Do states have a Responsibility to Protect?

The debate over Humanitarian Intervention (henceforth: HI) pits two opposing sides against one another: those against it uphold the principle of Sovereignty, while those for it espouse its virtues with regards to morality and pragmatism (Hoffman, 2000: 152). HI is simply a process whereby external actors intervene in the domestic affairs of a state on humanitarian grounds, with or without consent by the national government (Lawson, 2003: 92). HI differs from Humanitarian Aid as it involves the potential use of force (Sarkin, 2008: 48).

The Responsibility to Protect (henceforth: R2P) is an attempt to stipulate a global norm to legitimise HI in order to protect human rights (Responsibility to Protect, 2015). It first appeared in a report by the ‘International Commission on Intervention and the State Sovereignty’ in 2001 (Sarkin, 2008: 51). Over the years, a strict adherence to the principle of Sovereignty has been replaced by a degree of adherence to R2P (Sarkin, 2008: 47).

For the purpose of this essay, HI will be assumed to be in response to legitimate circumstances, such as stipulated in the next section, or outlined by the UN (perhaps in the manner suggested by Hoffman) (Hoffman, 2000: 164).[1] This essay recognises that the manner of HI may be in question but does not seek to answer that. This essay aims at arguing if HI genuinely violates Sovereignty and if it should be legitimised in principle.

This essay will assert that R2P and HI should be legitimised as it, in fact, defends the principled legitimacy of Sovereignty. It will be doing this, first by stipulating a basis of sovereignty grounded on human rights, then by setting out global principles for intervention and finally outlining the pragmatic advantages of HI.

This essay will find that in order to protect the legitimate basis of Sovereignty, in addition to its principled and pragmatic factors, HI should be legitimised by the UN.

The fundamental reason for statehood is to protect the citizens of one’s nation. If a government fails to do this and, in fact, persecutes its citizenry, it becomes illegitimate and loses its Sovereignty. It is argued by critics of R2P that HI violates Sovereignty. This is typically based on Weber’s assertion of Sovereignty – that a state is Sovereign only insofar as it maintains a monopoly of force (Jackson & Rosberg, 1982: 2). If another state intervenes, this Sovereignty is lost as the state in question loses its monopoly. This is not the prime principle of government, however, as then we would recognise any powerful gang with territory as a government. Sovereignty has a principle of legitimacy. As Robert Zoelick (President of the World Bank 2007-2012) said, a government’s legitimacy is linked to its ability to perform well (Ferris, 2011: 67). This performance implies a goal which has been set in international law as the responsibility of all national governments to protect their people (Ferris, 2011: 66).

In this way, Sovereignty is not a licence to abuse one’s citizenry or persecute any group (Hoffman, 2000: 157). Hobbes, Locke, Mills and Rousseau – despite their many differences – all agreed that a state must exist in the ultimate best interest of those that it governs (Hoffman, 2000: 158). If a state fails to accomplish this, either by failing to feed a populace or fight an epidemic, or by utilising violence against the populace, then it has failed as a Sovereign state.

It is no wonder that states which commit human rights abuses are regarded with contempt by the world community. Democratic regimes are not meant to murder or abuse their own people and, by doing so, they show that they could just as easily abuse the people of another state (Lawson, 2003: 84).[2] What this shows is that Sovereignty also exists externally as other states view a state as a factor in their own survival and agenda. In becoming a member of the international community, one does give up a degree of Sovereignty anyway as they recognise the potential for foreigners to intervene in their nation in order to enforce international law (Sarkin, 2008: 50).[3]

A state’s Sovereignty rests upon the legitimacy of its government. If a government loses its legitimacy, through abuse of its populace or a complete inability to perform, then it loses its Sovereignty. In this way, HI does not violate Sovereignty if used correctly, as the nation in question is no longer legitimate. Thus, it is not a matter of if HI violates Sovereignty or not, it is a matter of identifying under which circumstances it is appropriate to intervene.[4]

The Principle Justifications for HI can be separated into two aspects: Legal and Ethical. The Ethical justification follows.

The fundamental principle of HI is that human rights are more important than Sovereignty (Hoffman, 2000: 159). David Miller (2007) asserted that we have a moral imperative to treat all humans, regardless of location or nationality, fairly and equally (Miller, 2007: 24). This is expanded in his view of foreign policy which is that all people and nations have a positive moral duty to protect people from human rights violations (Miller, 2007: 47), and that foreign intervention may be needed to address the issue (Miller, 2007: 165).[5] An ethical foreign policy, in this manner, would require nations to aid the international community as, by doing so, they are alleviating the plight of fellow humans (Vale & Mphaisha, 1999: 101). We may not go as far as Miller wishes but, even with a respect for Sovereignty, the international community recognises the need to intervene in cases of extreme violations, such as the Rwandan Genocide, among others (Lawson, 2003: 85).

The ethical justification for HI basically asks for the moral imperative of society-building. Rather than global society being constructed around respect for the supreme authority of government, the ethical justification asserts that human rights and the humanitarian aspect of HI should take precedence (Lawson, 2003: 92). Simply put, no tyrant should be allowed to abuse their people (Hoffman, 2000: 235), by intentional violence or incompetency.

The legal justification for R2P and HI has a long history. The legal basis of HI can be found in the UN Charter (1945) and the Genocide Convention (1948), which stipulates that the UN may authorise force against states non-compliant with international law (Sarkin, 2008: 48). In this way, the UN has allowed intervention in order to alleviate suffering of populations in the past (Hoffman, 2000: 162). Additionally, the UN has allowed intervention in cases that otherwise could risk international security (Hoffman, 2000: 161). Chapter 8 of the UN Charter also allows regional powers to respond to situations which they feel threaten regional or international peace and security (Sarkin, 2008: 49). In addition to this, Koffi Annan (UN Secretary General 1997 – 2006) stated, in 1998, that the UN had a responsibility to prevent conflict anywhere in the world, further adding to the legal backing of intervention (Doyle & Sambanis, 2006: 6).

R2P has not been officially ratified, but Sarkin (2008) argues that the adoption of the resolution ‘Protection of Civilians in Armed conflicts’ in 2006 shows an acceptance of the principle (Sarkin, 2008: 54). The 2005 World Summit Outcome Document also affirmed that R2P should be utilised to justify HI in the face of severe human rights abuses (Sarkin, 2008: 54).[6] It is generally regarded that intervening in a nation to address human rights violations is legitimate and merit-worthy. The application may be less merited, but the intent seem moral and does have legal backing.

If Human Rights are to be a factor in international law, as they currently are, then intervention, in order to address them, must be legitimised. Otherwise, the rule of incompetent and abusive states is put above that of internationally recognised norms and standards.

HI is not only moral, with a myriad of legal backing, but also practical for national and international security (Hoffman, 2000: 102). Despite being seen as a violation of Sovereignty, there is an argument to be made that HI and R2P do, in fact, enforce the idea of Sovereignty (Sarkin, 2008: 52). The reason for this is that the domestic actions of one state, despite being perpetuated within a single state, have far-reaching consequences that can affect nearby and even far-away states. This phenomenon, called ‘spill-over’, takes the common form of refugee crises, the spread of conflict and problems (such as an epidemic) as well as the growth of insurgency and other transnational issues. Spill-over creates a very real practical reason for intervention, as it allows countries to effectively utilise and defend their Sovereignty against foreign dangers spreading as a result of spill-over.

If human rights are not being addressed in a country or if its people face harsh abuse, the citizens in the country will seek alternative countries in which to live. Therefore, we have seen recent mass immigration in the form of the Refugee Crisis. This has become prominent in Europe due to human rights violations and conflict in the Middle East which, owing to ineffective intervention combined with a lack of funding for UN involvement, has resulted in one of the biggest refugee crises since World War 2 (Kingsley, et al., 2015). Locally, the inability to appease human rights and economic demands in Zimbabwe and other African states has resulted in immigration to South Africa. This has aggravated xenophobic attacks (SA History Online, 2015), and contributed to political costs. This has similarly happened in Europe, culminating in the growth of right-wing radical elements.[7]

Conflict and insurgency are problems that can spread from a domestic environment to a region. This has been seen with Boko Haram which, as a result of domestic incompetence, has managed to spread throughout Nigeria and begin to exert its influence on neighbouring states (Mostaque, 2015). Similarly, Islamic State was allowed to annex territory unabated until armed forces finally intervened – but still wage a war of terror over social media as they broadcast rampant human rights abuses (Mostaque, 2015). There is undoubtedly an ethical motivation to stop these two forces, but also a practical one. Boko Haram is already destabilising Nigeria and neighbouring African countries, while Islamic State has effectively carved out its own state, severely damaging the Sovereignty of the nations affected. If the principle of Sovereignty is to be protected, then Islamic State and Boko Haram cannot be allowed to continue undiminished.

HI is typically seen as a Liberal-supported idea but this threat of the spill-over of insurgency, conflict and refugees actually forms the basis for a Realist argument for intervention on pragmatic grounds (Hoffman, 2000: 160). The primary motivation for Realism is National Security (Vale & Mphaisha, 1999: 98) and, as we have seen with the cases of the refugee crisis and the spread of insurgency, domestic problems can spread to risk national security abroad.

Moreover, allowing human rights abuses and conflicts to perpetuate only sets a precedent that they can be allowed to persist. As Hoffman (2000) argued, allowing tyrants to continue abusing their populace without punishment sets a precedent that they can get away with it, ultimately risking international security as the world faces more civil wars, refugee crises and atrocities (Hoffman, 2000: 236). The lack of committed foreign intervention in Syria and Iraq perhaps contributed to the strength and growth of Islamic State, which did not feel threatened by the risk of organised retaliation until much later (Nicks, 2014), where it finally did halt and has begun to lose ground to a foreign-backed Iraq (Beck, 2014).

A state that harms its own citizens has the potential to harm other citizens, for it has already proven its capriciousness (Hoffman, 2000: 157). It is in the interest of the international community to rein in these ‘rogue states’ as they are a very real danger to the security of not only the region, but global security as a whole. HI can be used to solve these issues, as the international community forces or aids the domestic government to abide by world standards.

If Sovereignty is to remain legitimate and if we are to take human rights as a serious factor in our morality and politics, then HI needs to be legitimised and enforced by the UN. This essay has shown how, despite criticism of HI violating Sovereignty, the very legitimate basis of government and Sovereignty justifies the use of HI. The essay then proceeded to show how the concepts of HI and R2P have extensive moral and legal qualifications, calling upon the just treatment of all humans and the long history of UN opposition to human rights violations. Finally, the essay showed how HI is needed to solve practical issues such as refugee crises, spill-over of insurgency, conflicts and capricious tyrants.

Ultimately, this essay found that HI should be legitimised by the UN in order to protect human rights, and that the act of doing so does not violate Sovereignty.


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[1] Hoffman puts forth three legitimate circumstances for HI: 1) Authorised by the UN; 2) When the UN is incapable of dealing with the issue, 3) When local government consents to intervention.

[2] This will be expanded upon further in the section on Pragmatic advantages of intervention, as this essay will also show how abusive states can negatively affect nearby nations.

[3] Similarities can be found between this and Social Contract theory. Like a citizen of a nation, a state has an obligation to uphold the social contract in order to be recognised as a legitimate state.

[4] This is an expansive topic that will not be discussed in detail in this essay, as this essay aims to deal primarily with the legitimacy of HI as a concept.

[5] Miller interestingly argues that intervention should only be allowed if it subscribes to the value of the local society. This may not necessarily be valid, as a majority group may have values which are in complete opposition to global society or a particular minority.

[6] The principle has shown itself to be weaker in practice due to opposition by some states, most notably Russia and China.

[7] The economics of immigration is another topic altogether. Studies have, in fact, shown that immigration is a highly positive factor in an economy but due to ideological influence, many people do not believe this. Thus, immigration tends to pose more political costs than economic costs, as politicians have to shape their policies around public opinion.