Responsibility To Protect: An Introduction

April 6, 1994. A plane carrying President Juvénal Habyarimana is shot down over the skies of Rwanda’s capital, Kigali, acting as a catalyst for the murder of around 800,000 people over just 100 days. These events should require little extrapolation here. Skip forward 7 years, past civil war in Sierra Leone, war in Congo, and ethnic cleansing in Kosovo and Timor Leste, and the Canadian International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS) publish a report, “The Responsibility to Protect” (R2P). The Rwandan genocide, whilst not alone in either its scale or the extent of its suffering, caused much soul-searching and debate worldwide, not least in academic and political circles. Why did nobody act in time? Why did the pleas and warnings of civilians, civil society and peacekeepers fall on deaf ears?

The hangover that the US in particular had experienced in Somalia and Bosnia had certainly contributed to the general malaise felt towards humanitarian intervention and the protection of civilians for the rest of the 90s. But even so, these experiences didn’t prevent a number of varied and notable interventions, including in Sierra Leone, Kosovo, and Timor Leste. The international community’s mixed record in response to acts of crimes against humanity, genocide and ethnic cleansing called into question the “never again” message that was promoted following the Second World War, the creation of the United Nations, and the 1948 Conventions on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide [1].

The ICISS report was published in response to the then UN Secretary General Kofi Annan’s question of just when the international community should intervene to prevent the above crimes. The report, published in December 2001, built on the concept of “sovereignty as responsibility”; the idea of a “social contract” between state and citizens meaning the state owes its legitimacy, in the form of sovereignty, to its people, whom they have a responsibility towards. R2P built upon this concept in two important ways: it implied a hierarchy of responsibility, and based it upon ideas of “Just War” (i.e. Jus ad Bellum, Jus in Bello, just cause, proportionality of response, probability of success). In short, the report outlined a tower of responsibility from the state to the international community. Starting with the state, it has “the primary responsibility for the protection of populations from genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing.” The international community then “a responsibility to assist States in fulfilling this responsibility.” Whilst doing so it can use “appropriate diplomatic, humanitarian and other peaceful means to protect populations from these crimes.”  Finally, should the state fail in its responsibility, or is itself threat to its people’s security, then the international community “must be prepared to take stronger measures, including the collective use of force through the UN Security Council” [1]

R2P is itself split into three principles, beginning first with the “Responsibility to Prevent”, the historic raison d’être of the UN. This is followed by the “Responsibility to React” and then to “Rebuild”. For  its many critics, the R2P is just another way for powerful states to force the hands of the world’s smaller states. They argue that is another neo-colonial tool, open to abuse by the powerful over the weak. The authors though would deny it should be seen this way. By implying a hierarchy of responsibility, the state is the first actor of responsibility you arrive at. It has the primary responsibility of concern towards its citizens. It is only when the state fails in this task that the international community, whoever that may be, has the option to step in and take over that responsibility. Similarly, whilst intervention is a tool available in the “React” phase, prevention is preferable.

The principle of R2P has had a chequered history since its entrance into international relations vocabulary. The ICISS report was launched in the shadow of the September 11th 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center in the US. Debate about the concept was sidelined in favour of the “War on Terror”, and the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. However over the past decade, the principle has been recognised by both former and current serving UN Secretary Generals, and also at the 2005 UN World Summit. Few debates about the situation in Darfur have omitted discussion of R2P. And recent international action in Libya, and debate surrounding response to events in Syria, have similarly reignited up debate over the position of R2P.

The principle is of course controversial and throws up a huge number of questions. At what point does the state fail in its responsibilities? Who has authority and responsibility to decide on when to intervene? What thresholds should be obeyed with regard to intervention? Who has responsibility for intervening? What protections are there against abuse? What happens if the international community fails?

This series of articles aims to both open up debate on the concept and attempt to give answers to some of the above questions. It will begin by exploring cases that failed to receive any (or a timely) international response, notably the situation in Darfur. It will ask why it presented a good case for intervention, and will explore why intervention failed to occur, and the problems such selectivity can create for the principle. The second article will look last year’s intervention in Libya to explore how the principle has potentially been abused to promote slim political interests. The third article will look to answer some of the wider questions above, looking at the political dimension the R2P has, looking at the “who” and “when”. The final article will bring these debates together and pose the question, “is the Responsibility to Protect” alive and well? And if it isn’t, is it better to take it off live support, or try and resuscitate it?