Humanitarian intervention and the responsibility to protect

The Responsibility to Protect (R2P), William Burke-White (University of Pennsylvania) observed in the introductory panel of the Humanitarian Intervention and the Responsibility to Protect conference convened by MacMillan Center in February, is alive and well, even if the substantive content of the norm and the temporal focus of action under it are shifting. Drawing lessons from its development in Kosovo, Libya, Cote d’Ivoire, Syria, and Yemen, Burke-White argued that R2P is playing a declining role both as a legal authorization and a political justification for military intervention. Ultimately, he concluded, its lasting legacy will have more to do with the duty of states to provide long-term peace-building and development, than as grounds for intervention. In its first decade, Edward Luck (Columbia University) noted, R2P has had remarkably high highs and painfully low lows. It has gained broad and sustained political support, but its achievements on the ground have fallen short. The task before us, he argued, is thus to reposition R2P to meet changing conditions and to reflect lessons learned, without losing its enduring principles, which remain every bit as compelling. Addressing concerns that the unipolar moment is waning, Barry Posen (MIT) discussed uni-, bi-, and multipolarity, and how international politics may vary as a result. Focusing especially on the Balkan Wars and the ongoing conflict in Syria, Posen argued that if multipolarity is in our future, external intervention to manage civil wars is going to become significantly more difficult.

In a panel on “Promises and Perils of Military Intervention,” drawing on data from Iraq, Nicholas Sambanis (University of Pennsylvania) and Kevin Russell (Yale University) argued that international interveners face three dilemmas¾sectarian, institutional, and sovereignty-based¾that can challenge statebuilding and nationbuilding by limiting the international actor’s legitimacy and ability to promote peace in ethno-sectarian settings. Building off of his past work on occupation, David Edelstein (Georgetown University) suggested that there are different types of exit strategies for international interveners following an R2P intervention. Edelstein emphasized that most interventions involve a protracted exit that leave behind some nominal force in order to enhance the security of the post-conflict state or maintain the legitimacy of the norm of humanitarian intervention.

In the following panel, on “Alternatives to Military Intervention,” Bruce Jentleson (Duke University) and Jonah Schulhofer-Wohl (Harvard University) highlighted alternatives to military intervention to protect civilians. Jentleson suggested that preventive measures in the form of capacity-building for the UN and regional security organizations (such as the African Union and ECOWAS) might reduce the dependence on international intervention in humanitarian crises. Schulhofer-Wohl highlighted a series of “half-measures” that would allow international actors to involve themselves in humanitarian crises without committing to a full-scale military intervention.

In a discussion of “Downstream Challenges to Humanitarian Intervention,” Alexander Downes (The George Washington University) and Lindsey O’Rourke (Boston College), and Alan Kuperman (The University of Texas at Austin) highlighted the downstream problems that may emerge following an R2P intervention. Downes and O’Rourke showed that human rights violations and, specifically, mass killings are likelier following an intervention that removes an existing regime, as in the R2P case of Libya. Kuperman argued that armed groups, knowing that international actors might intervene for humanitarian reasons, face a moral hazard that encourages them to endanger themselves in order to spur intervention on their side. For this reason, Kuperman suggested that R2P needs to be reviewed to avoid this moral hazard, proposing new guidelines for R2P intervention.

In the final panel, on “Case Studies,” the presentations applied R2P to a case of non-intervention¾Syria¾and a case of intervention¾Mali. Simon Adams (The Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect) and Ambassador Frederick Hof (Atlantic Council) discussed Syria and identified several points at which the international community could have, conceivably, intervened and successfully ended the conflict. William Nomikos showed how French and UN intervention in Mali, while unquestionably halting a jihadist takeover of the country, has emboldened pro-government armed groups and created new tensions, which now threaten to undo the very peace created by the intervention.

In a concluding roundtable, David Laitin (Stanford University) suggested several approaches for empirical social scientists studying humanitarian intervention, emphasizing the potential for regression discontinuity designs that can identify a causal effect of humanitarian intervention. Jack Snyder (Columbia University) identified specific types of states in which, he believed, humanitarian intervention is likely to work. In particular, he highlighted small states as examples of successful humanitarian intervention while demonstrating some skepticism about the ability of humanitarian intervention to succeed in other settings. Drawing from his own experience in the Middle East, Ambassador Ryan Crocker (Middle East Institute) closed with a skeptical reflection on the role played by international organizations in recent peace efforts, as well as on the United States’ decreasing willingness to lead the international order it did so much to foster. Crocker also wondered what, if anything, R2P has added to previous forms of humanitarian intervention, and emphasized how important it is for social scientists to “get to know” the historians.

The Humanitarian Intervention and the Responsibility to Protect conference was sponsored by the John K. Castle Fund for Ethics and International Affairs.


Written by William G. Nomikos, a 2017 political science graduate student.

Friday, March 3, 2017