R2P in a Historical Contex

No matter what century you look at in history, there was bound to be mass killings. However, the scale of violence against civilians has risen in the last century to the point where civilians now comprise of 90% of fatalities in conflicts.1 Along with the dawn of modern technology and the interconnectedness of the world came the realization that those who seem distant on opposite ends of the Earth are in fact not too different than ourselves. The world came to recognize that “[mass atrocities] cannot be universally ignored and…sovereignty is not a license to kill”.2 The impunity has to end somewhere. The last half of the twenty-first century gave rise to several documents that sought to protect the rights and lives of civilians worldwide (like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights), but none was as explicit in our obligation to these victimized populations as the Responsibility to Protect (R2P). 

What originally led the creation of a document like R2P in the first place? Besides the irrationality of the number of civilian fatalities in recent conflicts, it all started with Kofi Annan, the then Secretary General of the United Nations, in the late 1990s where he distinguished the difference between individual and state sovereignty. In an article published in the magazine The Economist before the 1999 General Assembly, Kofi Annan explained:
"State sovereignty…is being redefined – not least by the forces of globalization and international cooperation. States are now widely understood to be instruments at the service of their peoples, and not vice versa. At the same time individual sovereignty – by which I mean the fundamental freedom of each individual, enshrined in the Charter of the UN and subsequent international treaties – has been enhanced by a renewed and spreading consciousness of human rights. …We are more than ever conscious that [the Charter’s] aim is to protect individual human beings, not to protect those who abuse them".2
In 2001, the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty released the “90-page report and a 400-page supplementary volume of research essays…” called The Responsibility to Protect.2 From the beginning, the report outlines the basic principles that are the foundations of the document as well as the major elements that make R2P:

Basic Principles: 
(1) State Sovereignty implies responsibility, and the primary responsibility for the protection of its people lies with the state itself.
(2) Where a population is suffering serious harm, as a result of internal war, insurgency, repression or state failure, and the state in question is unwilling or unable to half or avert it, the principle of nonintervention yields to the international responsibility to protect.

(1) The responsibility to prevent: to address both the root causes and direct causes of internal conflict and other man-made crises putting populations at risk.  
(2) The responsibility to react: to respond to situations of compelling human need with appropriate measures, which may include coercive measures like sanctions and international prosecution, and in extreme cases military intervention.
(3) The responsibility to rebuild: to provide, particularly after a military intervention, full assistance with recovery, reconstruction, and reconciliation, addressing the causes of harm the intervention was designed to half or avert.
R2P moved from the ICISS report to the United Nations when it was incorporated into the 2005 World Summit Outcome. This further legitimized R2P among the international community. The 2005 World Summit Outcome describes R2P as follows: 

138. Each individual State has the responsibility to protect its populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity. This responsibility entails the prevention of such crimes, including their incitement, through appropriate and necessary means. We accept that responsibility and will act in accordance with it. The international community should, as appropriate, encourage and help States to exercise this responsibility and support the United Nations in establishing an early warning capability. 
139. The international community, through the United Nations, also has the responsibility to use appropriate diplomatic, humanitarian and other peaceful means, in accordance with Chapters VI and VIII of the Charter, to help to protect populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity. In this context, we are prepared to take collective action, in a timely and decisive manner, through the Security Council, in accordance with the Charter, including Chapter VII, on a case-by-case basis and in cooperation with relevant regional organizations as appropriate, should peaceful means be inadequate and national authorities are manifestly failing to protect their populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity. We stress the need for the General Assembly to continue consideration of the responsibility to protect populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity and its implications, bearing in mind the principles of the Charter and international law. We also intend to commit ourselves, as necessary and appropriate, to helping States build capacity to protect their populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity and to assisting those which are under stress before crises and conflicts break out.
One common argument brought against R2P is the issue of state sovereignty. Many nations worry that R2P will be used as grounds to intervene when self-interest is involved. Many argue that R2P is a 'Trojan horse' for other, hidden interests. Some even fear that R2P is an example of neo-colonialism. Remember that good old man named King Leopold II of Belgium? Well he justified his colonization of the Congo Free State on humanitarian grounds citing that he was attempting to end the Arab slave-trade, which we all know was just a facade to cover the real reason for taking the Congo: rubber and resource profits. So how do we know that R2P is not a neo-colonial strategy?

I would argue that R2P is being used with caution and that it will be difficult to be abused (though I’m not saying that it hasn't or won't in the future). The ICISS has stated that ethnic cleansing and large scale loss of life are the only two thresholds which justify military intervention. These thresholds are set high to prevent abuse, and the intervening states must also gain permission from the UN Security Council for the right to intervene. However, since there are no legal definitions of ethnic cleansing and large scale loss of life, this could be used as a reason to abuse the right to intervene or to continue to push aside intervention.

Furthermore, intervention is supposed to meet three criteria to be approved:

  • Right Intention: Ending human rights must be the primary reason for intervention. 
  • Proportionality: Intervention must do more good than harm. 
  • Prudence: Intervention must have a good likelihood of success.3 
That is not to say that R2P isn't abused. The US used R2P as justification for its intervention into Iraq, but the situation there clearly did not meet the criteria to justify for the need for intervention. 

The need for R2P is evident. With all the mass atrocities that occurred in the last century (as seen in the graph above) and that continue today, there is a clear need to help the populations that are suffering at the hands of predatory governments. However, there are serious flaws. Although R2P sets clear guidelines for intervention, there is a lack of definition in the criteria that require this intervention which permits the intervening states to shape the criteria to meet their interests, such as intervening when it is in their best interest or deferring intervention when they have nothing to gain. This definition problem needs to be resolved, strict guidelines need to be created and enforced, and power needs to be placed in the hands of more nations when it comes to whether or not it is legal for a state to intervene. Only after this might R2P finally gain power in the international community.

1 Polman, Linda. The Crisis Caravan: What’s Wrong with Humanitarian Aid? New York: Metropolitan, 2010. Print.

2 Evans, Gareth J. The Responsibility to Protect: Ending Mass Atrocity Crimes Once and for All. Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution, 2008. Print.

3 Day, Christopher. "Humanitarian Intervention and International Humanitarian Law." Chicago. 15 Feb. 2011. Lecture.

Scaruffi, Piero. "Wars and Casualties of the 20th Century." Piero Scaruffi's Knowledge Base. 2009. Web. 12 July 2011.


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