Some populations are considered more deserving of humanitarian intervention than others. In September, President Barack Obama’s ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power, gave a harrowing description of crimes committed by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad against his people. She noted that those murdered had been killed by Assad’s forces “as many of them slept.”
Power insisted that the atrocities in Syria must be discussed in the context of the Responsibility to Protect (RtoP) doctrine. Syria, she said, was a clear candidate for humanitarian intervention, permitted under RtoP to protect civilians from atrocities carried out by their governments.
Adopted by international consensus in 2005, RtoP is supposed to serve as the world’s main practical mechanism for preventing genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing. The doctrine provides a mandate for intervention (including military action) by the so-called international community when a state fails to fulfill its sovereign responsibility to protect its population. Authority for exercising RtoP for the purposes of military intervention lies with the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), and RtoP was invoked repeatedly in UNSC resolutions on Libya in 2011 and 2012.
But events in Gaza over recent weeks have exposed the fatal flaws in the RtoP mechanism. On Friday, Obama’s press secretary condemned Israel’s shelling of a U.N.-run school, which took the lives of at least 15 Palestinians. Many of them were children, and many of them were asleep. Israel has now killed more than 1,400 people over three weeks — but neither Power nor anybody else in the Obama administration will say anything about how RtoP might apply to Gaza. Of course, where Israel is concerned, the possibility opened up by RtoP for Security Council–authorized military intervention for the prevention of atrocities may as well not exist, since the U.S. exercises veto power and strongly supports Israel. But does RtoP in its current form offer Palestinians any meaningful protection whatsoever?
It does not. And the routinized slaughter of Gazans organized by Israel at regular intervals over the last decade and the total impunity of those responsible call for a new version of RtoP that can better protect all the world’s most vulnerable people from harm — not just those deemed worthy by Power and her cohort.
No more Rwandas
The Rwandan genocide of 1994 shaped RtoP as it was adopted in 2005 more than any other episode. For Power and her colleagues, Rwanda — a catastrophe that offered a compelling case for the continuation of Western military presence in Africa after the Cold War — provided a paradigm case for the kind of humanitarian crisis they were trying to avert. The doctrine’s key slogan was “We want no more Rwandas,” and the architects of RtoP imagined that their job was to prevent atrocities committed in or by states whose military capability would be no match for any permanent member of the UNSC. Needless to say, an Israel Defense Forces armed to the teeth by the U.S. was never the kind of aggressor the UNSC had in mind.
Unsurprisingly, RtoP has again proved unfit for the purpose of preventing an Israeli massacre in Gaza. One major problem is that Palestinians (and Gazans in particular) are in an ambiguous position when it comes to figuring out which state bears responsibility for their rights. They are not Israeli citizens and belong to an internationally recognized Palestinian state. However, as RtoP critic David Reiff points out, Tel Aviv’s blockade of Gaza makes Israel a de facto occupying force. RtoP is most explicitly concerned with preventing states from brutalizing their own populations; it was never designed to protect those in a situation such as Gazans’ position today.
Opponents of humanitarian intervention must now take on the responsibility of shaping a just and meaningful international response to acts that ‘outrage the conscience of mankind.’
Although the Israeli talking point regarding its sovereign right to defend itself is repeated so unceasingly in Washington, RtoP demands that Israel’s sovereignty — like any other nation’s — should be overridden if it has caused or failed to prevent atrocities against a population under its control. Hearing pro-Israeli apparatchiks invoke Israeli sovereignty as the primary justification for the current attack on Gaza — Israel’s right to defend its borders and so on — you’d never guess that the very meaning of state sovereignty was reframed by this very international consensus so as to invalidate precisely this kind of response. Fortunately for Israel, that’s not how it works.
It’s clear that the promise of RtoP — and of the international human rights regime as a whole — is not being fulfilled. A common response is for critics who insist on the equal value of human life, whether in Rwanda or Gaza, to throw up their hands and cry hypocrisy. But that’s not enough: To do so is to wash one’s hands of the terror of our time, to shirk the direct responsibility we all bear to Palestinians as citizens of countries whose international commitments we are by no means powerless to shape. If international safeguards against atrocities are overridden or, as in the case of Gaza, simply ignored, this is in part because their criteria need to be constantly reshaped and reformed to adapt to new and evolving crises.
Like Power, the architects of RtoP and its key supporters have either ignored or supported the Israeli massacre in Gaza. In the past, they’ve had no qualms about invading countries in the name of humanitarianism.
There are good reasons to take an absolutist stance against humanitarian intervention in its military form. But when opponents of humanitarian intervention take a hard line, they must also take on the even greater responsibility of shaping a just and meaningful international response to acts that, as with Rwanda and the ongoing assault on Gaza, “outrage the conscience of mankind,” as expressed by the Universal Declaration on Human Rights.
We need to create a new RtoP doctrine, with Gaza as a central case. RtoP’s abject failure to offer any form of protection to Gazans is the result of the hijacking of international humanitarian efforts by liberal politicians and intellectuals whose principal achievement has been the unprecedented militarization of the humanitarian enterprise.
The bloody decade and more of U.S. war in Iraq and Afghanistan has shredded militarized humanitarian intervention of whatever allure it may have possessed. RtoP lingers as a questionable remnant of a time when armed rescue missions were put forward as the ultimate safeguard for populations threatened by mass atrocities. Gaza has again shown the folly at the heart of this thinking. Coming out of that moment now, we require a renewed international consensus on how such atrocities are to be prevented.