Reframing the Intervention Debate: A Responsibility to Protect

Tasneem Jamal

Larissa Fast

The Ploughshares Monitor Spring 2002 Volume 23 Issue 1

In the wake of the crises in Bosnia and Somalia in the early 1990s, Rwanda in 1994, and Kosovo in 1999 policy makers, decision makers, academics, NGOs, and church leaders have intensely debated and grappled with the ethical, moral, and legal implications of “humanitarian intervention.” The debate has often revolved around two competing imperatives: the sovereignty of states that prevents external intervention in the internal affairs of a state (the norms of non-intervention and self-determination), and the humanitarian imperative to protect those who suffer incredible abuses of human rights, especially in the context of states that either commit these abuses against their own citizens or are unable to protect their citizens from these abuses.

Over the years Project Ploughshares has wrestled with these same issues. Recently, Ploughshares hosted a roundtable event on non-military forms of intervention (Griffiths-Fulton 2001) and published a working paper by Dr. Penelope Simons that surveys the key debates from within the legal and international relations literatures (Simons 2001). Despite the intensity and frequency of discussions in a variety of venues and fora over the years, little if any consensus existed within the international community about the conditions under which intervention was necessary and appropriate.

In an effort to address this lack of consensus and in response to a challenge from UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan to “forge unity” around how and when intervention is appropriate and necessary, the Government of Canada and a number of major private foundations provided funding for an international commission to examine these issues. Lloyd Axworthy, then Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Trade, launched the Commission in September 2000. In December 2001, the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS) released its report on humanitarian intervention entitled “The Responsibility to Protect” (ICISS 2001). As its title suggests, this report offers a new lens through which to view the moral, legal, and political questions surrounding intervention. The co-chairs of the Commission, Gareth Evans and Mohamed Sahnoun, together with their fellow Commissioners (GisPle Côté-Harper, Lee Hamilton, Michael Ignatieff, Vladimir Lukin, Klaus Naumann, Cyril Ramaphosa, Fidel Ramos, Cornelio Sommaruga, Eduardo Stein, and Ramesh Thakur), took up the difficult task of forging consensus around the questions of when external intervention is necessary and appropriate.

To do this, the ICISS held a series of regional and national roundtables and consultations around the world, conferring with academics, policy makers, eminent persons, and others to gather a wide range of perspectives on the key issues in the debate. The staff of the ICISS and a research team provided significant assistance and input in drafting the various versions of the report circulated at these sessions. Participants debated the legal, moral, operational, and political questions of intervention. The resulting ICISS report emerged with a series of recommendations and a framework that revolves around a “responsibility to protect.”

A responsibility to protect

The report makes a “principled, as well as a practical and political, case for conceptualizing the intervention issue in terms of a responsibility to protect” (ICISS 2001, p. 12). In doing so, the Commission relies upon three principles: sovereignty, human rights, and human security. The report argues for reconceptualizing sovereignty in terms of responsibility as opposed to the more traditional notion of sovereignty as control. This implies that the state, including its agents, is responsible for the welfare of its citizens and for its actions, both internally to its citizens and externally to the international community in the form of the United Nations. In addition, the report points to an emerging norm of national and international accountability in human rights, citing the Ottawa Convention on Landmines and the Rome Statute that established the International Criminal Court as evidence of this trend. The third principle, the concept of human security, affirms a person’s right to live in a safe and secure environment, and points to a state’s obligation to protect its citizens from both internal and external threats. Specifically, “[t]he fundamental components of human security – the security of people against threats to life, livelihood, personal safety and human dignity – can be put at risk by external aggression, but also by factors within a country, including ‘security’ forces” (ICISS 2001, p. 15). The report suggests that a broader conception of security forces states to think not only in terms of external threats, but more importantly of the threats to health and welfare that many face on a daily basis. These three principles, coupled with an emerging practice in favour of intervening to protect the human rights of citizens, provide the rationale for the report’s central thesis.

The Report offers four objectives to guide an approach to intervention based on the responsibility to protect. First, it is imperative to develop clear rules, procedures, and criteria for how and when to intervene. Second, military intervention is legitimate in particular cases when all other approaches and strategies have failed. Third, military intervention should seek to minimize the human costs and infrastructure damage that occur following intervention. And last, intervention should help to eliminate the causes of conflict and support a more stable peace. The remainder of the report focuses on these objectives, using and promoting three supporting responsibilities: a responsibility to prevent, a responsibility to react, and a responsibility to rebuild.

A responsibility to prevent

The Commission takes a stand that protection implies preventing such abuses from occurring in the first place. Prevention may take the form of inducements or rewards to entice states not to commit such abuses, or punitive measures to punish wrongdoers. A commitment to prevention helps to eliminate the causes of conflict and support a more stable and durable peace. In addressing root causes of conflict through preventive efforts, the Commission includes political and economic dimensions, as well as the need to strengthen and/or reform legal institutions and the security sector (i.e., the military or police).

This commitment to prevention is not necessarily new, although a gap remains “between rhetoric and financial and political support for prevention,” a point which the Report acknowledges (ICISS 2001, p. 20). Such an approach requires “early warning,” a set of tools to be applied (a “preventive toolbox”), and the political will to use these tools. The Commission proposes that information about escalating conflicts is readily available, but the gap appears in translating this information into policy and action. It applauds the activities of those NGOs dedicated to early warning and human rights monitoring, while at the same time acknowledging that more work needs to be done. The report suggests centralizing such information within the UN Secretariat and the office of the Secretary-General, and providing more resources to regional and sub-regional conflict prevention activities.

The preventive toolbox to which the Report refers includes a range of measures, from non-coercive to coercive, and from assistance, rewards, or inducements to punishments. The Commission mentions political and diplomatic initiatives (e.g., fact-finding missions, Track II dialogue and problem-solving workshops), positive economic inducements (e.g., development or peacebuilding assistance), and negative economic inducements in the form of sanctions or legal measures (e.g., human rights monitors or special tribunals that investigate and prosecute war crimes), and military measures (e.g., preventive deployment). Other crucial elements in prevention include the need to coordinate initiatives and ensure the cooperation of the media and regional and sub-regional organizations. Many of these measures have been described elsewhere, but they are summarized in a succinct and useful way in the Report. Most importantly, the Report asserts, “Intervention should only be considered when prevention fails – and the best way of avoiding intervention is to ensure that it doesn’t fail” (ICISS 2001, p. 25).

A responsibility to react

This section of the Report reiterates and reinforces sanctions as an appropriate tool before making the decision to intervene and suggests a variety of types of military, economic, and political/diplomatic sanctions. Nevertheless, the Commission believes in some extreme cases military intervention will be necessary. The Commission suggests six criteria to guide decision-making about intervention, most of which appear in Just War Theory: right authority, just cause, right intention, last resort, proportional means, and reasonable prospects.

The Report refers to the just cause criterion as a threshold criterion, the criterion that should trigger military intervention for human protection purposes. According to the Commission, intervention is warranted in only two circumstances:

  • “large-scale loss of life, actual or apprehended, with genocidal intent or not, which is the product either of deliberate state action, or state neglect or inability to act, or a failed state situation; or
  • large-scale ‘ethnic cleansing,’ actual or apprehended, whether carried out by killing, forced expulsion, acts of terror or rape” (ICISS 2001, p. 32).

These circumstances include both actual and suspected instances, leaving the door open to the use of military intervention to prevent a large-scale loss of life. These circumstances are broad enough to allow for interpretation, such as the numbers of people who would have to die in order to constitute “large-scale” loss of life, but the Report suggests that the various criteria, if strictly applied, will limit instances of military intervention.

Right intention refers to the primary purpose of the intervention, which should be to minimize or prevent human suffering. While recognizing that mixed motives are inevitable, the Commission proposes collective, as opposed to unilateral, intervention as one way of promoting right intention. Last resort, according to the Commission, demands that those considering or advocating intervention must exhaust all other options before the international community authorizes intervention. Proportional means ensures that only the minimum amount of force is used to meet the objectives of the intervention. Last, reasonable prospects refers to the likelihood of success. Military intervention, the Commission asserts, is not justified if it results in a larger military conflict.

The remaining criterion, right authority, is the subject of an entire chapter in the Report. In discussing authority, the Commission unambiguously states: “The UN, whatever arguments may persist about the meaning and scope of various Charter provisions, is unquestionably the principal institution for building, consolidating and using the authority of the international community” (ICISS 2001, p. 48). Furthermore, the Commission recommends that right authority rests in the hands of the UN Security Council, despite its weaknesses (i.e., the question of the democratic legitimacy of the Council or the veto power of the Permanent 5). Although the Report makes an effort to address some of these weaknesses, it asserts that if the Security Council does not act in these extraordinary circumstances, its influence and legitimacy will diminish. This opens the door to interventions that may not meet any of the criteria the Commission establishes.

Even with these criteria in place, operational questions about how the intervention should occur are especially relevant. The Commission makes a series of operational recommendations that cover the practical dimension of a military intervention. Some of these recommendations include careful advance planning, the need for multilateral interventions, clear and unambiguous objectives and mandate, an adequate and significant resource commitment to enable the intervention to fulfill its objectives, and a clear and unequivocal chain of command.

A responsibility to rebuild

If intervention does indeed occur and even if the six criteria are respected, physical damage and harm to people and to economic and social infrastructure are inevitable. For this reason, the Commission proposes that the responsibility to protect include the responsibility to rebuild. This obligation to commit resources and planning efforts to peacebuilding should reflect a “genuine commitment to helping to build a durable peace, and promoting good governance and sustainable development” (ICISS 2001, p. 39). The Report refers to the UN Secretary-General’s 1998 report on “The Causes of Conflict and the Promotion of Durable Peace and Sustainable Development in Africa” as the basis for post-conflict peacebuilding. It makes particular mention of the following activities:

• sustainable development;

• disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration of former combatants;

• reform of the security sector (e.g., police and military) in order to provide effective security for the entire population; and

• reforming the judicial system to ensure the legal rights of returnees and to eliminate unequal treatment under the law.

Although the Report mentions the option of a form of administration under UN authority, it strongly affirms the right of the population to self-determination.

Reframing the debate

This report makes an important contribution to the debate, primarily in offering an alternative lens through which to view the issues. In reframing this debate, the report does several things. First, it clarifies terminology. The report simply refers to “intervention,” and discards the similar but more controversial term of “humanitarian intervention.” Many have expressed skepticism and discomfort in marrying the terms “humanitarian” and “intervention.” The ICISS report follows in this path, preferring instead to reframe the debate around a broader definition of “intervention.” A World Council of Churches (WCC) document about protecting endangered populations in situations of armed violence took a similar stance (WCC 2001), pointing out that the word “humanitarian” has particular significance in international humanitarian law and that states seldom intervene for purely humanitarian reasons. Intervention, in the eyes of the ICISS, refers to “action taken against a state or its leaders, without its or their consent, for purposes which are claimed to be humanitarian or protective” (ICISS 2001, p. 8).

Second, and more importantly, like the WCC document mentioned above, the report refers to a “responsibility to protect” as opposed to the “right of humanitarian intervention.” The key question remains the same: “when, if ever, it is appropriate for states to take coercive – and in particular military – action against another state for the purposes of protecting people at risk in that other state” (ICISS 2001, p. vii). However, this responsibility still affirms the competing imperatives mentioned above: the norms of sovereignty and non-intervention and the right of citizens to be protected from gross human rights violations. In advocating particular criteria to guide decisions regarding those exceptional cases where the international community should violate the norm of non-intervention, the Commission offers a narrow but clear path out of the forest.

The Commission’s report is comprehensive in scope and addresses many of the key issues in the debate about when and how to intervene. Its reframing of the debate offers passage out of the chaotic and unsystematic responses of the international community in the face of humanitarian crises. As important, it emphasizes the need to strengthen and exhaust preventive measures prior to deciding to intervene, and the need for follow-up and rebuilding in a post-intervention scenario. Nevertheless, some issues remain. Most notably, the key issue left hanging is how to generate enough political will to respond consistently to cases that meet the report’s criteria for intervention. Project Ploughshares will continue to wrestle with this and other questions, such as the implications of this report for Canadian defence policy, in an effort to promote a more peaceful world.



Griffiths-Fulton, Lynne 2001, “Non-military intervention and protecting the vulnerable: Report on a Roundtable discussion,” The Ploughshares Monitor, pp. 17-20.

ICISS 2001, The Responsibility to Protect: Report of the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty, IDRC, Ottawa.

Simons, Penelope 2001, Humanitarian Intervention: A Review of the Literature, Project Ploughshares Working Paper 01-2.

World Council of Churches 2001, The Protection of Endangered Populations in Situations of Armed Violence: Toward an Ecumenical Ethical Approach, Document #PI 2-rev. February.

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