Professor Michael W. Doyle Explores "Responsibility to Protect" in International Governance

Co-director of Columbia Law School's Center on Global Governance Examines the Complex Global Politics of Humanitarian Intervention

New York, November 26, 2013—A United Nations agreement establishing a “responsibility to protect” (R2P) populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing, and crimes against humanity both enables and limits member states’ intervention in conflicts, said Professor Michael W. Doyle in a Nov. 18 discussion at Columbia Law School.

Following NATO’s 1999 entry into Kosovo to protect ethnic Albanians from the forces of Serbia and Montenegro, many countries—especially from the developing world—protested what they saw as a precedent for open-ended intervention, lacking clear criteria to determine legitimate uses of force. After much debate, U.N. member nations unanimously signed on to a 2005 Summit Outcome Document recognizing an international “responsibility to protect.”

“R2P is a license and a leash,” said Doyle, former Assistant Secretary-General of the UN and the Harold Brown Professor of International Affairs, Law, and Political Science at Columbia Law School. He explained that while R2P authorizes the international community to violate states’ sovereignty for humanitarian reasons, it also limits that authority to the four specific categories—genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing, and crimes against humanity.

“There’s a need to reassure people that everytime there’s a resolution from the Security Council it won’t be a blank check,” Doyle said, explaining global concerns about military interventions generally dominated by Western countries.

Despite the limitations of R2P, Doyle argued that it represents an important step forward in developing a new set of norms for global society.

“R2P has gone through a process of multilateral and almost universal global deliberation and consent. It’s the first step to customary international law,” he said.

Doyle’s discussion was sponsored by the Columbia Society of International Law.