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"R2P" involves more than military intervention

Rachel Gerber
The Des Moines Register
April 2011

The humanitarian impulse that prompted military action in Libya and the Ivory Coast has led many to point to an international principle known as the "responsibility to protect" and cite both operations as proof of its growing influence.

The speed with which the international community intervened to protect Libyans from atrocities committed by their own government was truly astounding. Consensus to act built momentum that strengthened United Nations peacekeeping mandates in the Ivory Coast, which recently resulted in a captive Laurent Gbagbo.

Yet, the responsibility to protect, or R2P, is a complex framework for mass atrocity prevention and response, and there is a danger in conflating its success with that of recent military engagements.

R2P, adopted in 2005 by the full spectrum of world leaders, is first and foremost an affirmation of the responsibility of governments to protect their own populations from the most heinous forms of civilian-targeted violence. This primary responsibility echoes the deeply held American value that governments rule only by the consent of the governed. When a government systematically slaughters its own civilians, that consent is broken.

Governments fail to protect their populations either because they are unable or unwilling to do so. For those unable, R2P charges the international community to help them meet their protection responsibilities. Long before crises erupt, it commits U.N. member states to help countries build institutions that provide stability and buffer against the risk of atrocity.

When preventive efforts fail, R2P insists the world take action. The use of military force, however, rests explicitly on the inadequacy of peaceful measures to protect populations under threat. Even coercive responses include non-military options such as economic sanctions, travel bans, asset freezes and other diplomatic maneuvers.

Force, once exercised, is difficult to manage. Uncertainties lead to inevitable miscalculations and unintended consequences. In many situations, geopolitical complexities lead even the most enthusiastic of "protectors" to conclude that military intervention will likely do more harm than good.

The founders of the R2P concept were well aware of these limitations. Acknowledging them, their report cites six criteria against which to weigh military action. The list begins with right authority, just cause and right intention, and is notably summed by the following: last resort, proportional means and reasonable prospects.

Libya and Ivory Coast are unique among the many crises that threaten mass atrocities in the way each of these criteria suddenly and starkly aligned. While simultaneous crackdowns by other regimes in the Middle East and North Africa may evoke a sense of just cause, military intervention would likely cause more deaths than those saved, making intervention reckless and disproportionate. Chronic and highly complex cases such as the Democratic Republic of Congo, on the other hand, suggest little reasonable prospect for the success of a "military solution."

Many have been quick to criticize the apparent selectivity of a military response to the threat against Ivorian and Libyan civilians, given other cases in which nations have clearly failed to protect their people. If R2P were reduced to a simple doctrine of military intervention, such selectivity would be difficult to deny.

When you look at other ways R2P has been applied, however, the picture balances significantly. Large-scale ethnic violence was stemmed in Kenya in 2008 through mediation prompted by R2P principles. Key global players have invested greatly in the peaceful transition of an independent southern Sudan. Civilian-based stabilization support has sought to diffuse risk in post-atrocity Kyrgyzstan. These efforts may be imperfect, but each reflects acceptance by the international community of its obligation to protect civilians.

R2P's ultimate success should be judged not by the number of military responses mobilized to halt mass killing, but rather by the full range of efforts made by the international community to ensure that all nations earn and retain the consent of the governed. The concept as a whole encompasses so much more than intervention.
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