“Of course our opinions do not coincide. But all of us have the intention to stop the violence in Syria,” President Putin said after meeting with President Obama at the G8 summit. A neat summary of the dilemma of responsibility to protect—everyone wants an end to violence, but responsibility does not suggest how it should be done.
Responsibility to protect emphasizes the rights of victims and the cosmopolitan obligations of every state. In my previous post, I explained why states do not have such a duty, drawing from my recent article. Here, I consider why whatever right people have to be protected, states contemplating intervention will determine the obligations arising from those rights. To begin with, the standards of R2P are notoriously indeterminate and there are no reliable mechanisms for defining responsibility in any particular circumstance. Although there is debate about when precisely the responsibility arises—for genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing, and crimes against humanity—the more serious questions are what should be done when such situations invariably arise.
The United Nations Security Council is the ostensible source for recognizing the conditions for the responsibility to protect. Yet the Security Council repeatedly fails to respond, in part because of the well-understood dynamic between the P3 on the one side and Russia and China on the other. An ineffective Security Council means, unsurprisingly, that any responsibility to protect will depend on strong states to preserve human security.
Moreover, the doctrine of responsibility to protect includes numerous conditions that seek to balance the seriousness of humanitarian concerns with preventing escalation of violence and ensuring the best outcome. First, intervention is considered appropriate only for “extreme and exceptional cases” sometimes described as violence that shocks the conscience. Is that standard met with respect to Syria? Over 93,000 people have reportedly been killed and there is evidence that the Assad regime is using chemical weapons.
Second, intervention must be a last resort. Again, states will have to judge when all diplomatic, humanitarian and other actions have been exhausted. The notion of last resort created disputes about Libya, when the United States expressed concern that the killing of civilians was imminent. President Obama stressed we had a responsibility to act before more innocent people were killed. After the Libya intervention, disagreements continued about the timing for action and its efficacy in limiting violence.
Third, the means of intervention must be proportional. Proportionality is a favorite concept in international law as well as European constitutional law. It is a concept, however, that makes rights and duties flexible and discretionary. Responsibility to protect recognizes a continuum of responses culminating in military force. States will have to determine what they are willing to risk and how to calculate whether the contemplated involvement will result in a proportionate benefit.
Finally, and perhaps most tellingly, states must intervene only if they have the capacity to do so—when they can intervene without excessive costs to their own people. Although responsibility to other people is treated as a moral duty, because it is a positive obligation, nations cannot fulfill their responsibility unless they have financial and military means. Accordingly, the scope of responsibility depends not only on the indeterminate factors for intervention, but also on resources. The question of resources can be assessed only by states. Even for wealthy states, the question of capacity is a relative one and must be balanced with domestic priorities.
All of this indeterminacy suggests that despite the lofty language of responsibility to protect, the humanitarian needs of victims do not define the assistance. Rather, states contemplating intervention will define the scope and extent of the protection provided. This is not to underestimate the seriousness of the harm or the desirability of intervention in certain circumstances, but only to highlight that nothing in international law or the responsibility to protect doctrine has established a duty of states to assist.
Although responsibility to protect sought to move away from state-centered and traditional notions of sovereignty, its cosmopolitanism has faltered on the realpolitik of violent conflict. The politics of figuring out what to do are messy and fraught with uncertainty—yet hiding behind platitudes does little to alleviate humanitarian problems.