The Responsibility to Protect (R2P): From a Duty for Human Security to a Duty for Human Subsistence

Posted on Actualizado enn

The near-constant flow of information now almost universally available reflects the very “tuned in” reality of modern times. This increasingly transparent wave of information also brings about heightened exposure to the most atrocious crimes and human rights violations committed around the world. Cynics would say this immunizes or even fosters disregard to violence and human suffering (relative to the affective and emotional distance). However, for many, these human misfortunes pull on the strings of our consciences with regard to the sanctity of human life, and such reactions have spurred the forgery of universal norms aiming to prevent and stop the occurrence of such momentous tragedies.

The norm motivating this essay is the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) and although I acknowledge and bear the R2P legal framework in mind, my purpose is to go beyond this legal framework and specifically address the nature and possible theoretical extension of the humanitarian and moral ideas that constitute the foundation of this norm. In other words,  I want to strip and step away from the rigidity of the United Nations political bureaucratic decision making process (particularly the veto of the Security Council) and focus on the implications of R2P for the state and the international community of states.

In its actuality, the responsibility to protect is aimed at specific human rights violations embedded in the infliction of anthropomorphous violence (war crimes, crimes against humanity, ethnic cleansing and genocide). In light of the global opulence of resources and logistical rapidity of intervention at the disposal of the modern international community, the responsibility to protect is morally only partially fulfilled and must expand from a single-dimensional conception of human security in order to work towards integrating into the norm a global duty to protect human beings against natural threats that may compromise human subsistence.

The idea of a global “responsibility to protect” must be comprehended through the prism of international relations and consequently through the conception of the state. Emerich de Vattel (1792) can be considered a pioneer in this field by considering states as moral persons who have duties to their national constituents but also moral obligations toward other states which could lead to the abridgement of national sovereignty. Treating the state as a moral person is preponderant if we want to fully embrace the ascending logic of the normative principle that underlies R2P. States as defined by their physical, legal and independent borders represent a wide variety of political systems, however on ethical grounds R2P aims at a universal norm in terms of protection against violence.  For instance, European states based on a Roman legal system have domestically codified the duty to rescue, meaning that individuals are legally obligated to help others in physical danger so long as it doesn’t put the rescuer in danger, whereas states under Common law systems do not recognize this legal liability. While the morals behind R2P transcend and surpass these legal structures at the state level of analysis, moral principles are not always engraved or reflected in laws. R2P embraces moral principles and engages in what is right to do as a state and furthermore as the international community of states embodied by the United Nations.

The R2P norm is embedded in a humanitarian moral obligation. Adjusting the moral behavior of states and the international community puts distinctions between right and wrong under a different perspective. The Utilitarian school of thought provides one answer through the voices of its most prominent thinkers, John Stuart Mills and Jeremy Bentham, who morally measure the rightness of actions based on whether the consequences generate happiness/pleasure or pain. Specifically regarding our case study, this ethical behavior takes on a collective sense because the notion of happiness is not only the end result of self-centered actions to the sole satisfaction of individuals, but these actions must also be the means for expanding general happiness to other members of society. In its current form, we can affirm that the prevention or protection of human beings against the perpetuation of the four crimes listed in articles 138 and 139 of R2P serve a relevant moral purpose on utilitarian grounds as the direct goals are at least the cessation of pain. With this being said, Bentham, who conceptualized “the principle of utility”, believes that the government must bear this utility principle in mind and he takes it into account in his governmental orientations: “Pleasure, and the avoidance of pains, are the ends which the legislator has in view: it behooves him therefore to understand their values” (215). The notion of moral responsibility assigned to the state is clearly stated and should be logically followed by institutional mechanism and policies that fulfill the Utilitarian ethical paradigm. In the shadow of peaceful and diplomatic means of protecting and preventing egregious crimes, R2P implies armed intervention as a last resort under Chapter VII of the United Nations Charter. Through the Utilitarian lens this action can implicate issues of agency, as well as generate collateral damages for soldiers and civilians by such intervention. The outcome oriented Utilitarian theory relies on an econometric calculus to weigh the costs and benefits of intervention. These considerations need to be addressed at the policy level to critically determine the risks and chances of such an operation. R2P does partially embrace the Utilitarian precepts but a full principle of utility would expand the outreach of the norm.

R2P is also attached to a Cosmopolitan tradition; R2P shifts the focus of the concept of national security toward the concept of human security. Appiah (2006) echoes R2P through his universal concern for human existence: “Accepting the nation-state means accepting that we have a special responsibility for the life and justice of our own, but we still have to play our part in ensuring that all states respect the rights and meet the needs of their citizens. If they cannot then all of us share the collective obligations to change them” (163).  R2P addresses four crimes that are directly affiliated to “physical security rights”, which Henry Shue considers universal basic human rights indispensable to the fulfillment of other rights. The enforcement of this moral duty in cases of armed intervention must be enforced by a cosmopolitan security force and the substance of the humanitarian missions must prevail over national identities. There is still much legal ground to cover and reforms to implement within the international sphere but acknowledging the force’s identity exclusively by the United Nation banner is an important step to fostering the inclusiveness of the norm. R2P can clearly drive cosmopolitan dispositions further, but on the other hand R2P already modifies the theoretical approach of the state.

The fact that the terminology used by R2P shifts the paradigm of sovereignty from a right to a responsibility alters deep Westphalian principles. Sovereignty as a right sends us back most recently to the wave of decolonization and the consequential proliferation of states accompanied by self-government, independence and primacy over internal affairs. The United Nations embedded this consensus on the inviolability of national sovereignty through the second Article of its Charter. Indeed, any foreign intervention within the internal affairs or territorial integrity of a given state is always considered an infringement, interference or violation of national sovereignty. This terminology matches the notion of rights; we reasonably speak of a “violation or infringement of a right” rather than a “violation of the responsibility”. Having a right implies the choice of using it or not, whereas the responsibility to protect populations against four specific crimes removes the room for opting out that is allowed by the right. Responsibility inherently generates duties that need to be fulfilled and therefore taking on responsibility engages two different paths: success or failure. Institutional arrangements and apparatus of security are necessary ways of approaching state responsibility in the security sphere but education can also legitimately be part of this package. However, the problem occurs when the state is either reluctant to fulfill its duties toward its citizens or otherwise violates the security rights of its nationals. According to R2P norms and also in David Miller’s theoretical framework, the state must assume “the remedial responsibility” (482) and manage to resolve the situation and stop or prevent the sufferings of its people. If it does fail to intervene and deter atrocities, the norm in its second component pervades the responsibility to the international community who becomes morally responsible. Vattel points out that a “nation that evidently proves herself to be actuated by that mischievous dispositions, if she regard no rights as sacred, the safety of the human race requires that she should be repressed” (161). Passivity is not morally conceivable and goes beyond consequentialist principles of reasonable and efficient intervention; the duty puts forth the moral worth and deontological necessity of intervening.

The ethical definition and mechanisms of intervention planned by the responsibility to protect are embedded in security rights and truly reorient our approach to the role of the state. The primary responsibility of states toward the prevention of these crimes has been legally recognized at both the international and domestic level. Nevertheless, Shue (1980) doesn’t only formulate his definitions of basic rights through the lens of security rights but also integrates the rights of subsistence and the prevention of deficiencies in survival essentials as even more basic than security rights. Human security passes by food and water security even though the deprivation of these resources has the same lethal effects or even worse than the systemic crimes that R2P intends to prevent. Shue speaks of correlative duty to protect populations from deprivation through the design of institutions that have to enforce positive rights for the protection of these basic needs. The satisfaction of these survival needs pertains to the state; if we follow Shue’s logic, R2P cannot be limited to a two tiered justice system by addressing security rights as a responsibility but excluding subsistence rights from the framework. Just looking at hunger in the world which concerned about 870 million in 2012 (World Health Organization) and without denying that hunger can be correlated with security rights such as the current crisis in Syria begin to illustrate, the normative frame of R2P can be more inclusive launching humanitarian intervention on behalf of correlative duties generated by the right of subsistence.

In modern times, the vast majority of famines can be traced back to natural disasters or to accidental human actions that created these dire situations. A drought or a flood converts into famine only because there is a logistic failure in the conveyance of food supply. The times of Soviet famines hidden from the eyes of the world are over; these catastrophes come before the eyes of a wide audience and individuals should be put at the center of the intervention. R2P pushes forward our sense of shared experience as humans facing the threat of egregious violence, but what is more preponderant in our conscience and need than hunger or thirst that we universally share as human experiences? The means and resources are not equally distributed but they are present in sufficient quantity to feed the world, and expanding the moralization of the state through a more consistent and complete R2P  can constitute an impetus for the global recognition that adequate nutrition is a mandatory goal but also globally realizable. But this ambition is precluded by an important question, for instance what is to be done in the scenario in which a disaster strikes a zone that is essentially “off limits” to the formal international community and conventions? The famine that struck North Korea in the mid 1990’s when the international communist supply of grains provided by the Soviet and subsequently the Chinese was cut, the rest of the international community remained passive in front of 100,000 North Koreans starving to death. There again arises the aforementioned dilemma: at what point does it become a viable option to violate a nation’s sovereignty in the name of protecting fellow human’s rights? The military regime of North Korea indeed poses a catch 22 that bears agency considerations in the case where the international community does decide to intervene, it is not only that nation’s sovereignty that is compromised, but that nation’s government dramatically loses face in all theaters of its interaction.

Physical security rights and rights of subsistence constitute basic human rights but they can potentially collide amidst an intervention. Do those actions have repercussions that would reverberate into amounts of violence or other backlash that would in effect cause more damage than the initial good accomplished by intervening to meet the immediate human physical needs in the first place?  For this, reasoning and moral pressure should be heartily applied whenever possible before considering armed interventions. Embracing a cosmopolitan human dignity implies that the normative framework of R2P integrates the interdependence of physical security rights and subsistence rights within moral obligations generated by the concept of national and international responsibility.

Source: Global Ethics Network



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