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How the Iraq war undermined the Responsibility to Protect doctrine

Middle East

How the Iraq war undermined the Responsibility to Protect doctrine

How the Iraq war undermined the Responsibility to Protect doctrine


In an interview for Prospect Magazine’s June issue, Emily Thornberry, the British shadow foreign secretary, argued that “the doctrine of Responsibility to Protect” (R2P) is on life support, and that the aftermath of the 2011 military action in Libya badly damaged the concept of R2P.

Certainly, Libya’s instability and the international community’s failure to protect civilians in the Syrian civil war have undermined those who advocate for humanitarian interventions, including through R2P. Before these two crises, however, the 2003 invasion of Iraq and subsequent years of war and instability crippled R2P just when it gained international approval.
Humanitarian intervention encompasses a broad set of ideas about what countries and the international community should do to support people suffering from violence, natural disaster and other humanitarian concerns.
While R2P falls under that general umbrella, it is a specific doctrine adopted unanimously by the UN in 2005. R2P represents an effort to address the gap between respect for state sovereignty and respect for the most fundamental rights of people — a gap that was especially clear after the genocides and wars in the Balkans and Rwanda in the 1990s.
R2P posits that state sovereignty comes with responsibilities toward the people that a government governs. When a government is unable to fulfill its responsibility to provide basic protections to its people — or when a government perpetrates specific crimes against people under its care — then other states have a responsibility to step in. R2P applies to four very specific situations with particular meanings under international law: “Genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity,” according to the UN.
The George W. Bush administration did not explicitly cite R2P as a justification for the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Bush’s foreign policy team primarily focused on concerns about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction and alleged links to terrorism. However, the administration also argued that Saddam Hussein’s brutal treatment of many Iraqis was one reason to overthrow him, as well as promoting democracy.


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