The Responsibility to Protect: To Intervene or Not To Intervene?
‘We would fight not for the political future of a distant city, rather for principles whose destruction would ruin the possibility of peace and security for the peoples of the earth’.
From Rwanda to Kosovo and now Libya and Syria, the question on whether or not the international community has a responsibility to protect citizens from the brutality of their states has become one of the most explosive debates in international relations. Those who believe in ‘humanitarian intervention’ often argue that it is a moral imperative to stop atrocities committed by states towards their own citizens. In their views, not only it is morally wrong to ignore gross human rights abuses going on in the other parts of the world, it is also naive to believe that genocide in other countries have no impact on others. The opposite side of the story points out how humanitarian as a term has been used as a moral garment to ignore ‘collateral damages’ and shroud imperialist agenda of the powerful countries. In their eyes, humanitarian intervention does more harm than good.
This essay aims to introduce readers to the complexities of humanitarian intervention. The first part of the essay will define what is meant by ‘the Responsibility to Protect’, its history, and the place of humanitarian intervention within this doctrine. The second part of the essay will highlight the claims made by the proponents of the humanitarian intervention. The third part of the essay will feature some of the arguments made by those who are skeptical about humanitarian intervention. The last part of the essay will critically analyze the claims from both sides. It will be clear by the end of the essay that the international community does have a moral and political obligation to protect citizens from gross human rights abuses committed by their states. In saying so, however, it will be shown that translating this concept into practice is fraught with complex difficulties and plenty of space for improvements.
The Responsibility to Protect and humanitarian Intervention: An Overview
In 1994, Rwanda underwent one of the most violent periods in its history. It was estimated that 800,000 people were killed as ethnic Hutus embarked on a campaign to exterminate ethnic Tutsis in the country. The international community was aware of what went on. Yet, they chose to take the path of inaction. In the year after, 7000 men and boys in the town of Srebrenica were butchered by Bosnian Serb forces. Again, the world only watched helplessly in horror as this event unfolded. In the aftermath of these two events, the international community learned that it is morally and politically indefensible to ignore gross human rights abuses such as genocide and ethnic cleansing even if these happen in far away lands. The moral outrage from these stories eventually culminated in the 2005 World Summit where the term ‘the Responsibility to Protect’ or the so-called ‘R2P’ was coined. The term was evoked for the first time in March last year when the UN Security Council came up with Resolution 1973 to condemn Qaddafi in Libya and impose a no-fly zone in the country.
R2P is a guiding principle which stipulates that state has the primary responsibility to protect its citizens from ‘avoidable catastrophe’ such as starvation, genocide, mass rape, ethnic cleansing, and crime against humanities. Where a state is unable or unwilling to fulfill this responsibility to its own citizens, the international community has to assume this responsibility. R2P consists of three types of responsibilities: the responsibility to prevent, the responsibility to react, and the responsibility to rebuild. The responsibility to prevent entails addressing ‘both the root causes and direct causes of internal conflict and other man-made crises putting population at risk’.
The responsibility to react means responding ‘to situations of compelling human need with appropriate measures’. This may include sanctions, international prosecution, and military intervention. The responsibility to rebuild include post-conflict recovery, reconstruction, and reconciliation to address the causes of the conflict that the intervention responded to. It is often stressed that prevention is the most important part of R2P doctrine and that military intervention should be considered as the last option. However, in this essay, the focus will be on military intervention for these humanitarian reasons.
It is worth quickly exploring some of the principles of R2P with regards to humanitarian intervention. First, a military intervention must be based on a just cause, such as a large scale loss of life or ethnic cleansing. Second it must be based on the precautionary principles: right intention (the intervention ‘must be to halt or avert human sufferings’); it is used as the last resort after non-military options have been seriously explored; it must be done using proportional means; there needs to be a reasonable prospect of success in halting or averting human sufferings. Third, it must be undertaken or authorized by the right authority. In general, this refers to the UN Security Council. Fourth, it must follow operational principles, such as clear objectives, mandate, and so on.
The topic of humanitarian intervention is not new. Ancient philosophers such as St. Augustine has already grappled with the issue since his time in the 4th and 5th century. According to him, a war can be waged if the intention is to attain peace. He also believed that states reserve the right to use military option in defense of innocent victims of violent repression or to prevent human catastrophe. Some thinkers, in fact, believe that it is not only a right but a responsibility for the international community to protect citizens from gross human rights abuses by their state.
This idea of moral responsibility is often related to the so-called liberal cosmopolitan approach. This theory posits that it is first and foremost the individuals who possess certain inalienable rights. Immanuel Kant argued that every individual has pre-political rights. Every individual person surrender some of these pre-political rights to a state in exchange for security and well-being, which are virtually impossible to secure in pre-political state of nature. Therefore, the very moral basis of state sovereignty is a state’s ability to protect its people from danger. When a state is unwilling or unable to guarantee protection to its people, the social contract underpinning its sovereignty is broken and, therefore, its sovereignty is forfeited. This is why the international community can and should ‘intervene’ when gross human rights abuses take place in a country where the government has neither the capacity nor the political will to stop these abuses.
Another moral basis for humanitarian intervention is the idea that we are all implicated in conflicts and wars in other parts of the world -- even in places where it appears irrelevant to us. Internal wars that take place in ‘distant and unimportant regions‘ are usually fueled by arms and monetary transfers from the developed countries. For example, according to Amnesty International, 74 per cent of world’s weapons are supplied by rich countries, such as the US, Russia, Germany, the UK, China. These arms often go to irresponsible states or militant groups as currently there is no comprehensive international treaty to prevent the sales of arms that could be used to perpetrate serious human rights abuses. It is, therefore, morally unacceptable for the international community to pretend it has nothing to do with conflicts, genocide, and mass violence happening in a state even if it is isolated from the rest of the world.
Humanitarian intervention is also often a matter of practical and political necessity. From the flow of refugees to global terrorism, organized crime, drug trafficking, and the spread of viral diseases, the destabilizing effects of internal conflicts within a state can reach other states far beyond its immediate neighbours. It is often in the interests of the international community to take firm actions when a state fails to protect its citizens from humanitarian calamities. This is in sync with the explanation offered by the school of realism. From the realist school’s perspective, states will pursue actions that fulfill its national interests. Humanitarian intervention can help states not only to isolate the destabilizing effects of internal conflicts or genocide happening in other states but also helping them to achieve what is termed ‘milieu goals’ -- ‘a realist case for restructuring a more orderly international system and paying attention to the requirements of leadership by a great power’. This means it is in the interest of every state to be perceived as a ‘credible’ player in the international system. To gain its credibility, it is important to be responsive to the needs of the international community.
Arguments of the Skeptics
The skeptics believe that the doctrine of responsibility to protect and its corresponding idea of humanitarian intervention has been used a smokescreen for waging a war without accountability. Burke argued that ‘the law of war is flawed and extremely difficult to enforce’.
Doctrines such as the just war theory or R2P is not followed by accountability mechanism to ensure states follow them and, as a result, observance to these doctrines is voluntary. Since it is voluntary and since it is branded as a humanitarian action, states can easily avoid being held accountable in cases where they create avoidable ‘collateral damages’. For example, in 2002 the US launched airstrikes in an attempt to defeat Al Qaeda and Taliban forces in Afghanistan. In doing so, the US forces caused many ‘collateral damages’, including the deaths of nearly 400 people in six ‘massacre sites’ and the bombing of Al-Jazeera office in Kabul. There was however no sanction whatsoever that the international community imposed on the US despite its failure to avoid these ‘unintentional’ disasters.
The second reason behind skepticism on humanitarian intervention is the fact that the humanitarian banner is often used by powerful states to cover up their imperialist agenda. After all, there is virtually no war that has not been termed as humanitarian. Nazi Germany’s advancement into Poland and Czechoslovakia was couched in humanitarian language.
Japan’s past invasions into Asia to ‘get rid of European imperialism’ was also subsumed under a humanitarian umbrella. So too were hundreds of other wars, such as the Iraq War today that was launched under the pretext of preventing ‘rogue’ states such as Iraq from threatening the world peace and stability with their Weapons of Mass Destruction. In Iraq case, it was a dubious case to begin with and it becomes increasingly difficult for the US government to justify the war in Iraq today. However, as pointed out earlier, there is no accountability mechanism to ‘right’ such cases especially when it is done by a hegemonic power such as the US. Another implication of humanitarian intervention, which is based on the interests of imperial powers, is a selective implementation of this doctrine. Some argue that the intervention in Libya was motivated, at least partly, by its rich natural resources. The fact that it was already a weak ‘rogue’ state made it an easy target. In comparison, it would be difficult to imagine a collective military action by the West to ‘save’ Tibet in China or West Papua in Indonesia.
Critiquing The Arguments and the Way Forward
The debate on humanitarian intervention within the doctrine of R2P is, perhaps, one of the most fascinating and dynamic topics in international relations because the pro and contra side have an equally strong set of arguments. Unfortunately, this essay does not have the privilege of space to review all of them in details. Therefore, it will only focus on a few key arguments from both sides.
The strength of the affirmative side lies on its ability to articulately reframe the concept of sovereignty. Sovereignty is not just taken as it is but analyzed to its conceptual roots. In their analysis, individual rights trump sovereignty because state would not exist without the political consent of the individuals that compose it. Thus, when a state has compromised the well-being, safety, and security of its citizens through its inability to halt an act of genocide, ethnic cleansing, and the likes, it can be said that such a state has undermined its own moral and political basis for existence. Also, sovereignty is important for a state because it is often assumed that state is the best protector of its citizens. Therefore, that state needs to be protected from foreign states or entities that are less credible in governing the citizens of that particular state. This is why sovereignty becomes important and why colonialism is frowned upon. Foreign governance is often seen a form of imposition, domination, and oppression. However, what difference does it make when a state torture, enslave, and massacre their own people? Would not it mean that such a state is not any better compared to foreign entities, anyway? In that case, it has no legitimacy to claim sovereignty to rule its people and be free from foreign intervention or interference. Therefore, the idea that the international community can and should intervene when citizens are severely harmed by their state remains a formidable argument and the idea that sovereignty should be preserved at all costs has no solid basis.
However, as pointed out by Bellamy and Williams, this liberal cosmopolitan basis has weaknesses too. One of them is that such a conceptual understanding on sovereignty and individual rights is not empirically shared by the majority of people in our world today. For many leaders of developing countries, sovereignty is not couched in the metanarrative of the persecution of individuals by the Church and State, nor was it framed through the history of Westphalia treaties. Instead, it is couched in the history of bloody wars of liberation from colonial powers. Sovereignty was earned after hundreds of years of anti-colonial struggle. It is difficult for them to grapple with the idea of conditional sovereignty especially when the conditions are defined by the same powers that used to colonise them and abused the doctrine for their own selfish interests.
The skeptics raise some valid points too. It is doubtful to what extent we can expect any substantial change when it comes to humanitarian intervention although we now have R2P. It seems that in many cases, states follow their real interests first and use moral theories of war later to justify their decisions. Therefore, although much time and efforts have been put into developing moral guidance of war such as R2P, it might not go as far as we would like. This is especially true so long as there is no tangible, clear, and effective accountability mechanism at the international level to redress preventable abuses caused by states in the name of humanitarian intervention. Without real consequences, states would have no incentive to change their practices for the better.
Nonetheless, the skeptics’ side also has some shortcomings. The first is the idea that humanitarian intervention within R2P leads to the continuation of imperialism. Such a claim is misleading. It is undeniable that there is bias when it comes to humanitarian intervention. Powerful states tend to intervene in certain countries where they can get some forms of benefits. However, this is understandable if one understand how politics work. States which undertake military actions on humanitarian grounds must sacrifice their resources and their people for a war in a far away land with little direct relevance to many people living in those intervening states. It will be naive to expect that states would willingly sacrifice themselves for nothing.
At the ‘soft’ end of the interest calculus, state does not want to lose its prestige and at the opposite end of the interest, it might want access to resources. It is crucial to acknowledge that although states desire some benefits out of humanitarian wars, they do not always seek access to resources or fulfill their imperial interests through these wars. Moreover, just because the international community has ‘bias’ in choosing where to intervene, it does not mean that humanitarian intervention does not and cannot achieve good. In many cases, humanitarian intervention still save lives.
From this analysis, we can conclude that military intervention for humanitarian purposes is, largely, justifiable. However, it is obvious that there are still many issues surrounding its implementation. First, there is a need to create a clear, impartial, effective accountability mechanism at the international level to deter ‘unjust’ wars waged under the banner of humanitarianism and to preclude states from committing preventable damages during its humanitarian intervention. The challenge of this attempt is to avoid overcomplicating the accountability mechanism and set the threshold of intervention at the appropriate level. Of course, the road to a genuine and universal consensus on this mechanism will be arduous. However, it is not impossible and it is worth the efforts if we want to move forward. Second, key actors within states need to be given the opportunity to learn and make sense R2P if we want to make the best use of this endeavor. Especially important to be taught is the idea of human rights and humanitarianism behind sovereignty. If we can successfully help states to understand and fulfill their moral and political responsibility to their citizens, there could be a hope for a world where there is less need for humanitarian intervention. Third, all of us are responsible for creating an environment where any form of intervention is less needed and where every state is free and empowered to fulfill the moral and political obligations it owes to their citizens. The developed world, due to its better resources and bigger influence, such should play the leadership role in helping its Third World neighbors through trade and aid while, at the same time, refrain from fueling instability in the Third World.
This essay has provided a glimpse into the complicated and fascinating world of humanitarian intervention. In the first part of the essay, a brief summary of R2P and the place of ‘humanitarian intervention’ within it was offered. Subsequently, the essay explored the arguments of pro-interventionists. It was argued that sovereignty is conditional upon state’s ability to protect the ‘fundamental’ interests of its citizens. In cases where it is unable to fulfill its responsibility, the international community has the right and responsibility to assume this role in order to preserve the humanity of the citizens within that state. In addition, humanitarian intervention is also often a practical and political imperative. The next section of the essay talked about the other side of the coin. The skeptics suggest that humanitarian intervention is a moral garment to cover up irresponsible war practices and imperial agenda. In evaluating the claims from both sides, this essay has concluded that humanitarian intervention has strong moral and political legitimacy in the current global order. Nonetheless, its implementation must be governed by real accountability mechanism at the international level that works to prevent abuse of power. Second, the essay has argued that moral guidances such as R2P needs to be taught and understood by key actors within states to change current practices of humanitarian intervention. Lastly, every state is responsible in creating an environment where humanitarian intervention is less needed. Developed countries have the moral obligation to spearhead this process due their capacity and influence.
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