In September 2005, the United Nations General Assembly unanimously endorsed the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) doctrine. R2P was meant to make the international community responsible for the protection of “populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity.” Yet as Russian President Vladimir Putin has begun consolidating his invasion of Crimea under the pretext that he only wants to protect “the right of [Russian] ethnic minorities,” it has become readily apparent that R2P may be readily abused and threaten international order. In addition, the opportunity cost of cancelled interventions due to R2P, such as in the 1995 Rwandan genocide, as well as the political quagmire of administering a country after a civil war, all suggest that R2P actually increases human suffering around the globe. As an alternative, the world order should stick to Westphalian notions of national sovereignty.
The invocation of R2P as justification for one state’s military intervention into another nation blurs the lines between invasion and intervention. The Munich Conference of 1938 saw the Sudetenland, a region of the Czech Republic, given away to Germany in order to appease Hitler’s calls for protection of ethnic Germans suffering from “Czech atrocities.” Instead of taking military action against aggressive lebensraum rhetoric and the remilitarization of the Rhineland, the international community of 1938 had become lulled into a false sense of security by Hitler’s R2P rhetoric, culminating with Neville Chamberlain’s “peace in our time” speech. Had the line between invasion and intervention not been marred, France and Britain could have countered clear Nazi aggression early and outmatched 1938 German military capabilities, which were deemed inadequate for war by their own generals. Although public aversion to war, economic stagnation and other circumstances might have still emboldened Britain and France to pursue appeasement policies towards Germany, maintaining a Westphalian notion of national sovereignty for Czechoslovakia might have shortened or altogether avoided a Second World War.
Abuses of R2P aren’t confined to history either. Ironically, given Russian bitterness towards Nazi Germany ever since WW2, the Kremlin has been echoing Hitler’s Sudetenland rhetoric as Russian troops have been securing key strategic points in Crimea.
Indeed, while President Obama proclaimed that “Russian action is violating international law,” Russian Foreign Prime Minister Sergei Lavrov calmly responded that Russia is only intervening for the “protection of [its] citizens and compatriots” and the “protection of the most fundamental of the human rights – the right to live.”
The United States cannot legitimately criticize Russia for intervening without UN approval either, since the Iraq War of 2003 was “not in conformity with the UN charter” according to Kofi Annan, ex-Secretary General to the United Nations. Meanwhile, European nations have been hesitant in their sanctions against Russia, since Europe depends on Russia for roughly thirty percent of its oil and natural gas, as well as for agricultural goods from Ukraine. The take-home message for other militarily aspiring nations is that as long as trade relationships are important enough and that R2P rhetoric is used as justification, one can “intervene” militarily with little fear of retaliation. With the Sino-American trade imbalance nearing $315 billion, and with significant trade relationships with its East-Asian neighbors, China could decide that the time has come to claim back disputed regions such as Tibet or the Senkaku Islands through military means.
Although R2P stems from noble intentions, its policies have done little to stop the suffering of the populations of the intervened state. The justification for American missions in Iraq, for example, took on strong undertones of R2P rhetoric as President Bush proclaimed in 2003 that the United States would “help the Iraqi people establish a peaceful and democratic country.” This democratic ideal cost the lives of 130,000 Iraqi civilians who died from war-related violence between 2003 and 2011. Many analysts say that the death toll may have been even greater had the coalition forces not intervened militarily. Since American disengagement in Iraq, the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) has been brutally claiming territory in northern and western Iraq. If R2P is to succeed, the intervening country cannot simply withdraw without filling the power vacuum with a solid political leadership and governmental infrastructure.
Human suffering is also evident in less tangible ways, among them economic devastation stemming from military intervention. The U.S.’s “zero tolerance” policy regarding opium production in Afghanistan, intended to financially starve Taliban forces, has left countless Afghan farmers, dependent on poppy cultivation, in destitute poverty. These desperate farmers thus enter a vicious cycle of loans and falling incomes, which only increases their dependence on their Taliban overlords and intensifies their suffering as they are forced to sell their land, livestock and even children to repay their debt. Similarly, US “humanitarian bombings” during the 1999 Kosovo campaign destroyed government infrastructure, while NATO sanctions against Yugoslavia caused hyperinflation, massive unemployment and the collapse of a fragile health care system. Outside observers are left perplexed by the real intentions of the intervening states in such cases, as human suffering seems unchanged despite military intervention.
Given the human and financial costs that come with the tab of R2P, humanitarian military action can actually cost the intervening state domestic support. For example, the disastrous 1993 American peacekeeping mission in Somalia, which led to the deaths of eighteen American soldiers in the Black Hawk Down incident, made then-President Bill Clinton reevaluate the costs and benefits of sending American troops into harm’s way. The American public also became strongly opposed to such humanitarian intervention, as footage on television showed the corpses of American soldiers being dragged in the streets of Mogadishu. Two years later, President Clinton would follow this “lesson learned” in his decision not to intervene in the unfolding Rwandan genocide, which would claim the lives of eight hundred thousand Tutsis. The domestic political cost so often associated with R2P thus makes foreign leaders think twice before taking humanitarian intervention, even in such extreme cases as the Rwandan genocide. The opportunity cost of not decreasing human suffering in large scale settings such as the Rwanda genocide, caused by R2P, must therefore be accounted for by its proponents.
In cases where humanitarian concern truly is the primary motive for military intervention, removing R2P from the table would force the international community to explore more effective ways to lessen human suffering. The United States, for instance, could have invested a portion of the $1.7 trillion it has spent on the Iraq War to build better camps for the thousands of Iraqi refugees fleeing to Jordan, Turkey and Syria. Similarly, more human suffering could be averted in Afghanistan at a lower cost if money were spent on treating malaria, measles or cholera, which all combine to give Afghanistan one of the worst health statuses in the world.
The international community should strictly adhere to Westphalian notions of national sovereignty given the failures of R2P to eliminate threats to the international order and to decrease human suffering. Military intervention in the name of R2P has not only resulted in the deaths of thousands of civilian in Kosovo, Iraq or Lybia, for example, but it also can result in a loss domestic support for the intervening state, which can act as a deterrent for future, more pressing operations, such as the Rwandan genocide. In addition, the sad reality is that war entails atrocities on both sides, and that the record of R2P will always be bloodied by interventions gone awry, thus losing the moral high ground that its proponents take. Lastly, R2P is open to abuses by militarily aspiring nations who want to regain control over disputed regions, just as Russia is now consolidating its control over Crimea after it sent thousands of troops to protect ethnic Russians. Therefore, it is in the interest of the United Nations, as well as most nations seeking international stability, to overhaul the loophole for invasion that is opened by R2P.
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