Assessing the Responsibility to Protect

This op-ed considers the responsibility to protect in the context of political considerations. The author argues that the responsibility to protect is a moral position, while interventions are sometimes decided on political issues. How does he try to reconcile these competing decision-making frameworks?

It’s been over ten years since the Responsibility to Protect – a political commitment to prevent atrocities – was agreed by all UN member states. Yet few would deny that the hopes many held in 2005 now look to have been somewhat premature. Here, Matt Sleat argues it would be wrong to assess the principle solely on how far it conforms to moral principles, while ignoring the political circumstances in which difficult decisions are made.

The Responsibility to Protect (RtoP) was unanimously agreed by all UN member states at the 2005 World Summit with the intention to prevent future genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing, and crimes against humanity. If we assess the RtoP according to how far it has lived up to the universal moral principles that it is taken to embody – of protecting all persons’ basic human rights regardless of where they happen to reside – or by how close it has actually moved us in the direction of our morally ideal world, then it is hard not to be disheartened.

The impotence of the RtoP to motivate concerted international effort to help the people of Kenya, Libya, or Syria, for instance, may be taken to demonstrate either its abject failure and continuing proof of the primacy of state-interest over morality at the international level, or the prevailing gap between our moral ideals and the sheer awfulness of the real world. It would be hard for even the most stalwart optimist to remain unperturbed by such judgements, and it is a short route from there to a deep cynicism – or even despair – regarding the prospects of a better future.

Yet such judgments assume that the right perspective from which to assess the principle is essentially a moral one: the success of RtoP depends on the extent to which it meets the moral goals it was designed to fulfil. This is certainly an important consideration, but it is insufficiently political. It takes politics as merely the mechanism through which moral ends are pursued in practice. Yet politics has its own character, ends, and internal normativity which are pertinent to how we ought to judge the success of political projects such as the RtoP.

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This is a central contention of the recent emergence of the realist approach in political theory. Realism, 
as Mark Philp emphasised, seeks to offer a way of thinking about politics that is suitably sensitive to the specificities of the political realm. Politics is, of course, related to other spheres of human life – to economics, to technology, to law, to religion, and to morality – but it is not reducible to any of them. There is something distinct about politics as a particular form of human activity, and we need to factor these in when making specifically political judgements.

So what sort of considerations ought this include? Many realists follow Bernard Williams in thinking that the ‘first political question’ – first in the sense that it has to be sufficiently answered before any others can be addressed – is the provision of security and order in conditions of disagreement and conflict. Politics ought not, in the first instance at least, be directed towards achieving moral ideals – of justice, freedom, rights – but instead aim to alleviate what can be easily recognised as universal human evils associated with disorder – of chaos and violence – which make living even a minimally decent life impossible.

This is important for how we think about the RtoP. While we might tend to see its commitment to eradicating atrocities as a fundamentally moral commitment, it is possible to view this in thoroughly political terms. An order that is characterised by such violence is not an answer to the first political question. The RtoP is part of the attempt to ensure that the first political question receives a sufficient answer specifically in those contexts where it is most needed. To understand that does not require an appeal to universal moral principles of human dignity or rights, for instance. At the most, all we need to accept is that there are common human evils associated with chaos and violence which we all wish to avoid. This is a politics concerned more with avoiding what we all recognise as supreme evils rather than realising humanity’s supreme good.

Thinking about the RtoP as a political project draws our attention to all those features of politics that matter when we’re making political decisions. These include a concern for the dynamic power relations that are in play at the time of decision; the way the institutions and practices of politics work and the sort of concerted action that they enable or thwart; the constraints and limitations that politicians face; people’s actual motivations, beliefs, and desires; as well as the consequences of any particular course of action. The latter is especially relevant to the RtoP. While almost any political decision will generate unintended consequences, the use of violence – even when employed to counter violence – increases the likelihood that these might take on an even more calamitous and terrible turn. Acting with the best intentions of preventing evil in mind is no guarantee that we will not end up doing more harm than good. And so sometimes the least-worst option is indeed to do nothing.

In other words, a political decision is, almost by definition, a deeply contextual decision that can only be understood, justified, and evaluated with as full an understanding of the relevant context as we can muster. This is absolutely crucial when it comes to the question of how we ought to judge the RtoP after a decade. It would be wrong merely to take an ethical point of view and assess it according to how far it has accorded with universal moral principles.

Our judgment needs to be more nuanced than that, more appreciative of the profoundly political and contingent circumstances in which difficult decisions as to how to respond to human catastrophe have been made. And, crucially, this should not be understood as a capitulation to the messy or non-ideal world of politics that stands in opposition to the way the world ought to be, but rather as providing precisely the context in which all political agents must act and hence the materials from which our judgements must be formed.


Note: the above draws on the author’s published work in International Politics.

Source: Matt Sleat,
Creative Commons License This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives 3.0 License.

Last modified: Tuesday, September 21, 2021, 5:59 PM