Hands of a guy on laptop keyboard

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

Published on 15 June 2011
Updated on 05 April 2024

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: https://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.

Link of original post

0 replies

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.

The reCAPTCHA verification period has expired. Please reload the page.

Subscribe to Diplo's Blog