The Responsibility to Protect

Courtesy Reuters


The international community in the last decade repeatedly made a mess of handling the many demands that were made for "humanitarian intervention": coercive action against a state to protect people within its borders from suffering grave harm. There were no agreed rules for handling cases such as Somalia, Bosnia, Rwanda, and Kosovo at the start of the 1990s, and there remain none today. Disagreement continues about whether there is a right of intervention, how and when it should be exercised, and under whose authority.

Since September 11, 2001, policy attention has been captured by a different set of problems: the response to global terrorism and the case for "hot preemption" against countries believed to be irresponsibly acquiring weapons of mass destruction. These issues, however, are conceptually and practically distinct. There are indeed common questions, especially concerning the precautionary principles that should apply to any military action anywhere. But what is involved in the debates about intervention in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere is the scope and limits of countries' rights to act in self-defense -- not their right, or obligation, to intervene elsewhere to protect peoples other than their own.

Meanwhile, the debate about intervention for human protection purposes has not gone away. And it will not go away so long as human nature remains as fallible as it is and internal conflict and state failures stay as prevalent as they are. The debate was certainly a lively one throughout the 1990s. Controversy may have been muted in the case of the interventions, by varying casts of actors, in Liberia in 1990, northern Iraq in 1991, Haiti in 1994, Sierra Leone in 1997, and (not strictly coercively) East Timor in 1999. But in Somalia in 1993, Rwanda in 1994, and Bosnia in 1995, the UN action taken (if taken at all) was widely perceived as too little too late, misconceived, poorly resourced, poorly executed, or all of the above. During NATO's 1999 intervention in Kosovo, Security Council members were sharply divided; the legal justification for action without UN authority was

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