Book Notes International Authority and the Responsibility to Protect

International Authority and the Responsibility to Protect Hot


More and more we find international coalitions using military force against sovereign nations in the name of "protecting" people who are genuinely or perhaps just allegedly threatened. The rationale for such military intervention — protecting people — has not received the sort of critical, skeptical scrutiny that it deserves. Does a government's legitimacy really rest on its ability to protect its people? Do other governments, coalitions, or international organizations have the authority to use force to step in and protect people?

Anne Orford's book International Authority and the Responsibility to Protect addresses these questions and more, taking us back to the earliest days when this argument started to be used and explores how it has evolved over the past few decades.


Since the late 1950s, the United Nations (UN) and other international actors have developed and systematised a body of practices aimed at 'the maintenance of order' and 'the protection of life' in the decolonised world. ...The responsibility to protect concept came of age with its unanimous adoption by the General Assembly in the World Summit Outcome of 2005.4 The General Assembly there endorsed the notion that both the state and the international community have a responsibility to protect populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity. ...

The implementation of the responsibility to protect concept is designed to produce an 'international reflex' action directed to protecting populations at risk whenever decisions about those populations are made. Yet unlike earlier periods in which the scope of international executive action has been justified, redefined or expanded, the articulation of the responsibility to protect concept does not simply offer a reflection upon past practice or an attempt to produce modest lessons learned from previous experience. ...

The expansion of executive rule has not been the subject matter of Charter amendments, new treaties or doctrinal elaboration. Instead, the practices of executive rule have been transmitted through operationally oriented documents such as Security Council mandates, rules of engagement, instruction manuals, reports and studies outlining lessons learned from previous experiences. ...

Executive rule thus developed through the systematisation of practice rather than through the development of detailed doctrines or norms. ...The result has been the gradual consolidation of an impressive apparatus of international rule accompanied by a minimalist articulation of the nature and form of international authority.

Anne Orford raises a series of important questions about the authority and legitimacy of international organizations:



  • Why should the international executive, and particularly executive organs of the UN, have the power to govern in the decolonized world, rather than domestic authorities, other international institutions claiming functional authority or even coalitions of willing states?

  • Is the international executive in fact able to govern effectively?

  • Should the UN or other international actors have the right to judge the legitimacy of rulers or governments?

  • Why do international administrators recognise and liaise with particular local claimants to authority?

  • Upon what grounds is the choice made to recognize one actor rather than another as the legitimate authority or the appropriate collaborator in a territory?

  • Can international humanitarians really act impartially in making such choices?

  • What effects does the choice to collaborate with one group or leader rather than another have in situations of civil war or protracted conflict?


So much revolves around an alleged "responsibility to protect":


It is premised on the notion that authority, to be legitimate, must be effective at guaranteeing protection, and that the failure to protect a population is a factual matter that can be determined by the international community.

The responsibility to protect concept thus grounds authority – both of states and of the international community – on the capacity to provide effective protection to populations at risk. This de facto grounding of authority marginalises the more familiar claims to authority grounded on right, whether that right be understood in historical, universal or democratic terms.

One way or another, so much being done by international organizations or coalitions is premised on this principle. The NATO attacks on Libya are openly premised on the idea that other nations had a responsibility to protect people in Libya because of alleged threats to them by the Libyan government. Few, though, have asked directly just where this responsibility comes from and on what authority a coalition under NATO has to act.

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