Following the latest developments on both the high diplomatic level and in media discourses regarding the Ukraine crisis, it seems like the idea of a state’s “responsibility to protect” citizens other than its own is on the way to becoming once again fashionable in the international politics. The present article puts emphasis on the enormous importance of truly understanding emerging norms and concepts on the international scene and also touches upon the “moral” duty of both those who propose and those who make use of them to do it in an honest and liable manner.

The central argument stresses the idea that in fact, unfortunately, neither the situation in Ukraine (Crimea) nor those in the Middle East (when the concept has been invoked more vociferously) were or are solely about the responsibility of protecting the innocent civilian population, but that the concept, due to its inner weaknesses, has become a political tool in the hands of the notorious world leaders. Nevertheless, this is not an argument denying the good humanitarian intentions of the international community: in my view, the will to help and halt human suffering really exists, only that out of the desire to include the humanitarian goals on the international agenda as soon as possible, its sponsors did not really consider the need to propose a strong concept in order to avoid it being misused.

The normative form put forward by the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty in 2001was already a feeble one as indeed proposed a change in the concept of sovereignty, but still empowered the UN Security Council to decide upon any action that should have a humanitarian purpose. Therefore, the lives of innocent civilians still depended on the power politics and national interests of 15 of the world states, mostly upon those of the permanent members. Of course, the effort to draw more attention to the less fortunate citizens is an admirable one, but without a strong, normatively accurate and realistic case of the responsibility to protect, unfortunately the whole idea seems to have been misused, in this way becoming in itself the biggest shortcoming of the international humanitarian endeavor. Ever since, many have proposed improved normative versions of the 2001 RtoP one, but it seems like there is little chance for political international will to once again incline towards academic concepts, especially in these years of turmoil and insecurity on the international scene.

Taking a closer look at the “pure” case for the “responsibility to protect” concept, under a series of arguments it can be said that the intervention in Libya in 2011 was not so much about the safety of the civilians, but it mostly had other purposes. Firstly, it is highly questionable whether Libya indeed met the criteria for humanitarian intervention: Gaddafi was still the sovereign power and in spite of its public declarations of total annihilation of the Benghazi “cockroaches”, he did not conduct genocide or ethnic cleansing. Secondly, strictly from a geographical point of view, Libya was a greater threat for the European continent than other cases that clearly qualified for a humanitarian intervention: a shattering situation or even a civil war in Libya affecting North Africa and driving refugees across the Mediterranean into the old continent would not have been a scenario European leaders could accept. More than the fear of floods of refugees was the fear of a war-torn, rouge state at the southern doors of Europe that in conditions of high internal instability could have ended up under an undesired leadership. Corroborating all of these reasons with the lack of a strong interest (at the time) from the two non-western permanent members that could have prevented this encounter in the Security Council, bearing in mind that more atrocious cases have not received the same amount of humanitarian concern and also that the period was unfortunate for Gaddafi as he had lost almost all of his international allies, it seems quite evident that, in fact, it was the favorable context that impelled international leaders to invoke humanitarian grounds for their infringement on another country’s sovereignty, not merely the fate of Libyan civilians. In other words, Libya in that particular circumstance was the perfect case to politically make use of the responsibility to protect concept, after almost a decade in which dust had been setting on the ICISS Report.

Turning the attention to the most serious civil crisis the world is witnessing at the moment, it could be affirmed that solely for humanitarian concerns, the Syrian case would definitely qualify for intervention under the responsibility to protect concept. But the 3-year long civil war seems to see no end in the near future as countries are far from agreement in the Security Council, the only organ with the power to authorize any common international action in the region. It is argued that due to the misuse and over interpretation of the provisions in UNSC Resolution 1973 (in which the Russian Federation and China abstained and the intervention in Libya could take place), now the two countries lack confidence that an international effort to put an end to the civil war would really respect the agreed conditions. As we see, in the Syrian case, interests in the region and attitudes are simply different from the Libyan context, even though the humanitarian emergency is clearly demanding greater international action.

Unfortunately, it becomes clear that the whole “RtoP” idea has been misused in the past, only as a political tool that in 2011 happened to be congruent with the national interests of the most important state leaders. Once again, this is not an argument rejecting the good intentions of the humanitarian goals, but only one emphasizing the high degree of hypocrisy the current international politics are permeated with. Regrettably, for the humanitarian cause to be considered, it has to harmonize with a series of other factors in order for action to be undertaken, otherwise states prove to be extremely reserved in committing to any engagement.

But as much as we would like to help, to prevent or halt human suffering and make the world a better place, we also have to acknowledge our resources are limited and the international community cannot simply address all the humanitarian issues that might arise. Just the form of a responsibility of the international community to protect innocent civilians from the destructive actions of their governments is not a realistic goal. The genuine desire to do good still exists, just that the proper methods of achieving it in certain cases have to further be established and more importantly, not every failure to stop human suffering has to be interpreted as a shortage of the concept as a whole.

Photo source: DVIDSHUB