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Responsibility to Protect, Obligation to Shoot

The “Responsibility to Protect” principle, or R2P, hit the blogosphere this weekend after it was incorporated in the UN justification for the resolution against Libya. Omri Ceren’s indispensable discussion is here (I wrote earlier about it here). In brief, the R2P principle, advanced by international activists, posits that there exists a responsibility for foreign governments to intervene under the auspices of the UN when grave harm is being inflicted on the people of a nation.

The horror of vicious attacks on helpless humans cannot fail to move us. Some of the early calls for action on the R2P principle were related to ethnic slaughters in Africa (e.g., the ghastly slaughter of Tutsis by Hutus in Rwanda). This fact makes a point of its own: that R2P envisions intervening in sanguinary inter-tribal campaigns as well as against the exercise of state brutality by a dictator.

But as Omri points out, the advocates of R2P have largely sorted themselves into a bloc calling for international action against Israel. Michael Rubin caught a Turkish official complaining this weekend that the UN was quick to act against Qaddafi while giving Israel a pass, proving Evelyn Gordon’s point that there is no dictatorship so brutal that Israel will not be falsely equated with it. Inevitably, the Palestinian Authority on Monday stressed the necessity of providing the Palestinian Arabs international protection against “settler violence.” (H/t: My Right Word)

These elements combine to put R2P under badly needed scrutiny. The flip side of a “responsibility to protect” is an “obligation to shoot.” I’ll call it O2S. Considered in this light, it’s obvious why no such principle should be binding on sovereign nations when invoked by a multilateral body. The world is dangerous enough without automatic triggers in the hands of random foreign governments, the UN, or non-governmental activists.

It is precisely the stewardship of nation-states over armed force that maintains some form of order and relative peace around the globe. The reason we don’t go to war more often is that national governments and peoples have to agree to it. “O2S” cannot be ordered up by the UN and tasked out to member nations, nor should we want it to be. For interventions like the one in Libya, national governments bear all the accountability – particularly if things go badly – and should retain all the discretion.

If it is argued that no one envisions R2P being invoked as an automatic trigger, that merely makes my point. Without a corresponding O2S, R2P is not a principle of international relations; it’s a meaningless mantra. Individual nations will always exercise judgment and discretion in each specific situation: in some situations intervention will be deemed appropriate and feasible, in others it will not. If R2P is not intended to change this, it has no meaning outside of demagoguery. But if it is intended to establish a new and binding criterion for the use of force, it is to be rejected as a mandate for the indiscriminate proliferation of military confrontations.


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