Responsibility To Protect: Rhetoric and Reality

Is the concept of state sovereignty actually changing?

Victor Allen and Mark Safranski have initiated an engaging discussion at The Bridge and Zenpundit about Responsibility to Protect (R2P), the idea that states are responsible for protecting their populations and when they cannot protect them, the international community is obligated to assist them in an escalating manner until the desired result is achieved. It is an important discussion to have given that the United States incorporated R2P in its 2010 National Security Strategy and the doctrine is likely to appear in the 2014 document. Further, R2P has been consistently cited by advocates for U.S. intervention in Uganda, Sudan, Libya, Syria, and so on and thus continues to play a prominent role in U.S. foreign affairs.

First, a brief recap of the discussion:

Victor attempts to circumvent the pesky issues regarding R2P and state sovereignty by simply redefining sovereignty. Mark has pointed out that “academic theorists do not have the authority to override sovereign powers (!) constituted as legitimized, recognized states and write their theories into international law,” and highlights that several members of the U.N. Security Council disagree with the interpretation of sovereignty that Victor advocates. Mark also states that it is a straw man argument to claim that nations ever had carte blanche within their borders, at least concerning the security concerns of their neighbors, as Victor asserts. The latest response by Victor emphasizes the lesser forms of intervention under the doctrine, focusing on an escalating level of intervention and then points out that R2P is not the product of academic theorists but was adopted by the U.N. Security Council. He then implies that neighbor state involvement in a nation, as referenced by Mark, represents a stealth argument for R2P principles.

I will leave aside semantic difficulties in applying R2P, like determining when violence becomes genocide, when civil war becomes ethnic cleansing or why hundreds of chemical weapon deaths is a human rights violation but tens of thousands killed by bullets or bombs is not. I will simply point out that malleable criteria, such as those outlined in describing the doctrine, are typically chosen to allow a wider and more expansive interpretation and should be viewed as a warning sign.

Before addressing the logic of the arguments, it is important to examine the empirical evidence. Results are what count when evaluating a policy, not its intent. Adoption of R2P has failed to make a significant impact on recent violence across the globe; Sudan, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Burma, and Syria all offer examples. Victor points out that “most of the 118 states that mentioned Syria at the UN General Assembly in 2012 expressed concern about the population,” but few were willing (or capable) of taking action. Rhetoric is cheap but action requires effort and thus speaks better to true attitudes. R2P has not proven to be a desirable policy to pursue for most nations and as such has not been frequently applied, however much it is mentioned. While R2P is certainly compassionate in its intent, it can be argued that unintended consequences from its application will cause more harm than good. Rarely can a foreign power solve a nation’s internal problems, and usually attempts to do so only temporarily alleviate them, or make them worse. Contemporary evidence can be seen in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya where in each case current conditions are arguably worse than before intervention. This is ironic as R2P was part of the pitch for intervening, or at least extending intervention, in all of these cases. A former U.S. Ambassador to the U.N., John Bolton, has noted that the intervention in Libya was conducted not to combat actual crimes against humanity, but as a preemptive measure, creating a precedent with the potential for considerable abuse. Not only do legitimate attempts often end in failure, and at greater cost to all parties involved, but some nations have gone even further and used R2P as justification for war, without the ‘legalizing’ power of U.N. approval, as in Russia’s conflict with Georgia. When viewed in this light, comparing the dangers created and the failures of the policy to prevent mass violence with how many crises have been actually been averted, R2P has not proven to be a successful or even a neutral doctrine, but a harmful one. Despite claims that this is due to poor implementation or a lack thereof, the problem is not in application, it is inherent in the concept itself.

Although Victor accuses Mark and others of misrepresenting R2P, his definition appears to be the one that is shifting. Calling one nation’s intervention in another to secure its own interests R2P is a misnomer. Mark cites actions that a neighbor state may take in relation to another as driven by its own security concerns, not as a result of an idealistic duty imposed to protect the citizens of its neighboring state. In Victor’s first article, this is the same justification he uses for R2P imposing duties on the global community—the idea that internal instability can cause effects outside a nation’s borders and so justifies intervention. His second article continues with this line of logic. But this is simply selling intervention on the basis of national interest, rather than mandating a responsibility to intervene based on humanitarian concerns.

Also, an appeal to authority such as the U.N. is a misplaced justification. The U.N. is not a governing body, nor is the Security Council the highest authority “on interventions, peacemaking, and peacekeeping….” as Victor asserts. The Security Council has no authority except that which is derived from the power of its member states. Further, what is referred to as “international law” is in reality handshake deals and custom rather than “law”. The legality of NATO intervention in Kosovo would have been the same with or without U.N. Security Council approval, as it is not a supra-governmental organization with powers that supersede state sovereignty. An action taken by several nations under a U.N. mandate is legally and morally no different than an action taken by several nations without such a mandate, or by one nation acting unilaterally. Multilateral approaches have been generally preferred over unilateral ones for practical purposes and not reasons of moral justification. When multilateralism has been the chosen course of action, it has largely been window dressing for action that is primarily in the national interests of certain member states. Further, state sovereignty is the check on the tyranny of the majority in the international system but the U.N. operates on the assumption that consent of its members justifies violations of state sovereignty. In this way, the U.N. derives its “authority” from mob rule. Favoring international intimidation over national sovereignty is a precarious way to justify action.

Additionally, when advocating for R2P, there seems to be a habit of cherry-picking which definitions to apply, rather than applying the principle universally. According to Victor, "The question then becomes one of how best to balance the sovereignty of the state with the need to protect its populations." Again, this seems only an issue when defining sovereignty in a Westphalian sense. In the Deng, et al. interpretation of sovereignty cited by Victor, sovereignty is derived from the ability to protect the population hence, when there is no ability, there is no sovereignty with which to be concerned. A practical example of the advocacy for a new interpretation of sovereignty being undermined by an attempt to honor its old definition can be seen in the arbitrary distinction between natural disaster and human-caused action. If it is a state's responsibility to protect its people, and it cannot do so in a natural disaster, then why does this not warrant intervention? What if people are dying from starvation and the state is unable to help? Why does the state only bear responsibility to protect people from certain kinds of harm if sovereignty is responsibility? Did not al-Shabaab’s inability to deal with drought that lead to the 2011 famines warrant intervention? If not, then what about when the group prevented refugees from leaving the country, forcing them to stay and starve? From a people-based sovereignty point of view, there is no logical distinction between death caused by a lack of ability to distribute food, an earthquake or violence by another group. In either case, if the state cannot protect its citizenry and does not consent to help, there should be no distinction unless one was concerned about violating the sovereignty of the state in the Westphalian sense of the word. This distinction is arbitrarily made to limit the type of open-ended commitments asked of the global community, rather than mandating what would, in reality, never be agreed to. Another example is the emphasis on a spectrum of responses, which imply that it is wrong to violate sovereignty, unless it is done a little bit at a time. It seems as though as much as there is an assertion of a new interpretation of sovereignty, even its proponents are acting as if this is interpretation is not the reality.

My main observation, however, is that the discussion thus far has been focused more on a "right" to protect than a "responsibility" to do so. The arguments indicate that a state has a responsibility to protect its people but takes for granted that third parties somehow inherit this responsibility when the state cannot fulfill it. There is a missing explanation here. The need to justify such efforts may seem callous, but a nation’s highest moral order is to serve its own citizens first. Such an explanation would certainly be a legitimate demand for a mother that loses a son who volunteered to defend his nation, or for a government entrusted by its people to use their resources to their own benefit. While it is often stated that the international community "should" intervene, explanation of where this imperative comes from is not addressed other than by vague references to modern states being interconnected. But this implies, as previously stated, a right based on the self-interest of states, firmly grounded in realistic security concerns, rather than any inherent humanitarian responsibility to intervene. Instability and potential spillover may very well make it within a nation’s vital interests to intervene in another country and pursuing humanitarian and human rights goals within the borders of another state may well be in a nation’s secondary interests. But if this is the case, the calculus of the political leadership will determine if pursuing this goal is worth the cost/potential costs – as has been done in such cases as North Korea, Iran, Zimbabwe, Tibet and Syria. In either case, the decision is determined by what is in the nation’s interests, a reality that makes R2P not a mandate, but merely a post hoc justification for interventions that do occur.

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