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The use of force in international law
The use of force in international law

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3.4 Responsibility to protect

As you have observed, the idea of humanitarian intervention has proved to be a highly controversial concept. It has been criticised both when it took place (e.g. Somalia, Bosnia, Kosovo) and when it failed to happen (e.g. Rwanda). In light of the problems surrounding humanitarian intervention a fundamental question has emerged: ‘If humanitarian intervention is, indeed, an unacceptable assault on sovereignty, how should we respond to a Rwanda, to a Srebrenica, to gross and systematic violation of human rights that offend every precept of our common humanity?’ (Annan, 2000).

In 2001, the idea of the ‘responsibility to protect’ (R2P) was born and outlined in the Report of the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (the ICISS Report). [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] . The main premise of R2P is that:

Sovereign States have a responsibility to protect their own citizens from avoidable catastrophe – from mass murder and rape, from starvation – but when they are unwilling or unable to do so, that responsibility must be borne by the broader community of states.

(ICISS, 2001, p. viii)

Unlike the traditional idea of ‘humanitarian intervention’, the concept of R2P is composed of three responsibilities:

  • to prevent
  • to react
  • to rebuild.

This approach appears to be different from the traditional view of humanitarian intervention; it suggests a continuum of obligations for intervening states, especially in situations, where military intervention has taken place.

Furthermore, the ‘right to intervene’ is effectively replaced by the ‘responsibility to act’, in its preventive or reactive scope, in order to protect people from harm. This new approach also marks a shift in the traditional international practice, which largely focused on favouring the interests of the state, and promotes a human-rights-oriented approach to state sovereignty, where the welfare of individuals receives paramount attention.

R2P forms an example of a ‘broader systemic shift in international law, namely, a growing tendency to recognize that the principle of state sovereignty finds its limits in the protection of “human security”’ (Stahn, 2007). As Kofi Annan notes:

State sovereignty, in its most basic sense, is being redefined—not least by the forces of globalisation and international co-operation. States are now widely understood to be instruments at the service of their peoples, and not vice versa. At the same time individual sovereignty—by which I mean the fundamental freedom of each individual, enshrined in the charter of the UN and subsequent international treaties—has been enhanced by a renewed and spreading consciousness of individual rights. When we read the charter today, we are more than ever conscious that its aim is to protect individual human beings, not to protect those who abuse them.

(Annan, 1999)