The Deceptive Appeal of the Responsibility to Protect

July 23, 2013 Topic: Humanitarian InterventionSecurity Region: United States Blog Brand: The Buzz

The Deceptive Appeal of the Responsibility to Protect

The doctrine may seem nice, but its erosion of national sovereignty risks increased instability.


The Working Group on the Responsibility to Protect, a panel of impressive foreign-policy figures convened jointly by the U.S. Institute of Peace, the Brookings Institution and the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, has just released its final report to much fanfare. The document, “The United States and R2P: From Words to Action,” is a robust long-form exegesis and defense of the R2P concept; given the rise of R2P proponents within the Obama administration of late, it is well timed and deserves examination. Former secretary of state Madeleine Albright and former presidential envoy to Sudan Richard Williamson attempt to ease critics’ worries that R2P is a recipe for endless American “police actions” divorced from core U.S. interests. Yet this is a straw man, and they fail to address R2P’s real problem—its disregard for national sovereignty, which gives it potential to create, rather than ease, instability.

The Responsibility to Protect concept is rather simple, resting on three pillars: first, states bear “primary responsibility” for keeping their populations safe from atrocities; second, the international community has a responsibility to “assist and encourage” states to provide such protection; third, if a state fails to provide protection, or actively attacks its own people, the international community has a responsibility to take action. The second pillar means that the R2P concept isn’t necessarily tied to military intervention. Preventing atrocities can include helping to ease societal tensions long before violence breaks out—and, the authors note, such precrisis action is both more effective and more politically feasible than sending in ground troops once a conflict has broken out. And as the authors note, preventing atrocities can often be in U.S. interests, for such cataclysmic social disruptions can create lasting instability; why not do it preventively and proactively?


The third pillar is where the rub is. The notion that the international community has an obligation to become involved in a country under certain circumstances, regardless of what its government says, appears to erode national sovereignty. Albright and Williamson charge that this is a misperception—in fact, they say, R2P “is designed to reinforce, not undermine, national sovereignty. It places primary emphasis on the duty of states to protect their own people and its complementary focus on helping governments improve their capacities to fulfill their commitments.” In other words, R2P expands the concept of sovereignty—sovereignty includes not only rights, but also responsibilities, responsibilities which states should help each other fulfill. Sovereignty here is so sacrosanct that states failing to exercise it fully lose their title to it—“Only when a government fails or refuses to live up to the responsibility of sovereignty does it run the risk of outside intervention.”

Yet this is a curious way to construe sovereignty. Sovereignty becomes not merely an empirical fact about states that is prudently respected, but a right entrusted from on high; given that the right passes to the international community when abused, it would seem this sovereignty sees the world as a federation. International institutions—treated in the report as the final authorities on third-pillar actions—graciously devolve their responsibilities to local viceroys and governors-general, whom it may relieve of their duties if their failures are severe enough. It’s not really sovereignty, then—it’s mere administrative convenience.

Albright and Williamson might reply that all these worries repeat the error of assuming that R2P is mainly about its third pillar, when in fact “R2P is at its core an instrument of prevention. It does not mandate military action by the United States or others. The idea is to generate preventive diplomacy, increased development aid, sanctions, and other tools to avoid the military options that might be necessary when prevention fails and atrocities commence.” The second pillar, for them, bears the most weight.

Yet the way Albright and Williamson envision this pillar working is also a threat to sovereignty. They imply this in the Politico op-ed they released to plug the report, as they note that “Syria today presents us with a stark reminder of the high human costs of equivocation. As Assad began to turn state organs into his own tool of repression, R2P’s preventive underpinnings were rightfully called into question...” Indeed. No preventive action could have kept Assad from turning the state’s institutions into tools of repression while also respecting Syrian sovereignty, because Assad’s rule was already repressive. As in most autocracies, the government could not become less repressive without endangering its continued hold on power. Assad was thus likely to regard the second-pillar efforts that would have been necessary to stabilize prewar Syria as a threat, and to refuse them. (Indeed, other autocracies, such as Russia and Egypt, have similarly refused such “help.”) So should these second-pillar measures be conducted over a government’s objections? If not, they’ll often be insufficient; if so, sovereignty is further eroded. Yet Albright and Williamson pass over this problem in silence.

Why is R2P’s gutting of national sovereignty a problem? Respect for sovereignty is generally a stabilizing force in the international community. It narrows the scope of acceptable disagreement between states—there are fewer things to fight about. This can lead, in turn, to fewer international armed conflicts—and fewer of their attendant atrocities. R2P’s disregard for sovereignty might empower the international community to, from time to time, actually stop a genocide by intervention. Yet all too often, no “international community” exists. Interventions can become proxy conflicts (this would happen in a Syria intervention, and was a danger in the Balkans). And these proxy conflicts can readily yield atrocities of their own, perhaps far worse than those the intervention was launched to prevent.

The R2P concept of sovereignty can also give bad actors like Assad perverse incentives. A case in point is threats to bring those behind atrocities before international courts—threats made in Albright and Williamson’s report. Assad is hardly more likely to seek peace and step down if he thinks that might see him brought before the International Criminal Court and thrown in prison for decades. Such a risk is all the more reason to hang on desperately—and to keep inflicting horrors on his people. Second-pillar actions, too, could make him more troublesome. If the international community insists that states accept outside efforts to change their politics, autocracies will have incentives to resist the international community; those within autocratic regimes who benefit from their positions have incentives to spoil the deal. And the resistance can be quite destructive, endangering international stability and even causing atrocities. Iran’s support for terrorist groups and sectarian militias throughout the Middle East may be driven in part by this dynamic.

Of course, second-pillar actions that do respect national sovereignty can do a great deal of good, as so many successful efforts by international and nongovernmental organizations attest. And violations of other nations’ sovereignty can sometimes be vital to American security. Albright and Williamson’s are quite conscious of all that. What’s alarming is that they don’t seem to realize that there are trade-offs to be made and balances to be weighed. Breaches of sovereignty anger other nations and give them reason to take action against the United States. They must thus be employed with utmost care, in defense of vital U.S. interests. Atrocity prevention and other humanitarian causes rarely rise to that level.

Image: Flickr/Dun_Deagh. CC BY-SA 2.0.