Is it possible to meet the ‘Responsibility to Protect’?
9 December 2014
These are difficult days for defenders of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) doctrine, which holds that the international community must be prepared to act when countries “manifestly fail to protect their populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity.” All member states of the United Nations endorsed this language in 2005.
In the past year alone, however, mass atrocities against civilian populations in Syria, Central African Republic and South Sudan have unfolded in plain sight while international efforts to halt these crimes have ranged from tentative to nonexistent. When, contrary to this trend, the Obama administration employed military force last summer to rescue members of the Yazidi minority in northwestern Iraq, some observers asked: Why protect the Yazidis and not the multitude of other threatened groups?
The R2P doctrine was supposed to answer this question. It says that civilian populations have a right not to be subject to mass atrocities and that all states have the responsibility to uphold this right, a formulation that has gained a broad following. It has helped elevate the importance of “human protection” in the United Nations and elsewhere, including in the White House. Two years ago, President Obama issued a directive that “the prevention of mass atrocities and genocide is a core national security interest and a core moral responsibility of the United States.”
But for all this attention, R2P did little to resolve the toughest questions of armed humanitarianism: When, for whom and how should coercive force be employed?
For a while, the international air campaign in Libya in 2011 seemed to render such questions moot. After Libya’s then-President Moammar Gaddafi threatened to overrun Benghazi, the U.N. Security Council authorized military force to protect “civilians and civilian-populated areas” in the country. Rapid intervention by NATO-led air forces quickly stopped Gaddafi’s forces – a remarkable demonstration of R2P’s utility, or so it seemed at the time.
In retrospect, however, the Libya intervention was problematic for R2P. After neutralizing the immediate threat to Benghazi, the NATO-led coalition provided de facto air support for Libyan rebels, who counterattacked and ultimately destroyed the Gaddafi regime. This, in turn, provoked an angry response from several countries, including some that had voted for intervention and now accused NATO of using R2P as a cover for regime change. Meanwhile, inaction in the face of mounting atrocities in Syria elicited a very different criticism of R2P: That it was an ineffective, hollow doctrine that offered false hope to threatened populations.
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