During World War II, German cleric Dietrich Bonhoeffer actively conspired against Hitler to resist the persecution of Europe’s Jews. Bonhoeffer spent years subverting Nazi policy at the highest level and was even involved in the plot to kill Hitler. When Bonhoeffer, a Lutheran pastor, was caught by Nazi officials, he was first held in military detention, then in a Gestapo prison, then at Buchenwald concentration camp, and finally at Flossenbürg concentration camp. As Allied forces approached Flossenbürg in 1945, the SS received orders to hang Bonhoeffer. Before he died, he explained his resistance to the Nazi regime: “If I see a madman driving a car into a group of innocent bystanders, then I can’t, as a Christian, simply wait for the catastrophe and then comfort the wounded and bury the dead. I must try and wrestle the steering wheel out of the hands of the driver.” In Bonhoeffer’s mind those in a position to act have a responsibility to protect.
In the aftermath of the Third Reich, whose horrors were a grave wake-up call for the world’s democratic nations, open societies began to recognize a responsibility to prevent despotic regimes from killing their own people on a massive scale. Almost 65 years after the Holocaust and decades after genocides and mass murders in Cambodia, Darfur, Ethiopia and Srebrenica, a principle of government policy by the name “Responsibility to Protect” took form.
Also known as R2P, the doctrine was adopted in 2005 by the United Nations in the wake of genocides in Rwanda and Bosnia. The policy obligates the international community to use diplomatic and humanitarian means to support governments in exercising the responsibility to protect their citizens, as well as coercive tactics — diplomatic, legal, economic and, as a last resort, military — in order to stop mass atrocities. R2P became the legal basis invoked to prevent crimes against humanity and war crimes last spring in Libya by NATO forces under the mandate of the U.N. Security Council.
Critics brand R2P an inconsistent policy, activated in the case of oil-rich and isolated Libya, but not in the case of Syria, which lacks oil and sits at a fragile flashpoint between Lebanon, Iraq, Israel and Turkey.
If something like Srebrenica were to happen today within Europe, R2P action might be trigged immediately. But when massacres occurred in Burma or the Congo, for instance, NATO turned a blind eye. Some critics conclude that R2P is led solely by economics; others believe it is racist. The truth is that democratic processes like R2P are imperfect, messy and driven by competing self-interests. But authoritarianism is infinitely messier.
Indeed, the major challenge to R2P moving forward is represented by China and Russia. You will never see the U.N. address the repression of the Uyghur people in China or the Tibetan population in the R2P discussion. You will never see the R2P doctrine implemented in Chechnya, a country that has been ravaged for two decades by Russia. The Russian and Chinese governments, members of the U.N. Security Council, are the two major obstacles that stand in the way.