Council on Foreign Relations Report on R2P

Council on Foreign Relations Report on R2P

President Obama’s Nobel Prize speech yesterday made reference to the moral authority, under the ethics of the just war, for armed humanitarian intervention in some situations.  It is a topic that has been debated and discussed as a matter of international law for, well, a long time, but which gained particular urgency following on Bosnia, Rwanda, and Kosovo in the 1990s.  It continues to be debated and argued as a matter of law, morality, and policy.  The Council on Foreign Relations has just issued a new report, Intervention to Stop Genocide and Mass Atrocities, authored by Columbia law professor and former Bush administration official Matthew Waxman, looking for ways to move the discussion forward.  It is a terrific report, coherently organized and thought-out as to substance, I strongly recommend it to anyone thinking through mass atrocities and “R2P.”

Professor Waxman’s report starts from the premise that the US favors robust practical measures to stop and prevent genocide and mass atrocities.  He then turns to the legal regimes in international law and asks what prevents robust responses from taking place:

A[n] important part of this debate concerns the international legal system governing the use of force in situations of actual or potential atrocities. In this Council Special Report, Matthew C. Waxman asks whether this legal regime is effective in preventing and stopping such crimes. The report notes that international legal practices constrain swift action and require extensive consultation, especially in the United Nations Security Council, before particular steps can be taken. Waxman, though, argues that the system has certain benefits: it can confer legitimacy and help actors coordinate both military and nonmilitary efforts to prevent or stop atrocities. He also contends that different arrangements of the kind some have proposed would be unlikely to prove more effective.

He therefore opposes wholesale reforms but recommends more modest steps the United States could take to improve the current legal regime. These measures include expressing strong but nuanced support for the responsibility to protect and working with other permanent members of the UN Security Council to discourage the use of vetoes in clear cases of mass atrocities. But the report also argues that the United States must be prepared to act alone or with others in urgent cases without Security Council approval.

I would add, as my own view, however, that R2P gets harder and harder to pull off in a genuinely multipolar world; a multipolar world, as the ever-astute David Rieff has noted, is a competitive, not cooperative, one.  In the jockeying for position around many things ranging from commercial advantage to energy to markets to regional security to lots more besides, many more actors can find many more reasons, and many more reasons not obviously related to the atrocities at hand and many reasons not even of any obvious importance, for preventing R2P from taking place.

The intervention that did take place – Kosovo – depended, not upon the United Nations or the collective security of international organizations, but upon the rough and ready security hegemony of the United States.  This was one of the crucial tenets of President Obama’s Nobel speech – an acknowledgment of the US as the provider since WWII of the basics of global security as a global public good.  The interventions that did not take place, Rwanda and Bosnia (at least not until late in the day), did not because they depended upon the collective security mechanisms of the UN.  What the international system did instead was punt, so to speak, to the future and promise an emerging system of international criminal law that would address these things post hoc (I am skeptical about the post hoc move, unsurprisingly, and say so here in the EJIL).  The US acts (as President Obama recognized), not merely as the biggest player (still) in the international system of law and organizations, but as a parallel player, acting from outside the structure of liberal internationalism, in effect offering an extra-UN-system guarantee to the system.  That’s one reason why the UN has not simply imploded as a system of collective security; words are there, but security is underwritten by an actor outside of the system and its ineradicable collective action failures.

However, despite the admirable activities of legal academics and policy experts to try to put flesh on the bones of R2P, it seems to me that the concept has been in retreat.  At the broadest level, this is on account of the rise of multipolarity – or at least its perception – and the resurgence of the “electoral authoritarians,” particularly Putin’s Russia, which saw Kosovo as something of a watershed (Macedonia a little bit too, for that matter, remember it?), and all in the wrong direction.  After all, the Kosovo war was not put to the Security Council by the NATO coalition, for the reason that Russia, and perhaps China, would have vetoed it.  And, on the other hand, R2P has already been invoked by Russia as a ground for its adventures in Georgia; in bad faith, of course, but even bad faith invocations can undermine the concept in real life.

This palpable dislike of R2P found expression in the language of the 2005 Final Outcome Document of the UN General Assembly reform conference in 2005 – under the ever-malign influence of the General Assembly, the final language mentioned R2P, but cabined it under the authorization of the Security Council.  Under the terms of the 2005 document, the Kosovo war would have had to go to the Security Council, with predictable results.  Note, too, that this runs directly against President Obama’s assertion yesterday that there would be times when the US, sometimes alone and sometimes with friends, would act – outside of the UN system.  The world as it is, as it were.

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Kevin Jon Heller


Hmm.  So the US deserves praise for using its “rough and ready security hegemony” for intervening in Kosovo.  Does that mean it deserves criticism for not using that same security hegemony to intervene in Rwanda?


[…] In the meantime, Kenneth Anderson over at Opinio Juris posted an interesting and thorough comment on the US stance towards humanitarian intervention within the context of the R2P doctrine,+. He […]

Dominika Švarc

Didn’t it use the same security hegemony to actually (initially) prevent intervention in Rwanda?


Dominika: I don’t remember them trying to prevent at all?  They thought about it, but did not act…?

Dominika Švarc

That’s why I said initially…I think the US used its influence at the UN to at least discourage a robust response and their reluctance to contribute troops and equipment as the sole military superpower probably also hindered a faster and more decisive action…


It’s really a slippery slope to be argued here. The problem I have with this is the political aspect. Bosnia and Rwanda, both cited as failures here, had UN presence on the ground (Bosnia especially in Srebrenica, which was a UN zone), whose warning and demands for additional support were ignored by the political leaders. Western governments were fully (and I stress this, fully) aware of what was about to happen but chose to ignore it until the public pressure forced them to act.
One can draw very close parallels between the recent events in Sri Lanka (Ceylon) and Kosovo, both a government suppression of a long-standing separatist movement. In fact Sri Lanka conflict had more victims then Kosovo (at least 30,000 since 2006 vs. 10,000). On both sides fighting between government and insurgents caused massive population displacements and civilian casualties.  So how does one qualify genocide/mass atrocity vs. a legitimate government law-enforcement action?
Professor Waxman is wrong when he says that legal regimes constrain action. It is the political interests that are at fault here and no amount or reform is going to fix this.


[…] in the comments section on Opinio Juris, I find myself agreeing with the following: Professor Waxman is wrong when he says that legal […]