Just War: The Naiveté of “Responsibility to Protect”

By Patricia de Vries

With all eyes on Syria it is easy to overlook the turmoil in Libya, which didn’t just end when western involvement did. After unleashing 26,320 attacks and helping rebels topple and kill Colonel Muammar Qaddafi, NATO forces withdrew in October of last year. But while Washington, Paris, and London have moved on, post-Qaddafi Libya is disintegrating. Violence and corruption are commonplace as the National Transition Council (NTC) struggles to retain its precarious authority over a country that for decades lacked state institutions, political parties, and a civil society. A centuries-old feud is splitting its eastern and western regions and rivalries between militias refusing to disarm further destabilize the country. Meanwhile, human rights organizations report reprisals against Qaddafi’s supporters and targeted racist attacks against sub-Saharan Africans. The international community’s “humanitarian intervention” is hardly the “milestone in human progress” that advocates boast of.

The NATO intervention in Libya was the first test of “Responsibility to Protect” (R2P), a principle adopted by the United Nations in 2005, which holds that every state carries the primary responsibility to protect populations within its borders from genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity, and ethnic cleansing. If a state fails to do so, the international community must be prepared to take measures, including, as a last resort, military intervention. Last May, Gareth Evans, the former Australian foreign minister and one of the architects of the principle, predicted, “genocide, ethnic cleansing, and other major crimes against humanity and war crimes can be stopped, once and for all, in our time.”

Only a year after this boast, however, it has become clear that R2P is plagued by three central shortcomings. First, the terminology of R2P paints a world that is more black and white than the gray-on-gray reality of most contemporary conflicts. The R2P principle’s identification of the four crimes that can justify military intervention to protect civilians—genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing, and crimes against humanity—suggests that these are objectively recognizable crimes that are distinguishable from other actions even in the fog of war. In the throes of conflict, propaganda and spin-machines run on full speed, disseminating ideology, attempting to influence observers, and vying for national, regional, and international support. This means that it is difficult to determine with reasonable certainty what the facts are on the ground and what crimes are being committed.

Second, the distinction that R2P draws between perpetrators and civilians is at once too categorical and too ambiguous, leaving it open to political manipulation. The stated objective of the Libyan intervention was to protect civilians under threat of attack, but not all civilians were protected. Civilians supportive of Qaddafi’s regime and those trapped in his last strongholds of power, like Sirte and Bani Walid, were under constant attack by NATO and rebel forces. On the other hand rebel groups, made up of armed civilians and defected military units, were considered “civilians to be protected.” The decision over who was considered a civilian worthy of protection was clearly not made impartially, but politically.

As long as the UN Security Council’s (UNSC) structure with its vetoes and power imbalances remains unchanged, the U.S. and its allies will continue to have a disproportionate influence on where and how to intervene.

Finally, the R2P principle tries to distinguish between grubby, ordinary wars and just wars intended to stop mass atrocities. To assuage fears of great power abuse, the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty issues six ‘Just War’-theory derived criteria that must be met before the decision to intervene is made: right authority, just cause, right intention, last resort, proportional means, and reasonable prospects. But in reality, all wars are grubby; whether they are categorized as ‘just’ or not. They are about victory and defeat, life and death, not simply about protecting civilians.  

Even though human rights may inform a decision to use military force, engaging in a war always involves human rights violations and mass suffering. Armies have their own benchmarks for action, often ones that are irreconcilable with the criteria and ethics of the R2P principle. Chaos and destruction often happens under the guise of securing human rights and democratic liberties.

R2P sets high expectations for what humanitarian intervention can accomplish, but the principle ignores the complexities involved. The greatest of which is that military interventions, especially those aimed at regime change, can create a dangerously permissive climate for yet more conflict.

It would be naïve to think that realpolitik can be avoided in military interventions. It is not in the nature of states to act solely on humanitarian grounds, and the UNSC is intrinsically a political body; politics and geopolitical interests play a central role. Taking sides and becoming the rebels’ air force, even though the mandate given was the protection of civilians under threat of attack; ignoring civilian deaths in places the permanent five UNSC member have a vested interest in—Syria, Bahrain, and Yemen; refraining from meaningful action in the Congo and Sudan where far more civilians could be protected against their governments, while continuing to provide weapons and diplomatic support to the despotic royal family of Saudi Arabia; all occur because of political realism, not humanitarian principles. This is not to argue that the R2P norm itself is wrong or untenable, nor to argue that geopolitical interest can never intersect with humanitarian interests. There is no such thing as an immaculate R2P intervention. An intervention is always a political act, and it always has political repercussions.

Yet, any conception of R2P that neither addresses its critical problems—its dependence on undemocratic and imbalanced decision-making processes in the UNSC, a fuzzy understanding of the complexities underlying conflicts and the diversity of actors involved, and naïve expectations of military force—nor provides any mechanisms to keep bias, double standards, and hidden agendas in check will not effectively tackle these impediments. 

Working through these problems alone, however, is not enough. In 2009, a planned meeting in the General Assembly on how to enforce R2P caused controversy. Prior to the meeting the General Assembly’s Nicaraguan President Miguel D’Escoto Brockmann issued a statement arguing that the true means to end conflicts in the world included Security Council reform, international economic governance reform, and coordinated action focused on development.

Though many delegations reacted with anger and ridicule at Rev. Miguel D’Escoto Brockmann’s statement, accusing him of prioritizing politics over human rights, he was on point about needing to consider not only the structural problems of the United Nations but also the causes that give rise to conflict.



Patricia de Vries is a Fulbright scholar at the New School for Social Research and a research assistant at the World Policy Institute

(Photo courtesy of United Nations)

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