Humanitarian intervention and the “responsibility to protect”

The concept of RtoP can be traced, at its origin, to a few documents in which it was first blocked out. The first of these is a report so titled (The Responsibility to Protect) issued in 2001 by the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty, which had been set up at the initiative of the Canadian government (ICISS 2001). The concept was subsequently developed by the UN’s High Level Panel on Threats, Challenges and Change in its 2004 report titled “A More Secure World: Our Shared Responsibility” (UNGA 2004). The following year the theses set out in this report were taken up and developed in another UN report, this one signed by the secretary general, titled “In Larger Freedom: Towards Development, Security and Human Rights for All” (UNGA 2005a). And finally, in September 2005 the concept of RtoP was further developed in the UN document titled “World Summit Outcome” (UNGA 2005b).

These documents sought to give an answer to the humanitarian disasters in Somalia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Rwanda, Kosovo, and Darfur, identifying new forms of legitimacy for humanitarian intervention. The first document (ICISS 2001) refrained the conception of sovereignty, no longer as a state’s control over its own territory and population, on the Westphalian model, but as responsibility exercised both internally and externally—the former towards the population, the latter in the face of serious human rights violations in other geopolitical contexts (Focarclli 2008, 320).


On this reconstruction see Stahn 2007.

Central to this first document by the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty was the distinction between humanitarian intervention and RtoP. In the first place, the new concept of responsibility was meant to address “the dilemma of intervention from the perspective of the needs to those who seek or need support [...], rather than from the interests and perspectives of those who carry out such action (entities asserting ‘the right to intervene’)” (Stahn 2007,103). In the second place, the International Commission, by so relativizing the concept of sovereignty, introduced an approach on which “responsibility is shared by the national state and the broader international community” (ibid.). Finally, the concept of responsibility was given an expanded meaning under which “an effective response to mass atrocities requires not only reaction, but ongoing engagement to prevent conflict and rebuild after the event” (ibid.).

Underpinning this approach is a constant critical reflection on the concept of sovereignty. Indeed, as Stahn points out, the International Commission drew a distinction between a state’s internal responsibility and its external one, recognizing in the former case that states are “responsible for the safety, life, and welfare of their citizens” (ibid., 104), to whom they are accountable, and in the latter case that they also answer to the “international community through the United Nations” (ibid.). If this “dual responsibility” is violated and certain specific circumstances obtain, there comes into play a “‘residual responsibility’ of the broader community of states” (ibid.).

Also worthy of note is the manner of identifying the institutional entities entrusted with stepping in if a state should prove incapable of protecting its own population or should itself commit crimes and atrocities. In the International Commission’s report, this “residual responsibility” may be assumed not only by the UN Security Council but also—“if the Security Council rejects a proposal or fails to deal with it in a reasonable time” (ICISS 2001, XIII)—by the General Assembly or by regional organizations or coalitions of states.

In the report, this latter option is phrased as “action within area of jurisdiction by regional or sub-regional organizations under Chapter VIII of the Charter, subject to their seeking subsequent authorization from the Security Council” (ibid.). And as Noam Chomsky has sarcastically remarked, this phrasing brings out “the skeleton in the closet,” in that “the powerful unilaterally determine their own ‘area of jurisdiction’” (Chomsky 2011, 14). This applies in particular to NATO, which “unilaterally determined that its ‘area of jurisdiction’ includes the Balkans,” and that it “extends to Afghanistan, and beyond” (ibid.). In short, according to Chomsky, because the “expansive rights accorded by the International Commission are in practice restricted to NATO alone,” the commission’s report sets the stage “for resort to R2P as a weapon of imperial intervention at will” (ibid.).

Finally, the International Commission specified the criteria that need to be satisfied before the “responsibility to protect” can have a legitimate basis. These criteria fall under six headings as follows: right authority, just cause, right intention, last resort, proportional means, and reasonable prospects (ICISS 2001, §4.16; cf. Stahn 2007, 104).

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