The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion No nation should fight global atrocities alone

Members listen as Palestinian Ambassador to the United Nations Riyad Mansour, left, speaks during a meeting of the U.N. Security Council in 2014. (Frank Franklin II/Associated Press)

Each week, In Theory takes on a big idea in the news and explores it from a range of perspectives. This week we’re talking about the Responsibility to Protect doctrine. Need a primer? Catch up here.

Ramesh Thakur is a professor in the Crawford School of Public Policy at the Australian National University and author of “The Responsibility to Protect: Norms, Laws and the Use of Force in International Politics.”

Fifteen years ago, the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (I was one of the 12 commissioners) presented the innovative doctrine of the responsibility to protect widely known as R2P as the principle around which the world could forge a new consensus on how to rescue civilians under threat of atrocities.

No one would claim that the world has been free of mass atrocities since then. Yet no country has called for R2P to be rolled back, and it would be unlikely that such a call would be heeded by the United Nations. Those competing tensions sum up the indispensable attraction and considerable limitations of R2P.

[Other perspectives: Syria is a failure of commitment, not principle]

R2P both reflected and contributed to the shift from power competition between nations toward international norms as the pivot on which history turns. But it has not made this competition obsolete. Major powers will still try to muscle into regions and exploit one another’s weaknesses at the expense of small states in the world’s hotspots.

One of the difficulties in mitigating the civilian slaughter in Syria is that regional rivals (Iran, Turkey and Saudi Arabia) and global powers (NATO and Russia) are wary of one another’s competing spheres of influence. A humanitarian disaster in Nepal or Myanmar would similarly see China and India dancing suspiciously around each other, and China would not trust any U.S. intervention to rescue trapped civilians in North Korea. The same logic of competitive interventions has played out on Russia’s periphery in Eastern Europe, from South Ossetia to Ukraine and Crimea. Whether the use of force is a U.N.-authorized R2P operation or unilateral intervention makes little difference to such jealousy among power rivals.

But when major powers are not in direct competition with one another and do want to intervene in cases of atrocity, they can reduce transaction costs and enhance the prospects of a more acceptable outcome by going through the U.N. and using R2P as the normative instrument. The doctrine does not guarantee the world will act or that it will be successful when it does, but the chances of a better outcome when the world’s conscience is tested are higher with a consensual R2P mission than with unilateral military strikes acting as an assault on a rules-based order.

For countries in Asia and the Pacific, binding China to global rules that enfetter its discretionary use of force is absolutely critical. Any use of force that escapes our normative restrictions weakens the principles under which international action can be taken. It also provides a convenient pretext for world powers to ignore inconvenient norms: Beijing already argues that the United States and NATO have shown the way that countries ought to behave, justifying China’s disregard for the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Seas. Similarly, when widely criticized for the annexation of Crimea in 2014, Russia pointed to NATO’s bombing that helped Kosovo secede from Serbia in 1999.

By developing Responsibility to Protect, the international community tried to identify when and how the use of force to save strangers could be both legal and legitimate under modern conditions, respecting state sovereignty and humanitarian ideals while preventing unilateral use of force for geopolitical gains or other self-interested purposes. This meant promoting a new norm that permitted us to protect civilians against atrocities — the enabling function of law — but proscribing unilateral interventions that hijacked the language of humanitarianism — the power-restraining attribute of law. The answer was to set the bar for intervention high and require U.N. Security Council authorization.

[How to rid the world of genocide]

Is this solution ideal? No, for often the U.N. will remain deadlocked, and its paralysis is no help to those facing mass murder. Thus, R2P does not guarantee collective U.N. action even when it is needed and justified. Nor, as Libya proved, does it guarantee success when the U.N. does approve military action to protect populations at risk of slaughter.

But nothing in recent history suggests taking action without U.N. support ensures success either. The use of force today is inherently controversial and problematic. No humanitarian crisis is so grave that the plight of endangered civilians cannot be made even worse by outside military intervention. Good intentions do not guarantee good policy outcomes in faraway lands, not even by exceptionally virtuous powers: The swath of ungoverned territories from Afghanistan to North Africa is graphic evidence of that.

The main focus therefore should be on improving R2P implementation to safeguard against abuses and failures while channeling individual outrage to rid the world of atrocities through collective action. In the post-unipolar world, it will be much easier to prevent unilateral rogue use of force by non-Western rising powers if the United States subjects its own interventionist instincts to the discipline of multilateral norms.

Explore these other perspectives:

Gareth Evans: How to rid the world of genocide

Alex Bellamy: Syria is a failure of commitment, not principle

Karen Attiah: Terrorism or genocide? We should be fighting both.

Evan Cinq-Mars: How the world failed the Central African Republic

Sarah Cliff and Hanny Megally: Rwanda should have been a wake-up call. Why do the crises continue?