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The ethics of the responsibility to protect

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Max Weber’s contrast between political action based on an ethics of responsibility or an ethics of conviction is instructive in trying to understand and explain the selective application of the R2P norm to conflicts in the Middle East. A contribution to the openGlobalRights debate, R2P and the Human Rights Crisis in Syria. Español

Juan Francisco Lobo
3 September 2014

Almost a hundred years ago, the German scholar Max Weber, delivered a famous speech, Politics as a vocation, in which he distinguished between two ethical approaches to politics: the ethics of conviction; and the ethics of responsibility. In the first, one focuses only on the just or rightful objectives of a given political doctrine or measure, regardless of the consequences of applying it. In the latter, one takes into account all the probabilities of real life, including the strengths and weaknesses of people, in order to take full responsibility for the acts committed in the pursuance of a political goal.

Interestingly, Weber’s distinction is useful in trying to understand the different approaches taken to ongoing humanitarian crises in the Middle East.

The selective military interventions of the international community, favoring Libya but deliberately putting Syria and Gaza aside, presents international analysts and activists with a real conundrum as for what is the best and most responsible way to use armed force in the world today. When the international community, in the late 1990s, tried to answer a similar question – ‘Why Kosovo and not Rwanda?’ - the response came in the shape of a new doctrine: the responsibility to protect (R2P).

Under R2P, there is a responsibility on outside actors to protect civilians at risk in humanitarian crises such as the Syrian conflict or the recent violence unleashed in Gaza by both Hamas and the Israeli armed forces. This responsibility may include ultimately the deployment of military personnel and the actual use of force to stop situations of genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes and ethnic cleansing.

This begs the obvious question: If the Security Council determined the existence of such threats in the case of Libya (specifically, crimes against humanity) and therefore authorized NATO’s intervention in that country, why did it not do so in the case of Syria, where the ongoing conflict has led to over 150,000 deaths and to many war crimes and crimes against humanity?

And it raises a new question in light of the recent events in Gaza during July, 2014: Why does not the international community, through the UN Security Council, intervene militarily to stop the bombings in Gaza and the rocket attacks in the rest of Israel?

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Oren Rosenfeld/Demotix (All rights reserved)

Israeli soldiers heading to battle with Hamas across the border into Gaza.


A cynic may respond that the key to unravel the mystery of selective humanitarian interventions lies in the interests of the United States. Thus, the United States will always back its main ally in the Middle East – Israel – whereas it won’t cross a Russian ally – Syria –, but it would have no problem in joining a multinational coalition to attack a pariah regime with no significant international allies – like Libya.

While there might be a certain degree of truth to this account of international relations, it would be incomplete not to provide an ethical explanation for the way States behave, because, “any account of international relations that seeks to exclude morality is an unrealistic account of international relations”.

Just war theory, which dates back to Cicero and includes thinkers such as Augustine, Aquinas, Francisco Vitoria, Emmerich de Vattel and Michael Walzer, has long grappled with the morality of war. Under this theory, a war – for instance, a humanitarian intervention based on the principle of the R2P – may be justified if it complies with some requirements: (i) there must be a just cause; (ii) a legitimate authority has to permit the use of force through a formal declaration; (iii) war must be a last resort; (iv) belligerents must have a rightful intention; and (v) there must be reasonable prospects of success and an acceptable proportionality ratio between the costs and the benefits of the use of force. The R2P doctrine clearly draws on the just war tradition, as it includes almost identical criteria to justify the use of force.

The last requirements of proportionality and a reasonable prospect of success are seen by some as a concession to realism. Actually, they represent an addition of good judgment to debates on humanitarian interventions, in which self-righteousness and zealotry may easily cloud the complexities of a given situation.

It now becomes clear that there is an important Weberian ‘ethics of responsibility’ aspect to the R2P discourse, mostly evidenced in its requirement concerning the reasonable prospects of success. Thus, the answer to the question ‘Why Libya and not Syria and Gaza?’ is apparent if one takes due account of this requirement. Indeed, it might be recast as the ‘ethics of the responsibility to protect’, whereby interventions – even if motivated by the need to protect civilians – are considered in light of all possible consequences.

Prima facie, it would be wise to admit that an international intervention against Syria, a Russian ally, could lead to negative consequences elsewhere, considering the recent Russian momentum in the international arena. Moreover, it might inadvertently assist radical Islamist groups fighting the Syrian government. Regarding Gaza, the proposal for the use of force by the international community against a US ally, like Israel, would most certainly be vetoed by the US at the UN Security Council. Besides, it is not clear how an addition of more military force could contribute to ending Israeli attacks in the occupied territories in Israel, nor to stopping the Hamas rockets as Israel’s modern military machinery has so far failed to do. A humanitarian intervention in Gaza, to stop the crossfire between Israel and Hamas, would only further destabilize an already unstable region.

Thinking about consequences, Weber’s ethics suggests caution and the need to find a diplomatic, peaceful solution as soon as possible to the conflicts in Syria and Israel.

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