In 2005, the United Nations established an initiative called Responsibility to Protect, predicated on the idea that sovereignty is a responsibility rather than a right, and that gross human rights violations are an abrogation of that responsibility requiring outside intervention. At the Institute’s Ideas Festival, Director of the Committee on Conscience at the US Holocaust Museum Michael Abramowitz, Yale Law School professor Stephen L. Carter, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist (and winner of the 2011 John P. McNulty Prize) Dele Olojede, and Princeton Professor of Politics and International Affairs Anne-Marie Slaughter debated the initiative’s utility in a conversation moderated by The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg.
Although Responsibility to Protect provides guidelines for future behavior, history weighed heavily on the panel’s exploration of how to apply them. “Responsibility to Protect is an inversion of the Treaty of Westphalia,” Carter said, to emphasize the unchartered territory the initiative asks the international community to navigate. “This makes it the most significant re-thinking of foreign policy in the past 364 years. If sovereigns fail to implement their responsibility, that falls on the rest of us.”
The history of assuming such responsibility has created a “system of action and reaction,” as Goldberg put it, with the international community looking only to the last crisis to determine how to respond to the next one. “The reaction to the failure in Somalia was the primary reason no one did anything about Rwanda,” Olojede said. “Then, guilt over Rwanda, coupled with the horrifying images coming out of the Balkans, caused us to intervene there.”
Abromowitz found the broad historical view more hopeful. “There’s no question that the world takes the issue of mass atrocities more seriously than it did 20 years ago, 60 years ago,” he said. “You’ve had Slobodan Milošević and Charles Taylor in the dock at the International Criminal Court, and down the road, that’s going to be a deterrent.”
But dictators can learn from history too. “The irony of our success in Libya is that Assad learned from Benghazi,” Slaughter said of then-dictator Colonel Muammar al-Qaddafi’s promise to kill the tens of thousands of civilians who lived there if rebel forces did not relinquish the city. “Assad knows that if he’d done something similar, the world would have responded. But he knows that if he does it little by little, the world will not say ‘this cannot stand.’ He’s killing as much as he can without arresting our conscience.”
Despite intervention’s inconsistent history, Slaughter saw the doctrine as historic in itself. “Before Responsibility to Protect, you are a sovereign, and you get to wipe out your population if you want to,” she said. “We now have an agreement on the books that as a sovereign state, you have the responsibility not to massacre your people, and that agreement makes a resolution about intervening to protect possible.”