Responsibility to protect: who and how?

Responsibility to protect: who and how?

In the wake of atrocities against civilians in Syria, the issue of possibility of military intervention has emerged again in the discussions. The idea of military intervention for human rights reasons is relatively new in international relations and it remains quite a controversial one. The end of the Cold War provided the context for the discussion of this issue at the United Nations and other international organizations. It was also promoted by human rights nongovernmental organizations. The arguments were based on two broad reasons: First, there were pure humanitarian reasons. Second, domestic human rights violations are linked to international security. Thus the new norm of humanitarian intervention was developed. The U.N. intervened in several conflicts in the 1990s under the guise of humanitarian intervention, from Bosnia and Herzegovina to Somalia; it failed in all. In 2000s the idea came back under a new name, responsibility to protect, or RtoP. It advances the norm that if a state fails to protect its citizens, then the international community has a responsibility. The new norm was accepted at the U.N. World Summit of 2005.

Most of the discussions about military interventions for human rights reasons revolve around their legality. Some pointed out that these kinds of interventions are against the principle of sovereignty, which continues to be one of the principles of international law also embedded in the U.N. Charter. Those who support RtoP, however, argue that sovereignty is not a privilege, but a responsibility.

However, the problems with new human rights interventionism go beyond the legal arguments. The most important issue is its politicization. First, there is the issue of who decides. For the most part in the post-Cold War era, it has been the U.N. Security Council that decided. In recent interventions, including the Libyan one, it was initially an ad hoc coalition rather than a NATO decision. These states or organizations are seemingly acting on behalf of the international community. However, their status as such is highly questionable. The U.N. faces increasing legitimacy problems because it has failed to reform itself. NATO is a regional organization and clearly only represents a small group of countries.

The second and related issue is how these decisions are taken. There is the problem of inconsistency here; the implementation of this norm has shown that the decision to interfere or not to interfere can be explained by the domestic imperatives and/or the foreign policy interests of the powers that decide to interfere. One can add to this list of political issues a plethora of practical problems as well.

On the other hand, there remains the vital question. As former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan asked, how should we respond to gross and systemic violations of human rights that offend every precept of our common humanity? This remains the most important challenge facing the international community, one that it has unfortunately failed to produce a credible answer to.