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The Will to Intervene (W2I) - Going Beyond Responsibility to Protect (R2P)

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I think that R2P is a terrifying doctrine.  There is good sense to respecting the idea of sovereignty, even when it means that bad things happen to people.  If one of the sides of a civil war has given us real casus belli by attacking us (perhaps only indirectly) or an ally then fine - intervene with gusto.  Otherwise stay out.

I think that the only reason that the members of the UN allowed it to become doctrine was that they knew it wouldn't actually play out.


Tango2Bravo said:
I think that the only reason that the members of the UN allowed it to become doctrine was that they knew it wouldn't actually play out.

Yes, the old "that'll never happen" bit......that always works out.


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Brad Sallows said:
R2P is basically a "sure; go ahead - if you want to" doctrine.

The thought of the UN organizing military and civilian agencies to protect women against exploitation is laughable, until it cleans its own house.

Concur, heartily. Remember the UN Human Rights stuff is lead by such luminaries as Libya....


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The 30 years war in Europe was a very violent case of R2P and W2I (protect the Protestant/Catholic minorities from the hostile Catholic /Protestant majorities in the affected territiry, and save people's immortal souls). After exhausting the various nations, much of the area claimed by modern Germany laid to waste with little or no possibility of victory in sight, everyone agreed that the Sovereign had absolute rights within his own territory (the Treaty of Westphalia) and modern nation states evolved.

R2P and W2I are ahistoric and ignore these lessons at all our peril. They also seem designed to place the West into no win situations; intervene and we are agressors interfering in the affairs of sovereign states; fail to take action and we are heartless monsters. I can also imagine groups like the Jihadis using mass and targetted media to play the public like a violin to whipsaw governments (just think of Al jezzera "snuff" videos. Now X 1000, and mix videos of atrocities against civilians with atrocities against our deployed troops.)

Intervention should always be in the support of our national interest; if killing Jihadis in country x also has the effect of ending atrocities, then we have achieved a 2 for 1 victory. Otherwise, no dice.

Edward Campbell

Army.ca Myth
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And W2I rears its ugly head again in this article which is reproduced under the Fair Dealing provisions of the Copyright Act from the Canadian Institute of International Policy Studies website:

Canada’s Abandonment of the Responsibility to Protect

Posted on September 20, 2012

Senior Deputy Director of the Will to Intervene Project at the
Montreal Institute for Genocide and Human Rights Studies (Concordia University)

The Responsibility to Protect doctrine has many enemies. States that will not or cannot stop mass atrocity crimes (genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes and ethnic cleansing) within their borders are not very enthusiastic about the idea that national sovereignty entails a minimum respect for human rights. Nor are they supportive of the idea that the international community has an obligation to engage when early warning signs suggest that mass killings are either underway or about to occur.

While all member states of the United Nations endorsed the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) doctrine in 2005, we continue to witness individual countries that employ their veto at the UN Security Council, effectively blocking action. China and Russia have three times gone to bat for the Syrian government in the past 12 months alone. Citing the NATO-led and UN-approved intervention in Libya, both Moscow and Beijing now equate R2P with regime change. The existence of restive minority populations within both countries (for example the Chechens and Tibetans) adds another dimension to their hostility to R2P.

However, the most surprising critic of R2P today is not an autocratic or dictatorial regime. It is a democratic country: Canada.

It was not always so. The idea that national sovereignty entailed responsibility emerged from the work of Dr. Francis Deng, a South Sudanese diplomat who recently finished his term as the UN Secretary General’s Special Adviser for the Prevention of Genocide. But at the request of UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, the government of Canada played an important role in establishing the International Commission for Intervention and State Sovereignty, which went on to introduce R2P in 2001. Four years after that, Canadian diplomats in New York were instrumental in mobilizing other countries to support the doctrine.

Fast forward to 2012, when Canadians now find themselves in a new world. Officials in the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade in Ottawa no longer mention R2P in any official documentation. All public statements on the current crisis in Syria made by Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird evade R2P as well. During the lead-up to the NATO operation to protect the city of Bhengazi from an impeding full-scale assault by Moammar Ghaddafi’s army, Prime Minister Harper frequently mentioned that Canada must “protect civilians”; but he said nothing of the conceptual architecture underpinning the calls for collective action.

Whether the current government is distancing itself from R2P for partisan reasons (it was championed by a Liberal government) or because of ideological ones, it does not appear that this doctrine will disappear from the world stage anytime soon. A multitude of think tanks and non-governmental organizations (including the Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect and the International Coalition for the Responsibility to Protect) have emerged on the global scene as a direct result of Canada’s past leadership on human rights. R2P is here to stay.

Canada should get back on the bandwagon and join our other allies (including the United States) who support R2P and who realize that the destabilizing effects of mass atrocities have the potential to affect our national security and social cohesion. Canada could elevate its international status by naming a high-level R2P focal point within government, and by rejoining the ‘Friends of R2P’ group in New York. The United Nations, regional organizations and many national governments are making progress and building institutional capacity and structures to prevent future genocides and crimes against humanity. It is puzzling, and wrong, that Canada has failed to follow suit.

R2P has morphed into a weak excuse for unwarranted foreign intervention in poor, dirty, little countries; W2I supposes that there is some policy foundation for R2P - I do not believe that is the case. W2I, therefore, is a bad idea resting on a weak foundation.

Brad Sallows

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I'd support R2P if it were agreed among all major political parties in parliament that we would take a very firm hand and not defer to the "honor" of the "proud" peoples who need to be yanked into line (ie. occupy and govern as an occupation).  But that's not going to happen.


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The implication is that western governments should be conducting major interventions in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Sudan, and Haiti, and Somalia, and Syria, and North Korea all simultaneously -- and that it is our responsibility to do so, and we are irresponsible if we don't.

This makes no sense. Even at the heights of the British Empire and the Cold War, major powers would pick and choose their wars. And the military resources of the west, right now, are stretched pretty thin.

And the argument that we should use R2P to justify wars we want (Libya), while ignoring other wars we don't want (Syria) -- we don't need R2P for that. That's just good old fashioned realpolitik. Sometimes if you get invaded by your neighbour, Canada will go to war to defend you (South Korea 1950), sometimes we won't (Georgia 2008). That's the way the world works.

Edward Campbell

Army.ca Myth
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I am, broadly and generally, in the non-interventionist camp ~ unless our own, Canadian, vital interests are at stake. It's a selfish position but one which I hold with, I think, reasonable moral-realist comfort.

Here is an article which is reproduced under the Fair Dealing provisions of the Copyright Act from Foreign Affairs which gives some academic flesh to my views:


When to Intervene
What Would John Stuart Mill Do About Syria?

By Michael Doyle

November 20, 2015

MICHAEL W. DOYLE is University Professor and Director of the Global Policy Initiative at Columbia University and former Chair of the United Nations Democracy Fund Advisory Board. He is the author of The Question of Intervention: J.S. Mill and the Responsibility to Protect (Yale University Press, 2015).

As France intensifies its airstrikes against the Islamic State (or ISIS) in Syria after the November 13 terrorist attacks in Paris, the question of when to intervene—that is, to forcibly come between another government and its subjects—is once again pertinent. We’ve dealt with this question before. Think of Russia and the United States as they began to arm their allies and intervene in Syria; or France, the United Kingdom, the United States, and other NATO allies in Libya in 2011; or, the failure to intervene in a timely or sufficient manner in Rwanda in 1994 or in Bosnia before 1995.

But where you stand on intervention depends in part on your approach.

If you believe that there is a humanitarian commitment to save the lives of people around the world, you are likely an interventionist. If you assume that there is a right to national self-determination and sovereignty, you are likely to be a noninterventionist. And, if you regard national security as a responsibility that no government can fully cede to an international organization, you will want to intervene when it is necessary for your own national security, but not otherwise.

But what if you think that all three of these approaches should influence a decision to intervene? Then you are in the very good company of the great, nineteenth century philosopher, John Stuart Mill, who made a landmark attempt to reconcile these values with his 1859 essay, “A Few Words on Nonintervention.” 

In my recent book, The Question of Intervention, I analyze Mill’s arguments, defending some, rejecting others, and refining a few. His classic treatment of nonintervention helps us begin to unravel two fundamental puzzles that arise when determining when to intervene and when not to.


The first puzzle is reconciling human rights and democracy with nonintervention, which Mill argues should be the default norm. Why not enforce basic human rights, democratic government, and beneficent administration abroad?

Mill’s view of mankind regards humans as sentient beings who are fundamentally similar, capable of experiencing pleasure and pain, and recognizing good and bad. Compassion should thus drive us in making decisions that maximize the greatest good for the greatest number of people.

This philosophy leads, in turn, to two guiding principles when it comes to governance. The first is to maximize equal liberty: Permit all individuals to live without coercion and develop their potential freely, as long as they do not interfere with the rights of others. Second, support representative government: Collective decisions should indirectly reflect the will of the majority through elected representatives.

One might think that these principles, when applied to an international framework, would resemble a global version of the U.S. Constitution’s “Guarantee Clause,” which promises a representative, republican form of government to all states.

Instead, Mill believes that forcefully imposing a free democratic government upon another country violates the very principles of liberty and representative government. Authentic freedom means we, and our neighbors, choose how that freedom is defined. For example, consider the United Kingdom and the United States, two card-carrying liberal democracies. The former has retained its monarchy and recognizes an established church; the latter has an elected president and prohibits the establishment of a state religion.

Moreover, Mill rejects the idea of intervention to impose liberty or democracy, writing that “to go to war for an idea, if the war is aggressive, not defensive, is as criminal as to go to war for territory or revenue.” He goes on to say that nonintervention is counterproductive in promoting freedom and democracy: Intervention will not do any real good and the war that accompanies intervention always does harm.

It is only through what Mill calls an “arduous struggle” (or in the extreme, a violent revolution), do a people come to define their freedom, and in the process, develop the capacity to exercise self-government—obey laws, fight for their country, and pay taxes.

In fact, a “knapsack regime,” one established through foreign armed intervention, is likely to be harmful and often brings about three undesired outcomes. The first is that the knapsack regime will collapse as soon as the interveners leave since the liberals ruling the regime have not earned political support from the population. The result then is another civil war. A second scenario is that the knapsack liberals, given their thin domestic support, turn to despotism in order to hold on to power. The third outcome is that the interveners never leave. They stay in power in order to prop up the knapsack regime, which becomes, in a sense, a client that loses state self-determination.

I, along with Camille Strauss-Kahn, a doctoral candidate at Columbia University, evaluated the soundness of Mill’s intuitions by looking at historical data. We examined every intervention since 1815, limiting our analysis to overt armed interventions by foreign troops that come between a government and its people. We found that of the 334 interventions, 221 were militarily successful. Of those, 56 led to new or renewed civil war; 68 produced deeper autocracy; and 146 led to imperial rule. (These bad outcomes total more than 221 because some unfortunate countries experienced multiple harms.)  Only 26 interventions—or 12 percent—produced a free, independent, more rights respecting or participatory government.

The data does corroborate John Stuart Mill’s views that nonintervention should be the default norm. A 12 percent success rate is far too small to warrant optimism about intervention. Indeed, every justifiable intervention needs to address the possibility of one of these three harmful outcomes and seek to avoid them.


The second puzzle is then, why, if Mill is so committed to nonintervention, he argues that it is sometimes permissible to intervene? Here, Mill offers a number of cases where external humanitarian concerns or national security needs can overridethe right to self-determination or where countries can have their rights to national self-determination disregarded because they are not effective and unified nation states.

Mill, unfortunately and unconvincingly, argues that benign imperialism, a form of paternal authority, is acceptable in India and other countries that he shortsightedly portrayed as incapable of ruling themselves.

Mill is more persuasive, however, when he draws readers’ attention to national liberation or secessionist movements, in which the oppressed minority makes an “arduous struggle” against an oppressor that cannot be defeated. He argues that indigenous struggles often need help in lifting the oppressive (and often foreign) yoke. For example, Britain would have been justified in assisting Hungary break from Austria from 1848–49. But Britain chose not to intervene. Even here, Mill’s theory is incomplete. National liberation for every ethnic group is a recipe for permanent rebellion. We need to develop principles of and procedures for self-administration that are designed to satisfy, where they can, demands for legitimate autonomy.

Mill offers a number of other examples where it is acceptable to override the principle of nonintervention, such as when national security is under imminent threat or when, following a war of self-defense, the victorious defender need not stop at the border, but can intervene in order to eliminate a “standing menace” to peace. Mill had in mind the exile of Napoleon Bonaparte in 1815. Modern examples would include the post World War II occupations of Germany and Japan. Mill also discusses the humanitarian crises that result from protracted civil wars. Waiting for the “arduous struggle” to determine a legitimate sovereign can be a prescription for unending massacre. Sometimes external mediation can produce a coalition regime capable of ruling the country on a stable and more legitimate basis. Mill’s example, Spain and the United Kingdom’s 1846 intervention in Portugal, is relevant when considering modern debates about peacekeeping.

With the advantage of a hundred plus years of hindsight, we now know that humanitarian interventions were frequently exploited to further imperial projects. The British and the French decried barbarism in Africa and Asia, as Mill did in India, and then imposed imperial rule. In 1898, the United States rescued Cubans and Filipinos from Spanish oppression, but stayed on, indirectly or directly controlling domestic politics for half a century. So how can this be curbed?

Today, we have the Responsibility to Protect (RtoP) doctrine, adopted unanimously by the United Nations in 2005 to protect populations from genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity, and ethnic cleansing. It also has bipartisan support from the United States and was implemented in Libya in 2011 by NATO members and the administration of President Barack Obama—but with very mixed results. RtoP is not law, but it is a revolutionary international commitment. It sets a new norm for legitimate action that is designed to provide humanitarian protection while preventing imperial exploitation.

The lessons of the 2011 intervention in Libya are that we need more responsibility while protecting: a better understanding of the facts on the ground as strategy is developed, more accountability in the implementation of Security Council mandates, and more attention to responsible state building in the aftermath of intervention.

Even with these reforms, we need to uphold the strong presumption against intervention, as Mill argued. We should keep two essential lessons firmly in mind: First, don’t intervene unless there are very strong reasons to override or disregard nonintervention. Today, this requires RtoP authorization from the Security Council whenever possible. Second, if one does intervene, it must result in a self-sustaining peace. This means a peacebuilding strategy that involves building the capacity for sovereign rule—or else the intervener will be morally responsible for the resulting civil war, despotism, or empire.

The complexities of Syria today defy easy prescriptions. At the same time, we see an international air war waged by France, the United States, and Russia against a non-state actor (ISIS); a messy civil war in Syria (between Assad and the various rebels) but with unilateral interventions by multiple outside powers; a UN-endorsed convention against chemical weapons; and ongoing civilian atrocities (perpetrated primarily by Assad’s regime and ISIS). In 2011, a “Mill-ian” would have kept the outside players at bay and left the struggle to the Syrians. In 2015, the best and least that should be done is to assist the displaced and refugees, defeat ISIS, and put concerted international pressure on Assad and the Syrian rebels to lay down their weapons and build a Syrian future. Admittedly, all easier said than done.

I think that, probably intentionally, Prof Doyle stops one step short of any sort of realistic programme ... as others have discussed in various threads here in Army.ca, IF we intervene here and there, throughout, just as one example, that part of the Islamic Crescent that stretches from Morocco to Pakistan, what happens when we leave? The answer is chaos, anarchy, repression, tyranny and so on all return. The last step which we are unwilling to take is neo-colonialism.

After the First World War we, the West, imposed a mandate system under the Covenant of the League of Nations. Article 22 of the Covenant said that the government of territories which were no longer ruled by their previous sovereign, but in which the peoples were not "able to stand by themselves under the strenuous conditions of the modern world"should be "entrusted to advanced nations who by reason of their resources, their experience or their geographical position can best undertake this responsibility".

The United Nations Charter, written after the Second World War, pretty rejected that notion and established trusteeship status to facilitate the transition from colony to nation (apologies to Arthur Lower). That may have been a mistake. It appears to many people that trusteeship ended far, far too soon in many, many cases.

I remain, broadly and generally, a non-interventionist ... but if we are going to intervene then I believe it may need to be for a very long haul: generations. I also believe that mandates or trusteeships should be entrusted to individual nations, not to the United Nations, itself, but no one nation should exercise a trust or mandate over, say, more than two or three territories.
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