Thursday, August 14, 2008

Was Russia Exercising a Responsibility to Protect?

With Russia justifying its actions in Georgia through reference to the Canadaian "Responsibility to Protect" doctrine, it's worth reminding ourselves what this doctrine actually says about international interventions to protect civilians. This doctrine, first laid out in the report of the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty and later endorsed by the international community in the 2005 Millennium Document, begins by spelling out the "threshold requirements" for such an intervention - in other words, the conditions under which human rights abuses inside a state justify grounds for breaching the territorial integrity of that state through the use of force. Such an intervention must be in response to:

"large scale loss of life, actual or apprehended, with genocidal intent or not, which is the product either of deliberate state action, or state neglect or inability to act, or a failed state situation; or

large scale "ethnic cleansing," actual or apprehended, whether carried out by killing, forced expulsion, acts of terror or rape."
The report demurs on what constitutes "large-scale loss of life"; and if it was justifiable for NATO to enter Kosovo after only a few hundred Kosovar Albanian civilians had been killed, then it might be said that Russia has something like a valid claim in this case.

But the R2P doctrine is not simply a green light for great powers to violate small states' territorial integrity whenever they can reasonably claim civilians are at risk. Rather, it carefully balances humanitarian concerns with the UN Charter regime. Intervening governments must not only demonstrate just cause, but they must meet six other criteria as well:
Right Intention: The primary purpose of the intervention must be to halt or avert human suffering...

Last Resort: Every diplomatic and non-military avenue for the prevention or peaceful resolution of the humanitarian crisis must have been explored.

Proportional Means: The scale, duration and intensity of the planned military intervention should be the minimum necessary to secure the humanitarian objective in question.

Reasonable Prospects: Military action can only be justified if it stands a reasonable chance of success, that is, halting or averting the atrocities or suffering that triggered the intervention in the first place.
Anyone can see that Russia's intervention satisfied the last of these criteria quite nicely. And although the jury is still out, for the sake of argument let us accept Russia's claim that the Georgian government's crackdown on separatists in S. Ossetia was indiscriminate and thus constituted just cause for an intervention. Even if so, it is hard to argue that Russia's means have been proportionate to its goals, that Russia exhausted any non-military avenues first, or that Russia has actually acted solely out of humanitarian objectives.

Perhaps most importantly is the question of right authority: who decides on the legitimacy of such a move? The Commission recognized the validity of such arguments, then made by Russia and China, that a humanitarian intervention norm would create a slippery slope toward the dissolution of the non-aggression norm entirely. So they devoted an entire chapter to the question of the authority to determine whether such an intervention should take place. It first stresses that to be genuine, humanitarian intervention must be multilateral, not unilateral; that it ought to be endorsed by the Security Council; and failing this (as it did in the case of Kosovo and now Darfur) could be legitimized under a Uniting for Peace resolution in the General Assembly. Point being, a single state exercising this "responsibility" on its own, without even a discussion among its peers, would negate the concept entirely.

Specious Russia's claims may be, but it is heartening to see them made. Paying lip service to a new international norm, even as a smoke-screen, legitimizes that norm. But it also provides the international community with an opportunity to apply and clarify the norm itself. This is greatly needed in the case of R2P, and the events in the Caucasus provide a useful test case.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for this post!

hank_F_M said...


Very well done.

Anonymous said...

Interesting final point, and valid insofar as R2P needs the oxygen of publicity, and - as with Burma's obstruction of humanitarian aid - controversy is an opportunity to develop conceptual clarity (which I agree is urgently needed for R2P).

On the other hand, it will feed prevailing anxieties about misuse. As the norm gains momentum, we should probably assume that 'the g word' will be bandied around increasingly in the name of various political agendas, demanding rigorous critical scrutiny in every case.

By the way, has a Russian official use the phrase 'Responsibility to Protect', or are you referring to the claim that Georgian attack on S Ossetia was genocidal?

Diodotus said...

Good question, Fred. I had to actually look that up - seems that it's a claim that's being made by commentators, inferred by the claims of humanitarian intervention and accusations of genocide... e.g. here:

I haven't been able to easily trace the actual term to a specific Russian official. But they are essentially invoking the doctrine when they use genocide or crimes against humanity as a reason for invading.

Anonymous said...

Thanks. I haven't seen a direct reference either. For better or worse, this case will certainly come up in future discussions of how R2P should work in practice and how to guard against misuse.

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