We shouldn’t stop at Responsibility To Protect

by Rob Marchant

There have been plenty of column inches in recent weeks dedicated to why the world should intervene in Syria: for most of us the unspeakable pictures of children with their throats cut from the massacre in Houla is enough. It seems undeniable that the world should do something in the face of genocide or likely genocide, but something – especially since Iraq – holds many of us back on the left from saying so.

So perhaps it’s useful to step back and look at a more fundamental, perhaps more philosophical point: how can we on the left not feel obliged to stop genocide in general, and not just its implementation within the constraints of the UN, via its doctrine of Responsibility To Protect (RTP)?

Does it not sometimes feel like people still see human life through a nineteenth century prism, where the nation state is all we care about? When it was simply not possible to make military interventions without mass loss of British life, and our interest in intervention was pure colonialism (as, in Diane Abbott’s parallel universe , it probably still is)?

But this is the twenty-first century. We no longer only care about other Britons, our colonial possessions and our allies. Many of us travel widely and form strong relationships with others from across the world, who we may just not want to be massacred.

The simple fact is that it is no longer appropriate, if it ever was, to behave as if we value the life of a single Briton more than multiple lives in a foreign country. We cannot make the daily grind of everyone in the developing world better. But we can at least try to stop them being deliberately killed by murderous regimes.

We feel moved and touched when we remember the Holocaust. Many of us feel guilty about Bosnia and Rwanda. But unless we learn to channel these feelings into a constructive, repeatable act, we will not prevent genocide on anything more than the current, haphazard basis.

There are two ways of reconciling ourselves to this, the most basic and justifiable reason for intervention.

The hard way is this: accept the awkward truth that there is a moral obligation to try to intervene in all circumstances where there is genocide or likely genocide.

If we cannot within the UN, it is perfectly legitimate to build a coalition outside the UN. It can work, and it did in Libya and elsewhere. That would be a true example of the “ethical foreign policy” that we as a party once promised.

The easy way is this, and it’s the way we often choose: there are a number of obvious reasons why we might decide, in our hearts, that we lack the will to intervene: be it isolationism, pacifism, anti-Americanism or something else. Then, armed with the subconscious motive, we set about looking for reasons in our heads as to why action is not possible, each of them wrong.

One: standing on international law. Intervention has not been approved by the UN, we say, despite the fact that the UN is a fundamentally flawed body , backed by an edifice of international law which is sometimes useful but also, by extension, fundamentally flawed.

It is dominated by a small group of five countries, chosen simply for having nuclear weapons; maintained because no-one can come up with a better idea; any of which can have a veto; and only three-and-a-half of which are, arguably, democratic.

If you want to see why RTP is badly hobbled by the dysfunctional UN structure under which it operates, you need look no further than the current case of Syria, where the structures are blocked by one man: an ignoble and grandstanding Vladimir Putin, struggling vainly to retain cold war spheres of influence while thousands are massacred.

Two: standing on the principle of non-interference in another nation’s sovereignty. Tosh. If you are killing large numbers of your own people, common sense dictates that you have forfeited all moral rights to be their legitimate government. End of.

Three: whataboutery. If we can’t intervene everywhere, we shouldn’t intervene anywhere. This is merely a seductive moral relativism, what happens in other cases is quite irrelevant. Besides, genocide just isn’t that common. Even if we can’t secure action in every single case, we should surely always try.

Four: resources. We can’t afford it, we could spend that money on twenty new hospitals, and so on. It sounds convincing, doesn’t it? But it is a false argument, and one which we can apply equally to any political priority we don’t happen to agree with. Next.

Five: like any conflict, this one will pull us in and we’ll never get out. This is a more convincing argument than any of the others, but neither is it enough. You do not know what the future holds, no-one does.

It could end with a continuing nightmare, like Afghanistan. Or it could be relatively straightforward, like Libya. But we can at least try. And bear in mind that the conflict in Afghanistan was not started in order to prevent the genocide of Afghans; it would probably have been much different if it had been. Neither was Iraq. Many recent interventions for this reason (Kosovo, Libya) have been relatively short and sweet, although that is admittedly no guarantee.

In short, there are plenty of familiar reasons we may call on, but they do not excuse our non-intervention in the case of genocide. Nothing does. We have an obligation because we are internationalists; and there will be many other Syrias over the coming decades.

In the end, the only real barrier to intervention is a lack of collective will to intervene. The rest are just excuses.

Rob Marchant is an activist and former Labour Party manager who blogs at The Centre Left.

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22 Responses to “We shouldn’t stop at Responsibility To Protect”

  1. swatantra says:

    Its about time the Arabs or the Africans or the Europeans took responsibility for what happens in their own backyard. Hence I’ve always argued for Regional Responsibility, and the present Govt is probably coming round to that way of thinking as well.
    So the Arab League should be doing their utmost to resolve the conflicts in the ME. The Africans should be doing their utmost to resolve the conflicts in Congo and Somalia and the West should be doing their utmost to resolve the conflict in the Balkans; the Russians their best to sort out the racism and football hooliganism that pervades all of E Europe. You won’t get Putin on board deposing Assad because Putins own legitamacy to rule is in question as is 100% of all the E European Republics , the fallout of the the collapse of the great USSR.
    Western intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan has only made things worse. I would have liked to have seen greater intervention by say India in the affairs of Afghanistan, and say Syria and Iran in the afairs of Iraq.
    As to the Balkans I don’t think our intervention in Yugoslavia actually helped the situation at all. I think we’ed all rather see Muslims killing each other in Afghanistan or Africans killing Africans in Somaila and I must stress Muslim Forces with the authority of the UN behind them killing Muslims or Africans with the authority of the UN behind them taking out the pirates in Somalia. The West could support them with financial aid only to do this. But if people in the West feel so strongly about this then they are entitled to set up volunteer brigades of fighters as happened in the Spanish Civil War. and go and fight on the front line.

  2. John Slinger says:

    Well said Rob. My article on Syria picks up the theme that it is wrong to equate ‘correct/moral’ action with what the is UN-authorised. http://slingerblog.blogspot.co.uk/2012/05/my-new-statesman-staggers-blog-on-syria.html
    To believe that only UN-sanctioned action is ‘legal’ implies that UN-sanction inaction is also correct. I.e. Bosnia, Darfur and Rwanda – in each case, and to varying degrees, the UN chose to do little or nothing – 100k, 250k and 1 million civilians died while we sat on our hands, expressed horror at the barbarous killings and pontificated about international law.

  3. Montes says:

    What nonsense, I guess the blairite war mongers are all salivating at the thought of yet another war. Military intervention in Syria would result in far more deaths than there are now and would fan sectarian flames. But, I assume the blairites don’t mind a bit of ‘collateral damge’, afterall, they supported the Iraq war which killed 1 million (10 ten times more than Assad has killed in Syria).

  4. Rob Marchant says:

    @swatantra: on the Balkans, have to respectfully disagree – we did a fantastic job and saved the lives of thousands by the Kosovo intervention. It’s a shame it took massacres in Bosnia (and a change of government here) to change minds. There are still kids in Kosovo whose parents named them Tonibler, I kid you not.

    @John: indeed. UN is an organisation which is not exactly fit for purpose. If that is our yardstick for international law, we’re in deep trouble.

  5. Excellent points.

    I have frequently pointed to the Responsibility (also “Right”) to Protect, Rob, at my blog.


    Unfortunately, although it is now incorporated into the UN Charter few seemed to have noticed or to care. In turn, unfortunately, this has led me, personally, to the conclusion that until the UN (Useless Nations) takes this responsibility/right seriously I do not think the west alone should be left with the burden of taking extra-UN intervention.

    The reason I conclude so is that the “liberal” media in the west dominates and has set the zeitgeist. This can be seen in Montes’ comment & his inability to offer an alternative. The donothingers.

    If the west intervened in Syria outwith a UN resolution, which it would have to as Russia & China have their own agendas, none of which have anything to do with caring about the Syrian people – the blame for ensuing deaths would always be laid at the feet of the external (western) interventionists.

    Until the Arab world takes its own responsibility seriously, and/or the anti-west westerners understand the extensive issues, we will probably still be discussing how brutal & awful Assad is in a year’s time.

  6. Rob Marchant says:

    @Montes: Firstly, the word Blairite has a capital “B”. I don’t know if this is a deliberate tactic (for the record, I have seen the same tactic used against Jews by members of the PSC, who refuse to assign a capital letter to a group they do not like), or that you merely cannot spell.

    Secondly, the number of casualties verified by the Iraq Body Count, the international standard on recording deaths, is reckoned somewhere between 100-150,000. http://www.iraqbodycount.org/ These are verified by documentary evidence. Your figure of 1 million is not only grossly inaccurate but typical of the misinformation surrounding all aspects of Iraq.

    So, the answer to the body count is, about the same as Assad has killed, by your own reckoning.

  7. Dan Fox says:


    The death toll in Iraq was, and continues to be terrible, but why do stoppers like you insist on upping it by a factor of 10 or more? Genuine question.

    And where does your figure of 100,000 deaths under Assad come from? Another genuine question.

    And on the matter in hand, if we are not to intervene as Rob lays out, and if the UN and Kofi Annan remain ineffective (as they will), what options would you support for resolving or, at the very least, managing the conflict? A third genuine question.

  8. Rob Marchant says:

    ADDENDUM: on “whataboutery”, I have linked to an excellent piece by former Fabians’ chief Sunder Katwala, but forgot to namecheck him, sorry. Sunder, please consider yourself namechecked.

  9. swatantra says:

    ‘blairite’ has now become an adjective and should therefore be used in the lower case; it is not a noun. And ‘balkanisation’ has come back into fashion as a word with derogatority connotations.

  10. Chris Davies says:

    This piece makes a good moral argument for intervention, however that is not a sufficient basis for military action. Your fifth counter-argument (we could get sucked in..) hints at potential pitfalls regarding intervention without properly considering what forces are required for an intervention, how they could be used and what is the ultimate goal.

    If you wish the UK to militarily intervene in Syria in order to prevent the Assad government continuing to massacre rebels and civilians, it is reasonable to ask that you set out, at least roughly, what it is you want the British armed forces to do in order to achieve this. Do you propose the use of airstrikes against Assad tanks? The fighting is taking place in cities, so are you prepared to accept that those tanks can be well hidden and that the airstrikes will kill many civilians? Does the UK even have the ability to launch these airstrikes? Remember that in Libya more or less all of the military capacity was provided by the United States, without whom the war would have been impossible.

    Even if airstrikes were to destroy Assad’s tank force, would that be a suitable end scenario for this intervention? Assad would still be in power. The effect of the airstrikes would have been to even up the odds in a Syrian civil war. Do you continue to assist the rebels with ground forces? Even if (for example) Russia is assisting Assad in a similar way? That could be a long and bloody war. Do you think that UK military assistance could be significant enough to swing the result decisively?

    You argue that not knowing the future is no reason for not intervening. Perhaps. But surely if you are going to risk the lives of British servicemen and women it is reasonable to have some basic answers about what you wish to achieve and how you are going to go about it. We all despair when we see Assad’s atrocities on the news, but saying “something must be done” is no substitute for a serious case by case analysis of the options and probable consequences.

  11. Rob Marchant says:

    @BS: you may well be right on the one year’s time scenario. It does seem, though, that if Obama had not been president (as opposed to any of his last, say, three predecessors), things might be moving more quickly towards resolution.

    @Dan: I think that’s it in a nutshell. Make up your mind first, then move around the facts to try and fit the position you’vejust adopted.

  12. Brumanuensis says:

    I note that there is nothing in this post about the military realities of intervention. If you want to have your call for military intervention taken seriously, produce your working, so to speak. Show that you understand what is involved. Glibly dismissing, as you did in points 4 and 5, the questions of resources and duration, shows that you haven’t given the matter much thought. In short, why is Moses Brown (for example) wrong.


    All you’ve done is set up five straw men, knock them down and then pompously declaimed ‘In the end, the only real barrier to intervention is a lack of collective will to intervene. The rest are just excuses’. If this is the quality of the pro military-intervention argument, no wonder it hasn’t made any head-way.

    Aside from the fact that your explanation for the membership of the UN Security Council is wrong – only one of its members had nuclear weapons in 1946 – the failings of the UN Security Council are irrelevant to discussions of the legal rights and wrongs of international law, which is governed by the UN charter. It should not be easy to start a war. And I am alarmed that you appear to be advocating ignoring laws that you don’t like. Do you do the same in your private life? ‘Hard cases make bad law’ and Syria is a very hard case, but that doesn’t justify resorting to illegality in the pursuit of your aims.

    Saying inane fluff like:

    ‘It could end with a continuing nightmare, like Afghanistan. Or it could be relatively straightforward, like Libya. But we can at least try’.

    Is just daft. A botched military intervention will kill more civilians, not fewer and ignoring military and geo-political reality in favour of rhetoric won’t help Syrian civilians. We are talking about a war here, not a tillip through the park. Thousands will die – note how the civilian body-count in Libya post-invasion is quite hard to ascertain, there’s a reason for that and it’s a political one – and the Middle East could be badly destabilised. Go and draw up a plan, come back and present it and we can go from there.

  13. Henrik says:

    Military planning rather needs to be hard-headed, pragmatic and directed by civilian authorities. Above all, what is required is a very clear political statement by civilian leadership of the desired end state which military force is to achieve and an equally clear statement of the resources (time, money, materiel) allocated to achieve that end state. Without these – sadly lacking, both of them, in both Iraq and Afghanistan, the military will turn smartly to the right and crack on, for that is their nature, but will almost inevitably, unless incredibly lucky or, as in Sierra Leone, amazingly well-led, end up in a mess, in a worst case an oozing-sore war for no purpose such as in Afghanistan at the moment.

    It’s hard to see how any foreign military intervention in Syria could achieve anything at all, without total national mobilisation by a developed nation to break in and defeat the very tough and capable Syrian Army and the deployment of a huge occupation force to suppress the inevitable Alawaite insurgency after a ‘victory’.

    Another point worth making is that just being an oppressed minority doesn’t make you the good guys. The Assad regime is vile, of course it is – but who’s to say that it isn’t the least worst solution?

  14. Rob Marchant says:

    @Brumanuensis: Firstly, as always, your comments here and at LabourList would be immeasurably better if you could just avoid the temptation of putting opinionated adjectives – or insults, or imperatives – in everywhere, just because you disagree. It doesn’t make your argument any stronger, you know.

    You seem to feel that you are the only one sufficiently grounded in the military realities of intervention to offer an opinion. This, as I pointed out at the start, is a post about the principles of intervention, it is not designed as a practical implementation plan. It is not even about Syria. If you want one about practicalities and/or Syria, we can do that separately, but there is not really space in a blog piece for both and Syria has rather been done to death already.

    On the UNSC, if you think that the current situation is fine, so be it, but if not, perhaps you can explain why you think that we should all be quietly living with the clearly dysfunctional status quo, and the “laws” that underpin it? It’s hardly surprising that people want to go round the UN when it works so badly. There is also a directive that says that the UN should stop genocide, but it doesn’t seem to be cutting much ice with Putin.

    “Thousands will die” – is not exactly news, although it may sound pleasantly emotive. Military intervention costs lives, that doesn’t mean we should never do it.

  15. Brumanuensis says:

    First of all, the old saying ‘if you can’t take it, don’t dish it out’ springs to mind. On LabourList and your blog, you don’t hesitate to use aggressive and occasionally vitriolic criticism of your opponents – such as suggesting that supporters of Ken Livingstone suffered from ‘Stockholm Syndrome’. If you want to make your arguments aggressively, then by all means do so, but don’t complain when people who find your arguments lacking respond in similar terms.

    Now, I was aggressive and argumentative in my response, because I found the lack of detail or careful thought in your argument to be infuriatingly flippant, when discussing something as serious as military intervention. I also resented the insinuation that people who oppose military intervention are moral pygmies who have no qualms about the slaughter of innocent women and children – and that was a pretty heavy subtext, given your argument that intervention was the only moral cause of action.

    We cannot separate out practicalities from principle. I found this unworldliness a bit odd coming from someone who has, on LabourList and elsewhere, argued for hard-headed realism about the limits of our capabilities and the need to prioritise certain economic and social objectives over others. So this sudden insistence that only principle matters didn’t wash with me.

    You have also missed my point about International Law. I did not and would not argue that it is flawless or always fits the exact requirements of every international crisis. I was merely pointing out that ignoring international law creates its own peverse and potentially dangerous consequences, which need to be thought through carefully before acting. Being law-abiding is not an option, because God help us if people start routinely deciding that they are not subject to the law, let alone nations.

    Nowhere, incidentally, have I dismissed intervention. I have suggested military intervention is impractical and would have disasterous side-effects. You can’t just propose something without identifying how it would be accomplished. And I find your claim that this article isn’t about Syria, unconvincing. The Houla massacre heads this piece and given that Syria is the only conceivable current instance of military intervention for the reasons you give, you can’t just row back from a discussion about the ins and outs of the situation there by insisting that you were only writing a thought-experiment.

    The frustrating thing is that morally I’m in sympathy with you. I just found your argument badly-executed and lacking in depth. If you don’t like that, that’s unfortunate, but not my problem. And a person who claims we must intervene, citing examples of humanitarian disasters, and then accuses others who point out the horrors of war of being ’emotive’, needs to remove the proverbial beam from their eye.

  16. donpaskini says:

    Hi Rob,

    I’m very supportive of the principle that we on the left should, when evidence of genocide or the threat of genocide appears, try to figure out what, if any, effective interventions we might be able to make.

    Two thoughts on putting this into practice:

    1. For all the reasons you give, this is going to work better if organised internationally. So we shouldn’t just be having an insular debate between British lefties, but co-ordinate across borders.

    2. ‘Interventions’ covers a very wide range of activities. It might mean ‘calling for military action against the regime’, but might just as easily mean ‘sending aid for those at risk of genocide’, ‘raising awareness about genocide’, ‘volunteering to act as aid workers’, ‘join an international bridge to go and fight against the genocidal regime’ etc etc. Surely the most effective type of intervention can only be identified on a case by case basis, rather than a default that military intervention is always going to achieve the best results?

    Just on the Libya example, which you cite as a successful intervention which bypassed the UN in order to prevent genocide, my understanding is that the military intervention was to implement a UN Security Council resolution, and that this resolution didn’t mention genocide as a reason for intervention. Have I got this wrong?

  17. Rob Marchant says:

    @Brumanuensis: well that’s a bit more civil. I won’t get into a he said, she said conversation about who is aggressive and who isn’t, just simply that all of us can choose with whom to engage and with whom not. So let’s keep it like this. Nicer, isn’t it?

    Now, the “moral pygmies” thing is your extrapolation, not my text. You can infer what you want, but that isn’t what I said. I am trying to highlight a certain strand of thinking on the left, which is “no military action at any price”. That is all.

    “We cannot separate out practicalities from principle” – says who: you? Don’t see why this is the case at all.

    On international law, I don’t think many people would disagree with most items of domestic law. I certainly don’t. But international law is infinitely more arguable, especially when it derives from a flawed institution. You are overreaching: taking two and two and making seven.

    Finally, about Syria: there is no “rowing back”. I believe it’s possible to make a general in-principle statement about intervention, you obviously don’t. I did not undertake to you or to anyone to write a treatise on a specific military action, and certainly not in Syria. If you want to, why not contact Atul and write one yourself, instead of complaining that I haven’t written what you wanted me to?

  18. Rob Marchant says:

    @Don: 1. Sounds perfectly fine to me – the only thing is opposition linking with opposition cross-border rarely seems to achieve much: it’s only in office that these alliances really help. But yes, why not?

    2. Quite agree it’s case by case: my main point is that we should never rule out military action, as some would have us do. Sometimes very light military action, or even the mere threat of military action, can resolve a situation.

    On Libya: it was given the stamp (i.e. figleaf) of the UN, but as usual the UN itself did none of the heavy lifting it was NATO. Does not surprise me that the UN motion doesn’t mention genocide, but it seemed fairly clear to most observers that if Gaddafi hadn’t been threatening to kill half the population, no action would have been taken.

  19. Stephen G. says:

    Whatever the problem Rob Marchant can be depended upon to provide a Tony Blair-like solution – without any regard for the disasters that might follow.

  20. swatantra says:

    Looks like the Egyptian ‘rebels’ are taking every advantage of support fom the West by voting in the Muslem Brotherhood, very much in the same way the West gave Afghans a helping hand bringing the Taliban into power. This Arab Spring Onion is turning very much into a Rhubarb Patch.

  21. We therefore have a moral responsibility to push ahead. Together, let us work with optimism and determination. To make the Responsibility to Protect a living reality for the peoples of the world.

  22. Luke Sorba says:

    I do sympathize with the motives of the interventionists but essentially our policy problems boil down to spending a lot of time talking about the reasons to intervene; and no time about the consequences of intervention. I cannot emphasize thie point enough. I guide you towards my article on Labour List expanding on this.


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