I see there’s some naysaying about the use of force to protect civilians in Libya. Among various refrains is the claim that “Responsibility to Protect” (R2P) doctrine lacks moral strength if applied selectively: the
international community can’t legitimately go after Qaddafi if it won’t/can’t also go after every other dictator.

So just a reminder that the doctrine, as laid out by the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty and acknowledged as a legal principle in several multilateral documents, actually promotes military force for civilian protection not in every case where it might be merited, but rather only in limited circumstances mapping roughly onto just war theory.

The criteria include just cause (which I agree would be fulfilled in a case like North Korea or Bahrain) but also right authority (which in R2P requires multilateral consent – not feasible in Bahrain) and proportionality (requiring a judgment that the overall good to civilians outweigh the potential harm – unlikely in North Korea). In cases not meeting this threshold, the doctrine urges merely non-coercive protection measures, including humanitarian assistance and diplomacy.

In fact one of the key critiques of R2P is that the threshold for the use of force – which is in some cases the only effective response to unfolding crimes against humanity – is so unreasonably high as to render the doctrine useless for the cases in which it is most needed. So it was actually reassuring to see the international community act so relatively swiftly in the case of Libya, in contrast to its months and years of dithering in Kosovo and Bosnia, respectively, or its ultimate inaction in the case of Darfur. R2P as currently constituted includes no normative requirement of consistency.

Now whether or not the intervention was caused or facilitated by the R2P norm itself, that’s another question. Erik Voeten thinks not and is not even sure there is such a norm. My students will be writing their mid-term over it this week, and we’ll see what they come up with.

[cross-posted at Lawyers, Guns and Money]