When Is It Right To Step In?

Conference on the Responsibility to Protect explores the challenge of protecting the world’s most vulnerable populations

March 9, 2015

On March 8-9, 2015, Brandeis University convened scholars and practitioners to explore how and when the international community should intervene in response to mass atrocities. “The Responsibility to Protect at 10: The Challenge of Protecting the World’s Most Vulnerable Populations” was a collaborative effort by Brandeis’ International Center for Ethics, Justice and Public Life and the Tami Steinmetz Center for Peace Research at Tel Aviv University.

The “R2P” principle, adopted by leaders across the globe in 2005, recognizes that the international community has a role to play when sovereign states fail to protect their own populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing, and crimes against humanity. As R2P reaches its 10-year milestone, many questions remain, however, about the principle's legitimacy, implementation and potential abuse.

Over the two-day conference, speakers from a wide range of disciplines and sectors both examined the philosophical underpinnings of the doctrine and analyzed situations where R2P has been implemented and, perhaps more significantly, where it has failed to be invoked.

Speaker remarks addressed topics as diverse as changing notions of state sovereignty; the primacy of UN R2P prevention mechanisms over humanitarian, and especially military, intervention; the design and use of “early warning systems” to identify humanitarian crises in the making; the special considerations of gender in both conflict and responses to it; and the potential role of business entities in protecting the vulnerable.

A number of “hot spots,” seemingly tailor-made for R2P activities, were also brought into the conversation. These situations included the Central African Republic, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Iraq, Kosovo, Libya, North Korea and Syria. It was noted that only Libya has been the subject of a military intervention under R2P since 2005, and many observers believe that the real incentive for this action was regime change rather than protection of the Libyan populace.

Using a roundtable format, a distinguished group of legal experts also weighed in on the interface between judicial proceedings and the R2P doctrine. In dialogue with one another and the moderator, the experts explored the complex relationship between intervention by the international community in times of humanitarian crisis and transitional mechanisms that might both contribute to post-conflict healing and hold responsible perpetrators of atrocities.

A thematic thread running throughout the conference proceedings was the frequent unwillingness of the international community to approve collective action even in the face of widespread and systematic crimes. The power of the Permanent Five members of the UN Security Council (the “P5”) to veto a proposed intervention, often for reasons of political or economic self-interest, was repeatedly raised as a structural obstacle to the success of R2P.

While most participants acknowledged that reforming the UN structure in order to eliminate the P5’s veto power was highly unlikely, it was agreed that a campaign to discourage the “illegitimate” use of their veto in times of humanitarian crisis might be pursued.

The “Responsibility to Protect at 10” ended with a plenary session in which participants and audience members were asked to contemplate the proceedings and articulate significant findings and challenges regarding R2P and its real world application. The Ethics Center and the Tami Steinmetz Center agreed to consider follow-up activities to the conference in order to facilitate an ongoing conversation about this critical doctrine.