A Duty to Prevent

Courtesy Reuters


The Bush administration has proclaimed a doctrine of unilateral preemption as a core part of its National Security Strategy. The limits of this approach are demonstrated daily in Iraq, where the United States is bearing the burden for security, reconstruction, and reform essentially on its own. Yet the world cannot afford to look the other way when faced with the prospect, as in Iraq, of a brutal ruler acquiring nuclear weapons or other weapons of mass destruction (WMD). Addressing this danger requires a different strategy, one that maximizes the chances of early and effective collective action. In this regard, and in comparison to the changes that are taking place in the area of intervention for the purposes of humanitarian protection, the biggest problem with the Bush preemption strategy may be that it does not go far enough.

In the name of protecting state sovereignty, international law traditionally prohibited states from intervening in one another's affairs, with military force or otherwise. But members of the human rights and humanitarian protection communities came to realize that, in light of the humanitarian catastrophes of the 1990s, from famine to genocide to ethnic cleansing, those principles will not do. The world could no longer sit and wait, reacting only when a crisis caused massive human suffering or spilled across borders, posing more conventional threats to international peace and security. As a result, in late 2001, an international commission of legal practitioners and scholars, responding to a challenge from the UN secretary-general, proposed a new doctrine, which they called "The Responsibility to Protect." This far-reaching principle holds that today un member states have a responsibility to protect the lives, liberty, and basic human rights of their citizens, and that if they fail or are unable to carry it out, the international community has a responsibility to step in.

We propose a corollary principle in the field of global security: a collective "duty to prevent" nations run by rulers without internal checks on their power from

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