This article by Professor Joshua Muravchik appears in the July/August issue of the World Affairs Journal. One must subscribe to the World Affairs Journal to read the whole article. Please click here to view the article on the World Affairs Journal website.
NATO’s deployment of air power against Muammar el-Qaddafi’s forces in Libya has been called-by some with hope, by others with alarm-the first exercise of the “Responsibility to Protect.” This new principle, which calls for international military action against “genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity,” was endorsed at the 2005 “high- level plenary meeting” of the UN General Assembly. It is so contemporary that it has been given a textable, Tweetable acronym-R2P.
In truth, while it sounds cutting-edge, R2P has a pedigree that is old, some even say ancient. An acquaintance with this history is essential to assessing whether R2P is likely to prove a boon or a bane to the human condition and to American interests-or whether it is likely to make much difference at all.
The more traditional name for this principle is “humanitarian intervention.” I first encountered it as a graduate assistant in the late 1970s. The professor for whom I worked, Georgetown University’s much beloved William V. O’Brien, was an expert on war, international law, and the relation between the two. The importance of the concept was that it legitimated the use of force under certain circumstances. International law is quite restrictive of the right of states to go to war, all the more so since the adoption of the UN Charter, which allows states to take military action only at the behest of the UN Security Council or in the exercise of individual or collective self-defense.
But traditionally, authorities on international law had recognized another grounds for lawful war-making, “humanitarian intervention.” Scholars have identified expressions of this idea in texts as old as Hugo Grotius’s 1625 De Jure Belli ac Pacis, generally taken as the starting point of international law, and even in the writings of classical philosophers and theologians on whom Grotius and his co-thinkers drew.
The concept was not hard to grasp. Although sovereignty has been a powerful principle of international law at least since the birth of the state system, moral intuition suggested that it could not be absolute. When a government’s depredations against its own subjects far exceeded the level of brutality that is all too common, then it in effect forfeited its sovereignty and others might rightfully send combatants to protect the victims. No one ever succeeded in defining the threshold, but no one doubted that it existed. Who would have objected to forceful action to stop Hitler’s Holocaust of the Jews or Pol Pot’s “auto-genocide” of the Khmer on the grounds that foreign intervention was illegal?