Did Obama Just Endorse the Responsibility to Protect?

And this becomes particularly important when the purpose of military action extends beyond self-defense or the defense of one nation against an aggressor. More and more, we all confront difficult questions about how to prevent the slaughter of civilians by their own government, or to stop a civil war whose violence and suffering can engulf an entire region.

I believe that force can be justified on humanitarian grounds, as it was in the Balkans, or in other places that have been scarred by war. Inaction tears at our conscience and can lead to more costly intervention later. That’s why all responsible nations must embrace the role that militaries with a clear mandate can play to keep the peace.

– Barack Obama, Nobel Peace Prize Acceptance Speech.

This is Obama, and therefore the United States for which he speaks, endorsing the ‘strong’ version of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) which justifies intervention outside, and without recourse to, the UN.

The R2P principles were first developed by the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty  in the December 2001 report "The Responsibility to Protect.  The aim of the R2P doctrine in relation to the law of war is to provide a  legal  basis for "humanitarian intervention" : the intervention by external actors (preferably the international community through the UN) in a state that is unwilling or unable to prevent or stop genocide, massive killings and other massive human rights violations.

The argument goes something like this: The primary principle in Article 2(4) of the UN Charter recognises the imperative nature of sovereignty and non-intervention. Sovereignty is based on people, and the protection of people by the provision of human rights given to them under various international human rights instruments. States that fail to protect the human rights of their populations forfeit their rights to sovereignty, and therefore their immunity from intervention from other states, when they mistreat their people.

As is implied in the words “preferably the international community through the UN” supporters of the R2P movement have traditionally divided the ideal into two differing formulations, the strong and the weak.

The ‘weak’ conception agrees that there is a R2P and that it can justify humanitarian intervention. However R2P is procedurally constrained by Chapter VII of the UN Charter so that humanitarian intervention is only permitted when the UN Security Council identifies that there has been a threat to international peace and security and authorises armed force to restore or safeguard the situation.

The ‘strong’ conception argues that this procedural restriction is not justified as the right to intervene based on the R2P is simply not covered in the language of the UN Charter. Various procedural constraints are implied by this camp restricting the right to humanitarian intervention depending on the human rights violations, their scale, systemic nature and the necessity for intervention. This is to prevent humanitarian intervention being used as a pretext for aggression.

Obama is advocating the ‘stronger’ version of the R2P doctrine for two reasons.

First, Obama mentions only one particular intervention which he thinks justified, the intervention by NATO in the Former Yugoslavia. This is an interesting example because it falls into neither of the two categories, but if you were forced to pigeon hole it, it’s much closer to the second one. Why? For the simple reason that the UN Security Council vetoed the resolution authorising intervention by NATO in the former Yugoslavia. There was no UN Security Council authorisation of the NATO intervention in Yugoslavia.

Second, the only restriction he mentions is that the “that militaries with a clear mandate” have a role to keep the peace. That is a distinctly non-procedural restriction. This does not say that we have to follow a particular consensus building process or canvas widely with the international community before acting. All it says is that when you intervene on humanitarian grounds, on the basis of R2P, you have to aim at targets and achieve goals that are proportional to this means and you should not let your mandate expand, so that a humanitarian intervention becomes an invasion.

These words seem to be a strong endorsement for a doctrine that has struggled to gain traction in the decade since it was articulated. That Obama clearly recognises the need for the moral imperative, and has presented in a way that is by all appearances outside the UN Charter framework, is a strong endorsement of a more interventionist R2P.


2 Responses to Did Obama Just Endorse the Responsibility to Protect?

  1. Richard says:

    I certainly agree that Obama’s words resonate with the ‘stronger’ version, although personally think this is an unfortunate demarcation. It is i think more because of political problems with the UN’s mandate that Chapter VIII is so often not met. A strengthening of the same could in large parts invalidate the need for a ‘stronger version’ and sidestep the problems unilateralist HI has of being perceived as “humanitarian imperialism”.

  2. mtalib says:

    It is the unfortunate truth that the weakness of the UN Security Council is the driver for a ‘strong’ version of R2P especially because the legal position is that there is no recognised right to use force outside the UN Charter.

    Unfortunately, as we saw in the former Yugoslavia, states are willing to let their political goals or gains (i.e. to protect ‘friendly’ despots) interfere with the R2P and willingly accept the sacrificing the human rights of other people to benefit themselves. This is especially true of the five permanent members who’s vetoes effectively stop all UN action.

    The power of the ‘strong’ version is that it puts a check on the veto by allowing intervention, and challenging at least 1 state to stop the resolution that would condemn the intervention as illegal. This is a significant reversal of the burden, which makes humanitarian intervention achievable.

    Ultimately it’s easier to get one person to say ‘this is not wrong’ instead of getting five people, with very different and opposing interests to say ‘this is right’.

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