventions of 1949 and its subsequent Protocols. Although not sidestepping the respect for national sovereignty still embedded in the U.N. Charter (and thus the right of the Security Council to decide ultimately questions of international peace), these conventions and resolutions did quite consciously stretch the boundaries of old definitions of sovereignty. They not only diminished the legitimacy of national sovereignty but also broadened the scope of action that international bodies could take in defense of human rights and to protect against genocide and mass murder. It was always a balancing act, but there was inherent tension between the rights of national sovereignty—which the U.N. General Assembly and Security Council jealously protected— and the rights of individuals to protection—which were championed in such bodies as the Human Rights Council, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, and the human rights treaty bodies.

The resolutions on R2P ratified by the U.N. General Assembly in 2005 tried to overcome these tensions, but it still recognized the ultimate authority of the Security Council. Each state had a responsibility to protect its population, the resolution said, but collective action was to be taken “through the Security Council, in accordance with the Charter, including Chapter VII, on a case-by-case basis.…” In other words, only the Security Council could decide whether an intervention of the international community should be undertaken, which implied not only the rights of the veto of the Permanent Five (P-5) members (including the United States), but also that the universal humanitarian legal principles supposedly established by the R2P resolution were still subordinate to the principles of national sovereignty--to rights of the P-5 members in particular.

Why does this matter? Because it points to the fact that R2P is a mere aspiration, as opposed to a real principle of international norms or even law. R2P sometimes not only runs against the practices of Realpolitik (where national sovereignty still reigns supreme), but more importantly, it is at odds with a fundamental principle of the United Nations itself—namely, the ultimate legal deference to national sovereignty as decided by the national members of the Security Council. The Council may approve of the concept with respect to Libya but does not do so in Syria because certain members of the P-5 (namely Russia) object. In that difference is the ultimate weakness of R2P as a principle. The opposition of Russia to a Syria intervention, for example, reveals that no matter what Moscow may think about R2P as a principle, it will not adhere to it if it violates its national interests. Frankly, as a matter of principle, the United States as a P-5 member more or less does the same thing. Regardless of what the General Assembly may say, it is the actions of the Security Council that count in international peace and stability. If there is no consensus among the P-5 on how R2P should be followed, or subsequent observance of any agreement on it in practice, then it will never survive as a viable legal or normative principle of international order.

Now to the second question regarding whether the principle is consistent with the purposes of warfare. Civilians may be ultimately protected from further harm if a nation intervenes to overthrow a genocidal regime. But throughout history the purposes of war have always been mainly political—namely, as understood in just war theory, to counter an aggressor who is inflicting lasting, grave, and certain damage on a nation or community of nations, as a last resort that has serious prospects of success and won’t inflict more grave damage than the aggressor. Woodward and Morrison argue that the R2P sanction of Libyan operation was “not taking sides”—a frankly preposterous notion. Clearly the sanction was aimed at Gaddafi’s regime, and that leader ultimately paid the price with his life, even if he was killed by his own people. Thus, the political purpose of R2P remains one of changing policy or even overthrowing a regime, even if we pretend we are not taking sides and only protecting civilians.

War is a blunt instrument. Civilians are inevitably killed no matter how hard we try to avoid it. Although estimates range widely from dozens to hundreds, civilians were inadvertently killed by allied forces in Libya, despite enormous efforts to spare them. Whether the operation saved more lives than would have been lost had there been no operation is an unanswerable question. However, it can be said that the concept of humanitarian warfare is an oxymoron; war may serve some morally justifiable purpose (self defense, for example), but it is not a fit instrument for expressing one’s supposed humanitarianism. Given all the instability and violence that occurred in Libya since the military intervention, the question can rightly be asked whether they, too, should be put into the ledger counting the casualties of the intervention. If not, then the principle of R2P is but an empty statement of intent devoid of any real moral accountability.

Finally, there is the question of how R2P affects the United States. Since the U.S. has a veto on the U.N. Security Council, it will never be forced to send an armed force in defense of the R2P principle against its will. But that is not the real concern. Rather, it is that, over time, the norm will be established that the only proper use of American military force is for the kinds of humanitarian operations implied by the R2P principle. Woodward and Morrison imply such a norm when they say “R2P is arguably the most radical adjustment to sovereignty since the Peace of Westphalia was signed in 1648.” The authors see this as a positive development, rather than as a concern for the use of force. They envision it as a revolutionary advance, a “victory for democracy because it pledges to support sovereign rule only when it protects the populace it governs.”

Undermining national sovereignty as a principle is a double-edged sword for the United States. As any U.S. diplomat with U.N. experience will tell you, many nations around the world are all too happy to downplay national sovereignty if it means criticizing the internal practices of the United States or Israel. And yet they jealously defend that sovereignty when it comes to their own acts. More fundamentally, however, the purposes of U.S. armed forces are still, first and foremost, to defend the sovereignty, security and freedom of the American people. They are not primarily mercenary forces to be deployed at the behest of a U.N. body, no matter how well intended that mission may be. Therefore, significantly altering U.S. military missions or planning to accommodate the R2P doctrine would be misguided.

After all is said and done, R2P is not really a principle but an aspiration, and a rather weak one at that. Its defenders often say, “The fact that we cannot protect people everywhere is no reason for doing nothing when we can.” In other words, they argue that intervening in the face of mass murder is an option that cannot be relinquished. That is true. But we don’t need R2P to have that option. Whether the U.N. Security Council authorizes such an intervention will always be a practical judgment, at the discretion of sovereign members of the UNSC, and depending on all sorts of circumstances. And it is these exceptions that illuminate the weakness of R2P as a principle.

The problem with R2P is that its reality never lives up to its high-sounding principles. If it wanted to, the Security Council could have intervened to stop genocide in Rwanda and elsewhere. The reason it didn’t are the same ones that will likely keep it from doing so elsewhere in the future.

Ultimately R2P is riddled with too many contradictions and practical problems to make it a serious doctrine for implementation by U.S. strategy. It mainly comes down to an argument of moral suasion to intervene against mass murder and genocide, which one can make without resorting to tortured arguments about supposed international principles or even the proper purposes of warfare, and certainly without damaging the vital notion of national sovereignty.

 - Kim R. Holmes is a Distinguished Fellow at The Heritage Foundation. He was Assistant Secretary of State for International Organizations under President George W. Bush.

Originally appeared in Small Wars Journal