In Box

Responsibility to Protect: A Short History

Just what is a just war?

The first French missiles that streaked over Benghazi in March were more than the beginning of the end for Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi -- they were also the first real-world test of the international community's new rules for humanitarian intervention. The conflict made an instant catchphrase out of "responsibility to protect" -- and its inevitable clunky acronym, R2P -- a doctrine adopted by the United Nations in 2005 and invoked for the first time to justify the bombing. R2P was intended to be the first piece in a new international legal framework for stopping war crimes after a century of ad hoc humanitarianism. But did the removal of Qaddafi's pariah regime -- while similar atrocities were allowed to continue in Syria and elsewhere -- mark the dawn of a new era, or the same old inconsistent approach debated in a new vocabulary?

In On the Law of War and Peace, Dutch legal philosopher Hugo Grotius argues that intervening to help a people resist tyranny constitutes a just war.

Britain bans the slave trade. At the urging of abolitionists, British naval vessels patrolling the Atlantic begin interdicting other countries' slave ships -- the first example of a country enforcing human rights beyond its shores.

Polish Jewish legal scholar Raphael Lemkin, appalled by the slaughter of more than a million ethnic Armenians by the Ottomans during World War I and by Hitler's rise, begins a crusade for international legal protection from ethnically motivated mass killings. He is rebuffed by the League of Nations, where one delegate objects that such crimes occur "too seldom to legislate." That same year, the first concentration camps open in Germany.

Twenty-four Nazis are put on trial at Nuremberg by the Allies for atrocities committed during World War II; 19 are convicted. The legal proceedings, however, focus on war crimes and so do not fully establish a precedent for prosecuting "genocide" (a term coined two years earlier by Lemkin, who lost dozens of family members in the Holocaust).

Lemkin lobbies the three-year-old United Nations relentlessly for legal protections against genocide, and on Dec. 9 the U.N. General Assembly votes unanimously to adopt the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (though the United States doesn't ratify it until 1988).


European colonialism ends with the liberation of 57 countries in Asia and Africa. State sovereignty is an important and sensitive issue for the countries recently freed from the yoke of Western rule and one that will be used for decades to come as an argument against humanitarian intervention.

India intervenes in a bloody civil war between Pakistan and East Pakistan, which declares independence as Bangladesh. Seven years later Vietnam invades Pol Pot's Cambodia, and in 1979 Tanzania deposes dictator Idi Amin in neighboring Uganda. All three wars are fought under the banner of national interest, but as each also aimed to avert the mass slaughter of civilians, international-law scholars later look to them as precursors -- however faint -- of the humanitarian interventions to come.

The Soviet Union collapses. The next decade's conflicts don't carry the lofty geopolitical stakes of the Cold War and are more likely to happen within countries' own borders, complicating the prospect of outside forces stepping in.

Ethnic Hutus begin killing Tutsis in Rwanda. Susan Rice, then an aide on U.S. President Bill Clinton's National Security Council, says of the crisis, "If we use the word 'genocide' and are seen as doing nothing, what will be the effect on the November election?" The United States does nothing, and by July, 800,000 Rwandans are dead.

Bosnian Serb forces massacre more than 7,000 Muslim men and boys in the town of Srebrenica, while Dutch U.N. peacekeepers look on helplessly.

Brookings Institution scholar Francis Deng, later the U.N.'s special advisor for the prevention of genocide, co-authors Sovereignty as Responsibility. The influential treatise argues that sovereign states are defined not by the inviolability of their borders -- the assumption of the post-colonial era -- but by their obligation to protect their citizens.


The United States and NATO seek U.N. Security Council approval to intervene in Serbia's persecution of ethnic Albanians in the province of Kosovo. China and Russia veto it, but NATO, eager to avoid a repeat of its mid-1990s failures, starts bombing anyway. The action -- broadly supported, successful, and illegal -- sets an uneasy precedent.

Chinese Foreign Minister Tang Jiaxuan complains that "'human rights taking precedence over sovereignty' and 'humanitarian intervention' seem to be in vogue these days," threatening to "wreak havoc" on international relations.

With the U.N.'s backing, Canada convenes the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty, a blue-ribbon panel co-chaired by Australian politician Gareth Evans and charged with drawing up guidelines for humanitarian intervention. The panel's report, "The Responsibility to Protect," released in December 2001, puts the term on paper for the first time.

At its World Summit, the U.N. unanimously adopts "responsibility to protect" as a guiding principle for the prevention of "atrocity crimes." "It cannot be right," Secretary-General Kofi Annan declares, "when the international community is faced with genocide or massive human rights abuses, for the United Nations to stand by and let them unfold to the end."

When Cyclone Nargis strikes a hapless Burma, French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner argues that the "responsibility to protect" obligates the international community to step in. Writing in Britain's Guardian, Archbishop Desmond Tutu similarly invokes the principle in calling for a nonmilitary intervention in Zimbabwe. Neither persuades the Security Council.

U.S. President Barack Obama takes office. His foreign-policy team includes two prominent anti-genocide advocates: U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice, who is haunted by the U.S. failure in Rwanda, and special assistant Samantha Power, who reported on the Srebrenica massacre as a journalist and later wrote A Problem from Hell, an influential critique of the U.S. government's response to genocide.


2011: LIBYA

February 15: The Arab Spring arrives in Libya. After several days of protests in major cities, fighting breaks out between protesters and security forces in Benghazi. On Feb. 22, Muammar al-Qaddafi orders a violent crackdown, vowing to go "house by house" to find and kill the rebels.

March 17: As Libyan tanks threaten Benghazi, the Security Council passes Resolution 1973, for the first time invoking the "responsibility to protect" to condemn Qaddafi and impose a no-fly zone over his country. Two days later, a French fighter jet fires the first shots in the coalition forces' strike on Libya.

March-April: As NATO bombs, debate reopens over the legitimacy and limits of the R2P doctrine. Evans argues in a March 24 Sydney Morning Herald editorial that a military action intended to kill or unseat Qaddafi or to otherwise support a rebel victory "is simply not permissible under the explicit legal terms of UN resolution 1973. Nor is it permissible under the moral first principles of the 'responsibility to protect' doctrine." And though a European official warns in April that the Libya intervention should be "a warning sign" to regimes undertaking bloody crackdowns in U.S. allies Bahrain and Yemen as well as Syria, the U.N. takes no action.

August 20: Backed by NATO air power, Libyan rebels end Qaddafi's four-decade rule. The expansion of the allies' U.N.-sanctioned involvement, from enforcing a no-fly zone to unequivocally helping the rebels win the war, prompts Indian U.N. Ambassador Hardeep Singh Puri to remark, "Libya has given R2P a bad name." But New York Times columnist Roger Cohen, among others, argues, "The intervention has been done right" -- that after the disgraces of Rwanda and Bosnia and the overreach of Iraq, an atrocity has finally been stopped, in time and for the right reasons. "[T]he idea that the West must at times be prepared to fight for its values against barbarism," he writes, "is the best hope for a 21st century less cruel than the 20th."


In Box

Country for Old Men

A dissident reports from the ruins of the daddy state, where Papá Fidel is now just the patient-in-chief.

At the end of his July 31, 2006, broadcast, the visibly nervous anchor on Cuban Television News announced that there would be a proclamation from Fidel Castro. This was hardly uncommon, and many Cubans no doubt turned off their TVs in anticipation of yet another diatribe from the comandante en jefe accusing the United States of committing some fresh evil against the island. But those of us who stayed tuned that evening saw, instead, a red-faced Carlos Valenciaga, Fidel's personal secretary, appear before the cameras and read, voice trembling, from a document as remarkable as it was brief. In a few short sentences, the invincible guerrilla of old confessed that he was very ill and doled out government responsibilities to his nearest associates. Most notably, his brother Raúl was charged with assuming Fidel's duties as first secretary of the Communist Party's Central Committee, commander in chief of the Revolutionary Armed Forces, and president of the Council of State. The dynastic succession had begun.

It was a miracle that the old telephone exchanges, with their 1930s-vintage equipment, didn't collapse that night as callers rushed to share the news, in a code that was secret to no one: "He kicked the bucket." "El Caballo" -- the Horse -- "is gone." "The One is terminal." I picked up the receiver and called my mother, who was born in 1957, on the eve of Castro's revolution; neither of us had known any other president. "He's not here anymore, Mom," I said, almost whispering. "He's not here anymore." On the other end of the line she began to cry.

It was the little things that changed at first. Rum sales increased. The streets of central Havana were oddly empty. In the absence of the prolific orator who was fond of cutting into TV shows to address his public, homemakers were surprised to see their Brazilian soap operas air at their scheduled times. Public events began to dwindle, among them the so-called "anti-imperialism" rallies held regularly throughout the country to rail against the northern enemy. But the fundamental change happened within people, within the three generations of Cubans who had known only a single prime minister, a single first secretary of the Communist Party, a single commander in chief. With the sudden prospect of abandonment by the papá estado -- "daddy state" -- that Fidel had built, Cubans faced a kind of orphanhood, though one that brought more hope than pain.

Five years later, we have entered a new phase in our relationship with our government, one that is less personal but still deeply worshipful of a man some people now call the "patient in chief." Fidel lives on, and Raúl -- whose power, as everyone knows, comes from his genes rather than his political gifts -- has ruled since his ultimate accession in February 2008 without even the formality of the ballot box, prompting a dark joke often told in the streets of Havana: This is not a bloody dictatorship, but a dictatorship by blood. Pepito, the mischievous boy who stars in our popular jokes, calls Raúl "Castro Version 1.5" because he is no longer No. 2, but still isn't allowed to be the One. When the comandante -- now barely a shadow of his former self -- appeared at the final session of the Communist Party's sixth congress this April, he grabbed his brother's arm and raised it, to a standing ovation. The gesture was intended to consecrate the transfer of power, but to many of us the two old men seemed to be joining hands in search of mutual support, not in celebration of victory.

Raúl's much-discussed reforms followed the supposed handover of power, but in reality, they have been less steps forward than attempts to redress the legal absurdities of the past. One of these was the lifting of the tourist apartheid that prevented Cubans from enjoying their own country's hotel facilities. For years, to connect to the Internet, I had to disguise myself as a foreigner and mumble a few brief sentences in English or German to buy a web-access card in the lobby of some hotel. The sale of computers was finally authorized in March 2008, though by that time many younger Cubans had assembled their own computers with pieces bought on the black market. The prohibition on Cubans having cell-phone contracts was also repealed, ending the sad spectacle of people begging foreigners to help them establish accounts for prepaid phones. Restrictions on agriculture were loosened, allowing farmers to lease government land on 10-year terms. The liberalization brought to light the sad fact that the state had allowed much of the country's land (70 percent of it was in state hands) to become overgrown with invasive weeds.

While officially still socialist, the government has also pushed for an expansion of so-called self-employment, masked with the euphemism of "nonstate forms of production." It is, in reality, a private sector emerging in fits and starts. In less than a year, the number of self-employed grew from 148,000 to 330,000, and there is now a flowering of textile production, food kiosks, and the sale of CDs and DVDs. But heavy taxes, the lack of a wholesale market, and the inability to import raw materials independent of the state act as a brake on the inventiveness of these entrepreneurs, as does memory: The late 1990s, when the return to centralization and nationalization swept away the private endeavors that had surged in the Cuban economy after the fall of the Berlin Wall, were not so long ago.

So for now, the effects of the highly publicized reforms are barely noticeable on our plates or in our pockets. The country continues to import 80 percent of what we consume, at a cost of more than $1.5 billion. In the hard-currency stores, the cans of corn say "Made in the USA"; the sugar provided through the ration book travels from Brazil; and in the Varadero tourist hotels, a good part of the fruit comes from the Dominican Republic, while the flowers and coffee travel from Colombia. In 2010, 38,165 Cubans left the island for good. My impatient friends declare they are not going to stay "to turn off the light in El Morro" -- the lighthouse at the entrance to Havana Bay -- "after everyone else leaves."

The new president understands all too well that transformations that are too deep could cause him to lose control. Cubans jokingly compare their political system to one of the dilapidated houses in Old Havana: The hurricanes don't bring it down and the rains don't bring it down, but one day someone tries to change the lock on the front door and the whole edifice collapses. And so the government's most practiced ploy is the purchase of time with proclamations of supposed reforms that, once implemented, fail to achieve the promised effects.

But this can only continue for so long. Before the end of December, Raúl Castro will have to fulfill his promise to legalize home sales, which have been illegal since 1959, a move that will inevitably result in the redistribution of people in cities according to their purchasing power. One of the most enduring bastions of revolutionary imagery -- working-class Cubans living in the palatial homes of the bygone elite -- could collapse with the establishment of such marked economic differences between neighborhoods.

And yet the old Cuba persists in subtle, sinister forms. Raúl works more quietly than Fidel, and from the shadows. He has increased the number of political police and equipped them with advanced technology to monitor the lives of his critics, myself among them. I learned long ago that the best way to fool the "security" is to make public everything I think, to hide nothing, and in so doing perhaps I can reduce the national resources spent on undercover agents, the pricey gas for the cars in which they move, and the long shifts searching the Internet for our divergent opinions. Still, we hear of brief detentions that include heavy doses of physical and verbal violence while leaving no legal trail. Cuba's major cities are now filled with surveillance cameras that capture both those who smuggle cigars and those of us who carry only our rebellious thoughts.

But over the last five years the government has undeniably and irreversibly lost control of the dissemination of information. Hidden in water tanks and behind sheets hanging on clotheslines, illegal satellite dishes bring people the news that is banned or censored in the national media. The emergence of bloggers who are critical of the system, the maturation of independent journalism, and the rise of autonomous spaces for the arts have all eroded the state's monopoly on power.

Fidel, meanwhile, has faded away. He appears rarely and only in photos, always dressed in the tracksuit of an aging mafioso, and we begin to forget the fatigues-clad fighting man who intruded on nearly every minute of our existence for half a century. Just a year ago, my 8-year-old niece was watching television and, seeing the desiccated face of the old commander in chief, shouted to her father, "Daddy, who is this gentleman?"