The dramatic and saddening events in Minneapolis, the city where I grew up, have reminded me of the ”Responsibility to Protect,” a concept developed about twenty years ago. The objective was to create a new international norm, clearly giving states the main responsibility for protecting populations from genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity, or ethnic cleansing. The international community (admittedly a vague concept) would assist states to that end. States that failed in their responsibility to protect could face pressures up to and including the use of collective force under a UN mandate.
The UN World Summit in 2005 made a political commitment to the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) principles, though they have proved difficult to implement. In fact, R2P now seems quaint, a relic of a bygone, more optimistic time. The international community’s failures in Syria and elsewhere have seen to that. And we seem to have entered a more Hobbesian “war of all against all” moment, with the Trump Administration, for one, abandoning the concept of a rules-based international order.
Nonetheless, we should value R2P’s focus on the primary responsibility of states to protect their populations, and the idea that we all should hold states to account when they fail in that mission. The state has many things to protect. The safety of citizens when they encounter the legitimate police functions of the state is certainly among them. And we have just seen the costs when the state fails in such cases. All citizens have the right to express their opinions openly and peacefully, a right that must be protected, although in many states it is denied outright. It is also the responsibility of the state to protect the safety and wellbeing of all citizens, including their property. (Property is not a dirty word.) In practice, these requirements can be difficult to reconcile, as we are seeing. But the responsibility to protect is undeniable.