18 Do we see a new twist on a“responsibility to protect” doctrine that first emerged at the UN General Assembly in 2005?

Posted on June 15, 2011 by


Kishan RANA, our colleague, raises this question in his very own blog, as the Libyan saga unfurls. Rather than post a comment, I’ll reply with some “contrarian” reflections.

I don’t have much to say on the specifics of the Libyan intervention,  but for a wry comment on human folly. A French Ambassador had gone on French TV in February or so, arguing that Gaddhafi had reformed and well – “we all  make mistakes”. He has since gone on to represent his country in Tunis, where he’s had  ample opportunity to prove his very own point (his meteoric career seems not to have taken any hits from his shooting from the lip into his foot). In this whole affair we should also  remember the role of French “philosopher” Bernard-Henry LÉVY who, on a fateful  afternoon, convinced French President SARKOZY to lead the intervention. From  small causes large events follow – showing once more the inherently unpredictable  character of international relations.

Humanitarian interventions are nothing new to the XXth or  XXIst century: the Bulgarian Atrocities in 1876 are a good example[1].  An ad hoc affair at the outset, humanitarian interventions of the international community have increased significantly in the last few decades. Some interventions have failed – Somalia – and some  succeeded – Sierra Leone, and possibly now Ivory Coast. The international  community has at times avoided intervening – East Timor, Cambodia, Rwanda –  auto-genocides ensued. Success of “non intervention” decisions remains unrecorded. In other cases, the intervention led to stalemate, with  the international community enforcing the “status quo” – Bosnia, Darfur.  Parties to a conflict increasingly jockey to position themselves as “victims”  in order to appeal to the international community to take sides and intervene on their side. PR agencies in Western capitals assist.

The “responsibility to protect” doctrine[2],  to which Kishan refers, is emerging in this context. It is, I may say at the  outset, skewed toward “acute” events like genocide and gross mayhem. The  international community seems to be more tolerant of gross negligence by the  ruling elite, even though the outcome – unnecessary deaths and waste of human  lives – might be the same.

As a committed consequentialist I’d argue that no principle (or  doctrine, evolving or otherwise) has an unconditional claim on action – be it  by individual states or the international community. Any claim has to be  measured against the likely consequences of the outcome. If the context is such  that the application of the principle would be pointless, or even  counterproductive, then we should desist – though this may be painful. In  medicine “do no harm” comes before “do good”. Self-delusion here is the main  danger to watch out for – the road to Hell is paved with good intentions.  Particularly the Western mind is so set on action – any action – that  non-action does not come naturally to us. How many times, when criticizing a  possible course of action, one is confronted with the rhetorical question:  “What would YOU do?” It the popular mind this is a “killer argument”.

Yet, if scepticism is uncomfortable, assurance (even more  self-assurance) is absurd. The key then, in Kishan’s, question, is the term  “doctrine”. I’d object to this term – it should be avoided in  international discourse (diplomatic history is littered with dead or born-dead doctrines, or doctrines that were used to justify the contrary of their original intent).

In reviewing Kwame APPIAH’s book on Cosmopolitanism[3] I’ve argued that “intelligent moral design” is just as pointless as its cousin:  “intelligent design” in evolution. In our case, a doctrine may be the outcome  of prolonged “trial and error” – and thus a “heuristic”[4]  rather than a principle. We should have a Bayesian outlook[5].

In such a framework, the standing or future of a “doctrine” seems to me  cura posterior or even a distraction,  for it leads us into an endless theoretical discussion, when the decision is  determined by the facts on the ground (and thweir perception by the public).

The evolution in Libya seems to bear me out.


[1]           Turkish  troops and irregulars had brutally suppressed uprisings in the Balkans between  1874 and 1876. As reports of atrocities appeared in the international press,  European and American politicians took on the cause – prominently GLADSTONE.  The Russians intervened, won, and secured the Treaty of Santo Stefano the year  after. This outcome was then renegotiated at the Berlin Congress in 1878. See: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/April_Uprising

[2]              This is set out in the Outcome  Document (§ 138 and 139) of the 2005 World Summit. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2005_World_Summit

[4]              See: Gerd GIGERENZER et als. (1999): Simple heuristics that make us smart. Oxford University Press.

[5]           Bayesian probability is one of the different interpretations of the  concept of probability and belongs to the category of evidential
probabilities. The Bayesian interpretation of probability can be seen as an  extension of logic that enables reasoning with uncertain statements.
To evaluate the probability of a hypothesis, the Bayesian probabilist specifies some prior probability, which is then  updated in the light of new relevant data. The Bayesian interpretation provides a standard set of procedures and  formulae to perform this calculation. Bayesian probability interprets the  concept of probability as “a measure of a state of knowledge”, in contrast to  interpreting it as a frequency or a “propensity” of some phenomenon.

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