A swift recovery or a terminal disease? The Responsibility to Protect 2010/11

Could 2011 be the year of the Responsibility to Protect? IJ Central asked me to write a short piece about international law. How it’s fared in the year gone and what the immediate future might hold for it. I was thinking about crucial events in the calendar of international justice and I settled on the Responsibility to Protect (R2P in the language of those who have the inclination to read UN documents for fun) and sovereignty.

I want to start by saying It has been a subtle but promising year for the R2P doctrine. For those of you aren’t entirely sure what R2P is think of it as the idea that the primary responsibility for preventing crimes against humanity falls upon the state. But when a state cannot prevent such crimes or is the perpetrator the responsibility falls to the international community. In these cases, after a number of criteria have been met the community are allowed, and in fact have the duty, to intervene in atrocities.

Before the end of 2010 Iraq syndrome had R2P in intensive care following its invocation as one of the reasons the United States and United Kingdom invaded the country to topple Saddam Hussein. Writers like myself tutted and shook our heads in disappointment. The most pragmatic solution to humanitarian intervention was at death’s door. A principle sickened by improper use and now the subject of scorn and derision. But luckily we’ve been able to find a pulse. From Libya to Cote D’Ivoire the United Nations is managing to cobble together some consensus on the use of military force for resolve conflicts.

All R2P needs is one success to resurrect it as a viable tool of international politics. But success in Libya is still far off and as for Cote D’Ivoire the stakes were less high, the warring factions had been wavering on the edge of crimes against humanity.

So why is R2P part of international justice? Why does it belong there? So often the people that perpetrate crimes that lead to arrest warrants from the International Criminal Court have committed the crimes that merit intervention based on the R2P doctrine. R2P is a crucial part of supporting international law and making it enforceable. The ICC can issue arrest warrants all it wants but sometimes force is necessary. International law can’t defend itself after all and an arrest warrant isn’t going to stop genocide.

So what is the future for R2P? Whilst of course I want to say that the international community has rediscovered its liberal international roots, I don’t want to raise anyone’s hopes. The Secretary General of the UN, Ban Ki Moon, opened an Interactive Dialogue on R2P this week saying we need to sharpen our tools for prevention and protection. I’m glad to see the issue is still on the agenda. But if we’re not proactive that is where it might stay, on paper.

I think we need to separate a stylised future of R2P from a realistic one. A stylised image might not be one where interventions based on R2P are frequent but where they are consistent, where the international community doesn’t pick and choose which conflicts it feels it wants to intervene in for some otherwise unknown reasons.

A realistic picture of the future is one where R2P is the best case scenario but bogged down in indecision and squabbling at the United Nations. When countries like Germany abstain on intervention it dilutes the perceived severity of atrocities and provides a reason for other countries to fail in their responsibility and to neglect those most in need.

I am sad to say that the conditions that warrant R2P will continue to occur and the ICC will continue to seek to punish those who caused them. But without a stronger and more assertive R2P principle, the natural partner in law enforcement, the arrest warrants will keep on coming and may start to appear ineffectual. So whilst I think prospects for R2P are looking up I think that anything more than extremely cautious optimism would just lead to disappointment.

International law won’t go much further without a robust means to defend and extend it and to seek out and bring to justice those who flout it. In the year to come I’d like to see a country champion R2P but the odds are against me. Fragile coalitions are the only ones willing to treat the patient so at the very least Libya needs to be a success or the doctrine will end up back on life support.