Responsibility to Protect: R2P Doesn’t Work

CONSTANCE WILLHELM
GUEST CONTRIBUTOR AT SAIS WASHINGTON

The Responsibility to Protect (R2P), the doctrine that places the protection of civilians from mass atrocities above the principle of national sovereignty, is a nice idea. It is an idea that, if legitimately enacted and normalized, would mean that the international community would be responsible to intervene coercively – including economically and possibly militarily – if a state fails in protecting its citizens from mass atrocities. Presumably, this would result in an end to genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes, ethnic cleansing, and generally all of the terrible things that states can do to their citizens. However, as much as we would all like to believe that this new era of world peace and human rights could be ushered in by sheer force of international liberal ideals, R2P is a fiction. It has seen greater failure than success, inconsistent implementation, and – most troublingly – exploitation for other, non-humanitarian purposes.

Opponents of R2P usually fixate on this last point: that the protection of national sovereignty should never be violated; and that when it is, intervention is never carried out for the sole benefit of the victims. Intervening states have ulterior motives, critics argue, and seek R2P as a legitimizing cover for less altruistic activities. R2P is an excuse to intervene militarily or politically in a state. And to that I say: obviously. No state in the history of states has voluntarily given up some of its energy and resources for purely altruistic reasons. This criticism is a valid one, but the problem with R2P extends farther.

When we make a policy decision, we sort through our priorities and make a value judgment that is best adapted to the context at hand. And so, moral judgments have as much of a place in policy-making as other value sets do. The moral intention behind R2P is a good one, so it should not be dismissed on these grounds alone.

However, the current formulation of R2P is wrong. It is too vulnerable to individual states’ interests, especially given that there is no legal underpinning to the kind of jus cogens that R2P seeks to normalize. R2P is not a principle that should be exploitable, and applied only when state actors deem it to be acceptable or beneficial to their interests while other R2P interventions are blocked in the name of national sovereignty. This invites disaster and hypocrisy, and unfortunately both of these have come to be associated with the principle.

R2P needs to go – but only so that something better and more resilient can take its place. It has the same intellectual and moral appeal that Marxism does: it suggests a more just and peaceful future, but the means to reach that future are too vulnerable to human frailty and short-sightedness. It is not yet clear what form a new mechanism could take, but it is owed to those who suffer at the hands of their state that the international community should find a better way to protect one another.