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'Responsibility to Protect' in Military Intervention and Non-Intervention

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Military
Wordcount: 3777 words Published: 23rd Nov 2020

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Topic: In what ways is the ‘responsibility to protect’ important for understanding recent cases of military intervention and non-intervention?

In the 1990’s, there were events of genocides, war crimes, ethnic cleansings, and crimes against humanity taking place throughout the world. Those tragedies happened in countries such as Congo, Rwanda, Somalia, and Kosovo, which reflected the problem that international society was not taking reaction fast enough to intervene in the conflicts and prevent innocent people from getting killed. Traditional security mainly focused on how states protect people within themselves; however, under circumstances such as genocides and ethnic cleansing, states are not capable of providing protection or might even aim at their citizens. In other words, in some cases, “state can act as a major threat to its population’s rights and welfare” (Axworthy, 2001, p.19). As a result, in order to prevent such tragedies from happening again, the government of Canada established the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS) in December 2001, which put forward the concept of responsibility to protect, containing aspects of preventing, reacting, and rebuilding. Since then, the concept of security has developed a new route, which is the “responsibility to protect”. Its main idea is that when a state fails to function in securing its own populations’ basic human rights, the international society has the responsibility to stop genocides and massive ethnic cleansing in that state from happening. In my opinion, responsibility to protect is not only an ideal goal but also a necessary practice in both purposes of fulfilling humanitarian goals and stabilizing international order; however, responsibility to protect is debatable in its morality and legitimacy of intervening in other countries and is not functioning as efficiently as people expected due to several factors. In this essay, I will discuss how responsibility to protect is an important and necessary practice in international society nowadays and how responsibility to protect is debatable in its essence. Meanwhile, I will put forward empirical examples of Libya and Syria to show how responsibility to protect succeeded or failed to function as the public expected in both cases.

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First of all, one of the values of responsibility to protect is that it undoubtedly plays a significant role in the moral aspect. Stem from the events of genocides and ethnic cleansing, responsibility to protect was put forward originally in spirit of stopping inhuman actions from happening. In Weiss’s article, he mentions that “...the three recognized characteristics of a sovereign state since the Peace of Westphalia (territory, authority, population) are supplemented by a fourth (respect for human rights)” (Weiss, 2004, p.138). In other words, the responsibility of a sovereign state should take fundamental human rights into consideration; meanwhile, human rights are at the same status as all other factors that consist of a sovereign state. Moreover, Smyser (2003) argues in his book that “when there is a possibility of genocide, there are no political and legal obligations to act or intervene in; however, a moral one”. As a result, responsibility to protect should be considered a moral guard net from international society to avoid atrocities from happening. To sum up, responsibility to protect holds the central idea that when a state fails to protect its citizens from being exposed under inhumane situations, international society should take over the obligation of protecting innocent civilians.

The other important value of responsibility to protect is that, other than moral purpose, the practice of responsibility to protect is also able to maintain international order by stabilizing regional conflicts and monitoring civil wars. In Walter’s “Committing to peace: The Successful Settlement of Civil Wars” (Walter, 2002), she argues that peacekeeping operations are beneficial for executing long term cease-fire agreements, enforcing community culture, and establishing a democratic system. First of all, through operating military control, peacekeeping force is able to increase war participants’ costs of breaking treaties; at the same time prevent incidents that might affect peace agreements from happening. Secondly, peacekeeping force is able to supervise both parties to ensure that no one is breaking the equal status within the agreements. Thirdly, the United Nations acts as a mediator within peace talks, which is able to decrease distrust stems from information asymmetry and miscommunication. As a result, the intervention of peacekeeping operations from outer countries is an efficient way of solving civil wars and rebuilding peace in countries facing domestic conflicts. When a state fails to solve its own problems, which might cause violation on human rights of its own populations, the main ideas of responsibility to protect provide a reasonable method by launching peacekeeping operations to stabilize regional and domestic situations.

Though responsibility to protect contains a positive and sublime goal, on the other hand, many scholars are questioning its legality and legitimacy. Responsibility to protect is a developed and more perfected form of humanitarian intervention; however, its essence is still humanitarian intervention. The most debatable point is that how can we know responsibility to protect would not become a political tool for strong powers? And how can we distinguish whether it is a humanitarian intervention or a violation of sovereignty within an operation? The essence of responsibility to protect is the conflict between maintenance of human rights, and morality and legitimacy of intervening in other countries’ sovereignty. Scholars who are opposed to humanitarian intervention holds the concern of vague boundary between protection of human rights and violation of sovereignty. In Matláry’s words, “…unless there is a genocide happening, requesting military intervention due to violation of human rights is difficult to be accepted by most governments and the United Nations because intervention based on morality lacks legal basis” (Matláry, 2002, p.27). Moreover, the Non-Aligned Movement clearly opposed the “right of humanitarian intervention” due to the lack of legit foundations (Non-Aligned Movement, 1999, p.171). In addition, if states are able to operate humanitarian intervention, “strong powers might misuse and manipulate this right to pursue their own benefits as well as legalizing their military intervention in small countries” (Boyle, 2002, p.52). To sum up, the main concern from scholars on responsibility to protect is its legitimacy and potential possibility of being misused by strong powers.

The humanitarian intervention in Kosovo aroused the concerns from the public. In this case, it shows that no matter receiving pressure from international or domestic society, under circumstances of willing to solve current conflicts might make actors launch forced intervention without the authorization from the United Nations Security Council. Cases that bypass the United Nations Security Council tend to happen when actors are not affordable for waiting the lengthy decision process; NATO intervening in Kosovo and the United States invading Iraq were both examples of how actors bypass regulations from the United Nations Security Council. In the case of Kosovo, facing the worsening situation in Kosovo, the European Union and the United States decided to launch an air strike through operating NATO. The airstrike bypassed the permission from the only mechanism that could legally use force, which is the United Nations system; moreover, the operation ignored the forbidden act from the United Nations of intervening in regional organizations. In Falk’s concept, “the operation was a dangerous precedent example to intervene in other countries in the name of humanitarian intervention” (Falk, 2003, p.591). In the case of the US intervening Iraq was an example showing how strong power might misuse or manipulate humanitarian intervention for its own benefits. In Weiss’s words, “the United States invading in Iraq was purely a humanitarian intervention in disguise of justice and morality, since no evidence was found of either the purported WMDs or links to Al-Qaeda. (Weiss, 2004, p.138)” Even worse, due to the potential possibility that responsibility to protect might for providing strong powers opportunities to abuse the humanitarian intervention as well as decreasing their political cost, Cunliffe describes responsibility to protect as “the worst of humanitarian intervention” (Cunliffe, 2010, p.96). To a strong extent, these two events made humanitarian intervention more of a concern of being a tool to snatch political interests of strong powers.

On the other hand, supporters and recent examples shows a much more optimistic point of view on responsibility to protect. In an empirical perspective of view, on October 24th, 2005, the United Nations General Assembly agreed and passed World Summit Outcome Document, in which contains the concepts of responsibility to protect in United Nations’ official document for the first time. “With the signature from more than 150 representatives all over the world, we can say that the document was the announcement from the collective will of the international society” (Evans, 2009, p.10). And in Crossley’s point of view, he thinks that “…those regarding responsibility to protect as an imperialist doctrine are now decreasing much, and the main principles supporting for the concept are beginning to enjoy mainstream support”. Also, he mentioned that “North African and Sub-Saharan states no longer question the value of responsibility to protect in United Nations debates, routinely expressing support for the principle…” (Crossley, 2018, p.431). Moreover, the development of responsibility to protect under the structure of United Nations is also showing progress. First of all, under the regulations of the United Nations Security Council, only four kinds of humanitarian violations, which are genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing, and crimes against humanity can be intervened in by international society. These regulations are established in order to prevent responsibility to protect from becoming an invasive tool of strong powers. Secondly, emphasizing the leading role of the United Nations in executing responsibility to protect reinforces the legitimacy and legality of humanitarian intervention under the circumstances of responsibility to protect. Thirdly, responsibility to protect was made a prior topic in United Nations’ humanitarian agenda, which provides countries to conduct deeper conversations and understanding. To sum up, though there are concerns about whether responsibility to protect is only another form of humanitarian intervention, evidences show that it is gradually being accepted by the international society.

In the case of intervention in Libya in 2011, it was the first officially approved operation by the United Nations in the name of responsibility to protect. At the first stage of the crisis, officials of the United Nations were aware of “the threat of mass atrocity and characterized the crisis in terms of responsibility to protect” (Paris, 2014, p.580). On 22nd February, the United Nations Security Council condemned Libyan government’s violence and use of force against civilians instead of meeting its duty to protect its own populations. Several days after, the United Nations Security Council adopted Resolution 1970, which emphasized the lack from the Libyan government of protecting its own people. In spite of the actions from the United Nations Security Council, Libyan government stood a strong attitude. Hence, resolution 1973, which was adopted on 17 March, authorized the operation of humanitarian intervention in Libya and “used the language of responsibility to protect directly when it called on UN members to use ‘all necessary measures… to protect civilians and civilian populated areas under threat of attack’ in Libya” (Paris, 2014, p.569). The operation was also the “first time in United Nations’ history, launching military intervention in a sovereign state against the will of the state’s government” (Morris, 2013, p.1271). To some scholars, included the advocates of responsibility to protect, Gareth Evans and Ramesh Thakur, “the operation in Libya is somehow a ‘come of age’ under the discourse of responsibility to protect” (Paris, 2014, p.569). In this case, we can see how the United Nations Security Council followed the main structure of responsibility to protect gradually and carefully; however, Paris mentioned an inconsistency problem of responsibility to protect in this case. First of all, “after the situation was settled, the interveners faced several options dealing with the aftermath of Libya, while none of them were desirable” (Paris, 2014, pp.582-583). Secondly, NATO’s operation was also haunted by the mixed motive problems since “some observer claimed that the fall of Qaddafi’s regime was the initial intention of most strong powers involved” (Paris, 2014, p.583). In addition, the political costs and enduring state of lawlessness were also problems responsibility to protect did not provide. In my opinion, though responsibility to protect seems to be incomplete and immature in the case of Libya, it has shown some degrees of success. Since Qaddafi expressed threatening willing to use heavy weapon against Benghazi (Raghavan, 2011), it was reasonable for the United Nations Security Council to react immediately. Moreover, as the United Nations Security Council followed the structure of responsibility to protect in this operation, we should be thinking how to refine responsibility to protect to decrease the following problems after such humanitarian intervention instead of criticizing it of its side effects. However, in the case of Syria, we can see how responsibility to protect being unable to solve the problems.

In the case of Syria, it resulted totally different outcome compared to it in Libya. The United Nations Security Council special advisor announced the growing tensions in Syria and urged putting in immediate efforts (United Nations, 2012). However, in Paris’s word, an agreement had not been reached due to China and Russia’s “recalcitrance” (Paris, 2014, p.587). Both China and Russia vetoed against the proposal of the United Nations Security Council due to “NATO’s ‘misuse’ of Resolution 1973 in Libya” (Paris, 2014, p.587).  February 2012, China and Russia vetoed another new draft resolution. Despite all the other Security Council members supported for the resolution, the resolution was still denied due to the veto power of China and Russia. Since the beginning of the Syrian crisis, China and Russia have been constantly vetoing against United Nations Security Council’s resolutions on Syria. “The United Nations Security Council has failed to pass some strongly worded resolutions authorizing peaceful measures to end the conflict as a result of Russia and China’s confronting positions” (Erameh, 2017, p.526). The United States and its allies seemed to have a consensus that the Assad regime is responsible for a series of violations in human rights in Syrian crisis; however, China and Russia did not hold the same perspectives. China and Russia seemed to regard Syrian crisis as “a more complex issue of humanitarian issues, human rights issues and deeply strategic issues, often involving major geopolitical and economic interests, a differing stance from the United Nations Security Council” (Erameh, 2017, p.527). In this case, the United Nations Security Council failed to intervene in, which led to a large amount of casualties and many deprived of shelter. Some scholars even regard responsibility to protect in the case of Libya as a failure because that the case of Syria showed that the consensus of responsibility to protect was in fact fragile and unreliable (Morris, 2013, p.1277). In my opinion, though the cautious restraint did not contradict to the main idea of responsibility to protect, it somehow created a double standard, and also raised the doubt about the inconsistency of responsibility to protect and the Security Council. Moreover, it reflected a problem that within the Security Council that the veto power of the permanent five are too excessive that the resolutions were still turned down even if all other countries rather than China and Russia supported for the humanitarian intervention in Syria. As a result, we have to reconsider the system working in Security Council that if the veto power should be limited in order to make responsibility to protect functioning more efficiently.

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In conclusion, though responsibility to protect is debatable in its essence, with the potential possibilities of being misused, and is rather vague in the boundaries between humanitarian intervention and violation of sovereignty, it is an important concept and announcement for providing a solution for contemporary international peacekeeping. Responsibility to protect offers military force a crucial role in preventing atrocities, solving conflicts, and rebuilding peace. In my opinion, responsibility to protect should not be inspected as the same way as conventional humanitarian intervention; as long as violent confrontation transforms into violence against innocent people within a country, limited and reasonable use of responsibility to protect and military force from the international society would be necessary. In other words, when the source of threat to international security and peace transforms from international level into domestic level, the use of military force might be the most efficient and secure method to prevent atrocities, solve problems, and rebuild peace. Since the process of humanitarian intervention in discourse of responsibility to protect is strictly limited and supervised, what we have to concern about responsibility to protect is the accuracy of decision making and the gridlock within United Nations Security Council, which makes responsibility to protect functioning not as well as the public expected. In the case of Libya, I personally consider it as a rather successful example of practicing responsibility to protect. Though there were problems afterwards stem from the intervention, we should focus on how to deal with the inconsistency problems and how to refine the immature version of responsibility to protect. However, in the case of Syria, another problem appeared within the United Nations Security Council, which is the gridlock due to excessive veto powers from the permanent five, is noticeable. Further systematic reform within the Security Council might be necessary in order for operations under responsibility to protect more efficiently in functioning. Like what Weiss argues, “Critics and skeptics of humanitarian intervention should be less preoccupied that military action will be taken too often for insufficient humanitarian reasons, but rather more concerned that it will be taken too rarely for the right ones” (Weiss, 2004, p.149).



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