Global Policy Forum

R2P: Disciplining the Mice, Freeing the Lions


By Steven Fake and Kevin Funk *

Foreign Policy In Focus
March 23, 2009

"The mice would be disciplined and the lions would be free," said a Mexican delegate to the proceedings that created the UN charter in 1945. He astutely predicted the double standards that would govern the application of international law.

The decades since have provided no shortage of examples. In fact, this year began in the midst of a large-scale attack on a civilian population by one of the current lions of the international order — Israel. Notably, Israel's recent military assault on the Gaza Strip prompted no shortage of criminally vapid reactions from Washington. "Israel has obviously decided to protect herself and her people," then-President George W. Bush solemnly declared, rejecting widespread calls for a ceasefire. As U.S.-armed Israeli soldiers poured into the densely populated territory, and U.S.-made planes rained death from above, the House of Representatives voted by a staggering 390-to-5 margin to recognize "Israel's right to defend itself against attacks from Gaza."

The incoming Obama administration studiously avoided officially commenting on the destruction of Gaza, under the curious rubric that "there's only one president who can speak for America at a time" (as if that stopped Obama from speaking about any number of other issues in the period leading up to his inauguration). Secretary of State Hillary Clinton clarified by noting that "we support Israel's right to self-defense," prompting Reuters toadd tellingly that her comments "may be seen by some as giving Israel a green light to once again pound Gaza."

Yet in an age when we commonly claim the responsibility "to help protect populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity" — the backbone of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) doctrine — no one asked whether killing 1,300 mostly civilians in the Gaza Strip was Israel's failure in its responsibility to protect Palestinians? If so, should honest activists be calling for a "humanitarian intervention" to halt Israeli crimes, and further, to target the individuals and institutions who make them possible?

That Obama foreign policy advisor Samantha Power and other high-octane R2P advocates have not pursued such objectives tells us virtually all we need to know about the doctrine. The notion that major powers make foreign policy decisions based on humanitarian criteria such as protecting besieged populations is a laughable and dangerous myth. U.S. actions in places like Iraq and Afghanistan further demonstrate that powerful states use the R2P concept, whatever its surface and theoretical appeal, as a new bottle for old wine: just a new way to rationalize aggression. Those who labor under delusions to the contrary, however well-meaning, risk their advocacy feeding into support for brutal interventions and occupations that are anything but humanitarian.

Origins of the R2P Doctrine

R2P first came into the limelight after the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS), which was created by the Canadian government and several large foundations in 2000, produced a report on the topic. UN delegates at a World Summit in 2005 subsequently endorsed R2P in principle.

However, the origins of R2P go back much further. In essence, R2P — with its prescription for powerful states to intervene to stop genocide and other crimes against humanity in states that are unwilling or unable to do so themselves — is an application of the longer-standing "humanitarian intervention" ideal. This ideology, which has at its core the notion that states can and should intervene to stop and/or prevent serious human rights abuses, is said to represent a new and enlightened era in world affairs, when the U.S. and other Western powers shed self-interest and use their military might to enforce humanitarian norms.

Yet states have long justified their conquests and invasions — no matter how bloody — using the language of human rights. Not even history's worst killers are exempt.

King Leopold of Belgium used antislavery rhetoric to cloak his theft of resources from the Congo, exacting a death toll in the millions. In their own propaganda, the Nazis didn't savagely conquer Slovakia; rather, they were "filled with earnest desire to serve the true interests of the peoples dwelling in the area" and thus sought to "safeguard the national individuality of the German and Czech peoples," with the aim of "further[ing] the peace and social welfare of all." It was, in other words, a textbook example of a humanitarian intervention, or, even more specifically, of the R2P doctrine. From Mussolini to Imperial Japan, aggressors have employed similarly lofty rhetoric.

Clearly, we should judge states on their records, not their invariably humanitarian rhetoric. With this in mind we turn to the possibility of the West, and primarily the United States, acting as worldwide human rights enforcers and guardians of the R2P doctrine.

Enforcing the "Responsibility to Protect"

Though the idea of disinterested benevolent powers — particularly the United States — roaming the globe in search of humanitarian quandaries to resolve may sound appealing, the factual record surrounding "humanitarian interventions" and appeals to the "Responsibility to Protect" isn't encouraging.

One telling invocation of the R2P doctrine comes from a confidential memo written in 2003 by the Canadian ambassador to Haiti. In the context of meetings between the United States, France, Canada and the Organization of American States on how to get rid of then-Haitian president Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the ambassador wrote that Ottawa was considering sidelining Aristide under the pretext of a "duty to protect." That is, Canada planned to protect the poor Haitian majority from the leader they had twice voted in overwhelming numbers to elect, the same leader who challenged an international economic order that had forced Haitian peasants to subsist on cookies made out of mud. In 2004, a U.S.- and Canadian-backed coup removed Haiti's threat of a good example, with Aristide claiming that he was kidnapped by U.S. troops and subsequently thrown on a plane to Africa, where he remains in exile some five years later.

One may recall, in a further example, Bush's impassioned pleas for world opinion to support our supposed liberation of suffering Afghans from the evil yoke of the Taliban, and particularly his feigned interest in freeing Afghan women. Likewise, once obvious falsehoods about ties to al-Qaeda and nonexistent WMD programs became too laughable to speak in public, Washington began justifying its invasion and occupation of Iraq on humanitarian grounds — our responsibility to protect Iraqis first from Saddam Hussein, and then from themselves.

Yet the first criteria of an authentic application of the R2P doctrine, per the ICISS report, is that of "right intention:" "The primary purpose of the intervention…must be to halt or avert human suffering." Such a notion virtually rules out the possibility of applying R2P to any real-world military operation. With some potential fringe exceptions such as Cuba's backing of anti-colonialist movements in Africa — which the United States and others harshly condemned — authentic examples of "humanitarian interventions" may in fact be basically nonexistent.

This isn't to say that no interventions have had humanitarian consequences; rather, they haven't been undertaken with humanitarian intent. Plainly, for the rare breed of animal that is the intervention with actual positive humanitarian consequences, we should evaluate any potential action based on its unique merits. Examples of such interventions include Vietnam's invasion of Khmer Rouge-led Vietnam in 1978 and India's invasion of East Pakistan (now Bangladesh). This occasional and unintentional alignment of government interests and humanitarian need is a far cry indeed from the fairy-tale doctrine of R2P.

Making the R2P Doctrine Possible

The "Responsibility to Protect" is a feel-good doctrine, even more so in these heady early days of the Obama presidency. The notion of the United States throwing off the shackles of self-interested, even imperialistic foreign policy for one based on human rights naturally appeals to many who legitimately want to make the world a better place.

Though both the historical record and current U.S. policies negate such optimism, we can indeed fight for a more democratic world where human rights reign supreme and genuinely altruistic forces forthrightly tackle the sorts of humanitarian crises referenced by the ICISS report.

Were we able to achieve a democratic revolution within the United States that put foreign policy in line with the wishes of the populace, it would be possible to begin seriously proposing a "Responsibility to Protect" against mass atrocities (as well as against class exploitation and other forms of elite domination).

The idea, however, that the United States could be forced by popular mobilization to invade another country for humanitarian reasons is inconceivable at a time when we are unable to even compel Washington to stop arming Israel or end its brutal occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan. If serious about human rights, U.S. peace activists could reconceive R2P as the "Responsibility to Protect [Iraqis and Afghans] by Withdrawing," or "R2PbW".

It is simply disingenuous to promote our "Responsibility to Protect" when we cannot even live up to our even more basic "responsibility to do no harm."

About the Author: Foreign Policy In Focus contributors Steven Fake and Kevin Funk are the co-authors of the book, "The Scramble for Africa: Darfur-Intervention and the USA." They maintain a website with their commentary at

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