Genocide and the Responsibility to Protect Doctrine


In relation to the doctrine of R2P (Responsibility To Protect), the crux of the debate ever since the emergence of this doctrine after the publication of the ICISS in 2001 is the tension that arises between humanitarian intervention and respect for State sovereignty. On the one end of the spectrum is the view of those like Evans Gareth that nation states can not just sit idly by while crimes of genocide or inhumane acts of ethnic cleansing take place in countries like Myanmar and Syria.

I tend to agree with the underlying spirit of R2P that emphasizes the responsibility to protect innocent civilians from genocide and crimes against humanity rather than a duty to intervene in conflict situations, primarily because an apathetic indifference to the plight of victims of genocide in other states is morally and legally indefensible  in terms of states’ obligations under the UDHR 1948 and the Convention of the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide 1948. The current culture of apathy by the international society to the horrors of ethnic cleansing sanctioned by the Mynamar government  and the brutal killings of hundreds of thousands of innocent children and families in Syria , more recently in Eastern Ghouta,  is reminiscent of the indifference of the developed world to the atrocities of Nazi Germany preceeding and during the Holocaust.

For instance, the Evian Conference ( the Intergovernmental Committee for Political Refugees) initiated by President Roosevelt,held on 6th July 1938, attended by delegates from the US, Britain and other major powers rejected the acceptance of Jewish immigrants beyond the numbers that were already being allowed into these countries. This was despite the fact that countries like the United States and Britain were well aware of the persecution and  killings of thousands of Jews in Nazi Germany at the time. As Lawrence Rees notes, ‘the reasons given were many and various- high existing unemployment , the risk of creating racial unrest ..and so on.’ ( Rees, p. 133)

Humanitarian intervention need not necessarily be in the form of military intervention notes; a singular feature of the R2P doctrine is its multi- layered approach which is broad enough to allow for imposition of economic sanctions and perhaps even threats of prosecution by the ICC.

Additionally, Hehir notes that the ICISS’s six Principles of Military Intervention provide criteria such as ‘just cause’ and ‘last resort’ for a military intervention to be ‘legitimate’. This, however, begs the question of how such criteria is to be interpreted by the P5 of the Security Council in sanctioning a military response against another state. Questions of National interest  and geopolitical assessments of state loyalties to other states would inevitably feature in the decision making of the UN Security Council.

Although Hehir notes that the ICISS criticizes the ‘unrepresentative nature of the P5 and  its lack of accountability to the General Assembly’ ,  the fact remains that the R2P doctrine fails to provide a clear, democratically supportable  basis for legitimate military forms Humanitarian intervention.

For instance, the suggestion of the ICISS that the ‘matter should be taken to the General Assembly’ in the event that the Security Council did not act when a crisis passed the  just cause threshold'(Hehir) seems to circumvent the controversies raised by the R2P doctrine rather than solve them.

Chomsky’s  analysis of the dilemmas posed by Humanitarian intervention by States remind us of the historical and contemporary pretexts and metanarratives offered by hegemonic powers and colonizers of the past in justifying military intervention in States engaging in crimes like genocide against its people.

Although I appreciate  Chomsky’s scepticism,  i tend to support Gallagher’s contention that the ‘the debate over humanitarian intervention has suffered from a terrible tendency to group different types of conflicts together.’

The point here is that scholars of international relations and even decision making bodies such as the UN should be mindful of the need to distinguish between intervening in  (or supporting the intervention of )  state conflicts on the basis of vested political and ideological interests in situations where such intervention may exacerbate the conflict, triggering  far worse suffering for citizens ( the US support of the invasion  of East Timor by Indonesia and the subsequent deaths of about 200,000 East Timorese people (World Socialist Website, 2001)  involving ,  for instance,  a failed state , where nothing less than military forms of humanitarian intervention are warranted to prevent or respond to heinous crimes  of genocide involving states that evince the ‘intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group.’ (Genocide Convention 1948).

Of course, the legal definition of the crime of genocide raises a different set of definitional questions involving, for instance, the meaning of genocidal ‘intent’ of States. (Gallagher).



Gallagher Adrian, ‘Genocide and its Threat to Contemporary International Order‘, Palgrave Macmillan, 2013.

Hehir Aidan,2010, The Responsibility to Protect: ‘Sound and Fury Signifying Nothing’? International Relations Vol 24, Issue 2, pp. 218 – 239

Gareth Evans ,’Responsibility to Protect’ after Libya Interview with Gareth Evans by Alan Philips for The World Today, Chatham House, October 2012

 Noam Chomsky on Dilemmas in Humanitarian Intervention, Williams College, 22 September 2011

 ‘US approved 1975 Indonesion invasion of East Timor, World Socialist Website , 19 December 2001