The Rise and Fall of the Responsibility to Protect
Sovereignty is sacred. But when lives are in danger, does that principle still apply?
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At the end of World War II, countries sought ways to ensure the world never again devolved into such horrific conflict. Leaders created the United Nations, an international forum to defuse conflicts before they broke out into full-scale war and to ensure that, should aggression occur, it would be stopped in its tracks. Underpinning this new world order was a respect for sovereignty—the principle that no country can interfere in the domestic affairs of another.
To preserve peace and defend human rights, the United Nations created multinational peacekeeping forces, ideally to work in coordination with local governments. But how would these peacekeepers respond if a local government was the one responsible for committing violence against its own people? Would it be justified to violate a country’s sovereignty to prevent a mass atrocity?
For decades, the United Nations maintained that sovereignty must be respected. But after a series of conflicts in the 1990s, including the Rwandan genocide and wars in the former Yugoslavia, scholars and diplomats reevaluated this thinking. This led in 2005 to UN members endorsing what became known as the responsibility to protect (R2P) doctrine, which states that countries have a fundamental sovereign responsibility to protect their citizens. If they fail to do so, that responsibility falls to the United Nations system, which may take steps to protect those vulnerable people, violating the sovereignty of the relevant country if needed. In other words, countries acting under UN auspices can use all means necessary—including military intervention—to prevent large-scale loss of life.
The R2P doctrine was put to the test in 2011 amid Libya’s civil war. But the destabilizing effects of that humanitarian intervention and its evolution into a regime-change operation have once again led world leaders to debate the delicate—and divisive—balancing act between respecting sovereignty and protecting human rights. This timeline traces the evolution of humanitarian intervention to show how R2P came into existence and looks to its uncertain future after its controversial implementation in Libya.
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After World War II—the deadliest conflict in human history, during which six million Jews were killed in an act of genocide—world leaders created the United Nations in hopes it would prevent any similar fighting from occurring. As envisioned by its founders, the United Nations would mobilize a multinational force to help countries quell internal violence and defend their borders from potentially hostile neighbors and in quelling internal violence. But what would happen if those governments rejected UN intervention? The United Nations had no answer to this dilemma. Though a conflict might be unavoidable, the United Nations pledged first and foremost to respect the sovereignty of its member countries.
In the final days of World War II, representatives from forty-nine countries met in San Francisco, where they drafted the Charter of the United Nations, the founding document for a new international organization dedicated to world peace. The charter defined the United Nations’ mission—protect countries’ sovereignty—and laid out the organization’s powers, including the ability to create a multinational military force to tackle threats to peace or acts of aggression between countries. These forces became known as UN peacekeeping units, and they worked to enforce cease-fires, monitor elections, and protect the sovereignty of vulnerable countries with the express permission of local governments.
The United Nations created new laws that elevated the global importance of human rights. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights recognized that all people are entitled to equal, inalienable rights—namely life, liberty, and security. Meanwhile, the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide criminalized the deliberately harming a specific group of people for the first time under international law. Never before had the world come together to declare that all people were entitled to certain freedoms and rights and that violating these rights was against international law. To this day, those documents serve as the standard by which governments are expected to treat their citizens
In July 1960, the United Nations deployed its largest peacekeeping operation yet—almost twenty thousand troops—to the Democratic Republic of Congo to assist the newly independent country in expelling Belgian troops that the Belgian government had illegally stationed in Congo after its independence. Over the following four years, these UN peacekeepers worked with the local government to ensure the country did not further spiral into civil war. When the peacekeepers left Congo in 1964, the United Nations had successfully facilitated an end to the violence in partnership with the Congolese government. Despite this success, the Soviet Union criticized the United Nations’ involvement in Congo and feared it would set a precedent for interfering in countries’ domestic affairs.
UN peacekeepers can only operate with the permission of local governments. In Egypt, for example, the government allowed UN peacekeepers to patrol its tense border with Israel for over a decade. However, when Egypt began preparing to go to war with Israel in 1967, the Egyptian government demanded the UN peacekeepers withdraw. Although war was clearly imminent, the peacekeepers had no option but to comply, since remaining in Egypt without the government’s consent would have violated Egyptian sovereignty. As feared, war erupted between Egypt and Israel less than one month later.
Since 1945, the United Nations has worked to defend and respect the sovereignty of its member countries. But in the 1990s, a wave of mass atrocities shocked the global conscience. As a series of wars resulted in widespread human rights abuses and the massive loss of life in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia, the United Nations repeatedly failed or refused to intervene. Recognizing that granting countries absolute sovereignty within their borders could lead to atrocities such as genocide and ethnic cleansing, scholars and diplomats strove to find a new balance between the inviolability of countries’ sovereignty and the need to protect human rights.
In 1991, a military coup left Somalia without a functioning government. In response, the United Nations deployed peacekeepers to monitor a tenuous cease-fire in Somalia among warring factions and to deliver aid to a starving population. But despite their humanitarian mandate, these peacekeepers often became the target of attacks from local militias. To curb this violence, the United Nations authorized the United States to capture militia leaders in the Somali capital in 1993. The operation—later popularized by the book and movie Black Hawk Down—was met with fierce resistance and resulted in the deaths of eighteen American soldiers, one Malaysian soldier, and hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Somalis. As televisions across the world showed images of fallen servicemen being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu, countries became increasingly wary of committing their troops to future peacekeeping missions.
In January 1994, UN peacekeepers were monitoring local elections in Rwanda. But when simmering ethnic tensions erupted into genocide later that year, those same peacekeepers were repeatedly ordered not to intervene so as not to interfere in a domestic conflict and overstep the narrow scope of their mission. However, as UN peacekeepers stood on the sidelines, more than eight hundred thousand Rwandans were killed in just three months. This staggering death toll prompted an extensive UN investigation, which concluded that member countries had ordered their peacekeepers to stand down out of fear for their safety after incurring casualties during previous missions.
In 1995, just one year after eight hundred thousand people died in Rwanda, peacekeepers were involved in a civil war in the Balkans that pitted Bosnian Muslims against Bosnian Serbs following the breakup of the former Yugoslavia. UN peacekeepers were protecting the Muslim town of Srebrenica, but when the Bosnian Serb army began advancing in their direction, UN peacekeepers were ordered not to fire. The peacekeepers were inadequately armed, and UN leaders feared that conflict could endanger ongoing peace negotiations with the Serbian authorities. UN peacekeepers stood down, but, as a result, the Bosnian Serb army methodically executed some eight thousand Bosnian Muslim men and boys. An international tribunal later designated the massacre a genocide.
In 1999, violence surged yet again in the former Yugoslavia, as Serbian authorities persecuted Kosovar Albanians (ethnic Albanians living in Kosovo, a region within Serbia) who called for an independent country. Despite the immediate threat of ethnic cleansing, the United Nations could not agree whether to intervene. This time, however, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) refused to sit by as mass violence unfolded on the European continent. The alliance, led by the United States, concluded an attack on Serbia was justified in order to end ethnic cleansing, launching an extensive bombing campaign. This decision remains controversial. On the one hand, it pushed the Serbians to negotiate an end to hostilities. But the campaign also lacked UN authorization, violated Serbian sovereignty, and caused widespread damage and displacement, contributing to thousands of deaths and the displacement of over a million Kosovar Albanians. NATO’s actions demonstrated that there was interest among some world leaders in undertaking humanitarian interventions, but it also made clear that guidelines for such interventions were necessary.
After the violence in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia, the United Nations sought to ensure such tragedies never again occurred, prompting world leaders to revisit the question of whether a country’s sovereignty could be justifiably violated in order to stop a mass atrocity. In 2005, UN members endorsed the responsibility to protect (R2P) doctrine, which states that countries have a responsibility to protect their citizens and, if they fail to do so, that responsibility falls instead on the rest of the world. In other words, countries can use all means necessary—including military intervention—to prevent large-scale loss of life. The R2P doctrine represented a radical shift from previous decades in which unilateral humanitarian intervention was considered an unlawful violation of a country’s sovereignty. Applying this doctrine, however, would prove tricky.
The United Nations invoked the R2P doctrine in 2011 after Muammar al-Qaddafi, Libya’s longtime dictator, responded to local protests with extreme violence. Fearing a massacre, the United Nations authorized NATO to breach Libya’s sovereignty in order to protect civilians from Qaddafi’s forces. The mission was intended to be narrow in scope, but it quickly evolved into a destabilizing regime-change operation. In the end, the Qaddafi regime was toppled, but civil war still rages in Libya, and the country is arguably more unstable and violent than ever. As a result, countries that were already wary of R2P, such as China and Russia, are unlikely to green-light future humanitarian interventions.
Sparked by protests throughout the Arab world that became known as the Arab Spring, the Libyan revolution started in the city of Benghazi on February 17, 2011. Hundreds of protesters organized a “Day of Rage,” demanding the fall of the country’s longtime dictator, Muammar al-Qaddafi. As protests spread across the country, Qaddafi’s security forces responded with violence, leaving hundreds dead. In the following weeks, fighting escalated as Qaddafi’s government began launching air strikes on opposition cities. During a televised speech, Qaddafi called rebels “cockroaches” and vowed to cleanse Libya “house by house.” Those threats sparked concerns of an impending humanitarian catastrophe and prompted Arab leaders to call for military intervention in Libya.
Amid the growing crisis in Libya, the UN Security Council—the United Nations’ most powerful decision-making body—debated whether to invoke the R2P doctrine. Authorizing such an operation requires majority approval from the Security Council; however, any one of five permanent Council members—the United States, China, France, Russia, or the United Kingdom—can single-handedly veto (block) a resolution. On this occasion, China and Russia abstained, allowing the vote to pass. Resolution 1973 granted NATO permission to implement a no-fly zone over Libya in order to protect the country’s civilians from Qaddafi’s air force. The United Nations had invoked the R2P doctrine, authorizing the deliberate violation of a country’s sovereignty on humanitarian grounds.
The United Nations authorized NATO to conduct a limited humanitarian intervention in Libya in order to protect the country’s civilians. But on March 25, 2011, President Barack Obama stated that Libya would not be safe until Qaddafi’s forces stopped attacking protesters and that the NATO mission would continue until Qaddafi stepped down. This speech signaled a fundamental shift in NATO’s mission: rather than simply grounding Qaddafi’s air force through a no-fly zone, NATO would now undertake a broader political mission of regime change in Libya. This shift infuriated China and Russia, which accused NATO of overstepping its UN mandate. In the following months, rebels took over most of Libya with extensive NATO military support.
Rebel forces captured, tortured, and executed Qaddafi in his hometown of Sirte on October 20, 2011. Although NATO leaders hoped Qaddafi’s ouster would mark the end of Libya’s violence, the country soon spiraled into even greater chaos. A civil war ensued for nine years as rebel forces splintered into competing militias. In 2020, the UN mediated a ceasefire between two major factions within the country, however Libya still grapples with widespread political instability and the proliferation of extremist groups like the self-proclaimed Islamic State and al-Qaeda. Recognizing NATO’s role in unleashing this instability, President Obama called his administration’s failure to plan for the day after the intervention in Libya the worst mistake of his presidency.
China and Russia vowed to never again allow the United Nations to violate the sovereignty of a member country to the same extent after the once-limited R2P intervention in Libya evolved into a regime-change operation. So even as nearby Syria descended into civil war and Arab leaders requested UN intervention to prevent a humanitarian crisis, China and Russia vetoed such action on January 31, 2012. To this day, China and Russia have used their veto power on the UN Security Council to block more than fifteen attempts by the United Nations to intervene in Syria.
In Syria, over four hundred thousand people have been killed with millions more displaced since the start of the country’s civil war. In Yemen, a civil war has produced the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. And in Myanmar, human rights advocates accuse the government of committing genocide against the Rohingya minority. But in each of these crises, the United Nations’ response has been limited, as the world is once again divided on the appropriate balance between respecting sovereignty and protecting human rights. For a brief moment, countries agreed that preventing a mass atrocity justified violating a country’s sovereignty. But the 2011 Libya intervention shattered international consensus on the R2P doctrine. Since that destabilizing intervention, China and Russia in particular have used their veto power on the UN Security Council to block other such interventions. As a result, the United Nations has been unable to take or authorize military action to mitigate some of the world’s most violent conflicts.