Strategic Dialogue: Responsibility to Protect

As part of our Empire Strategic Focus, Foreign Policy In Focus asked several experts to weigh in on whether Responsibility to Protect (R2P) is an important step forward for the international system or a step backward to great power intervention, and how should the Obama administration approach this doctrine. Shaun Randol strongly embraced the new principle, Trevor Keck and Bridget Moix emphasized the preventative aspects of R2P, and Kevin Fake and Steven Funk offered a skeptical appraisal. In this dialogue, they take the conversation one step further.

Shaun Randol

I have argued that Responsibility to Protect (R2P), an attempt to elevate international norms, should be acted upon where necessary because A) state sovereignty is less relevant today than it has been in generations, and will continue to decline in salience, and B) saving lives, which R2P aims to do, is a right and moral task.

Trevor Keck and Bridget Moix provide President Barack Obama (and subsequent executive and legislative administrations) a blueprint for an American approach to R2P. Their focus on R2P’s preventative aspects, namely “increasing capacity-building assistance to war-ravaged states,” and their provisions for the use of diplomatic, economic, legal, and military intervention tools provide a solid foundation from which to launch a concerted effort toward acting on R2P when and where necessary.

Keck and Moix’s position, while it is right and correct, is also a safe argument. One can hardly dispute the need for preventative measures to avert mass atrocities. The more challenging questions, however, remain: What is to be done when prevention fails to protect innocent populations from mass death? What is to be done now, in death zones like Sudan, where preventative measures were never in place?

Taking a wholly different approach to this debate, Steven Fake and Kevin Funk argue R2P is merely a disguise for unfettered, big-state (namely Western) intervention into the politics of weaker countries. While their larger point is valid and must be weighed carefully, it seems to me their underlying premise is shaky. Fake and Funk play loose with the R2P doctrine. R2P’s underlying justifications for intervention, while superficially similar in many ways, are qualitatively distinct from the thin modi operandi of imperialist miscreants like King Leopold and George W. Bush in their invasions of Congo and Iraq.

For one, the UN General Assembly overwhelmingly approved R2P, and this is a body whose membership is militarily weak (i.e., non-imperialist). Likewise, non-Western giants Russia and China, hardly American patsies, signed onto R2P in the Security Council. Secondly, R2P calls on the entire international community, not just one or two powerful and/or Western states, to intervene when a population becomes at risk. Third, R2P’s elements not only include a responsibility to prevent and to protect, but also to rebuild after intervention. Also, unless I am mistaken, the R2P doctrine has yet to be specifically invoked to justify intervention anywhere. Just because Bush used similar language found in R2P to justify his offensive against Iraq, or Russian President Dmitry Medvedev evoked the same reasons for going into Georgia, does not mean either leader founded their respective invasions on R2P itself. In short, R2P on a number of levels is qualitatively distinct from great power and Western imperialism.

R2P can work, but it requires tremendous trust-building efforts and quid pro quo actions that go well beyond these principles. If, for example, the United States demands UN election monitoring in Nicaragua, Americans cannot blink if the same is demanded in Florida and Ohio. If for example Libya agrees that R2P must be invoked to alleviate suffering in Burma it must not balk if the same is required in neighboring Sudan. Quid pro quo must occur for all countries, on a variety of international treaties; it begins with the United States signing onto many it has ignored or pulled out of, starting with signing onto the International Criminal Court.

Fake and Funk further assert: “We should judge states on their records, not their invariably humanitarian rhetoric,” yet again a faulty argument. To forever condemn states for past transgressions (and few states have not had them) is to forever condemn humanity. For though we may not have physically dropped bombs on Baghdad, are we too not on some (structural) levels complicit in the murder of innocent Iraqis? We Americans could have sacrificed more time, energy, property, and money to prevent a needless war, but chose instead to spend our weekends at home rather than surrounding the Pentagon.

Variously leaders, states, and the international community have fallen well short of living up to some of the moral and ethical principles we hold so dear. To dismiss potential action on R2P on the grounds of past performance is folly. Doing so, by default, means no state or peoples can change their ways.

What is needed now — to prevent future tragic mistakes like genocide — is civilization’s equivalent of Stephen J. Gould’s punctuated equilibrium: a jump forward in our state-centric mode of thought in order to evolve and develop humankind’s full potential. R2P is a jump in the right direction.

Steven Fake and Kevin Funk

Shaun Randol makes an astute observation in his R2P: No Love in a Time of Cholera: “R2P, it seems, passed on a faulty premise — that there are and will be individual and groups of states with the physical means and political will to invoke and act on their responsibilities to protect.” Missing in most discussion of the R2P doctrine is credible consideration of how the idealistic concept will be implemented in reality.

Focusing on preventative measures makes the challenge somewhat more attainable. Advocating increased “capacity-building assistance” from Washington to violence-plagued nations, as Trevor Keck and Bridget Moix do in R2P: Focus on Prevention, raises a concern — namely, ensuring that Washington does not use the guise of humanitarianism to prop up autocratic allies. Still, such an approach is less sinister than the militaristic emphasis of many R2P variants. Certainly, paying back dues to the UN and supporting the African Union, as Moix and Keck advocate, are points we can agree on.

But the conception of R2P that Keck and Moix favor raises a question: Why do we need a new doctrine if we are talking about basic measures like giving more funding to peacekeepers? Furthermore, what will compel nations to proceed beyond empty public pronouncements and actually follow through with their pledges?

Keck and Moix also argue for an increased diplomatic presence in Africa and a redistribution of resources away from the military and toward agencies like USAID. This amounts to lobbying for Washington to pay greater attention to its imperial interests in the continent. The increased diplomatic presence of a leading power in a weak nation frequently means heightened vulnerability to foreign manipulation. It’s therefore crucial for activists to specify precisely what policies they are pushing Washington to adopt in a given situation and how diplomatic efforts should be directed to prevent a crisis from erupting.

Nonetheless, the value of prevention is undeniable and worth exploring in more depth. Consider the roles of major powers in Rwanda, Sudan, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, to take three common touchstones of R2P discussions. Although space prevents an exploration of the history here, it’s quite possible that the hideously violent episodes that have besieged these nations would not have arisen without the influence of France and the United States in these countries during the last 30 years.

The sobering lesson is that leading powers continue to pose a very real threat to the long-term security of much of the world. The sanctity of sovereignty under international law is one of the few protections available to weaker nations. Eroding the inviolability of this barrier exposes international affairs to uninhibited rule by force.

It’s difficult to avoid the impression that the desire for pretexts to override sovereignty is precisely what accounts for the traction R2P has secured among establishment figures.

Randol blames international “kowtowing to the supremacy of state sovereignty” for the failure to halt the atrocities in Cambodia and Rwanda and argues this kowtowing also “provides nominal justification for many actors refusing to stem the continued slaughter of innocents in Sudan.” Yet no such phenomenon exists. As we have written elsewhere, responding to the Sudan commentator Eric Reeves, “surely anyone who has heard of the war in Iraq will be bemused to learn that major powers such as the U.S. evidently bow at the altar of ‘national sovereignty,’ indeed basing their foreign policies on this very principle.”

In cautioning that any response to “an emerging genocide should be collective and authorized by the UN Security Council,” Keck and Moix do state an important proviso. This only begs further questions however, as the undemocratic nature of the UNSC ensures prejudicial treatment of emerging genocides and crimes against humanity. It follows, therefore, that one important element of fulfilling the stated goals of R2P is democratizing the Security Council.

However, we are still left with Randol’s “faulty premise” — that there is political will to enforce a responsibility to protect.

Randol references the need for Washington to “make amends” for past bloody foreign adventures and urges the Obama administration to instead begin intervening “for the right reasons.” However, until Washington acknowledges, let alone apologizes for, its active support for past bloodbaths, there’s little hope for future improvement. Much the same argument applies to other Western governments. That such amends-making seems remote should tell us something about the challenges facing us and the dangers of giving governments tools for legitimating self-interested interventions.

Bridget Moix and Trevor Keck

Our R2P dialogue colleagues rightly point out the most fundamental challenges facing the international community as it seeks to make “never again” a reality. The responsibility to protect, as a goal now agreed to by the majority of the world’s governments, including the United States, is no panacea. Shaun Randol’s argument that the international community too often fails to match actions to deeds is not resolved by the World Summit declaration. Nor are the very real double standards and power imbalances that persist in U.S. policy and the application of international law, as Steven Fake and Kevin Funk point out. Rather than abandoning R2P, however, the U.S. and international community should accept these challenges and work to address them as the debate on R2P moves forward.

The challenges raised by our colleagues suggest the need for concerted international cooperation and U.S. leadership to focus on three issues in seeking to more clearly define and implement the responsibility to protect: 1) the need to build the necessary motivation and capacities within states to protect their people and manage conflicts peacefully, 2) the need to develop effective tools for prevention and nonviolent forms of action as the primary instruments of intervention when necessary, and 3) the need to ensure the equal application of R2P standards on all states, including the most powerful, and to align good foreign policy with R2P.

We are encouraged that the U.N. Secretary General has made the first and second of these challenges specific areas of focus in his first report on the responsibility to protect. Increasingly, the R2P debate — once consumed almost entirely by the issue of military intervention after atrocities are underway — is shifting toward a more nuanced approach that emphasizes building state capacities, motivations for protection, and engaging in early prevention rather than late reaction. We welcome this shift and hope the upcoming debate in the UN General Assembly on the Secretary-General’s report will continue that trend.

We also believe the Obama administration should take seriously all three challenges and seek collaborative approaches to address them. Susan Rice, in her new role as U.S. Ambassador to the UN, raised the importance of the responsibility to protect in her first address to the UN Security Council on January 29, noting that “this means, in practical terms, preventing conflicts in the first place, keeping existing conflicts from escalating to mass atrocities, acting early and decisively when they occur, and ensuring that peacebuilding and post-conflict assistance consolidates peace durably once conflict ends…[T]his commitment is only as effective as the willingness of all nations, large and small, to take concrete action.”

Her words suggest that the new administration understands the challenges of turning rhetoric into reality. The United States can now demonstrate constructive leadership by seeking to address the challenges facing R2P — particularly where its role in the world raises concerns — during the General Assembly discussions, and working cooperatively to advance debate and implementation of R2P.

Meanwhile, the challenge for all of us is to continue building that “democratic revolution” that Fake and Funk call for, to make U.S. foreign policy more just and ensure that R2P standards are truly universal. Toward that end, this past Monday, a group of leading human rights campaigners sent a letter to the UN urging an inquiry into alleged war crimes in Gaza. The letter was led by Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Mary Robinson, two of the leading proponents of R2P. The letter was backed by Amnesty International — another proponent of R2P — which has also called on the United States to cut off military aid to Israel. FCNL supports this call and urges the Obama administration to do so as well.

No doubt overcoming the challenges to effective and just implementation of R2P will require concerted international cooperation, significant policy changes, and the active engagement of civil society. It is, however, an effort well worth pursuing. Making “never again” a real commitment, if not yet a full reality, is an important step forward on a long journey.

Steven Fake and Kevin Funk are the co-authors of the book, “The Scramble for Africa: Darfur-Intervention and the USA.” They maintain a website with their commentary at www.scrambleforafrica.org. Trevor Keck and Bridget Moix lead the peaceful prevention of deadly conflict program of the Friends Committee on National Legislation. Shaun Randol is an independent research consultant and an associate fellow at the World Policy Institute where he writes for the “World Policy Journal” blog. They are all contributors to Foreign Policy In Focus.