The ‘responsibility to respect’: time to look beyond the nation-state?

When it comes to R2P are the institutions designed some 60 years ago still the best way to represent the ‘international community’? 

Elise Rietveld
24 January 2013

International lawyers, activists and diplomats have made much of ‘the responsibility to protect’ over the past decade: if states fail to protect their own citizens, the international community has a duty to step in. Simply put, the concept holds that as human beings we have a responsibility to protect human life where it is endangered and that if we possess the collective resources to step in and intervene, doing so is our moral duty. The international community, represented in the UN, should aim to prevent and stop genocide even if that means broaching the national sovereignty of the perpetrator-state. The responsibility to protect overrides traditional conceptions of sovereignty, in other words.

The responsibility to protect is not a lever for arbitrary military intervention: it points to prevention, institution building and non-military sanctions in first instance. If those fail, and states do not adequately protect their citizens, military intervention might be justified if it is sanctioned by the international community. Typically, such justification runs through the UN Security Council, which makes it a thorny issue as this council likes to disagree. Some interventions have however taken place that advocates say represent a growing belief in the concept: Kosovo, for example, and more recently Libya. So let’s assume for a moment that there is something there, and the international community should indeed respond proactively to gross violations of human rights. Are the institutions designed some 60 years ago still the best way to represent that international community?

Challenges to state sovereignty

We think of the international community as made up of nation-states. These nation-states however have been altered by global processes of change and do not possess the same clout they once did – their reality no longer straightforwardly reflects the image of distinct sovereign states that the UN was built on. Globalisation and modernity have altered the parameters in which states operate. Internationally, they have far less scope for strategic action as they are bound not only by increased international cooperation but also by the crushing power of financial markets that respond quickly and potentially fatally to (perceived) moves in policy. Nationally, states can no longer rely on the traditional ways of representation: citizens no longer only channel their political engagement through the institutions of political parties and trade unions but seek more fluid ways of exerting influence. Political activism now increasingly runs through society, understood as internally organised in networks.

This has prompted reflection on the role and the nature of the state today. Some argue for a post-national world where nation-states are superseded by supranational institutions. Others champion participatory forms of democracy at a more local level. Alternatively, David Cameron’s idea of ‘The Big Society’ visualises a country where the state carries out only very minimal functions and more and more responsibilities are taken on by society in all its organised forms. Such reconfigurations of the relationship between society and state seem plausible and it is likely that networks could play a bigger role in the delivery of core state functions. Could this have implications for our conception of the international community?

If political allegiances – and arguably democracy itself – could run through networks rather than directly through the state, would it be thinkable that the responsibility to protect could as well? If the responsibility to protect is understood as a collective moral duty to protect human rights; is the state still the appropriate collective? Could we argue that it might justify military intervention in conflicts by societal actors other than states?

Non-state military intervention in conflicts?

Certainly, traditionally one of the most important characteristics of a sovereign state is its monopoly on the use of legitimate force. But that monopoly has been eroded somewhat recently by the surge in the contracting of private security firms. These inhabit a grey area in terms of legitimacy and accountability; they carry out the same tasks national armies would but cannot be held responsible in the same way. Despite the risks that come with such accountability gaps, not only individual countries but also the UN now strongly rely on them. So would it be possible for non-state actors to do so as well? Could charities or NGO’s contract them to provide that armed intervention function and carry out the responsibility to protect? 

They probably could. That is, there have been a number of instances in the past – largely cloaked in secrecy – where the activities of private security firms have been linked to NGO’s; WWF’s Operation Lock[1] is perhaps the most prominent example. If it is possible, however, is it desirable? WWF’s activities certainly wouldn’t suggest so. Clearly, NGO’s are not simply altruistic organisations dedicated to making the world a better place for all of us – nobody agrees on what that would mean in practical terms, and policy decisions tend to be strongly ideological. There have also been ample scandals about the misuse of funds, the negative consequences of NGO interventions, and so on. Combined with the lack of accountability private security firms already bring in, that might suggest we should shelve the idea.

Defining new parameters for legitimate action

But if we’re honest, are governments really always that much more responsive to the concerns of legitimacy and accountability? It seems hard to argue in the post-Iraq era; let’s not forget this was one of those rare occasions where citizens did take to the streets, in their millions, and without any impact. Not to mention the revolving door between the Ministry of Defence and the arms companies. Given the imperfections of the current system – reinforced by the inertia that characterises the Security Council on these issues – that leaves us somewhere in between a hard place and a rock.

I think to get out of there, we have two options: first, we could try to improve the current system. That means increasing the transparency around the international arms trade. It could mean reforming the United Nation, and clarifying what exactly the responsibility to protect means in terms of decision-making structures and plans of action. And it could involve improving democratic participation on issues of foreign policy.

The alternative option would be to radically challenge the way we currently think about intervention and nation-states. We would have to come up with a means to secure accountability and legitimacy through a form of democracy that is based in networks rather than states – through international citizen campaigns for example, or large scale petitions. If an international network encompassing individuals as well as civil society actors dedicated to foreign policy would arise, say at the European level, that through some sort of democratic procedure could prove to represent a significant part of the population; could that network justifiably engage in the kind of military intervention that could prevent genocide? Under what conditions would such actions be justified? Can we think of the parameters that would determine their legitimacy – to a degree that is at the very least no less than the degree of legitimacy present under the current set-up?

I don’t know if option two is really realistic or desirable. Although the nature of society might be changing, nation-states are durable structures, and they do carry some moral weight as well, reflecting hard-won compromises between conflicting values and interests. And would any non-state organisation actually be ready to take on that role and get their hands dirty? But as a thought experiment it reminds us of the contingency of the structures of the international system and it might help to find creative solutions to their current imperfections.


[1] In the 1980’s, WWF employed private security guards to protect animals in their wildlife park in South Africa. These guards were allowed to shoot and kill poachers. Things got suspicious when a disproportionate number of these ‘poachers’ turned out to be ANC activists. 

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