The ‘Responsibility to Protect’ Doctrine and Proxy Wars

In what perhaps may be seen as a preview of coming Obama administration foreign policy was revealed during Samantha Power’s U.S. Senate confirmation hearing of July 17 when she stated, “We see the failure of the UN Security Council to respond to the slaughter in Syria – a disgrace that history will judge harshly.”


By Georgiana Constantin | August 13, 2013


President Barack Obama with Susan Rice and Samantha Power following their nominations to head the National Security Council and to serve as U.S. representative to the United Nations, respectively.

Who will intervene and tip the scales next in the already far too internationalized proxy wars of the Middle East? Will the USA choose to initiate an overt intervention in Syria as it did in the Libyan civil war, under the UN’s multilateral Responsibility to Protect (R2P)? Or can the situation remain as it is?

The defining moment for the controversial use of the R2P human rights doctrine was when the Obama administration used it to intervene in Libya. Some felt that the involvement was a success, as Foreign Affairs reported at the time, “the fall of Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi is a significant foreign policy triumph for U.S. President Barack Obama. By setting overall strategy while allowing others to shoulder the burden of implementing it, the Obama administration achieved its short-term objective of stopping Qaddafi’s atrocities and its long-term one of removing him from power.” Others consider that it hasn’t fulfilled its true purpose of helping the war torn country’s distressed citizens. The World Bank reported that Libya’s full economic recovery “hinges on restoring stability and security to allow for investments to pick up again.” However, today, even after Libya has been liberated from Qaddafi’s rule, freedom, peace and democracy continue to elude this country’s people. The New York Times reports that “Libya has been wracked by insecurity since the overthrow of Colonel Qaddafi in the summer of 2011, when NATO declared a no-fly zone and sent warplanes to assist anti-Qaddafi rebels.” Ironically, eastern Libya was known to have been the largest source of al-Qaeda recruits to have battled the West in Iraq, following the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, and the heart of the opposition to Qaddafi.

Also, Christian minorities are reportedly being targeted (just as in Egypt and Syria). “Libya’s defense ministry has begun a crackdown on Christians accused of proselytizing, beginning in February with the arrest of an American, an Egyptian, a South African and a South Korean accused of spreading Christian literature in Benghazi” the Guardian reported earlier this year. The Middle East seems to be in just as much tumult as ever, and R2P is apparently incapable of fulfilling its alleged purpose of ending the misery of citizens in the region and establishing peace. It unfortunately looks like the people are only giving up one type of suffering in exchange for another.

The recent naming of Samantha Power as the new U.S. Ambassador to the UN raises serious questions regarding the next step in U.S. foreign policy, and, therefore, its further involvement in the implementation of international law or specific UN doctrines like R2P. Samantha Power, previously the Senior Director for Multilateral Affairs at the National Security Council in the Obama administration, earlier authored the Pulitizer Prize winning book, A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide, which blamed the United States for its inaction during Twentieth Century genocides, including Armenia, Nazi Germany, Cambodia, the Balkans and Rwanda. Samantha Power relied heavily on the legal work of Raphael Lemkin who coined the word “genocide” during the Second World War defining it as “the destruction of a nation or an ethnic group.” Clearly, a distinction must be made between war and genocide, whether civil war or proxy war, as well as taking into consideration other factors such as the costs involved and the danger of wider war in the exercise of R2P.

In what perhaps could be seen as a preview of coming Obama administration policy was revealed during Samantha Power’s U.S. Senate confirmation hearing of July 17 when she stated, “We see the failure of the UN Security Council to respond to the slaughter in Syria – a disgrace that history will judge harshly.”

At the same time, the tragic course of events that are taking place in Syria must be taken into account. Political chaos, physical and psychological violence rule the country. Therefore the likelihood of the R2P doctrine being implemented in this particular case appears as a real possibility. And if this happened, would it have the same outcome as the one in Libya? Or would R2P fulfill its purpose? Who exactly would benefit from the protection this doctrine allegedly offers? Would the Christians – who appear to be caught in the middle of the fight because of their religion and preference for Assad’s regime which caters to their minority group’s status and need for security – benefit from this protection at all? Would any of the citizens actually have their lives improved by such a human rights intervention? The Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect reports that “International actors continue to vie for influence in shaping the outcome of the conflict, which UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has described as a ‘proxy war, with regional and international players arming one side or the other.’”

The UK’s Telegraph reported on July 17 that “little is known about Samantha Power’s personal views on Syria and whether she believes intervention is either possible or desirable.” However, she is considered to be a key figure of the Obama Administration who persuaded the president to take military action in Libya.

Drawn from the traditional Bellum Justum, or “just war theory,”, the UN’s doctrine of R2P holds that when a sovereign nation fails to prevent atrocities, foreign governments may, and in fact should, intervene to stop them. R2P has been presented as the moral justification for several interventionist policies, such as when Russia justified invading Georgia in 2008 or the in case of France citing R2P after the cyclone in Myanmar- implying that humanitarian aid might have to be brought in by force because of the nature of the political regime in the country. As such, many argue that this doctrine seems to dictate that national sovereignty becomes a privilege as opposed to a natural right.

Some claim as does Morgan Norval who writes for this publication, SFPPR News & Analysis, R2P “promotes global government and pushes the ‘international community’ to override national borders and use military force to intervene in the invaded nation’s internal affairs” and that the “Responsibility to Protect is just a preliminary step to a long, costly and often bloody policy of nation-building where the odds of success are not high.” Others believe that the whole point of R2P “is simply to generate a reflex international response that occurring or imminent mass atrocities are everybody’s business, not nobody’s” and that “what the appropriate response can and should be depends entirely on the circumstances of each individual case.”

Whatever the case may be, perhaps the most important question that needs to be answered is whether or not, based on previous experience, R2P actually helps the people it is meant to help. Who, in the end, benefits from the human rights intervention promulgated by this doctrine?


Georgiana Constantin is a Romanian law school graduate having studied European, international and Romanian law. She recently completed her thesis on the UN and global governance at the Romanian-American University in Bucharest. Ms. Constantin, who is based in Romania, is also a contributor to SFPPR News & Analysis.