The "responsibility to protect" (R2P) doctrine outlines the conditions in which the international community is obligated to intervene in another country, militarily if necessary, to prevent genocide, ethnic cleansing, and other atrocities. Despite its noble goals, the United States should treat the R2P doctrine with extreme caution.
Adopting a doctrine that compels the United States to act to prevent atrocities occurring in other countries would be risky and imprudent. U.S. independence— hard won by the Founders and successive generations of Americans—would be compromised if the United States consented to be legally bound by the R2P doctrine. The United States needs to preserve its national sovereignty by maintaining a monopoly on the decision to deploy diplomatic pressure, economic sanctions, political coercion, and especially its military forces.
There are ongoing efforts to legitimize the R2P doctrine within the United Nations and other international forums. The R2P doctrine is being advocated by certain organizations that do not necessarily consider the best interests of the United States as a priority. International organizations such as the United Nations and international nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) such as the World Federalist Movement and the Open Society Institute promote R2P in the interest of a nebulous "international community," not in the interests of the United States or its citizens.
If the United States intervenes in the affairs of another nation, that decision should be based on U.S. national interest, not on any other criteria such as those set forth by the R2P doctrine or any other international "test."
Origins of the R2P Doctrine
Military intervention by one sovereign nation into another for humanitarian purposes has long been a controversial topic. In the wake of the tragedies in Rwanda and Srebrenica during the mid-1990s, the Canadian government—at the urging of then-U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan— launched an initiative to set forth principles for when and under what conditions such an intervention would be justified. To this end, Canada announced in September 2000 the formation of the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS) to "foster a global political consensus" for preventing and responding to future incidents of mass killing and ethnic cleansing.
The ICISS Report. In December 2001, the ICISS issued a comprehensive report, The Responsibility to Protect. Its two key provisions may be summarized as follows:
- National governments are responsible for preventing large-scale losses of life and ethnic cleansing in their own populations.
- In the event that a national government is unable or unwilling to prevent such atrocities, the international community, acting through the United Nations, has a responsibility to act and protect the suffering population, with or without the consent of the recalcitrant government.
The first of these provisions is already widely accepted. To date, 140 nations have pledged to protect their respective populations from genocide under the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide: "The Contracting Parties confirm that genocide, whether committed in time of peace or in time of war, is a crime under international law which they undertake to prevent and to punish." If a national government fails to protect its own population from genocide or other atrocities, the R2P doctrine holds that the government effectively forfeits its sovereignty and negates its ability to raise the principle of nonintervention to prevent other nations from intervening to protect the vulnerable population.