In my last post, I introduced my recent article rethinking the concept of responsibility to protect. Today, I consider how the discussion of R2P often obscures the reality of how states go about choosing to intervene by speaking of duties and responsibilities. Some commentators have expressed concern about the selective nature of R2P or about the disappointment of R2P in Syria. But this disappointment simply glosses over the real problem, which is that states simply have no responsibility or duty in these circumstances—rather, they have a choice, which they exercise selectively based on myriad factors.
R2P lumps together two distinct responsibilities that actually have very different foundations. First, the responsibility of a state to its own people; and second, the responsibility of all states to people victimized in other states.
The responsibility of a state for its own people reflects well-established understandings about the nation state—it is an essential aspect of the social contract that the state provides basic human security to the people within its borders. Although state practice often violates these principles (creating the asserted need for intervention), states have widely accepted the basic responsibility to their own people. For instance, no state contested this responsibility in the 2005 United Nations World Summit that affirmed certain principles of R2P.
A responsibility to protect between a state and its people primarily begins with the negative right to be left alone, the right to enjoy life without interference from the state. The social contract, however, includes more than this because within a political society individuals have a claim to be kept safe—for the state to ensure certain conditions of safety to individuals and their property. All governments provide some form of protection from private actors through their criminal justice systems. This demand, however, is inherently a political one within the state. It concerns the type of public resources that should be allocated to crime prevention, law enforcement, incarceration, and rehabilitation.
Importantly, even within the most liberal, rights-respecting countries, there are not enforceable rights to safety or protection from private actors. The United States Supreme Court has repeatedly affirmed that the government does not have an affirmative obligation to protect individuals, even though it may have an obligation to refrain from harmful activities. Instead, the political process determines what the state provides with respect to protection—increased security is balanced against civil liberties, not to mention costs.
The second responsibility between a state and people in other states lacks this political foundation. The claim of victims in other states to protection is essentially a positive claim for rescue from the harms inflicted by their government or by private actors while their government stands by. Consider that victims in Syria have no particular political claim to the assistance of France, England, or the United States. Their plight may present a moral demand for assistance and political pressure may mount through interest groups, the media, international organizations, and former Presidents. Yet the claims of foreigners will invariably present a different calculus than domestic claims and rightly so.
The responsibility to protect people in other states is a positive claim and positive claims require resources (diplomatic, humanitarian, and military). Although proponents of R2P often prefer to shift the language away from “rights,” at its foundation R2P depends on having some conception of the “rights” of people to protection from other states. It is not about leaving the Syrians alone, but rather protecting them from harm. Yet what precisely this right to assistance includes in Syria or elsewhere, no one is able to say.
Even accepting a basic moral responsibility, there remain difficult questions about what action best respects rights and what will serve to promote human rights and security overall. The responsibility will always be contingent on political, military, and other calculations and will be uncertain in any particular instance. Calling this choice a responsibility dilutes the meaning of rights and duties and obscures the actual mechanisms for promoting intervention.