Professor Hannum Discusses "The Responsibility to Protect: Paradigm or Pastiche?"

Northern Ireland Legal Quarterly, Vol. 60, No. 2, p. 135, 2009

At its core, the notion that every individual state and the “international community” have a responsibility to ensure that individuals are protected from gross crimes and life-threatening situations wherever they live is a moral, even noble, goal. It reflects the increasing humanisation of international relations and is consistent with the ever-increasing commitment by states to human rights. Unfortunately, the campaign that has evolved in recent years for recognition of a “responsibility to protect”(“R2P”or “RtoP”) as an international norm or even a guiding principle for international relations suffers from serious problems. The vagueness, hyperbole and neo-colonial undertones ofR2P may have the unwelcome consequence of making it more, not less, difficult to reach consensus on criteria for humanitarian intervention in the future. In addition, as the responsibility to protect continues to evolve within the labyrinthine corridors of the United Nations, what little potential it might have had as a catalyst for action is diminishing rather than increasing. Finally, it may make it even more difficult to promote and protect human rights, properly understood, if a clear distinction is not maintained between the moral-political aspirations of the responsibility to protect and the legally binding norms of international human rights law. This brief commentary challenges both the initial concept of the responsibility to protect and its subsequent development. Despite the fact that the concept now has its own scholarly journal2and a New York-based think tank, it is submitted that the responsibility to protect has become more a slogan than a programme, and its continued promotion is likely to do more harm than good. The primary criticisms of the concept refer to its vagueness; the exaggerated claims of its sponsors; Its breadth; and, ironically, its limitations. The legitimacy of the responsibility to protect is further undermined by its birth in the context of the NATO bombing of Kosovo and Serbia, which continues to colour the concept’s interpretation by both supporters and detractors.