Menus Subscribe Search
syria-map

Map of areas affected by the alleged chemical attack in Syria and the location of the U.N. inspection team's hotel during the attack. (MAP: FUTURETRILLIONAIRE/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)

Is the Responsibility to Protect Habit-Forming? Hope So!

• August 28, 2013 • 6:16 PM

Map of areas affected by the alleged chemical attack in Syria and the location of the U.N. inspection team's hotel during the attack. (MAP: FUTURETRILLIONAIRE/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)

While the principle of “responsibility to protect” may provide cover for intervening in Syria, an expert on the concept suggests its real value lies in weaving a respect for human rights into every nation’s DNA.

At the 2005 World Summit, a high-level follow-up to the United Nations’ 2000 Millennium Summit, in a unanimous vote all U.N. member states agreed to the principle of “responsibility to protect.” While it was only two paragraphs (nos. 138 and 139) in the 38-page final statement, for many observers it was the crowning achievement of that particular gathering.

A fact sheet issued by the U.N. after the summit laid out the gist of the principle:

Clear and unambiguous acceptance by all governments of the collective international responsibility to protect populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity. Willingness to take timely and decisive collective action for this purpose, through the Security Council, when peaceful means prove inadequate and national authorities are manifestly failing to do it.

Although ultimately just words either way, it replaced an earlier optional principle, “the right to intervene,”with an active one, a responsibility. The intent was to make sure potential Rwandas of the future could end more like Libyas (but not Darfurs). It’s worth noting, too, that responsibility does not automatically equate to cruise missile.

If a U.S.-led military strike occurs in Syria, the governments involved will cite “responsibility to protect” as essentially forcing their hands in the face of the Assad government’s reputed use of chemical weapons in the nation’s civil war. Commentators have already stated the argument. In The Guardian, former U.N. emergency relief coordinator John Holmes cites the “unduckable challenge” that responsibility to protect, or RtoP, creates in Syria. In The New York Times, Mike Abramowitz, who directs the Center for the Prevention of Genocide, asks “Who Will Step Up for the Responsibility to Protect?”

But looking around the world’s trouble spots, it’s obvious that RtoP is often ambiguous and generally duckable—why was there no real action in Sri Lanka? It’s been invoked by NGOs, nations, and the U.N. itself more than 35 times since January 2006, and in most it has failed to be that “rallying call to action” its rhetoric suggests it would be. In a new paper in the journal Cooperation and Conflict, Alex J. Bellamy, one of the world’s leading scholars on RtoP, asks if the principle is “added value or hot air?”

The hot air camp is substantial. “R2P is undoubtedly a great slogan, though little else,” political scientist Aiden Hehir wrote in 2010. “Given that, as Ban Ki-moon notes, R2P creates no new obligations and reflects pre-existing international law, it is difficult to understand why state behaviour will alter as a result of the emergence of R2P.”

In his new paper, Bellamy looked at how the U.N. and its members responded to the lists 26 mass atrocities that occurred between January 2006 and June 2011. “Of the 10 deadliest episodes of anti-civilian violence between 2006 and 2011, RtoP was invoked in relation to seven and the Security Council acted in only five of these cases.” Oooh, a resolution! In fact, the U.N. issued a resolution 10 times overall in cases where RtoP was invoked, but only three time did even this bureaucratic response come with a year on the initial invocation. Oooh, a late resolution!

Bellamy’s own answer—it lies on the “added value” axis—is supremely unsatisfying if ultimately hopeful. He argues that RtoP creates the “habit” of responding to atrocities, “helping to reshape states’ identities and interests, such that consideration of the protection needs of populations in relation to the threat of genocide and mass atrocities has been internalised to some extent.”

As a result, consideration of protection issues has become almost habitual for some key international institutions, most notably the UN Security Council. By that, the author of this article means that there is a presumption that the international community, whether acting through the Security Council, regional and sub-regional arrangements, or other mechanisms, will involve itself in the protection of populations from these crimes as a matter of routine. To borrow the language explicitly used by the [African Union], the presumption of non-interference has given way to a presumption of ‘non-indifference’ in the face of genocide and mass atrocities.

In short, RtoP doesn’t guarantee meaningful action, whatever that is, but consistently makes sure the debate is occurring routinely, and not occasionally, when violence is afoot. As a recent report authored by Madeleine Albright and Richard Williamson terms it, RtoP has become an “emerging political norm.” And a change in habits may foster a change in values. To quote Barack Obama, “Preventing mass atrocities and genocide is a core national security interest and a core moral responsibility of the United States.”

What all this means in practice is much less clear.

For the U.S. in Syria, it’s less about the war, as the Lowy Institute’s Sam Roggeveen among others has written, and more about the weapons. “Obama seems uninterested in tipping the balance of the conflict one way or another. He merely wants to make a statement that the use of chemical weapons is unacceptable.”

But that statement, with munitions instead of resolutions, still might resonate as various bad actors on the world stage realize that not only is concern internalized, but so is the real possibility of acting on it. Bellamy testified before the U.N. last September: “Such measures do not replace the state’s primary responsibility to protect but instead aim to facilitate the full resumption of its sovereign responsibilities.” Like not poisoning its citizens.

Michael Todd
Most of Michael Todd's career has been spent in newspaper journalism, ranging from papers in the Marshall Islands to tiny California farming communities. Before joining the publishing arm of the Miller-McCune Center, he was managing editor of the national magazine Hispanic Business.

More From Michael Todd

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

September 1 • 1:00 PM

Television and Overeating: What We Watch Matters

New research finds fast-moving programming leads to mindless overeating.



September 1 • 6:00 AM

Why Someone Named Monty Iceman Sold Doogie Howser’s Estate

How unusual names, under certain circumstances, can lead to success.



August 29 • 4:00 PM

The Hidden Costs of Tobacco Debt

Even when taxpayers aren’t explicitly on the hook, tobacco bonds can cost states and local governments money. Here’s how.


August 29 • 2:00 PM

Why Don’t Men and Women Wear the Same Gender-Neutral Bathing Suits?

They used to in the 1920s.


August 29 • 11:48 AM

Your Brain Decides Whether to Trust Someone in Milliseconds

We can determine trustworthiness even when we’re only subliminally aware of the other person.


August 29 • 10:00 AM

True Darwinism Is All About Chance

Though the rich sometimes forget, Darwin knew that nature frequently rolls the dice.


August 29 • 8:00 AM

Why Our Molecular Make-Up Can’t Explain Who We Are

Our genes only tell a portion of the story.


August 29 • 6:00 AM

Strange Situations: Attachment Theory and Sexual Assault on College Campuses

When college women leave home, does attachment behavior make them more vulnerable to campus rape?


August 29 • 4:00 AM

Forgive Your Philandering Partner—and Pay the Price

New research finds people who forgive an unfaithful romantic partner are considered weaker and less competent than those who ended the relationship.


August 28 • 4:00 PM

Some Natural-Looking Zoo Exhibits May Be Even Worse Than the Old Concrete Ones

They’re often designed for you, the paying visitor, and not the animals who have to inhabit them.


August 28 • 2:00 PM

What I Learned From Debating Science With Trolls

“Don’t feed the trolls” is sound advice, but occasionally ignoring it can lead to rewards.


August 28 • 12:00 PM

The Ice Bucket Challenge’s Meme Money

The ALS Association has raised nearly $100 million over the past month, 50 times what it raised in the same period last year. How will that money be spent, and how can non-profit executives make a windfall last?


August 28 • 11:56 AM

Outlawing Water Conflict: California Legislators Confront Risky Groundwater Loophole

California, where ambitious agriculture sucks up 80 percent of the state’s developed water, is no stranger to water wrangles. Now one of the worst droughts in state history is pushing legislators to reckon with its unwieldy water laws, especially one major oversight: California has been the only Western state without groundwater regulation—but now that looks set to change.


August 28 • 11:38 AM

Young, Undocumented, and Invisible

While young migrant workers struggle under poor working conditions, U.S. policy has done little to help.


August 28 • 10:00 AM

The Five Words You Never Want to Hear From Your Doctor

“Sometimes people just get pains.”


August 28 • 8:00 AM

Why I’m Not Sharing My Coke

Andy Warhol, algorithms, and a bunch of popular names printed on soda cans.


August 28 • 6:00 AM

Can Outdoor Art Revitalize Outdoor Advertising?

That art you’ve been seeing at bus stations and billboards—it’s serving a purpose beyond just promoting local museums.


August 28 • 4:00 AM

Linguistic Analysis Reveals Research Fraud

An examination of papers by the discredited Diederik Stapel finds linguistic differences between his legitimate and fraudulent studies.


August 28 • 2:00 AM

Poverty and Geography: The Myth of Racial Segregation

Migration, regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, or sexuality (not to mention class), can be a poverty-buster.


August 27 • 4:00 PM

The ‘Non-Lethal’ Flash-Bang Grenades Used in Ferguson Can Actually Be Quite Lethal

A journalist says he was singed by a flash-bang fired by St. Louis County police trying to disperse a crowd, raising questions about how to use these military-style devices safely and appropriately.


August 27 • 2:00 PM

Do Better Looking People Have Better Personalities Too?

An experiment on users of the dating site OKCupid found that members judge both looks and personality by looks alone.


August 27 • 12:00 PM

Love Can Make You Stronger

A new study links oxytocin, the hormone most commonly associated with social bonding, and the one that your body produces during an orgasm, with muscle regeneration.


August 27 • 11:05 AM

Education, Interrupted

When it comes to educational access, young Syrian refugees are becoming a “lost generation.”


Follow us


Subscribe Now

Your Brain Decides Whether to Trust Someone in Milliseconds

We can determine trustworthiness even when we’re only subliminally aware of the other person.

Young, Undocumented, and Invisible

While young migrant workers struggle under poor working conditions, U.S. policy has done little to help.

Education, Interrupted

When it comes to educational access, young Syrian refugees are becoming a “lost generation.”

No, Smartphone-Loss Anxiety Disorder Isn’t Real

But people are anxious about losing their phones, even if they don’t do much to protect them.

Being a Couch Potato: Not So Bad After All?

For those who feel guilty about watching TV, a new study provides redemption.

The Big One

One in two full-time American fast-food workers' families are enrolled in public assistance programs, at a cost of $7 billion per year. July/August 2014 fast-food-big-one

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.