The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

Russia and the Responsibility to Protect

October 15, 2009

Cleitus the Black has left a long comment in the thread about my Georgia War report commentary that requires a response longer than I can give there. (For someone who appears to be on permanent hiatus from his/her own blog, CTB certainly seem to find time to leave lengthy dissertations in comments on other people’s…)

CTB asks:

“What is the international standard for an ‘acceptable’ number of Russian (or American, etc) citizens living in a foreign country that may be killed before the parent state intervenes without a UN mandate?

The EU report shows that ‘only’ 850 people – Georgians, Russians, and Ossetians were killed in the course of the entire 5 day conflict… We may surmise that of that total, perhaps as few as a hundred were killed in Georgia’s initial attack on the South Ossetian capital…

But then again, in the first day of the Rwandan or Bosnian genocides (in the first day of ANY historical genocide, for that matter) how many people were killed? I am quite certain the answer is comparatively few, and the deaths are mainly among the fighters of the weaker group as the stronger group moves to assert control. The real killing begins once control of the target population has been gained.”

First, I think CTB is mixing metaphors, since intervening to protect one’s own citizens is not the same as intervening to protect the citizens of another state. But let’s assume that Russia genuinely went in to protest S. Ossetians, not Russians per se. Would this be acceptable under the Responsibility to Protect doctine?

By way of answer, I will refer readers back to a post by CTB’s own colleague Diodotus, who also seems to have vanished from the blogosphere since, penned last August. Diodotus analyzes whether Russia’s claim to a humanitarian intervention was substantiated based on the facts of the case, drawing on the R2P report put out by the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty.

Diodotus points out that even if we take CTB’s claim at face value – that even a few dead civilians should meet the threshold requirements for an intervention, there are a few other criteria to take into account:

“The R2P doctrine is not simply a green light for great powers to violate small states’ territorial integrity whenever they can reasonably claim civilians are at risk. Rather, it carefully balances humanitarian concerns with the UN Charter regime. Intervening governments must not only demonstrate just cause, but they must meet several other criteria as well:

Right Intention: The primary purpose of the intervention must be to halt or avert human suffering…

Last Resort: Every diplomatic and non-military avenue for the prevention or peaceful resolution of the humanitarian crisis must have been explored.

Proportional Means: The scale, duration and intensity of the planned military intervention should be the minimum necessary to secure the humanitarian objective in question.

Reasonable Prospects: Military action can only be justified if it stands a reasonable chance of success, that is, halting or averting the atrocities or suffering that triggered the intervention in the first place.

Anyone can see that Russia’s intervention satisfied the last of these criteria quite nicely. And although the jury is still out, for the sake of argument let us accept Russia’s claim that the Georgian government’s crackdown on separatists in S. Ossetia was indiscriminate and thus constituted just cause for an intervention. Even if so, it is hard to argue that Russia’s means have been proportionate to its goals, that Russia exhausted any non-military avenues first, or that Russia has actually acted solely out of humanitarian objectives.

Perhaps most importantly is the question of right authority: who decides on the legitimacy of such a move? The Commission recognized the validity of such arguments, then made by Russia and China, that a humanitarian intervention norm would create a slippery slope toward the dissolution of the non-aggression norm entirely. So they devoted an entire chapter to the question of the authority to determine whether such an intervention should take place. It first stresses that to be genuine, humanitarian intervention must be multilateral, not unilateral; that it ought to be endorsed by the Security Council; and failing this (as it did in the case of Kosovo and now Darfur) could be legitimized under a Uniting for Peace resolution in the General Assembly. Point being, a single state exercising this “responsibility” on its own, without even a discussion among its peers, would negate the concept entirely.”

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Charli Carpenter is a Professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. She is the author of 'Innocent Women and Children': Gender, Norms and the Protection of Civilians (Ashgate, 2006), Forgetting Children Born of War: Setting the Human Rights
Agenda in Bosnia and Beyond (Columbia, 2010), and ‘Lost’ Causes: Agenda-Setting in Global Issue Networks and the Shaping of Human Security (Cornell, 2014). Her main research interests include national security ethics, the protection of civilians, the laws of war, global agenda-setting, gender and political violence, humanitarian affairs, the role of information technology in human security, and the gap between intentions and outcomes among advocates of human security.