In Defense of R2P

By: /
June 28, 2011
Professor in International Relations at the University of Oxford and a Fellow of Somerville College

Roland and André have raised some important points about the limitations of the principle of R2P, and how these limitations manifest in the case of Libya. While I’m not necessarily trying to position myself as an ‘advocate’ of R2P per se, I think there are two issues worth raising in defense of the principle (and its proponents).

The first relates to Roland’s observation that the efforts of the ICC are ‘complicating’ the NATO mission. This is no doubt true. But we need to remember that the original Security Council Resolution 1970, which called for the ICC to investigate alleged crimes against humanity, was largely designed to be preventive:  to (hopefully) dissuade those around Gaddafi from both committing atrocities and continuing to support him. Commentators are always criticizing the international community for reacting, and not taking prevention seriously.  In this instance, there was an attempt at late-stage prevention, however limited. It was assumed (rightly or wrongly), that the threat of prosecution would have a preventive role. If R2P has now been articulated in terms of four crimes (as I suggested in my last post), then these kinds of preventive tools make some sense.

However, as we all know, this preventive tool didn’t work. So the international community moved to something else. That something else may in the end require a political settlement, and the spectre of criminal prosecution has complicated the prospects of such a settlement.  What the Libyan case is revealing, therefore, is the difficulty of managing dynamic processes: tools that state leaders apply in one stage of a crisis have knock-on effects for what happens later. Such tools also may constrain options. This reality needs to be taken into account beforehand – but this is oh so hard to do when there are so many ‘moving parts’. As the preventive dimension of the principle of R2P is developed, these kinds of dilemmas will need careful analysis. But it is surely an overstretch to pit this as ‘R2P vs. ICC’.

The second point I want to raise is this vexed issue of consistency (or what some would call ‘selectivity’ of practice). Why Libya and not Syria or Sri Lanka? R2P is a still predominantly a product of politics, rather than law. The 2005 Outcome Document which endorsed the principle cannot be seen as a treaty or formal source of law. Rather, I like to think of it as a political commitment, which expressed an authoritative interpretation by states of already existing laws on the use of force and the obligation to punish and prevent genocide. Because of its political nature, R2P depends to a large degree on perceptions of legitimacy. And selective practice can certainly harm legitimacy – it can raise questions as to what the ‘real’ motivations are behind action.

All that said, selectivity is inevitable with respect to R2P, just as it is with other reasons or ‘causes’ for collective action. R2P only prescribes that certain atrocities (or the imminent commission of those atrocities) call for a response. The nature of that response will vary. It may involve the use of force, or it may not. (So, for example, the U.S. has responded to violence in Syria by imposing unilateral sanctions). When it comes to the use of force in particular, other considerations besides ‘right cause’ must come into play. So whether force should be used depends on more than just the fact that atrocities have been (or are about to be) committed; it will also depend on whether other moral and political criteria are fulfilled. For example, are there reasonable prospects of success? (What are the chances of creating more death and destruction?) Can force be used proportionately (i.e., in a way that meets the threat without causing unnecessary further harm)? Does the action have ‘right authority’, or widespread support?

It’s clear that in some cases, while there may be ‘just cause’, these other criteria won’t be fulfilled. So, for example, while it is undeniable that civilian deaths were high in Chechnya a decade ago, the likelihood that Western military action in response would have caused a large-scale war with Russia was also high – and that had to be taken into account by prudent state leaders. There is no getting away from the fact that difficult moral and political judgments have to be made. But that is the reality for R2P. So, when Tony Blair famously said that ‘just because we can’t intervene everywhere, doesn’t mean we shouldn’t intervene when we can’ he was expressing just this reality.

What we all need to do, however, is scrutinize carefully what the reasons are behind decisions not to act.  Sometimes, those reasons need interrogating – especially if they involve the lack of a clear economic or political interest. If that is the case, it needs to be made explicit.  I do think, however, that the claim that the West intervened in Libya because of oil is over drawn; the country’s contribution to the world’s oil supply is relatively low. What I think did motivate action were three factors: a) the clarity of Gaddafi’s intention to commit atrocities (he was so vocal and provocative, that it impelled Western leaders to respond); b) the perception that there was local and regional support for outside intervention (coupled with the fact that Gaddafi was unpopular in his own region); and c) domestic pressures, particularly in France, to act more decisively with respect to the dynamic events in the Arab world (and to make sure that the fruits of the change were fully realized, rather than squashed).  Undoubtedly, there were all kinds of mixed motives here. This, too, is inevitable in moral and political action.

Moral philosophers frequently say to me that they don’t understand why the international affairs discourse insists on a single motive to call something ‘right’ or ‘humanitarian’; moral philosophers accept that individuals act for a myriad of reasons. What is more significant is the intention, rather than the motive. If the intention is humanitarian, then it may well be that we can and should support the action (despite multiple motives). And if the intention is humanitarian, than we should be able to see that reflected in how a mission is organized and carried out. This gives us something to which we can hold policy-makers to account.

One reason frequently given for not acting is lack of capability. This factor was frequently raised in connection to Darfur: because the West was bogged down in Afghanistan, it didn’t have the resources to respond to atrocities in Darfur. Indeed, this prospect worried former Prime Minister Paul Martin a great deal. It’s important to challenge this oft-cited reason for selectivity – compelling as it might seem. There are a host of states that have endorsed R2P and advocated its implementation, but who have simultaneously not committed any extra resources to realizing it (particularly when it might call for military force). If, in the end, the responsibility can be borne by only a handful of states (the U.S., France, and the U.K.), is this still a collective responsibility? If the ‘responsibility to protect’ is really a responsibility, and not just a discretionary right, then I would argue that states have an obligation to develop the capacity to respond. Otherwise, they are simply throwing around a word without recognizing its moral implications.

Photo courtesy of Reuters.