Ukraine: the UN’s ‘responsibility to protect’ doctrine is a hollow promise for civilians under fire

Peter Lee, University of Portsmouth

Images of gaunt, exhausted faces of people fleeing bombardment and death once again dominate global news. From Mariupol to Irpin, Russian artillery attacks on Ukrainian civilians have kept them trapped in hell.

Every day, the Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelensky pleads for help. He begs for military support to save his people from Russian aggression. Every day, world leaders find new ways to say that they will not intervene militarily. The line is drawn at warm words and humanitarian aid.

So, what has happened to the UN’s much-vaunted “responsibility to protect” – or “R2P” – doctrine? That willingness to use force to protect populations from genocide, war crimes and ethnic cleansing. United States secretary of state Antony Blinken has already claimed “very credible” reports of Russian war crimes. The Ukraine invasion shows R2P to be the hollow promise it has always been.

What is R2P?

Responsibility to Protect (R2P) was affirmed at the 2005 UN World Summit. World leaders agreed to protect civilians from the kind of atrocities that are now unfolding in Ukraine. R2P would be “an emerging international security and human rights norm”.

The then secretary-general of the UN, Kofi. Annan announced that the world had taken “collective responsibility to protect populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity”. A new era in international cooperation had apparently arrived.

R2P emerged as a response to the atrocities in Rwanda and Srebrenica in the 1990s. Its aims were humanitarian, well-intended and optimistic. In 1999, Tony Blair captured the zeitgeist when he declared: “We are all internationalists now.”

Blair suggested five principles for military intervention to protect civilians on humanitarian grounds:

  • The case must be proven
  • All diplomatic options must have been exhausted
  • There must be sensible and prudent military operations to be undertaken
  • It’s a long-term commitment
  • Do we have national interests involved?

In 2000, prompted by events in Kosovo, Bosnia, Somalia and Rwanda, the Canadian government stepped forward. It established the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS). It reported on the so-called “right of humanitarian intervention”. That is, the right to use military force to protect people at risk in other states.

The problem with R2P

Since affirming R2P in 2005, the UN has failed to prevent atrocities in Afghanistan, Syria, Libya, Yemen, Somalia, Myanmar and elsewhere. Now it is failing to protect civilians in Ukraine.

The problem is, R2P was set up to fail. At the heart of the principle exists an unresolvable geopolitical tension. There are five permanent members of the UN Security Council: the US, Russia, China, the UK and France. Each can veto UN military or R2P action. Everyone protects their allies and their own interests, so the track record is damning.

After all the optimistic talk in 2005, by 2009 there had been little progress in implementing R2P. The then UN secretary-general, Ban Ki-moon, reported that the UN and member states were “underprepared to meet their most fundamental prevention and protection responsibilities”.

By 2018, fighting in Syria had been underway for eight years, and the UN reported the conflict had led to 400,000 dead, 5.6 million refugees and 6.6 million internally displaced people. Yet Russia and China still refused to invoke R2P. Russia and China also vetoed UN attempt to refer Syria and the perpetrators of war crimes to the International Criminal Court.

If such levels of human suffering could not prompt an UN-sanctioned R2P-based military intervention, what will?

The optimists

Despite mounting evidence against it ever being used when it is needed most, R2P has its supporters. In November 2020, Gareth Evans from the Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect set out a positive case for R2P. A former Australian foreign minister, Evans helped conceive R2P, and described it as a new norm of international behaviour which “overwhelmingly, states feel ashamed to violate, compelled to observe, or at least embarrassed to ignore”.

But such optimism seems misplaced in light of the harsh realities on the ground in Ukraine. The current UN secretary-general, António Guterres, has stated that protecting civilians “must be priority number one”.

But the real priority is not protecting Ukrainian civilians but avoiding a third world war by preventing a clash between Russia and the west. Plus, protecting Ukrainian civilians by intervening with massive military power would be costly – politically, financially and in terms of military lives lost.

There is little evidence that electorates in western liberal democratic states want their leaders to deploy such military force. UK polling in early March indicated only 28% support for military intervention in Ukraine. Similar polling in the US showed 42% support for military intervention.

The political limits of R2P have been reached. The possibility of military intervention on humanitarian grounds has, in practice, already been consigned to the history books. It would be kinder, and more honest, to stop offering desperate Ukrainians false hope. We should admit R2P was a principled idea whose time never came.

Peter Lee, Professor of Applied Ethics and Director, Security and Risk Research, University of Portsmouth

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.