The following essay was originally submitted as an assignment for my university and was graded as a 2:1.
Since modernity, the Westphalian System has defined international relations. In principle, the treaties of Westphalia assert that every state, no matter how big or small, has exclusive sovereignty over its territories, as enshrined in Article 2 of the United Nations Charter (UN, 1945, p. 2). Thus, it remained until the 2005 World Summit, where the world’s nations gathered together to institute a new global commitment, the Responsibility to Protect (RtoP), aimed at preventing human atrocities.
Despite its noble goals, the RtoP has been subject to considerable criticism, with many accusing the doctrine of infringing on national sovereignty and legitimising Western interventionism. On the other hand, proponents of the RtoP like to point towards successful missions in Kenya and the Ivory Coast as exemplary models of diplomatic action. Given the doctrine’s controversial legacy, this essay aims to explain, assess, and review refinements to the RtoP. In the first section, I explore the ethical principles and legal framework of the RtoP. In the second section, I discuss its political implications and practical limitations. Following this, I briefly review refinements to the RtoP before concluding with my final thoughts on why the RtoP is a fundamentally good idea in need of reform.
Explaining the Responsibility to Protect
Prior to the RtoP, there was no legal framework for carrying out intervention on an international level. Instead, states were expected to manage humanitarian atrocities on a unilateral and bilateral level without the input of the wider global community. For example, the 1971 Bangladesh Liberation War, which saw the genocide of 300,000 to 3,000,000 Bengalis at the hands of the Pakistani government, was only stopped by rival India’s timely military intervention (Rummel, 1998, pp. 153-163). Despite international condemnation, the United Nations (UN) failed to organise any humanitarian efforts.
However, even in instances when the UN attempted to play a more active role in managing human atrocities, it proved largely ineffective. The 1992-1995 Bosnian War involved the genocide of over 30,000 Bosniaks despite a sizable UN presence (Calic, 2013, p. 140). Similarly, the UN Assistance Mission to Rwanda is regarded as a complete debacle for failing to prevent the Rwandan genocide, in which well over 500,000 Tutsi were killed, due to limitations in its rules of engagement (Guichaoua, 2020). Without a recognised framework to work within, the UN and international community were left to stand by and watch as human atrocities unfolded around the world.
Policymakers sought to change this by developing a legal framework that would commit states to collectively intervene to prevent human atrocities. The first call for such a commitment can be attributed to the late UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan’s millennial report entitled We the peoples: the role of the United Nations in the twenty-first century (Annan, 2000, pp. 31-39). Within the same year, the African Union (AU) became the first multi-national union to adopt the commitment under Article 4 of its constitutive act, which permits the AU to intervene in a member state under “grave circumstances” (AU, 2000, p. 7).
The following year, the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS) released its report on the RtoP. This report outlined three specific sub-responsibilities that together form the overall RtoP (ICISS, 2001, p. XI):
- The Responsibility to Prevent: States must address the root causes and direct causes of human atrocities. Prevention options should always be exhausted before intervention is considered.
- The Responsibility to React: States must respond to human atrocities with the appropriate measures, including sanctions, international prosecution, and, in extreme cases, military intervention. Less coercive and intrusive measures should be applied before more coercive and intrusive measures.
- The Responsibility to Rebuild: States must provide full assistance with recovery, reconstruction and reconciliation following an intervention. The rebuilding process should include measures to prevent human atrocities from occurring in the future.
More importantly, the ICISS report also outlined four criteria that must be met for military intervention to be considered legitimate (ICISS, 2001, pp. XII-XIII):
- Just Cause Threshold: Military intervention must only be pursued if a serious and imminent threat of human atrocity exists due to deliberate state action, neglect, or failure.
- Precautionary Principles: Military intervention must be primarily motivated by the need to protect human life, a last resort after all other options have been exhausted, proportional to the situation at hand, and have a reasonable chance of success.
- Right Authority: Military intervention must require the approval of the UN security council.
- Operational Principles: Military intervention must have an unambiguous mandate at all times, clear communication among all involved parties, maximum possible coordination with humanitarian organisations, incrementally apply force, follow appropriate rules of engagement, and accept that force protection cannot become the primary objective.
The RtoP was subsequently enshrined in paragraphs 138 and 139 of the 2005 World Summit Outcome, defining human atrocity as “genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity” (UN, 2005, p. 30). In addition to stressing the need for state cooperation in exercising the RtoP and establishing early warning capabilities, the 2005 World Summit emphasised the importance of acting in accordance with the United Nations Charter, notably Chapters VI, VII, and VIII (UN, 1945, pp. 8-11). Four years later, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon introduced the three pillars as a way to operationalise the RtoP (Ki-moon, 2009, pp. 8-10):
- Pillar I – The Protection Responsibilities of the State: States are responsible for protecting their population from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing, and crimes against humanity.
- Pillar II – International Assistance and Capacity-building: States must assist each other in their protection responsibilities.
- Pillar III – Timely and Decisive Response: If any state fails to fulfil its protection responsibilities, other states must take collective action to protect the population.
Assessing the Responsibility to Protect
On a fundamental level, the RtoP is predicated on the radical idea that state sovereignty implies responsibility for state populations, including citizens and non-citizens. Therefore, when a situation arises that endangers a state’s population, and the state fails to act, it falls to the international community to intervene. In such a situation, “the principle of non-intervention yields to the international responsibility to protect” (ICISS, 2001, p. XI). In doing so, RtoP tacitly challenges the core ideal of the Westphalian System – the sacrosanctity of state sovereignty – by creating room for legitimate intervention on humanitarian grounds.
In theory, no matter how powerful or weak a state is, it must ensure the safety of its population lest it forfeits its right to inviolable sovereignty. For this reason, the RtoP represents a paradigm shift in international law (Slaughter, 2006). Under the Westphalian System, states were free to do whatever they pleased within their territories so long as they did not harm another sovereign. Sovereignty was unconditional. Of course, in practice, powerful states could still interfere in the internal workings of weaker states with impunity. In contrast, under the RtoP, sovereignty is now conditional on the state protecting its population from human atrocity, and every state is to be held accountable to the international community.
As highlighted before, the world without the RtoP saw countless human atrocities, from the Armenian genocide in the Ottoman Empire to the Holocaust in Nazi Germany. But what does the world with RtoP look like? And is this world really any different from the one before?
The RtoP was first implemented during the 2007 Kenyan Crisis (GCR2P, 2022). Following dubious elections, President Mwai Kibaki of the Party of National Unity (PNU) was sworn in as the president of Kenya in late December 2007. Supporters of the opposition, the Orange Democratic Party (ODM) led by Raila Odinga, immediately contested the election by arranging mass protests across the country. These protests eventually escalated into violence between ethnic Kikuyus, Luos and Kalenjins, resulting in the deaths of over 1,000 people and the displacement of a further 300,000 by early February the following year (Gettleman, 2008).
The international community sprung into action almost immediately. Within two weeks, the AU, supported by the UN and other key international groups, appointed a three-member Panel of Eminent African Personalities to mediate the conflict and find a peaceful solution. Former UN Secretary-General Annan led the panel alongside former Tanzanian President Benjamin Mkapa and humanitarian Graça Machel, wife of Nelson Mandela. They arrived in Kenya on the 22nd January, and by the end of the week, Kibaki and Odinga agreed to a 41-day mediation period. On the 28th February, following lengthy negotiations, both parties agreed to a power-sharing arrangement with Kibaki as President and Odinga as Prime Minister, finally ending the violence (Weiss, 2010).
The 2007 Kenyan Crisis demonstrates just how effective the RtoP can be when the international community rallies together. With diplomatic intervention, the PNU and ODM were able to overcome their differences without the need for military intervention. Had the international community refused to diplomatically intervene on the grounds of respecting Kenya’s sovereignty, there is no doubt that the violence would have continued to spiral out of control, and countless more people would have been killed. Unfortunately, not every case of intervention under the RtoP ends as it did in Kenya.
The first military intervention under the RtoP occurred during the first year of the ongoing 2011 Libyan Crisis (GCR2P, 2022). After 42 years of authoritarian rule under Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, civil war broke out in Libya as part of the wider Arab Spring. On the 15th February 2011, anti-government rallies were held in Benghazi, protesting the arrest of human rights lawyer Fethi Tarbel. Libyan security forces violently suppressed the demonstrations, intensifying anti-government sentiment and provoking nationwide revolts. By March, rebel forces had taken control of large swathes of eastern Libya, forming the National Transitional Council (NTC) in Benghazi. Five days later, Gaddafi initiated a gruelling counter-offensive, taking back most rebel-held cities before advancing on the rebel stronghold of Benghazi. By this point in the conflict, over 1,000 people had been killed, and at least 37,000 people had been displaced (Ki-moon, 2011).
With the death toll mounting, the UN security council passed Resolution 1973 on the 17th March, authorising military intervention “to protect civilians and civilian populated areas under threat of attack” (UNSC, 2011, p. 3). Two days later, French fighter jets destroyed several pro-Gaddaffi vehicles advancing on Benghazi, followed by the firing of over 110 cruise missiles by American and British submarines that destroyed the regime’s air defence capabilities. With the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) now in command of the intervention, the NTC were able to halt the regime’s counter-offensive and begin advancing on Tripoli, ending the war on the 20th October with the death of Colonel Gaddafi. By the war’s end, 21,490 people were killed, with an additional 19,700 injured and 435,000 displaced (Daw, et al., 2015).
In the aftermath of the First Libyan Civil War, the country’s transition to stable democracy has been considerably hindered. Despite the international community formally recognising the NTC as Libya’s governing body, the reality on the ground was quite different, with various militias and armed groups taking control of different parts of the country. These groups eventually formed two competing factions during the 2014 elections, leading to the Second Libyan Civil War (Fitzgerald & Toaldo, 2016). Despite agreeing to a ceasefire on 21st August 2020, the future of Libya still looks pretty grim, with many arguing that life under Gaddafi was much more tolerable than the current state of affairs (Baspineiro, 2020).
The 2011 Libyan Crisis demonstrates just how damaging military intervention under RtoP can be. By simply propping up a new government and calling it a day, the international community left the country in a worse state than before the intervention. Had the UN security council respected Libya’s sovereignty by refusing to intervene, perhaps Gaddafi would have been able to defeat the rebels and institute peace. And while it is true that Gaddafi’s government would have continued to kill many people, it’s unlikely the number would have been much higher than those killed following the intervention and second civil war.
And so, the question must be asked: why did the RtoP work in Kenya but not in Libya?
One possible explanation is the spiral model, which asserts that peace is best preserved via appeasement and conciliation, as it was in the case of Kenya, rather than through the threat of punishment and military intervention used in Libya (Jervis, 1976, pp. 58-114). However, this analysis ignores the case-specific conditions that allowed intervention to succeed in Kenya and fail in Libya.
In Libya, longstanding grievances about Gaddafi’s controversial foreign policy had isolated him from the international community for most of his reign (Solomon & Swart, 2005). So, when the opportunity arose for those same aggrieved states to overthrow Gaddafi’s regime, they happily jumped at it. Gaddafi was too volatile for the international system. Meanwhile, in Kenya, the international community was relatively impartial between the ODM and PNU, so it didn’t matter what the intervention’s outcome looked like so long as peace was restored (Weiss, 2010). In short, the international community had the right intentions with Kenya and the wrong ones with Libya. As a result, no matter the nature of the intervention, diplomatic or military, it was destined for success in Kenya and doomed to fail in Libya. Ultimately, the disparity in outcome between Kenya and Libya is indicative of broader systemic issues that must be reformed if the RtoP is to be realised (Paris, 2014):
- The Mixed-motives Problem: The RtoP rests on states having purely altruistic aims; however, states more often than not look out for their own self-interest, leading to botched interventions.
- The Counterfactual Problem: The RtoP has to rely on counterfactual arguments to justify intervention, making it much harder to rally international support in those situations it is desperately needed.
- The Conspicuous Harm Problem: When interventions are proposed, the immediate costs will be more apparent than the immediate benefits, causing support to dwindle.
- The End-state Problem: Intervention can be a long process that may require states to take on extended mandates long after a human atrocity has been averted.
- The Inconsistency Problem: The RtoP has been wholly inconsistent in its application, with many ongoing human atrocities receiving virtually no attention under the doctrine.
Refining the Responsibility to Protect
As the smoke cleared after the Frist Libyan Civil War, Brazil submitted its Responsibility while Protecting (RwP) note to the UN security council. While the RwP note was largely redundant for repeating a lot of the same points as the ICISS report, it did call for the strict chronological sequencing of RtoP’s three pillars and stressed a distinction between collective responsibility and collective security (Serbin & Pont, 2015, p. 175). The aim was to establish greater accountability under the RtoP by forcing the UN security council to conduct “comprehensive and judicious analysis of the possible consequences of military action on a case-by-case basis” and “to monitor and assess the manner in which resolutions are interpreted and implemented” (Viotti, 2011, p. 3). Doing so would have ensured that intervening states could no longer abuse the RtoP for their own self-interest as they did in Libya. On the other hand, such stringent regulation can take a lot of time to fulfil, something the victims of human atrocity do not have. As a result, detractors have accused RwP of paralysing the RtoP (Avezov, 2013).
Ultimately, the RwP note misses the point. While greater oversight may make some headway in solving the mixed-motives problem, it does not tackle the heart of what is holding back the RtoP: the permanent members of the UN security council, namely their right to veto. This is especially damaging in cases where permanent members or their allies are found to be violating the RtoP. For instance, the US and Russia have historically vetoed resolutions on Israeli-occupied Palestinian territory and the Syrian Civil War. Similarly, China has blocked every attempt to get the Uyghur Genocide on the international agenda (Rizvi, 2020). With this in mind, any effort to reform the RtoP must require the reformation of the UN security council itself, which ties into the wider debate surrounding UN institutional reform.
To recap, the RtoP was devised to prevent genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity. Under the doctrine, states are expected to cooperate in implementing the appropriate measures to prevent, react to and rebuild following such human atrocities. Furthermore, the international community may be called upon to carry out military intervention should the need arise. In such an event, strict rules outlining a just cause threshold, precautionary principles, the right authority and operational principles must be followed.
In theory, the RtoP challenges the very heart of the Westphalian System; however, in practice, systemic issues have meant that the doctrine has seen little success in tackling human atrocity and the Westphalian norms that allow it to continue. As exemplified by NATO during the First Libyan Civil War, powerful states and their allies can still do as they wish with impunity. Therefore, as it stands, the world with the RtoP is not very different from the one without it, especially when you consider the multitude of human atrocities that the RtoP has failed to address, from the Rohingya Genocide in Myanmar to the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians by the Israeli government.
In an attempt to reform the RtoP, Brazil proposed the idea of RwP to increase the accountability of intervening states. However, the concept misses the heart of the issue and only serves to justify encumbering oversight by the security council. The only way to truly realise the RtoP is through the institutional reform of the UN. Unfortunately, such reforms will take years of negotiation. In the meantime, victims of human atrocity will continue to suffer as the world looks away in the typical Westphalian manner.
While it is easy to fall into abject pessimism over all this, it is important to remember that, at the very least, the RtoP has spotlighted the issue of human atrocity on the international stage. This reason alone is enough to warrant it a fundamentally good idea. With time, I’m confident that the international community will find a way to streamline the RtoP into force for good that makes human atrocity a distant memory. And, for those staunch advocates of the Westphalia System, I’d like to end with the words of Annan: “if humanitarian intervention is, indeed, an unacceptable assault on sovereignty, how should we respond to a Rwanda, to a Srebrenica – to gross and systematic violations of human rights that offend every precept of our common humanity?” (Annan, 2000, p. 34).
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