Rethinking the Responsibility to Protect
by Alan J. Kuperman
ne of the most recent innovations of institutional liberalism in international
politics is the so-called Responsibility to Protect. Defined in 2001 by an international
commission established by Canada, this emerging norm challenges the Westphalian
tradition by arguing that sovereignty is neither absolute nor an entitlement of
statehood, but rather a privilege that states may earn only by protecting their people.
Moreover, if a state refuses to protect its people, or intentionally harms some of
them, the international community has not merely the right, but the responsibility, to
violate that state’s traditional sovereignty to protect the at-risk population—if
necessary, through military intervention.
As with many aspects of institutional liberalism, however, this noble principle
has faltered in practice. Most obviously, as Darfur illustrates, the international
community lacks the political will for the collective action necessary to protect
vulnerable citizens. But even if the international community could muster the
requisite political will, humanitarian intervention would remain bedeviled by two
substantial obstacles—the logistical requirements of effective intervention and the
perverse unintended consequences that result from moral hazard. Based on recent
experience, the Responsibility to Protect not only often fails to achieve its goal of
protecting at-risk civilians, but it may also unintentionally put others in danger. Even
though the doctrine is quite new, it already requires a major rethinking if it is to
promote its intended purpose of maximizing protection for innocent civilians.
The norm of humanitarian intervention has emerged since the end of the Cold
War, which broke the logjam in the UN Security Council and freed major powers to
focus on more altruistic objectives.
The first case was in northern Iraq in April 1991,
when a failed Kurdish rebellion sparked retaliation by Saddam Hussein’s army,
imperiling hundreds of thousands. The United States spearheaded a military
intervention that protected civilians in several ways: by deterring ground attacks,
facilitating the delivery of humanitarian aid, and preventing aerial attacks with a no-
fly zone. Over the next four years, the international community launched similar
high-profile humanitarian military interventions, of varying effectiveness, in
Dr. Alan J. Kuperman is an Associate Professor at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the
University of Texas at Austin and a Senior Fellow at the Robert S. Strauss Center for International
Security and Law.