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R2P Is Not a License for Military Recklessness
Roland Paris
Canadian International Council
12 March 2012
In the New York Times last week, Tufts University’s Alex de Waal penned an op-ed that scathingly criticized the responsibility to protect (R2P) doctrine and a group of people he calls “idealists.” In the article, he identified only two members of this group – Gareth Evans, the former Australian foreign minister who co-chaired the commission that first proposed R2P, and Samantha Power, the author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning book, A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide, who now works on the National Security Council staff in the Obama White House.
Evans, Power, and their “fellow idealists” misunderstand the nature of mass atrocities, de Waal argues. Instead of recognizing that skillful diplomacy can, in some circumstances, achieve political solutions to large-scale violence, “idealists” tend to view perpetrators as insatiable killers who can only be stopped by sending in the cavalry against them. According to de Waal, this tendency to turn to military solutions for mass violence is naïvely moralistic and dangerous.
There is, however, one big flaw in de Waal’s account: He is misrepresenting R2P and many of its proponents. De Waal has been a critic of R2P for years. By now, therefore, he must know that the doctrine favours non-military over military responses.
The paradox, then, is that while de Waal criticizes “idealists” for oversimplifying complex conflicts and demonizing instead of engaging with perpetrators of violence, he himself presents R2P in distortedly simplified terms. Indeed, based on his op-ed and previous writing, he seems to want to demolish R2P rather than to engage with elements of the doctrine that are consistent with his own “pragmatic” approaches to conflict resolution. Kofi Annan’s current shuttle diplomacy in Syria, for instance, is simultaneously an illustration of R2P in practice and an example of the negotiated approach that de Waal prefers.
It is true that R2P countenances the possibility of outside military intervention in extremis – that is, if non-military methods fail and mass killing looms or is under way. However, (…) even in the face of mass atrocities when all other attempts to end violence have failed, military intervention is not warranted if it is likely to make the situation worse.
This important, prudential warning at the heart of R2P is too often forgotten by the doctrine’s critics and proponents alike. R2P is not an automatic licence for military intervention. Any contemplated armed action must be justified, necessary, proportional – and proven to do more good than harm.
On the other hand, de Waal is quite sensible when he warns advocates of military intervention about the danger of forgetting “to ask important questions about what they want to achieve and how.” That is excellent advice – and it should be a central part of the calculation of whether an intervention is likely to result in conditions that are better than those that would otherwise exist if no intervention occurred.
This is also a consideration we must keep in mind in deciding how to respond to the Syrian regime’s current violence against its own people. The images and stories emerging from Syria are heart-wrenching and horrifying. At this time, however, it is not clear that outside military intervention would succeed in making conditions for Syrian civilians better, not worse. Given the capabilities of the Syrian armed forces, an intervention aimed at creating safe havens, enclaves, or protected corridors would likely entail – and therefore require planning for – a full-scale war to defeat the Syrian regime.
The broader point is this: Contrary to de Waal’s caricature, one of the “responsibilities” in the R2P doctrine is actually that of prudence. Nothing in the R2P principles legitimizes, or excuses, military recklessness.
Read the full article.
To read De Waal’s article, see here.
To read Evans’ article, see here.


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