The Choice to Protect: Rethinking Responsibility for Humanitarian Intervention


Against the background of President Barack Obama’s invocation of the responsibility to protect (R2P) in Libya and the failure of the international community to assume responsibility for humanitarian crimes in countries such as Syria, this Article reexamines the R2P doctrine from the perspective of states called to intervene. The approach here is novel and fills a gap in the existing literature about R2P, which has emphasized the harm to victims and abstract principles of international responsibility. This Article demonstrates that the responsibility of one state to the people of another state posits a new international duty and that justifications offered for this duty have proven insufficient. Moreover, R2P has not changed the reality that any responsibility will ultimately be defined by states contemplating intervention, in part because there are no agreed standards for responsibility and the doctrine has various triggering conditions that must be assessed by states. Whatever the moral obligation of states, they will necessarily assess responsibility from their own perspective. In addition, domestic bureaucratic competition and conflict demonstrate how the choice about whether to intervene includes many factors unrelated to humanitarian concerns. All of this suggests that a commitment to human security through intervention requires focusing more closely on the states called to intervene.