Taking Stock of the Responsibility to Protect
21 Pages Posted: 23 May 2012
Date Written: May, 23 2012
When the U.N. Security Council voted to authorize the use of military force in Libya in March 2011, observers greeted the decision as a triumph for the responsibility to protect, the notion that states have a responsibility to protect their own people, and that the international community has a responsibility to step in when the state fails its responsibility. After years of debate and controversy, the initiation of military action in Libya was seen as an indication that the international community in general, and the United States in particular, finally had embraced the responsibility to protect and was willing to put words into action. This Essay critically examines the role the responsibility to protect played in the U.S. government’s public justifications for supporting intervention in Libya. It argues that although a sense of responsibility factored into the Obama Administration’s explanations for supporting intervention, that responsibility played only a secondary role, subordinated to U.S. interests in protecting regional stability, deterring violent repression by other dictators, and shoring up the credibility of the United Nations. Because the responsibility to protect constituted only one part of the government’s stated motivation for intervention, identifying the intervention as being driven by the responsibility to protect risks undermining the core of the responsibility to protect, mutating the principle into a new form that envisions a responsibility that is triggered only when other state interests motivate intervention. This deference to state interests, however, was exactly what the responsibility to protect principle sought to overcome. Moreover, identifying an intervention motivated by interests as an exercise of the responsibility to protect risks equating the principle of responsibility with mere interest, thus confirming the fears of many states that the responsibility to protect provides political cover for powerful states’ military adventurism and imperialism. Should proponents of the principle wish to further their goal of convincing otherwise uninterested states to take notice of foreign atrocities, and if they wish to avoid legitimating interventions based on narrow national interests, they should be careful not to conflate what motivated the Libya intervention with the responsibility to protect. The decision to intervene thus marked an advancement of the principle of responsibility to protect in U.S. foreign policy, but it should not be characterized as a successful manifestation of the responsibility to protect.
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