Responsibility to Protect?
Bombing for a Juster World?
July 29, 2009
[Jean Bricmont teaches physics in Belgium and is a member of the Brussels Tribunal.
His new book,
, is published by Monthly Review Press.]
On July 23, a debate concerning the Responsibility to Protect took place in front of the General
Asssembly of the United Nations. The responsibility to protect (R2P) is a notion agreed to by
world leaders in 2005, that holds States responsible for shielding their own populations from
genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing, and related crimes against humanity, requiring the
international community to step in if this obligation is not met. This last point is suspected to be
related to the right of humanitarian intervention » and is the source of many debates.
The discussion was initiated by General Assembly President Miguel D’Escoto (from Nicaragua)
and gathered Noam Chomsky, Gareth Evans, a supporter of R2P, former Foreign Minister of
Australia and, until recently, president of the International Crisis Group, Ngugi wa Thiong'o, a
prominent African writer and defender of human rights, and myself. Here is the text of my
I would like, in this talk, to challenge the intellectual assumptions underlying the notion and the
rhetoric of R2P. In a nutshell, my thesis will be that the main obstacle to the implementation of a
genuine R2P are precisely the policies and the attitudes of the countries that are most enthusiastic
about this doctrine, namely the Western countries, and in particular the US.
During the past decade, the world has looked on helplessly as innocent civilians were murdered
by American bombs in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan. It has been a helpless bystander of the
murderous Israeli onslaught on Lebanon and Gaza. Previously, we have seen millions of people
perish under American firepower in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos; and many others have died in
American proxy wars in Central America or Southern Africa. In the name of those victims, shall
we say: never again! From now on, the world, the international community, will protect you!
Our humanitarian response is yes, we want to protect all victims. But how, and with which
forces? How are the weak ever to be protected from the strong? The answer to this question
must be sought not just in humanitarian or in legal terms, but first of all in political terms. The
protection of the weak always depends on limitations of the power of the strong. The rule of law
is such a limitation, so long as it is based on the principle of equality of all before the law.
Achieving that requires clear-headed pursuit of idealistic principles accompanied by realistic
assessment of the existing relationship of forces.
Before discussing politically the R2P, let me stress that what is at issue are not its diplomatic or