Possible military action against Islamic State: how relevant is the “Responsibility to Protect”?

The US has been conducting airstrikes on Islamic State (IS) militants in Iraq since early August, and at the time of writing has just launched similar airstrikes on IS militants in Syria. Here in the UK, MPs have been recalled to Westminster to discuss whether the UK should itself launch airstrikes on IS militants in Iraq. The Prime Minister has stressed that UK action in Syria is not on the table at present – but many have argued that is impossible to tackle Islamic State effectively without taking some action in Syria.

In the midst of all this, there has been much discussion of the “Responsibility to Protect” (R2P) doctrine. This doctrine was set out in the 2005 World Summit outcome document, endorsed by the UN General Assembly on 24 October 2005. The document asserts that each state is responsible for protecting its own population. It goes on to assert that:

The international community, through the United Nations, also has the responsibility to use appropriate diplomatic, humanitarian and other peaceful means, in accordance with Chapters VI and VIII of the Charter, to help protect populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity. In this context, we are prepared to take collective action, in a timely and decisive manner, through the Security Council, in accordance with the Charter, including Chapter VII, on a case-by-case basis and in cooperation with relevant regional organizations as appropriate, should peaceful means be inadequate and national authorities manifestly fail to protect their populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity.

In a report in 2009 entitled Implementing the Responsibility to Protect, the UN Secretary-General argued: “Non-state actors, as well as States, can commit egregious crimes relating to the responsibility to protect. When they do, collective international military assistance may be the surest way to support the State in meeting its obligations relating to the responsibility to protect and, in extreme cases, to restore its effective sovereignty.”

It has been suggested in some quarters that the R2P doctrine might be used to justify military action against IS. In its leading article on 14 August, the New Statesman argued:

For months, almost unchecked, the jihadists of the Islamic State (also known as Isis) have advanced across Iraq and Syria. With modern weaponry and medieval savagery – stonings, beheadings, crucifixions – they have conquered an area larger than the United Kingdom. In this self-declared caliphate, all those who do not subscribe to the group’s extreme Salafist ideology face a choice between conversion or death.

It took the threat of genocide for the west to intervene. Haunted by the memory of Rwanda and Srebrenica – and by Saddam Hussein’s massacre of the Kurds – the international community retains a special horror of this crime. Barack Obama, who withdrew US troops from Iraq at the end of 2011, was right to deploy air strikes against Isis to safeguard the 40,000 Yazidis sheltering in terror on the desolate Mount Sinjar. The doctrine of “responsibility to protect” may be selectively enforced but that is preferable to it being disregarded entirely.

However, most observers and states believe that invoking R2P is not in itself sufficient to justify military intervention. Many would argue that – as the UN Charter suggests – interventions must be authorised by the Security Council unless taken in self-defence or collective self-defence (defence of an ally). The website of the International Coalition for the Responsibility to Protect, a coalition of NGOs, contains the following statement:

The Responsibility to Protect norm, as agreed to in the 2005 World Summit Outcome Document, does not sanction a unilateral military response or a response by a “coalition of the willing.”

That is not to say that intervention would necessarily be illegal. Our task here is not to question the legality of any intervention: we have already addressed this issue in our recent Standard Note (SN06977, Iraq, Syria and Isis – recent developments) on the subject. It is simply to point out that whilst the emergence of the R2P doctrine has undoubtedly been influential, R2P alone does not constitute a sufficient legal basis for intervention. The UN Charter remains the fundamental treaty in this respect, and the emergence of R2P does not give Member States free rein to ignore the Charter. As the Secretary General himself argued in his 2009 report, R2P seeks to “reinforce[e] the letter and spirit of the Charter” rather than to supersede it.

Author: Rob Page