Not so long ago, the acronym 'R2P' was all the rage in foreign policy circles. It stood for the 'responsibility to protect': Sovereign nations, the UN declared in 2005, have a responsibility to protect their populations "from genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity, and ethnic cleansing." When a state fails in this responsibility, the UN continued, the burden falls to the "international community" to stop the crimes and save the people. The idea was championed by some of the few liberal hawks who remained in captivity, such as former French foreign minister Bernard Kouchner and National Security Council staffer Samantha Power. You can learn more about R2P here.
What sounds intriguing in theory has never been put into practice. There was a brief discussion of the Responsibility to Protect in the aftermath of Cyclone Nargis, when the Burmese junta denied foreign assistance to its devastated population. But that faded away. And now, in February 2011, when the Libyan tyrant orders bombing runs against his own people and pledges to fight to the death, there's hardly anyone who mentions R2P doctrine. Indeed, hardly anyone in the U.S. government mentions any positive actions the free world might take to aid the Libyan people as they attempt to overthrow a murderous dictator.
As the Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect points out, the international authority already exists for the democracies to aid the Libyan opposition. No one's moving. Even worse, Libya still holds its seat on the U.N. Human Rights Council.
The lesson here is that the promises of the "international community" rarely amount to anything more than words on a page. National governments may have—at the very least—a responsibility to protect their populations from crimes against humanity. But when those crimes are committed, international legal theorists and authoritarian-friendly institutions won't be the ones helping oppressed peoples. It will be other national governments, democratic national governments, working alone or in concert to apply significant pressure on the outlaw. Such pressure may involve the application of national power in the pursuit of global security and democratic ideals. What does it say about us that the Obama administration has such trouble even finding the words to describe the horrors that Muammar Qaddafi is now inflicting on his people?