Responsibility To Protest: The Peace Movement and the Challenge of R2P

The following originally appeared in The Spark! Marxist Theory and Discussion no. 28, 2018. The Spark is an official publication of the Communist Party of Canada.

As the dangers of mass destruction through war grow, the challenge to the peace and anti-imperialist movements involves exposing the real, imperialist reasons behind interventions cloaked in the humanitarian language of “responsibility to protect”.

Over the past decade, a frequent topic of debate in progressive circles has been the persistent weakness of the peace movement across Canada. With perhaps only two notable exceptions – the brief but impressive mobilizations against the US-led invasion of Iraq in early 2003, and consistent activity in support of the Palestinian people’s struggle against aggression from Israel – the peace and anti-war movement in this country has been unable to mount a coherent and meaningful opposition to imperialist wars and aggressions over the last 20 years. This includes many examples in which Canada has actively participated: Yugoslavia in 1999, Afghanistan beginning in 2001, Haiti in 2004, Libya in 2011, Syria from 2012 to the present, Ukraine and Eastern Europe from 2014 to the present, and Venezuela from 2014 to the present. There are a number of reasons for this problem, but a key factor is an ideological weapon that emerged in the twenty-first century: the doctrine of the Responsibility to Protect, or R2P.

The specific formulation, “Responsibility to Protect,” first appeared in early 2001 but many of its features were developed and tested in the context of NATO’s 1999 aggression against Yugoslavia. These same features can be roughly encapsulated in NATO’s 1999 New Strategic Concept document, which was formally adopted in April of that year and included the following key policy formulations:

  • a shift in focus away from “collective defense” of member states in the North Atlantic arena, toward explicit sanction of NATO out-of-area action on a range of security and politico-economic concerns;
  • a specific articulation of NATO actions as independent from the UN Security Council deliberations, sanction and oversight;
  • the discarding of NATO’s 1991 statement that “none of its weapons will ever be used except in self-defense;”
  • a commitment by NATO members, in their effort to defend “common security interests”, to participate in operations beyond alliance territory; and
  • a reiterated and strengthened commitment to expansion in Europe.

While these policy statements did not fundamentally change the nature and character of NATO as an aggressive, imperialist military alliance, it is important to note that they represented a dramatic and deliberate shift in how the organization projected its role in the world.

To understand why the NATO states would commit to this sweeping reorientation, it is useful to review the key events of the time. In the early 1990’s, most of the capitalist world was struggling with a severe and lengthy economic crisis that had begun around 1987 and continued into the mid-1990s. In Canada, this developed into a long period of economic recession that was exacerbated by corporate trade deals with the United States. In general, capitalist globalization (related, in part, to developments in technology) was on the rise and this resulted in huge changes to economies around the world – the comprehensive economic restructuring meant that, in some national economies, entire sectors were decimated and some new sectors emerged and grew. These developments sparked extensive discourse between corporate boardrooms and imperialist governments about how to reorient in order to safeguard their existing interests, as well as how to identify and exploit new global opportunities.

Alongside the economic crisis, perhaps the central development at this time was the sudden demise of the Soviet Union and socialist community of states, and the massive geopolitical changes that followed. Huge areas of the world were now viewed as “opened up” to Western capitalism (whose members were fighting among themselves for positions of competitive advantage – for control of resources and markets at the expense of their imperialist competitors).

At the same time, of course, the “end” of the Cold War meant the sudden loss of NATO’s pretext for existing, and it embarked on a long search for a new identity and role.

In Canada, a key moment in this ongoing discussion about changing foreign policy in the “post-Soviet” era is represented by the 1999 Symposium of the Conference of Defence Associations (CDA). The CDA is an old and extremely influential Canadian advocacy group, whose membership is made up of over 50 military organizations. It is large, well-funded and well-connected. Part of its funding comes from the Department of National Defence, so it is clear that when CDA speaks the government listens.

The 1999 symposium was focused on changing strategic assessments within the context of the massive geopolitical changes mentioned above. Specifically, the symposium identified the following strategic issues:

  • the pressing need for reorientation in Canadian foreign policy (military and economic) in light of the demise of the Soviet Union;
  • the rise of China as a political and economic world power, a rise characterized as “the most serious challenge to Western interests in the Pacific”;
  • the importance of retaining and developing NATO as a counter-balance to changing geopolitics that challenge Western interests;
  • the destabilization of the central Asian states as a strategic and economic opportunity, and specific opportunities for Canada in the vast energy reserves of the Caspian Sea Basin and central Asian region;
  • the necessity for Canada to integrate military and economic issues within foreign policy discussions, in order to exert global influence and reap economic benefit;
  • the government of Iraq – characterized as a “rogue state” – as a specific barrier to securing Western interests in the central Asian region.

Virtually all of the above concerns were under discussion at the same time by other Western states. These preoccupations are reflective of two of the key concerns of imperialism: the territorial division and re-division of the world amongst the most powerful states, and the military force required to achieve, enforce and maintain such a division.

As imperialist states discussed – individually and collectively, in moments of collusion and moments of competition – how to confront the twin challenges of the economic crisis and the geopolitical shifts, Yugoslavia emerged as the immediate practical arena in which new policy directions were tested and clarified. This engagement was continued, in rapid succession, through the aggressions against Afghanistan, Iraq and others.

The loss of the socialist community of states provided imperialism with a conundrum. On the one hand, two important opportunities emerged. First, a massive region of the world was now deemed to be “opened up” to capitalism – resources, markets and trade routes were available for control and plunder. Second, the absence of the Soviet Union at the international table meant that the main obstruction to imperialist – especially US – expansion was removed.

On the other hand, however, the end of the Cold War also meant that the “spectre of communism” was lost as an justification for huge military expenditures. The peoples of the NATO countries moved quickly, especially in the context of economic crisis, to demand a “peace dividend” – large reductions in military budgets and reinvestment in social programs and infrastructure. Without the endorsement, or at least passivity, of public opinion, imperialist states would have difficulty in securing the resources necessary for the implementation and consolidation of their new plans.

Imperialism desperately needed to find a new pretext for continued militarism, aggression and war. Part of the answer to this search was provided by the “war on terror”. But another part came in the form of the doctrine of “Responsibility to Protect,” and this involved a comprehensive rewriting of the foundations of international law.

The roots of R2P lay in the broad notion of “humanitarian intervention” (or “HI”). HI emerged as a theme in international relations in the early nineteenth century, in the context of competition among the major European powers for influence and control over the territories of the declining Ottoman Empire. Its use during this period was characterized by depictions of Ottoman repression of minorities, coupled with extensive agitation for military intervention to prevent atrocities. To be effective, HI had to be invoked in a sophisticated manner that could grasp hold of public opinion. Part of this involved highlighting the supposed virtue of the imperialist nation while demonizing the character of the target state, and positing a war of “humanitarian intervention” as a moral duty.

One of the most vocal advocates of HI, John Stuart Mill, promoted the issue in skillful – if quite hypocritical – terms:

“To go to war for an idea, if the war is aggressive, not defensive, is as criminal as to go to war for territory or revenue; for it is as little justifiable to force our ideas on other people, as to compel them to submit to our will in any other respect. But there assuredly are cases in which it is allowable to go to war, without having been ourselves attacked, or threatened with attack; and it is very important that nations should make up their minds in time, as to what these cases are… To suppose that the same international customs, and the same rules of international morality, can obtain between one civilized nation and another, and between civilized nations and barbarians, is a grave error…[Barbarians] have no rights as a nation, except a right to such treatment as may, at the earliest possible period, fit them for becoming one. The only moral laws for the relation between a civilized and a barbarous government, are the universal rules of morality between man and man.”

(“A Few Words on Non-Intervention”, 1859)

Mill’s remarks are notable in that they reflect the ongoing dilemma of proponents of humanitarian intervention: how to justify intervention in the face of the long-accepted legal principal of state sovereignty.

Throughout the nineteenth century, as humanitarian intervention was repeatedly used by each imperialist state to justify their drive to re-divide the world, it became deeply embedded in the dominant ideology and had various cultural reflections. One of the most famous imperialist writers of this era was the English poet, Rudyard Kipling. His 1899 poem, “The White Man’s Burden”, celebrated the seizure of the Philippines by the United States, from Spain. The poem portrayed such colonization as a noble enterprise that carried out the moral responsibility of European and American imperialists (“whites”) to reign over the other peoples of the world. Kipling offered the poem to US President Theodore Roosevelt, suggesting it could help solidify American public support for the “rescue” of the Philippines from Spanish oppression.

Of course, US seizure of the Philippines did not yield Kipling’s imagined goals of social, economic and cultural development. Instead, it resulted in the Filipino-American War, in which an estimated 1.4 million Filipinos died, followed by decades of occupation and repression. Far from its noble pretext of humanitarianism, the American invasion of the Philippines was clearly motivated by, and enormously important to, the drive by US imperialism to establish and expand its control over foreign resources and markets.


Demonstration in Quebec City against Canadian military involvement in Afghanistan and the deployment of additional troops to Kandahar. Edgar Zessinthal, 2007 (Creative Commons)

In the course of the twentieth century, imperialism continued to use “humanitarian intervention” as a pretext for expansion but was often held in check, to varying degrees, by a range of factors. These included:

1. Public opinion: Despite comprehensive and sustained ideological assaults, campaigns against imperialist policies emerged early on and continued to grow. The American Anti-Imperialist League, for example, was formed in 1898 with the purpose of opposing US seizure of the Philippines. Within a year, it had organized over 100 local committees across the country and had a membership of over 25,000.The League was able to sustain its work against imperialist foreign policies for two decades and is one example among several similar movements, in countries all over the world.

2. Institutionalization of state sovereignty in international law: While it is legally rooted in the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, the concept the territorial integrity of states was confirmed and codified by the League of Nations and, to a greater extent, the United Nations. Article 2.4 of the UN Charter, for example, compels member states to “refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state.” Humanitarian intervention routinely violated this article.

3. The Soviet Union: As suggested earlier, this was perhaps the single most significant obstacle to imperialist expansion. The October Revolution served as a powerful magnet for workers and progressives, and it inspired the birth of many powerful anti-imperialist movements all over the world. Furthermore, as the Soviet Union developed, it emerged as a powerful political-diplomatic force that was capable, to some extent, of containing imperialism.

By the late twentieth century, in the wake of the end of the Cold War and in the context of deep economic crisis, imperialism was presented with both the need and the opportunity to reorient.

Nearly 100 years after Kipling wrote “The White Man’s Burden”, the NATO states revisited the idea of humanitarian intervention and began updating it. As in the nineteenth century, the competitive imperialist drive to re-divide the world was justified through the moral imperative of humanitarian intervention. However, the obstacle of the sovereignty of states remained. As Edward S. Herman has noted, imperialism sought to permanently overcome this problem:

“…this morality surge occurred at a moment in history when the Soviet constraint was ended and the United States and its close allies were celebrating their triumph, when the socialist option had lost vitality, and when the West was thus freer to intervene. This required over-riding the several hundred year old Westphalian core principle of international relations – that national sovereignty should be respected – which if adhered to would protect smaller and weaker countries from Great Power cross-border attacks. This rule was embodied in the UN Charter, and could be said to be the fundamental feature of that document, described by international law scholar Michael Mandel as ”the world’s constitution.” Over-riding this rule and Charter fundamental would clear the ground for R2P and HI, but it would also clear the ground for classic and straightforward aggression in pursuit of geopolitical interests, for which R2P and HI might supply a useful cover.”

(“Responsibility to Protect” (R2P): An Instrument of Aggression, 2013)

Accomplishing such a sweeping change would require a specific expression of the idea of humanitarian intervention. In particular, the new formulation would have to:

1. be carefully rooted in the existing institutions of international law, to cloak it with sufficient legitimacy that the undermining of the principle of state sovereignty would appear to be an acceptable consequence of the “evolution” of international law;

2. change the notion of sovereignty to focus more on the responsibilities of a sovereign state, rather than its rights, in order to facilitate the depiction of target states as failing their responsibilities and thereby forfeiting their rights;

3. develop mechanisms for quickly confirming the perpetration of atrocities and assign responsibility for such acts to the government of the target state;

4. situate the mechanism for intervention (the military force) outside of the United Nations, in such a way that the mechanism is both independent from, and deemed essential to, the UN.

In addition to these specific features, the new HI framework would benefit from being presented as having emerged from a concrete, successful application in an existing situation.

The specific points of departure were the Bosnian civil war and the Rwandan tragedy in 1994. Both of these crises were presented as internal ethnic conflicts that resulted in mass atrocities, which threatened to continue and expand, and to which the international community had a moral duty to respond. The role of foreign interference in the development of these conflicts was obscured and, in fact, the lack of foreign intervention was identified as a failure of the international community to prevent atrocities.

This promotional campaign was hugely effective – by the time of NATO’s 1999 war against Yugoslavia, notions of moral outrage and humanitarian duty were so deeply embedded in the public discourse that opposition to the aggression was practically neutralized in many areas. In some countries, whole sections of the peace movement not only failed to mobilize against NATO, but actually encouraged and justified its intervention. In truth, anti-imperialist campaigns did respond, but they were generally weak and ineffective. Certainly, however, the peace and progressive forces within the countries of the imperialist camp were consumed by deep confusion and bitter divisions that resulted from the states’ misinformation campaigns. Notably, these difficulties persist to the present day, and they continue to be obstacles to developing effective anti-war campaigns.

Perhaps most interestingly, the bulk of the debate over NATO’s 1999 actions focused on the completeness or veracity of the stated pretext for intervention: preventing mass atrocities from being committed in Kosovo. Whether it was supported or challenged, the pretext for war had become the central and singular question. Debate over the real motivation for war – imperialist expansion – was kept to a minimum.

Cathy Fischer of the Regina Peace Council described this:

“Protecting the rights of Albanians in Kosovo was the excuse for intervention. Before NATO began bombing, president Milosevic of Yugoslavia was given the option of signing the Rambouillet Agreement. This agreement meant NATO troops would occupy the whole of Yugoslavia, not just Kosovo, and it provided for privatization of their many state enterprises, including takeover by foreign companies. Milosevic refused to sign, and with this came the call for immediate ‘humanitarian intervention’ – the bombing of Yugoslavia. U.S.-NATO planes spent 78 days, from March 24 to June 10, dropping 20,000 bombs on the people…

Along with military targets, the bombing destroyed utilities, roads, bridges, hospitals, clinics, schools, TV stations and the Chinese embassy. There was no spring planting, countless wells were poisoned, factories were destroyed putting thousands of people out of work. Many of the shells used were coated with depleted uranium, spreading deadly radioactive dust. Almost a million refugees fled the bombing. All this ‘humanitarian intervention’ because Yugoslavia had a domestically controlled economy, a strong publicly-owned sector, a good and free health care system and its own defence industry. Its population resisted the cuts to its social programs demanded by the International Monetary Fund. It refused to allow U.S. military bases on its soil, and did not want to join NATO. So the country was bombed to smithereens.”

(“Today’s Trojan Horse: Humanitarian Intervention and the Responsibility to “Protect”)


Belgrade burns during NATO’s “humanitarian intervention”. 24 March, 1999. (Public Domain)

The 1999 aggression against Yugoslavia was the first application of the ideas of “Responsibility to Protect”, as well as NATO’s New Strategic Concept. This is important for two key reasons. First, the aggression provided a testing ground for the new policy orientation, and the results would be used to justify the rapid institutionalization of R2P by the United Nations. Second, it concretely identified NATO as the vehicle for implementing the “moral duty” of the international community and deeply embedded NATO into the role and work of the UN. Responsibility to Protect is the diplomatic and ideological tool, providing the moral cover necessary for the implementation of the New Strategic Concept.

Shortly after its application in Yugoslavia, the doctrine of Responsibility to Protect began to be codified. In 2000, the Canadian government – who had participated enthusiastically in the bombing campaign in 1999 – sponsored the founding of the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS). This body was responsible for crafting a legal justification for imperialism’s new framework of humanitarian intervention. In its report, it concretely addressed some of the key requirements, identified above, for accomplishing a sweeping change in international law:

Rooting Responsibility to Protect in the existing, but evolving, institutions: Great care was taken by the members of ICISS to situate R2P within the context of the UN Declaration of Human Rights and a range of UN covenants, conventions, treaties and other mechanisms. At the same time, the incompleteness, or immaturity, of the institutions of international law was underscored. The commission’s report notes, for example, that “even though in some cases imperfectly implemented, these agreements and mechanisms have significantly changed expectations at all levels about what is and what is not acceptable conduct by states and other actors,” and goes on to suggest that “the universal jurisdiction of these instruments [of international law] is starting to be taken very seriously.”

Changing the notion of sovereignty: One of the most formidable and enduring obstacles to the pretext of humanitarian intervention is the Westphalian concept of sovereignty. The ICISS approached this cleverly, and depicted sovereignty not as a state’s right to territorial integrity, but rather as a state’s responsibility to protect its people. The key “obligations of sovereignty” were then specifically equated to the components of humanitarian and human rights law. The ICISS then asserted that a state’s failure or inability to guarantee these obligations meant the forfeiture of its sovereignty: “Where a population is suffering serious harm, as a result of internal war, insurgency, repression or state failure, and the state in question is unwilling or unable to halt or avert it, the principle of non-intervention yields to the international responsibility to protect.”

Developing mechanisms for confirming atrocities: In order to generate the combination of a sense of urgency and a sufficient level of public confidence, the proponents of R2P needed a reliable mechanism for investigating alleged atrocities and ensure that blame was clearly ascribed to the target state. The ICISS report identifies specific bodies whose structure is ad hoc, thereby liberated from ongoing scrutiny, and whose performance in the service of imperialist expansion was reliable and worthy of emulation. The report singles out, for example, the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR), the International Criminal Court (ICC), as well as numerous Non-Government Organizations whose work and structure lie completely beyond the influence of the United Nations. Interestingly, the applicability to this work of the UN’s own mechanisms – which are much more transparent, democratic and accountable – is downplayed.

Situate the mechanism for intervention outside of the UN: Clearly, the question of how to guarantee legal sanction to the international activities of a military organization is a delicate one. In its report on this matter, the ICISS identified “multinational coalition operations” as the appropriate vehicle for military action.  Furthermore, the commission notes that “given…the shrinking military budgets of most countries in the post-Cold War era, there are real constraints on how much spare capacity exists to take on additional burdens.” It then hints at the key role  for NATO in the UN’s work on global security:  “UN peacekeeping may have peaked in 1993 at 78,000 troops. But today, if both NATO and UN missions are included, the number of soldiers in international peace operations has soared by about 40 per cent to 108,000.”

Largely on the basis of the ICISS report, the R2P doctrine became an “international norm”, by which the institutions of international law would be interpreted and implemented. However, it was not introduced and implemented through anything close to international consensus – on the contrary, it was repeatedly denounced by a majority of the governments of the world. In 1999 the 113 member states of the Non-Aligned Movement rejected the “so-called ‘right of humanitarian intervention’ which has no legal basis in the UN Charter or in the general principles of international law.” A year later, the Group of 77 issued a declaration to the same effect.

Responsibility to Protect is certainly not the only pretext for justifying imperialist aggression, but it is one that has proven to be enormously effective, in a short period of time.  It has been used – sometimes on its own and sometimes in conjunction with other pretexts – to justify imperialist aggressions against Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, Iraq, Haiti, Mali and Syria, as well as the current provocations against Iran, Ukraine and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. Part of its strength is that it appeals to, and plays upon, basic humanitarian concerns that people of all nations share.  We do not like to see our fellow human beings suffer through tragedies like war, repression and poverty, and we feel the need to assist in some way. Many people view humanitarian intervention as a concrete vehicle for providing that assistance, and so they become supportive of R2P. Melding imperialist foreign policy onto the moral fabric of imperialist societies, it is the modern “White Man’s Burden”.

The logical outcome of such a situation is a lack of strong opposition to imperialist expansion and aggression. At times, sectors of the progressive movements are actually co-opted and help to justify the pretext for aggression.  At other times, there is less active support but the ideological softening of public discourse results in neutralization of the anti-imperialist message. In both cases, however, opposition is confused and fragmented and the imperialist powers enjoy a high degree of freedom to pursue their interventions, and this, in turn, further emboldens them.


The Trudeau Liberals plan on increasing annual military expenditures by $14 billion to over $32 billion a year within ten years. Sean Kilpatrick, Canadian Press, 2017

As the dangers of mass destruction through war grow, the peoples of the world face an increasingly stark and urgent choice. The challenge to the peace and anti-imperialist movements involves exposing the real, imperialist reasons behind interventions. It requires a clear assessment of the main dangers to peace at any particular moment, and the projection of concrete bases of unity for building mass opposition. It challenges us to strengthen, and perhaps update, our understanding of sovereignty, and be able to justify that principle in the face of disinformation that is cloaked in “humanitarian” language.

The extent to which we can dismantle a social morality that justifies imperialist aggression depends, to no small degree, on our ability to propagate a solidaristic and internationalist morality. We need to undermine the “Responsibility to Protect” and replace it with a “Responsibility to Protest.”

We can find optimism in the fact that among the most deeply held humanitarian convictions of the peoples of the world is the desire for peace. They will continue to demand it, whatever the circumstances, and they will achieve it. Our survival depends on it!


DaveMcKee.jpgDave McKee is former of President of the Canadian Peace Congress, and is currently chair of the Peace and Disarmament Commission of the Communist Party of Canada. He tweets at @DaveMcKee2.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.