Saving Humanitarian Intervention From Itself

As Syria shows, the Responsibility to Protect hasn't delivered. Time to try something new?


In 2005, the world’s countries endorsed the Responsibility to Protect (R2P), a principle that holds countries to protect foreign citizens from mass atrocities, even at the expense of sovereignty. Syria’s civil war, in which perhaps 110,000 people have died and over 3 million have been displaced inside and outside the country, constitutes the latest tragic example of the inability to implement R2P effectively. The use of chemical weapons has now sparked an intense debate in Washington and elsewhere over whether to finally intervene.

The idea of R2P was first advanced by a Canada-convened international panel in 2001. It gained currency throughout the early 2000s, including an endorsement by then-U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan in 2005. Governments formally agreed to it at the World Summit that year, and the U.N. Security Council affirmed it in 2006.

R2P’s adoption did not, however, end the struggle to square humanitarian needs with the legal and practical realities of intervening. Though noble and important, it has proved problematic in practice. Once atrocities occur, military means are often the only reasonably certain way to stop them. The cost of military campaigns and the dearth of alternatives frequently prevent countries from fulfilling their commitments. These days, as Stewart Patrick of the Council on Foreign Relations writes, "R2P clings to life support."

To protect populations more effectively, promote sound governance, and generate greater economic opportunity over time, leaders should instead embrace a new doctrine: The Responsibility to Participate.

This approach would identify situations where exclusion of populations from political participation or socioeconomic opportunity and a lack of accountability of leaders to their people have the potential to threaten national and regional security. Examples include Syria two years ago and Egypt last year, when evidence of discontent over deposed president Mohamed Morsy’s accumulation of power began to mount. In such situations, outside powers would invoke the Responsibility to Participate as a framework of principles for action. They would encourage citizens and governments involved to ensure more popular participation in governance through clear, legitimate channels, with the goal of addressing grievances and thereby avoiding conflict.

In Egypt, for example, the Responsibility to Participate would have provided a useful context for trying to prevent the strife that recently turned violent. Under the doctrine, global powers could have called formally on Morsy to renounce his decree last November that placed his decisions above judicial scrutiny and to rethink the controversial constitutional referendum in December. The United States issued only tepid language on these points last year. Then-Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said that "Egypt’s recent declarations and the decision to hold a vote on the constitution, despite social unrest and a lack of consensus across Egypt’s political spectrum raise concerns for the United States, the international community, and most importantly for Egyptians."

Although Morsy rescinded the November decree the following month, hearing demands clearly and collectively expressed by global powers might have encouraged further reform and given citizens the confidence to pursue their interests through the political system and not by supporting a military takeover, as many ultimately did.

Using the new R2P to boost popular engagement could take numerous forms. It could mean more pressure on governments to hold elections with an even playing field for all candidates. It could mean developing tools to allow minorities or other excluded groups to participate more fully in political debate or gain a fairer share of resources. It could mean liberalizing laws governing media or civil society. It could mean respecting rights to free speech, assembly, and religion.

These are already common refrains from the United States and other democratic powers. However, the Responsibility to Participate would bring the international community together coherently behind them, using a standardized set of tools to be applied when stability is under threat. Just as R2P has done with humanitarian intervention, the new doctrine would make conflict prevention through participation a distinct item on the global agenda.

Shortages of participation and accountability are amenable to a range of tools far more palatable than military ones. Diplomatic pressure, sanctions, and targeted foreign aid (or the withholding thereof) can all have an effect. Countries such as Russia and China would undoubtedly see these steps as thinly disguised Western interference. But these ideas stand a chance of attracting global support if packaged more coherently as an alternative to outright violations of sovereignty. This would build on successful lessons of the past, such as the effort to secure a re-run of the bogus election in Ukraine during the Orange Revolution of 2004 or the pressure applied to President Abdoulaye Wade of Senegal to step down in 2012.

To be sure, the Responsibility to Participate raises the question of why leaders would agree to reforms that would empower their citizens at their own expense. Many surely would not.

But there are grounds to hope that others would. By definition, the doctrine would come into play when governments are under pressure. Although leaders such as Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, Sudan’s Omar al-Bashir, and North Korea’s trio of Kims still get away (at least so far) with repression and violence, more and more rulers are facing trial — or, like Muammar al-Qaddafi, a violent death at the hands of those they once oppressed. The Responsibility to Participate would provide a framework for increasing accountability and freedom, allowing leaders who oblige to stay in office. It would function, therefore, as a way to avoid such fates.

This raises another question. The Responsibility to Participate, if accepted, could allow leaders to substitute small reforms for deeper steps — perhaps including their own departure — needed for their people to enjoy true freedom and opportunity. But they can already do so, with or without the doctrine. Moreover, even modest improvements can be preferable to stagnation or revolutions that struggle to replace autocracy with something better, as in Egypt today.

Creating a new R2P framework could ensure that these improvements stick. Even if leaders allowed greater participation and accountability, their rule would undoubtedly remain imperfect. Citizens could put themselves at risk by exercising new rights promised by the regime. This makes it essential to maintain vigilance over time and to continue supporting political parties, independent media organizations, civil society groups, and other progressive bodies operating in non-democracies.

Finally, the Responsibility to Participate should not apply in all situations. For leaders responsible for atrocities, such as al-Assad, there can be no alternative to leaving office and facing justice. In addition, once citizens have entered the streets en masse and their leader’s legitimacy has clearly evaporated, the best policy is generally to back the revolutionaries and help them build an accountable and participatory government, not to encourage concessions from a failing regime.

The hope is that the Responsibility to Participate could become an accepted principle that helps align the incentives of governments with those of their people. Leaders would come to understand that ensuring a modicum of accountability is in their enlightened self-interest. Even modest concessions from al-Assad two years ago might have produced a different future for himself and, more importantly, his people.

The Responsibility to Participate would not solve every problem of poor governance, exclusion, and instability. But if it can help avoid the kind of violence we are seeing in Syria or Egypt — and the painful debates over whether to intervene — it is worth a try.

Charles Landow is the research director for former U.S. Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin and an adjunct instructor of political science at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. Twitter: @CLandow1

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