Responsibility to Protect: A rebranding of Imperial Intervention

By Aditya Sakorkar


Humanitarianism or Humanitarian intervention has attracted immense controversy and popularity since the end of the Cold War. Humanitarian intervention is usually employed to deliver a country and its people from war crimes, genocide and so forth. As Kuperman opines, humanitarian intervention is based in the altruistic desire to protect others (Kuperman, 2008, p.49). This essay examines the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) doctrine, one of the most controversial ideas in modern times, from the perspective of John Stuart Mill’s ideas on intervention and non-intervention. The primary objective of this comparison is to identify if the R2P doctrine amount to a rebranding of imperial intervention. The essay begins with a brief discussion on Mill’s notions of intervention and non intervention; followed by an examination of the R2P doctrine and a conclusion that sums up the findings.

Mill’s Notion of Intervention/Non-intervention

John Stuart Mill, a philosopher and politician from Great Britain spoke on the notion of intervention/non-intervention, in his essay titled ‘A few words on Non-intervention.’ Mill, of course, wrote this essay in the context of the Suez Canal crisis and the Crimean War. However, the ideas he has proposed transcend these two scenarios and can easily be applied to other similar contexts. This section discusses Mill’s ideas on intervention and non-intervention in detail.

Mill wrote this text at a time when imperial rivalries were really getting more and more aggressive. He starts the article by describing Great Britain’s place in the world. In many ways, most people would agree, the opening section looks like a eulogy for Great Britain. It must be noted that he is candid about his views on this subject and intervention/non-intervention.

Mill puts forward the distinction between civilised and barbaric lands through three very clear points. In fact, he’s so specific about these distinctions that, together, they could easily pass as a model of some kind and could be used to justify interventions in the so called barbaric lands. It’s really not possible to incorporate the whole section of the text that distinguishes between barbaric and civilised lands. However, I will provide a short summary of the same.

Firstly, Mill speaks about the level of civilisation in a country. According to him, there is a big difference between 2 countries on par with each other in terms of their civilisation and one country which is highly civilised and the other one is low (Mill, 1859). Mill’s idea, however, of civilised nation is largely vague. That said, in one of the paragraphs he refers ‘Christian Europe as an equal community of nations.’ Christianity is what Mill had in mind when he was assessing the level of civilisation in a country, most likely. However, I would think that Christianity was only one of the parameters to assess the level of civilisation in a country.

Depending on how civilised a nation was, Mill assessed if the rules of international morality could be applied to it. If the nation is civilised, any rules that constitute international morality would be applicable. If the nation is not civilised or barbaric, these rules cannot be applied (Mill, 1859). Once again, what constitutes the rules of international morality is mostly not clear. However, sections of the opening paragraph could be used to formulate rules of international morality#.

Finally, Mill argues, if the rules of international morality are to be applied, the capacity of a country to reciprocate accordingly is essential. Civilised nations have the ability to reciprocate so they can be subjected to such rules. However, barbarians are in no position to reciprocate and consequently can’t be depended on to observe such rules. According to Mill, the barbarians’ minds are just not fit to perform a task of this kind (Mill, 1859). This argument or distinction is clearly stated by Mill as compared to the previous ones. However, this distinction in some ways reflects the prejudice that many Europeans had in this period that it was down to them to civilise the world.

Based on these distinctions, Mill creates three scenarios where intervention would be justified. Firstly, according to Mill, intervention is justified if the concerned nation is still barbarous. This is because invasion and subjugation by foreigners will only benefit such a nation. Also, Mill says that barbarians have no rights as nations except a right to be made fit to become a nation (Mill, 1859). This idea has a very strong racial basis to it. In fact, this justification, in many ways, echoes Hobson’s justification of imperialism: It is desirable that the earth should be peopled, governed, and developed, as far as possible, by the races which can do this work best, i.e. by the races of highest social efficiency (Hobson, 1902, p.154).

Secondly, Mill says that intervention by a civilised nation in a barbaric nation is justified if they share boundaries. Mill argues that the civilised nation cannot continue to have a defensive stance against a barbaric nation for too long. Eventually, the former will have to act so that the latter gets completely conquered or is so subdued that it becomes dependent on the civilised nation (Mill, 1859). This argument is applicable in other places as well. Meaning, a civilised state could intervene in a barbaric land anywhere in the world.

Thirdly, Mill argues that intervention is justified, if one nation calls another nation to assist in the suppression of its own population (Mill, 1859). It could be argued that this justification for intervention has, in some ways, a resonance of humanitarian intervention. An appropriate example of this scenario would be how General Franco came to power in Spain with Hitler’s and Mussolini’s assistance. On the basis of what Mill says, it would not have been a violation of the rules of international morality if the other European powers had intervened to prevent these developments. In fact, as Walzer argues, some military response is probably required at such moments if the values of independence and community are to be sustained (Walzer, 1977, 97).

For Mill, intervention is also justified in a country which subjugates its own people with the help of foreign arms and especially if they have what it takes to use and free institutions effectively (Mill, 1859). Like the previous condition, this also has a strong resonance of humanitarian intervention. A good example of this would be the Indian intervention in East Pakistan in the early 1970s.


Mill also spoke about non-intervention just as candidly as he did on intervention. Like most liberals, Mill was very much for self-determination and self-help. In fact, he clearly says that in case a civil war is happening within a state, it should be left alone. For Mill, intervening in such situations, even to assist the citizens, would be violation of their right of self-determination. Mill also says that any group of people wanting use popular institutions need to brave the labours and peril of a revolution to become free. In essence, passing such a test would make them worthy of any popular institutions (Mill, 1859).

It could be argued that self-determination is something very close to Mill’s heart. Though he doesn’t mention it clearly, Mill may have been talking of democratic form of government and everything that is associated with it when he refers to popular institution. Also, he’s willing to let people take their own chances to reach such a stage, irrespective of the possible failure that they might encounter while they are at it. As Walzer argues, there is no right to be protected against the consequences failure, even if it means repression (Walzer, 1977, p.88).

One example of such a scenario would be the protests and the Tiananmen Square massacre in the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 1989. The people who participated in the protest endured the perils and labours of revolution for the sake of liberty. However, their success never materialised because of massive repression by the government. Most importantly, as negative it might seem, there was no intervention by any other country. This however, was also because of the fact that the PRC is a force to reckon with militarily and no country would want to antagonise it by initiating intervention.

Also, at first sight, this idea looks highly idealistic and, for Mill, this is the only foolproof way to do it (Mill, 1859). However, not everyone would share this view. According to Walzer, there is no shortage of revolutionaries who have demanded external help for their causes (Walzer, 1977, p.88).

Mill says that countries should have the love of liberty to maintain their freedom. However, such feelings may not arise if the country is ruled in ways that does not permit it. Such a government may be tyrannical or may have some other way of keeping its population from getting such thoughts; Mill does not clarify this. However, he says to develop such sentiments, the country needs to undertake an arduous struggle to gain freedom (Mill, 1859).

Mill’s argument about non-intervention in states having revolutions is a little problematic. What happens if the concerned state is, as Mill classifies it, barbaric? In that case, he would probably support and even highlight how important it is to intervene and subjugate the populace in order to make them fit to have popular institutions or democracy.

The Responsibility to Protect

The debate on humanitarian interventions came to the fore in the post Cold War period. The 1990s saw a range of conflicts within states which involved large scale genocide and ethnic cleansing and similar crimes. In some cases, these acts went to such an extent that the international community had to step in to put a stop to them. Certain cases such as Bosnia (1991-92) required full scale military action to stop the conflict. Ironically though, the international community did not intervene in Rwanda, where a large genocide began a little later than the Bosnian crisis. These problems fuelled the debate surrounding humanitarian intervention which paved way for the doctrine of R2P. This section takes a close look at the doctrine of (R2P) to assess if it is different from Mill’s notion of intervention. Also, this section explains concepts like failed states, rogue states and states that violate human rights because these almost form the core of the R2P discourse.

The idea of having a broad consensus on humanitarian interventions came to the fore in 1999 and 2000 in the UN General Assembly. It was the then Secretary General, Kofi Annan who posed a question to the international community (ICISS, 2001, p.VII):

…if humanitarian intervention is, indeed, an unacceptable assault on sovereignty, how should we respond to a Rwanda, to a Srebrenica – to gross and systematic violations of human rights that affect every precept of our common humanity?

This resulted in the establishment of the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS) under the auspices of the Canadian government and a group of major foundations. The sole objective of the commission was to prepare a report that addressed the moral, legal, operational and political questions associated with humanitarian interventions (ICISS, 2001, p.VII).

The report presented by the ICISS was titled “The Responsibility to Protect.” It recognises and reiterates the fact that a state has a legal identity in international law and that all states are equal irrespective of their size or capabilities. Each of these states has the right to make decisions within their territories regarding people and resources, as enshrined in the UN charter (ICISS, 2001, p.12). However, this right also brings certain responsibilities. Firstly, states have to protect their citizens and strive for their welfare. Secondly, states are responsible to their citizens and the international community through the UN. Thirdly, states or their agents are accountable for their actions (ICISS, 2001, p.13).

Under R2P, the state has three more responsibilities. The first one, the responsibility to prevent, expects states to address the direct and root causes of a conflict which may occur within its boundaries. The second one is the responsibility to react under which the states need to respond to situations of compelling human need with appropriate measures (including military action). The third one is the responsibility to rebuild which asks states to provide the necessary assistance for recovery, reconstruction and reconciliation; especially after a military intervention (ICISS, 2001, p.XI).

Besides, in case of interventions, issues need to be assessed from the perspective of the ones seeking support or help and not the interveners. The primary responsibility to protect lies with the concerned state. However, if the state can’t fulfil this responsibility for whatever reasons or is the perpetrator, the international community can step in. There are three responsibilities that need to be embraced by states under R2P doctrine (ICISS, 2001, p.17).

Similarly, the report of the UN Secretary-General, Implementing the Responsibility to Protect, of January 2009, reiterated 2005 World Summit Outcome: Operationalisation of the R2P. The participating Heads of State mandated a three pillar strategy. Pillar one outlined the protection responsibilities of the states to protect its citizens from genocides, ethnic cleansing, war crimes etc. Pillar two called for international assistance and capacity building so that states can carry out their responsibilities. Pillar three calls for timely and decisive response to crisis scenarios if the state has failed to provide the necessary protection (Ban Ki-moon, 2009, p.8 & 9).

So, where is the R2P doctrine applicable? To put it simply, the R2P doctrine is most applicable in failed states, rogue states and in states where there is gross violation of human rights. Let’s take a look at these categories more closely.

Failed States

The Failed States Index explains that a state has failed when its government has lost control of its territory or its monopoly on the legitimate use of force (Foreign Policy, 2005, p.57). However, this may not be the only cause why a state comes to be known as failed state. According to Rotberg, state failure can also be caused by a nation’s geographical, physical, historical and political circumstances, which include colonial errors and Cold War policy mistakes (Rotberg, 2002, p.127). There is also the human element that may result in state failure. As Rotberg argues, destructive decisions by leaders may also pave way for state failure (Rotberg, 2002, p.128).

Rogue States

Rogue States has become quite a common term in international politics. The most regular user of this term is the US. In fact, the term Rogue States, as Litwak argues, is efficient political shorthand that leaves no doubt any country’s place in the world of nations (Litwak, 2000). In essence, a rogue state is one, according to Litwak, that has violated accepted international norms (Litwak, 2000). George Bush’s famous ‘Axis of Evil’ comprising Iraq, Iran, North Korea, Libya and other states could also be referred to as rogue states.

States that violate Human Rights

As the name suggests, this category constitutes states which have been involved in human rights violation at a considerable magnitude. The violation could be through a number of ways. For instance, it could be genocide at varying degrees or setting up and sending people to labour and concentration camps or war crimes which include unjustified destruction of cities. Basically, any breach of humanitarian law would amount to violation of human rights.

Analysis: Responsibility to Protect or Right of Intervention

This section directly compares R2P, and the three categories of states mentioned above and where it could be applied, with Mill’s idea of intervention/non-intervention in barbaric and civilised lands. In other words, I attempt to find out if the doctrine of R2P amounts to a rebranding of imperial intervention. For reasons of simplicity I would like to refer to Mill’s notion of intervention/non-intervention as Mill’s doctrine through the rest of this section. Also, for organisational purposes, I have included sub-headings in this section in the hope that they will make reading this section easier.

Most Important Differences and Additions

The first strikingly visible difference between the two doctrines is their clarity. As elaborate as the doctrine of R2P is, I would argue that Mill’s ideas are more profound and clearer simply because his core context is of imperialism. Also, his doctrine largely reflected the leading ideas of his time and was not as controversial as the R2P. In terms of the ideas, I would argue that the R2P and Mill’s idea of intervention are largely similar. One major difference between the two doctrines is the introduction of the “Responsibility to Prevent” through an “Early warning capability” (Ban Ki-moon, 2009, p.4) under R2P.

I would argue that this idea is not new one per se but it reflects the notion in Mill’s doctrine that if civilised states have barbaric neighbours, the former cannot and should not hold back for too long, but just intervene and take over from that government or make it militarily dependent. The only difference is that under R2P, states should try to address the root cause and prevent any conflict within the state. This, however, is easier said than done. As the ICISS observed in its report, prevention of a conflict is tough because strong support of the international community is needed almost at all times (ICISS, 2001, p.19).

This was the case in the Kenyan crisis that began in 2007. Thanks to the intervention of the Kofi Annan, mandated by the AU (African Union) and the support of the Secretary General of the UN (United Nations), a power sharing argument was concluded between the warring parties thereby preventing the conflict from escalating into any crimes against humanity. Having said that, the Responsibility to Prevent is an important inclusion in R2P especially against the backdrop of the intra-state conflicts in Yugoslavia, Rwanda etc. through the 1990s, whose root causes were never addressed.

Rebranding of Imperial Intervention?

This brings us to the more important issue of whether the modern doctrine of R2P is a rebranding of imperial intervention or the kind of intervention Mill spoke of? My answer to this question is yes, the doctrine of R2P is, largely, a rebranding of imperial intervention as proposed by Mill.

However, R2P is not as overt as the Mill doctrine. For instance, Mill supported intervention in the so called barbaric states and non-intervention in the so called civilised ones. The reasons: intervention would benefit of the natives of the so called barbaric state and that annexing another civilised nation would be immoral, unless the nation chooses to do so willingly (Mill, 1859). On this note, it would be interesting to have a look at the current situation. In the current scenario, terms like civilised and barbaric may not be used anymore, at least not overtly. They have been replaced by terms like failed states, rogue states and states that violate humanitarian rights. The characteristics of such states (as highlighted in the previous section) could easily replace Mill’s notion of barbaric states (even though he did not really elaborate on what constitutes a barbaric state). This kind of state branding has become more popular since the end of the Cold War.

Mill also spoke about a vague notion of international morality. Though he did not elaborate on its principles, it’s not very difficult to guess what these might have been. The world, for Mill, was divided into civilised Christian nations and barbaric states completely unfit to have rights as nations. So, international morality would have comprised of the principles and beliefs (probably based on Christianity) of the so called civilised nations.

On a similar note, it could be argued that the new international morality is global peace and security. Any violations of the same would first result first in the state getting branded as a failed state or rogue state and followed by sanctions and other punitive actions. In essence, intervening states might carry out their Responsibility to React and even the Responsibility to Rebuild, if military action is undertaken. This, however, can be slightly problematic. As Finnemore argues, if the situation warrants military intervention it usually means a change of government (Finnemore, 2004, 136).

What’s more, the R2P doctrine also sanctions the use of military force (ICISS, 2001, p.32). It’s perfectly possible that a state or group of states might use this as a licence. As Finnemore points out, intervention and change of government is not undertaken for altruistic reasons but sheerly because the states believe it’s the best solution (Finnemore, 2004. p.136). A good example here could be the global war on terror which began after 9/11 attacks under US leadership. The other problem with regard to the R2P doctrine is that it is definitely prone to abuse by the powerful states. For instance, Russia justified its intervention in South Ossetia, against Georgia, through R2P. The Russian leadership maintained that atrocities committed by the Georgian troops amounted to genocide. The Russian claim was rejected by almost everyone who witnessed this episode (Bellamy, 2010, p.151). To sum up, the doctrine of R2P does amounts rebranding of imperial intervention or the Mill doctrine and because of the creation of the R2P doctrine, classical imperial intervention has become more institutionalised than it was during 19th century and the 1st half of the 20th century.


This essay compared and examined Mill’s notion of intervention/non-intervention and the doctrine of R2P to assess if the latter is a rebranding of imperial intervention. This was demonstrated by first presenting Mill’s ideas on intervention and non-intervention which included his distinction between civilised and barbaric states and the scenarios where interventions would be justified. The next section covered the R2P doctrine by explaining its main points as conceived in the ICISS report and their implementation by the UN. This section also examined the notions of failed states, rogue states and states that violate human rights.


  • Ban Ki-moon. (2009). Implementing the Responsibility to Protect: Report of the Secretary General. 12 January, 2009.
  • Bellamy, A, J. (2010). The Responsibility to Protect: Five Years On. Ethics and International Affairs. Vol No.: 24. No.: 2. 2010: 143-169
  • Foreign Policy. (2005). The Failed States Index. Foreign Policy. No.: 149. Jul-Aug 2005: 55-65.
  • Finnemore, M. (2004). The Purpose of Intervention: Changing Beliefs about the Use of Force. Cornell University Press, New York. 2004
  • Hobson, J, A. (1902). Imperialism: A Study. George Allen & Unwin, London. August 1902.
  • ICISS (International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty). (2001). The Responsibility to Protect. International Development Research Centre. 2001.
  • Kuperman, A. (2008). The Moral Hazards of Humanitarian Intervention: Lessons from the Balkans. International Studies Quarterly. 2008. 52: 49-80.
  • Litwak, R, S. (2000). A look at Rogue States a Handy Label but a Lousy Policy. The Washington Post. February 20, 2000.
  • N.B: There are plenty of reports on this link. Please use the find feature (Ctrl+F) and search using author’s name or the topic.
  • Rotberg, R, I. (2002). Failed States in a World of Terror. Foreign Policy. Vol No.: 81. No.: 4: 127-140.
  • Walzer, M. (1977). Just and Unjust Wars: A Moral Argument with Historical Illustrations. Penguin. 1977.

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