OPINION: The responsibility to protect in a Trump world

The UN’s doctrine of humanitarian intervention is unlikely to gain traction under the incoming U.S. administration.


In the years since its initial articulation in 2001, the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) doctrine has experienced a rocky road. Originally presented as a transformation to the understanding of one of the most vital norms of international society, viz., sovereignty, R2P has been unable to gain the necessary traction it needed from states to achieve its primary goal—to prevent mass atrocities and more adequately protect vulnerable civilians in situations of grave humanitarian emergency.

Adopted unanimously by heads of state and governments in 2005 during the United Nations World Summit, this new norm of international relations is built on three principles: 1) that sovereign states have a primary responsibility to protect their populations from four core crimes (genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity; 2) that the international community has an obligation to assist states in fulfilling that responsibility; and 3) if states are unable or unwilling to protect their population from the above four core crimes, then the international community, through the UN Security Council and in accordance with the UN Charter, has the responsibility to take timely and decisive action to protect vulnerable populations.

Arguably, the 2005 affirmation of R2P was significantly weaker than the version presented by the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS) in 2001 given that it served to reiterate existing conventions of international law rather than pushing forward with the essential changes to the meaning of state sovereignty presented by the ICISS. But limiting the scope of the R2P doctrine to those four core crimes helped to ensure unanimity among the 193 member states of the UN around R2P’s three core principles. Yet, 10 years on, there are still critics of R2P and some evidence of buyer’s remorse on the part of some states (e.g., Cuba, Venezuela, Sudan, Nicaragua, Syria, Iraq, Ecuador). R2P is seen by some as a dangerous, imperialist doctrine that threatens to undermine the national sovereignty and political economy of especially weaker states. It is almost impossible to imagine this doctrine being used against any of the major powers or in instances where the interests of major powers are at stake. In the cases in which R2P has been invoked, the principle has almost always been inconsistently applied (e.g., Myanmar, Georgia, Libya). And in places where R2P should have been implemented due to the many atrocities against vulnerable populations (Afghanistan, Iraq, Darfur, Nigeria, Somalia, Syria), the doctrine has not been applied.

Despite the challenge of UN secretary general Ban-Ki Moon to the members of the UN to translate the 2005 commitment from “words to deeds,” R2P as a global policy is still more rhetorical than action-oriented. On one level, R2P has been an important cornerstone in the shifting debates on humanitarian emergencies, raising greater awareness of human rights abuses, and has been rhetorically endorsed by a great number of UN member states, thus making it an indispensable part of global human rights discourse. Alex Bellamy, one of the global experts on R2P, has argued that it has now become an integral part of the diplomatic language of humanitarian emergencies.

There is, however, no denying that on another and far more important level, R2P has been utterly unsuccessful in achieving an operational enforcement mechanism for human rights protection and has become more of an insular academic debate than something tangibly on state foreign and defence policy agendas. The reason for this is that, effectively, only the Permanent Five members of the UN Security Council can muster the economic and military resources required to make R2P fully operational.

Further complicating matters for R2P has been the ongoing evolution of the international system from its immediate post-Cold War unipolar structure that saw the United States as the lone superpower in a multipolar structure, which is witnessing the rise of powers like China and the resurgence of Russia. The consequences of this shift in the structure of the international system on R2P have been quite evident in Syria, which has become a humanitarian disaster that states and organizations, especially the UN, have been unable to resolve given the great power interests involved between the United States and Russia.

The prospects for R2P’s success in this emerging multipolar system were already bleak before the recent U.S. election, but the election of Donald Trump casts even further doubt on the U.S. being willing to champion any doctrine predicated on intervening in instances of humanitarian crisis unless U.S. interests are directly involved. There is already a strong inkling that Trump may outsource his foreign policy decisions to conservative groups like the Heritage Foundation. One reliable source has even labelled the Heritage Foundation as the “shadow transition team” for the president-elect. We already know what the Heritage Foundation thinks of R2P.

According to the Heritage Foundation and other groups or individuals rumoured to be advising Trump’s transition team, despite its lofty and noble goals, the U.S. should treat the R2P doctrine with extreme caution. Adopting a doctrine that compels the U.S. to act to prevent mass atrocities occurring in other countries is considered not only risky but imprudent. Acting in this way would be seen to compromise U.S. independence and sovereignty. The Heritage Foundation believes that the U.S. ought to preserve its national sovereignty by maintaining a monopoly over the decisions that require it to deploy diplomatic pressure (soft power), economic sanctions, political coercion and military might, and are critical of groups thought to not have the U.S. national interest at heart, but yet purport to utilize R2P in the interest of what it calls “a nebulous international community.”

It seems probable that under the Trump presidency, U.S. foreign policy will be less favourable to the advocates of R2P and more interested in business relationships and a myopic view of U.S. national interests. The selection of Rex Tillerson, current CEO of ExxonMobil, as Trump’s nominee for secretary of state and ongoing consideration of people such as John Bolton as deputy secretary of state only furthers this concern, and presents new challenges to how a Trump White House will view R2P. As Trump selects people with close ties to, or favourable views of, the Putin regime in Russia, it becomes clear that human rights and other normative elements of international society will rank significantly lower than perceived economic benefits to the U.S.

In any event, the Trump administration will be more likely to reject the notion that R2P is an established international norm and instead treat the decision to intervene in other countries as something that should be done only if U.S. national interest is at stake.

Robert W. Murray is a senior business adviser at Dentons Canada LLP and an adjunct professor of political science at the University of Alberta.

Andy Knight is professor of political science at the University of Alberta and former director of the Institute of International Relations at the University of West Indies.

This article originally appeared in the Edmonton Journal.