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Michael Brendan DoughertyBack to OpinionMichael Brendan Dougherty

The ‘Responsibility to Protect’ doctrine after Libya

Internally displaced Libyans from the city of Tawarga wait to be rescued outside Sirte, Libya, Monday, Sept. 26, 2011. Photo: AP Photo/Bela Szandelszky

Last week Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe stood before the General Assembly of the UN, and reflected onthe Responsibility to Protect doctrine that liberal internationalists say was vindicated in NATO’s intervention in Libya’s civil war. “To selectively and arbitrarily apply that principle [of responsibility to protect] merely serves to undermine its general acceptability, ” said Mugabe.

Although it pains me to say this, Mugabe is more than half-right. The “Responsibility to Protect” doctrine is already fatally flawed. It’s capricious application only serves to highlight Western hypocrisy. R2P, an “emerging norm” in international relations was meant to rationalize humanitarian intervention. It stated that governments who abuse their citizens, commit systematic human rights violations, or engage in genocide forfeit the protection of their sovereignty. But rather than justifying and prioritizing humanitarian war, it has seemingly lowered the price of civil war in the third world, and unintentionally exacerbated the violence and genocide that it is supposed to thwart.

Mugabe also accused interveners of pecuniary rather than humanitarian motives, “After over 20,000 NATO bombing sorties that targeted Libyan towns, including Tripoli, there is now an unbelievable and most disgraceful scramble by some NATO countries for Libyan oil,” he said. This has not proven to be true. Mugabe has never understood that the idealism of war can be as motivating and destructive as greed.

Of course Mugabe doesn’t like the idea of R2P. Mugabe presides over a nation that suffered a hyperinflationary crisis that makes the Weimar Republic look good. His policies have led to 95 percent unemployment — not a typo — and he only retained power after his 2008 electoral defeat by employing a new “campaign strategy” officially named “CIBD” for “Coercion. Intimidation. Beating. Displacement.”

Judged merely by the actions of their government, Zimbabwe stands alongside North Korea as the two nations whose citizens most desperately need a humanitarian intervention. But Mugabe and Kim Jong-Ill can breathe easy. Western nations are not contemplating an intervention in either nation – because they judge it as too costly and dangerous to do so. R2P adds nothing to the equation in these instances – Western nations merely calculate their interests and resources and decide rather easily that they’d not like to be responsible for invading these countries, toppling their regimes, and rebuilding new ones.

Alan J. Kuperman of the University of Texas, has done extensive work studying R2P interventions. He found that rebel groups that would never believe they have a chance at toppling their government absent R2P, take on dangerous assaults on their local regimes, hoping to provoke a genocidal backlash and with it, Western sympathy and aid. He writes:

The most counter-intuitive aspect of the Responsibility to Protect is that it sometimes contributes to the tragedies that it intends to prevent. The root of the problem is that genocide and ethnic cleansing often represent state retaliation against a sub-state group for rebellion, or armed secession, by some of its members. The emerging norm, by raising hopes of diplomatic and military intervention to protect these groups, unintentionally fosters rebellion by lowering its expected cost and raising its likelihood of success. Intervention does sometimes help rebels attain their political goals, but it is usually too late or inadequate to avert retaliation against civilians. Thus, the emerging norm resembles an imperfect insurance policy against genocidal violence. It creates a moral hazard that encourages the excessively risky behavior of rebellion by members of groups that are vulnerable to genocidal retaliation, but it cannot fully protect these groups against the backlash. The emerging norm thereby causes some genocidal violence that otherwise would not occur.

Consider a decade ago, Albanian Muslims who had pursued a mostly-peaceful resistance in Kosovo, believed that if Serbian forces launched an attack on civilians, an international force would guarantee their eventual liberation. Albanian Muslims began attacking Serbian police and civilians. Serbians retaliated by killing nearly 1000 Albanians. NATO’s intervention produced more violence at the start as Serbian forces stepped up their counter-offensive to include ethnic-cleansing, displacing almost a million Albanians and killing another 10,000. “Notably, the rate of violent death in Kosovo was roughly 30 times higher during the NATO bombing campaign than it had been during the year of conflict prior to intervention,” Kuperman reminds us.

Even when Western nations don’t intervene, R2P calculations can cause tragedy. In the Sudan, southern rebels engaged in provocative attacks on their northern-dominated government. The international community responded by giving aid short of military intervention. Sudanese rebels then stepped up their attacks thinking that increased violence would lead to an increase of aid.

R2P can involve us in conflicts we barely understand and the results of which are difficult to predict. Our intervention on Libya was predicated on saving the lives of the rebels, though it clearly intended to topple the loathsome Qaddafi government. The victorious rebels have begun in reprisal attacks on Sub-Saharan migrants, imprisoning or executing people on the basis of their skin color. And these imagined champions of liberty have descended into infighting on the bases of regional affiliation, making the prospects for a united and peaceful Libya seem more dim.

R2P, like the principle of sovereignty, cannot contain the human drive for power and domination, nor can it absent the cost-benefit analysis that all nations make when contemplating war, and still less does it reign in our ideological fantasies about creating a world peace through force of arms.  But unlike the doctrine of sovereignty, R2P is a doctrine biased towards intervention and conflict. If this doctrine is accepted broadly, even in its current hypocritical form, it will be done so at a great cost of wealth in the developed world, and blood everywhere else.

Michael Brendan Dougherty is a contributing editor to The American Conservative. His work has appeared in Politico, The Guardian, The New York Times Magazine and other outlets.