Responsibility to Protect and the Immanent Logic of Freedom: A Hegelian Analysis of Humanitarian Intervention

Evan Supple, Athabasca University, Canada

Evan Supple is an MA candidate in Interdisciplinary Studies at Athabasca University, Canada. His research interests include international law, environmental politics, and political ontology, based on the work of G. Agamben, A. Badiou, G.W.F. Hegel, and S. Zizek.


The Responsibility to Protect (R2P) was one of the first major gestures made by the international community to ascribe primacy to human rights over sovereign rights. While the version eventually ratified by the UN Member States in 2005 is far less controversial in scope than its initial 2001 theorization, it remains a hotly contested norm. Much of said debate, however, does not directly pertain to R2P but to the international legal constellation in which it is situated. Thus, for a coherent analysis and critique of R2P to emerge, a comprehensive philosophical analysis of both state sovereignty and international relations is necessary. It is the political philosophy of German idealist G.W.F. Hegel that provides the most rigorous dialectical delineation of what form sovereignty and international relations ought to take. This paper begins with an exegesis of Hegelian sovereignty and proceeds to analyze the pillars and foundations of R2P from a Hegelian perspective, ultimately concluding that the programme is largely uncontroversial in itself, but for a just practical deployment, significant renovations to the framework within which it exists are in order.


In the aftermath of the humanitarian disasters of the 1990s, the international community was forced to reconsider how it was to address such atrocities using a framework which had hitherto privileged sovereignty and the concomitant ‘right’ to non-intervention over human rights. In 2000, United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan (ICISS, 2001) posed the question ‘…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 challenge prompted the international community to theorize how these seemingly contradictory principles might be reconciled.

In 2001, the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS) formulated ‘Responsibility to Protect’ (R2P). Its core principles were eventually refined and adopted by UN Member States at the 2005 UN World Summit, a meeting wherein the necessity of multilateral operations was unequivocally reaffirmed. At the heart of R2P is the notion that every state has a responsibility to protect its population and encourage others to do the same. If a state fails to fulfill this duty, evidenced by the occurrence of a mass crime – genocide, war, ethnic cleansing, or crimes against humanity – the responsibility to protect (in this case, intervene) falls to the international community, notwithstanding the norms surrounding sovereignty (United Nations, 2005, para. 138-39). The responsibility to protect has superseded the right to non-intervention, at least as the international law-making community perceives it.

The purpose of this paper is to analyze and critique R2P using Hegel’s (1896) Philosophy of Right. It will become clear that although Hegel would endorse the programme’s theoretical formulation, the framework within which it is invoked in practice is rife with corruption and is decisively incongruous with the normative framework for international relations which Hegel develops. Thus, an analysis of contemporary international relations must necessarily precede and inform any critique of R2P, which is what we seek to accomplish here.

The Sovereign State in Philosophy of Right

Philosophy of Right develops the immanent logic of freedom in an anti-foundatio nalist way. Beginning with the sheer indeterminacy of the individual will, Hegel navigates the dialectic of freedom during which he rebukes the liberal conception, viz. absence of restrictions, since the absence of restrictions is itself a restriction, thus necessitating the conception’s sublation and further determination. Freedom, according to Hegel, must be self-determining, such that it wills only its own development, as opposed to having a transcendental concept like choice for its content. In terms of freedom and its relation to choice, as imminently conceived, it is freedom of choice that matters, not freedom of choice*. Prematurely emphasizing choice in freedom’s dialectical development gives rise to insurmountable impasses.

Of course, the development of freedom does not eliminate choice tout court – it is not a totalitarian order at which Hegel’s dialectic arrives – but its primacy is subverted, and its coordinates are determinately constrained. Hegel’s use of fully self-critical reasoning, absent of transcendental imports not arising from within the dialectic itself, is what necessitates our fidelity to the text, despite our current situation’s waning congruence with it.

The individual will, from its initial moment of sheer indeterminacy, passes through various essential moments such as abstract rights, morality, and the institutions of civil society. These moments are pertinent in and of themselves, but their true significance can only be apprehended from the perspective of the substantive unity that emerges at the dialectic’s self-completion: the state. Each of these moments are sublated (simultaneously negated and preserved) at their points of contradiction as a necessity immanent to freedom’s development, but they are not erased from existence. They simply do not constitute the actualization of freedom. Though parsing out the entirety of Philosophy of Right is beyond the scope of this paper, it is necessary to delineate the concept of sovereignty – the telos of the dialectic – as presented in the third section entitled Ethical Life, where Hegel explicates its two faces: internal sovereignty qua the Constitution and sovereignty vis-à-vis international relations.

The Hegelian quasi-corporatist state, distinct from a Republic, is the realisation of freedom as a concrete universality in which both form and content are identical, as opposed to its less-developed incarnation as an abstract universality in the preceding sphere of morality (civil society without its actualization by the state). The state is ultimately conceived as ‘the supersession of the clash between right (i.e. empty abstract freedom) and welfare (i.e. the particular content which fills that void)’ (Hegel, 1896, p. 319); both elements, the positive and the negative, are systematically reconciled and wedded to one another in the state. The state’s substantive unity is the result of the interconnectedness of its various essential moments (i.e. individuals, families, businesses, police and authority, and the various branches of government), producing the absolute realization of freedom which cannot be formally superseded by any greater entity.

The state is obligated to care for and protect its people, albeit not in the Hobbesian sense since the Hegelian state is to be apprehended as an extension of the individual rather than a politico-theological structure transcendentally imposed in opposition to the individual. The Hegelian state must, for example, work to make charity less necessary by preventing the emergence of a rabble and perpetuating the necessary structures of freedom which enable such prevention (see Hegel, 1896, p. 152). The relationship between the state and its citizens must, however, be reciprocal, such that the individual’s primary duty is to preserve the state at all costs, even when one’s life or property are placed at risk in fulfilling this duty.

In contrast to any objection that such a duty would stand in diametric opposition to one’s freedom, Hegel (1896) maintains that it is in duty that individual freedom is actualized, emphasizing the obverse of freedom’s negativity as integral to its actualization (p. 155). The duty to preserve the state (or conversely, the duty of the state to protect its people) should not logically fall outside of one’s individual interests, since citizens of a legitimate state apprehend their public and private ends as identical. Protecting the state is synonymous with protecting oneself or, in other words, with the perpetuation of freedom’s perennial self-determination. Hegel (1896) explicates that ‘[i]t has often been said that the end of the state is the happiness of the citizens’, to which he responds is ‘imperfectly true . . . if they do not find that the state as such is the means to their satisfaction, then the footing of the state itself is insecure’ (Hegel, 1896, p. 155). The legitimately free state does not thwart the self-determination of its individual citizens. The will (which we must mention in passing must not be conflated with any other capricious psychological faculties such as desire; the will is the pure abstract ego) of individuals and the will of the state must be self-identical. Any state in which such reciprocity does not exist cannot be recognized as a legitimate state.

In contrast to the ‘good’, or civilized, state is what Hegel terms the ‘bad state’ which ‘merely exists … but it has no genuine reality. A hand which is cut off still looks like a hand, and it exists, but without being actual’ (Hegel, 1896, pp. 257-258). Here, ‘actual’ refers to the immanently determined substantive unity of form and content. Dictatorships and totalitarian regimes, often the subjects of intervention, can be classified as bad, or ‘barbaric’ states. A bad state, in other words, can be said to lack the structures of freedom integral to its self-promulgation.

International Relations in Philosophy of Right

Moving beyond the state’s interior composition, the state vis-à-vis foreign relations necessitates a more meticulous examination. The sovereign state has as ‘its essential character from its own point of view . . . singleness . . . exclusive of other units. So characterised, the state has individuality … and in the sovereign an actual, immediate individual’ (Hegel, 1896, p. 310). Since the single state, in the global aggregation of individual states, is aware of its existence as distinct from others and thus does not require anything politically external to function, it can be said to be autonomous. Autonomy constitutes ‘the most fundamental freedom which a people possesses as well as its highest dignity’ (Hegel, 1896, p. 311). Autonomy is directly compatible with the principle of non-intervention; however, autonomy is characteristic of a ‘good’ state and insofar as it maintains this positive designation, legitimate intervention would not be necessary. The same cannot be said of the ‘bad’ state.

Moreover, Hegel posits that states are self-subsistent. Autonomous states are ‘principally wholes whose needs are met within their own borders’ (Hegel, 1896, p. 318). Of course, today states’ needs are often outsourced and satisfied in the territories of other states or via trade. Thus, apropos of the manifold trade networks and global alliances constitutive of the present, sovereign self-subsistence appears as more of a ruse than Hegel purports; however, we must maintain that globalizing dynamics do not necessarily eradicate the possibility of political self-subsistence altogether, despite the advantages of beneficent international cooperation, especially in relation to imminent ecological crises and increasing digital connection.

In reference to international ‘law’, it emerges from relations between states; however, since the state is an autonomous totality, what is absolute in international law ‘retains the form of an ought-to-be, since its actuality depends on different wills each of which is sovereign’ (Hegel, 1896, p. 317). International relations mimic the relations between individuals and institutions in the sphere of morality which precedes the state. A concept of welfare informs the workings of this sphere in both its national and international incarnations, but since it cannot be politically actualized in the latter (an autonomous totality cannot be officially governed by a superior court), it remains abstract and open to individual interpretation. The implication of this is that while the logic of freedom, despite the impossibility of a supranational enforcement mechanism, ought to inform international relations, states are not officially prevented from acting in a way that is contrary to the logic of freedom, thereby creating the possibility for duplicitous action. Such action, apposite to the discussion of R2P below, can be of a positive form, in the sense of manipulating other states to further the state’s own particular self-interest, or a negative form, in the sense of failing to fulfill on the duties determined by the logic of freedom if they hinder the state’s particular self-interest (for example, purportedly unnecessary expenditures delegated toward protecting an external population, with which it shares limited interests or contact, in instances of war or genocide). Hence international ‘rights’, such as that of non-intervention, are purely abstract. This illuminates the fallaciousness of international ‘law’ as it currently exists. This is not to suggest that we ought to ignore such ‘laws’, as they are often invested with great potential, but rather to simply emphasize their non-binding character.

With this position, Hegel departs from Kant who theorized the notion of ‘perpetual peace’ to be secured by a legitimate League of Nations. Hegel (1896) insists that this utopian ideal presupposes an agreement between states, ‘but in any case would always depend ultimately on a particular sovereign will and for that reason would remain infected with contingency’ (p. 319). This will become unambiguous later on when we direct our attention toward the UN Security Council. There can be no Kantian international praetor; at best there may be an arbitrator or a mediator, but such a figure cannot be invested with binding juridical power, as is often (mistakenly) ascribed to the International Criminal Court.

A state is an individual and individuality implies negation, insofar as the state must negate that which it is not in order to clearly delimit its own boundaries and affirm its autonomy. It follows that ‘even if a number of states make themselves into a family, this group as an individual must engender an opposite and create an enemy’ (Hegel, 1896, p. 313). The enemy, or the Other, is tethered to the very concept of the state, albeit not a part of the state’s foundation since it develops out of an immanent necessity and thus independently of an Other. A cluster of states can form an alliance based on their similarities or interests, but such an alliance is not possible for all states because of the necessity of exteriority. To suggest otherwise would be to suggest we could escape from contradiction tout court, which is precisely opposed to Hegel’s stance.

Keeping with the logic justifying the impossibility of a binding international juridical authority, state sovereignty and autonomy are purely formal in the sphere of international relations and consequently, the demand for recognition is also abstract. Recognition, the genuine acknowledgement of another individual’s legitimate existence, depends exclusively on the judgements of individual states. Since each legitimate state represents a particular and actualized set of interests integral to its self-determination, no binding authority can demand that one state recognize another. If a free state is a concrete embodiment of freedom’s self-willing, it would likely recognize an external individual with which it shares a similar end, but the subjective act of international recognition cannot be regulated or prescribed by an international authority.

In reference to the idea of the good that ought to inform international relations, Hegel (1896) posits that ‘the subjective will has not yet been caught up into it and established as according with it. Consequently, it stands in a relation to the good, and the relation is that the good ought to be substantive for it’ (p. 123) but the absence of a supranational concrete universality leaves only an empty shell that can and should be used as a guiding tool but which is vulnerable to manipulation. What is more, ‘[t]he right of giving recognition only to what my insight sees as rational is the highest right of the subject, although owing to its subjective character it remains a formal right’ (Hegel, 1896, p. 124). The abstract nature of this ‘ought’ leaves us without a concrete universal, so any conception of it cannot be realized until it ‘acquires the character of particularity’ (Hegel, 1896, p. 126) which erects an obstacle at the international level. Again, if recognition and its concomitant normative implications ultimately infringe upon a state’s self-interest, there are no legal ramifications should it fail to recognize another.

Despite that Hegel (1896) proposes that legitimate states ought to recognize one another, he clarifies that ‘the absolute right of the Idea to step into existence in clear cut laws and objective institutions’ justifies ‘civilized nations in regarding and treating as barbarians those who lag behind them in institutions which are the essential moments of the state’ (p. 325). If such ‘barbarians’ lack these essential moments, then their claims to sovereignty may be vacuous and thus, their ‘rights’ an empty formality. In striving for recognition by civilized states, less civilized states may be left with no other choice than to develop and actualize freedom; however, as evidenced by manifold historical examples, this is not always the case. Nonetheless, a free state’s genuine recognition of ‘unfree’ states would be antithetical to freedom’s universal willing of itself. Recognition is unequivocally conditional, regardless of whether it is a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ state in question; however, since Hegelian freedom must have itself for its content by universally willing itself, a free state cannot logically disregard the structures of freedom found within other states without being in contradiction with its own freedom. The dilemma, once again, is that no supranational authority can enforce this; self-determination must develop immanently.

The authority of states, albeit absent of looming threats and further legitimated once external recognition is acquired, is a ‘purely domestic matter (one state should not meddle with the domestic affairs of another)’ (Hegel, 1896, p. 318). Of course, the bracketed statement can only function prescriptively (e.g. should not); however, coupled with the fact that he rejects Kant’s utopian theory of ‘perpetual peace’, this is indicative of Hegel’s approval of Westphalian sovereignty, at least its formal character. The latter has as its foundation the sovereign state’s internal right (albeit purely formal) to non-intervention and its duty to respect this right of other states as per the logic of freedom. Hegel (1896) insists ‘not [to] infringe on personality and what personality entails’ (p. 49), which is applicable in the realm of international relations. The implication of this is that he would not endorse an immoral intervention into a free state, perhaps motivated by the dialectical drive toward colonial or imperial expansion (Hegel, 1896, p. 224), as this would be incompatible with the logic of freedom; however, he cannot but leave the international community without a binding mechanism to prevent such an act. While other states can withdraw their official recognition of the unjustly-intervening state (i.e. by imposing sanctions, withdrawing foreign aid, etc.) in response, there is no legal mechanism to thwart the intervening state’s decision to act. A free state would not logically conduct such a mission, but it remains a possibility to be considered.

Conversely, while infringing upon sovereignty by way of an immoral intervention (i.e. on the basis of difference rather than unfreedom or on the basis of a disavowed injustice which is pervasive in the intervening state, such as sexual violence) is to be interpreted as an infringement upon freedom itself, regarding a case in which intervention is conducted to terminate a genocide or war, the same reasoning would not apply. One could not argue that such an intervention would be an infringement upon freedom, despite being an intrusion onto foreign territory. A state in which a genocide or a similar crime occurs cannot be said to be a free or legitimate state and hence, such an intervention would not be found to be opposed to the logic of freedom.

The final point of Philosophy of Right to which we must attend pertains to philanthropy, a concept inherent to any humanitarian programme like R2P. Hegel (1896) states that ‘the substantial welfare of the state is its welfare as a particular state in its specific interest and situation and its no less special foreign affairs’ (p. 320). Though the state is the actualization of freedom, it nonetheless embodies particularity vis-à-vis the global conglomeration of states, in the form of interests and customs, with ‘custom being the inner universality of behaviour maintained in all circumstances’ (Hegel, 1896, p. 321). Hegel (1896) then posits that the state’s aim ‘in relation to other states and its principle for justifying wars [or interventions] and treaties is not a universal thought (the thought of philanthropy) but only its actually injured or threatened welfare as something specific and peculiar to itself’ (p. 320). Though it would be immoral for a state to claim that its welfare has been jeopardized by another state on the basis of claims found to be in contradiction to the logic of freedom, the international community, as stated above, cannot regulate this in a legalized way. It is incumbent upon the state to decide what constitutes a threat to its individuality.

The implication here is that when humanitarian catastrophes, dire as they may be, infringe upon another state’s financial or geopolitical interests, it might be compelled to intervene in the state in which said catastrophe is occurring, often under a philanthropic guise, such that human life must be protected to serve its particular interests (i.e. economic hegemony). One has little grounds to argue against this if it results in the termination of a mass crime; however, the greater dilemma this poses is how to motivate states to intervene into genocidal or war-torn states with which they maintain a limited connection. Since intervening in a crisis that does not directly impact a particular state would drain the latter’s resources, adversely impacting its internal situation, it is unlikely that it would carry out such an intervention based purely on good intention without a modicum of certainty as to what it would gain by doing so. The unavoidable result of this is an unequal distribution of aid which perpetuates the strength of the states which would purportedly be likely to intervene. Thus, a key issue with R2P which we can prematurely surmise here is not so much the aid that is deployed but that which is not. Notably, anticipating the objection that with programmes like R2P it is an international body that decides when interventions are necessary and conducts them, we must reassert that any such body is composed of individual sovereign wills that can withdraw support at any time.

Before concluding this section, we must briefly inquire whether or not Hegel’s theory of the state leaves us with a relativist stance on the value of human life. Hegel (1896) states in the section Morality that substantive right implies the positive action of duty (as opposed to simply the negativity of abstract formal rights) in which ‘the welfare of others too is in question’ (p. 110) and free will ‘has responsibility in general for its deed’ (p. 112). He later posits that welfare pertains ‘in universal terms . . . [to] the welfare of others’ (p. 127), which would logically extend beyond sovereign borders. The protection of life, the ultimate aim of R2P, would therefore be necessary as ‘no one shall be sacrificed altogether on the altar of right’ (Hegel, 1896, p. 122). In other words, the preservation of human life is a universal imperative, as the failure to preserve life equates to the failure to preserve freedom. While freedom is absolutely realized in the state, and despite the primacy of the duty to protect and preserve one’s own state at all costs, the immanent logic that leads to the state’s inception implies a worth and dignity inherent to human life regardless of its sovereign locus. To not further the global development of freedom, regardless of a state’s particular interests, would be in contradiction to the universal self-willing of freedom. Again, such a commitment cannot be enshrined into a binding international law, but its prescriptive significance must not be disregarded.

Despite its inherent deficiencies which cannot eliminate the potential for manipulation by individual states (and despite that a body like the UN is meant to serve as a structure of accountability), Hegel’s logic of international morality remains the most fruitful vehicle to ensure the protection and preservation of human life on a global scale. There is no possible sphere which could supersede it, so it remains fragile, but the international community must be vigilant in harvesting its emancipatory potential.

Hegel and the Pillars of R2P

The precepts of R2P mistakenly presuppose a binding authority invested in the UN, ignoring the issue of the latter’s composition of particular wills, or individual states. Despite numerous contestations based on the interwovenness of the global community, as evidenced by the increase in trade, military alliances, international debt, transnational business, and treaty agreements, nothing has officially replaced the nation-state, so sovereignty retains its absoluteness despite that few, if any, Hegelian states presently exist. Consequently, the international ‘legal’ constellation is essentially a symbolic fiction, though not one wanting an emancipatory dimension to be gleaned from an interpretation aligned with Hegel’s morality. Despite its non-juridical nature, the UN (or a similar body) remains the sole entity that might feasibly prescribe and direct international action.

It is ‘humanity’ that occupies the role of R2P’s subject; however, it is a floating signifier as what the designation concretely typifies varies in terms of its interpretive locus. Because the relationship between states can only be apprehended within the coordinates of morality, R2P must be conceived as an abstract universality. The tenets of R2P take the form of an ‘ought’ insofar as human welfare forms its core, but what constitutes welfare’s materiality cannot be explicitly determined on a global scale without (neo)imperialist implications, thereby leaving this up to individual states to determine. It is possible to identify structures of freedom but the differences which animate them internally cannot always be discerned from the exterior. Thus, an invocation of R2P must solely be directed toward a rehabilitation or implementation of the subject’s structures of freedom, and not the inner universalities (viz. customs) that animate them.

R2P is composed of three pillars, the first being that ‘[e]ach individual State has the responsibility to protect its populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity’ (United Nations, 2005, para. 138). While its initial formulation in the 2001 ICISS document included crimes of sexual violence and famine within its scope, the agreed upon 2005 version is considerably narrower in scope. This certainly mitigates the possibility for UN-sponsored imperialist interventions, as it is definitively evident that a state ravaged by war or genocide would lack the structures of freedom intrinsic to an actual state, whereas the same cannot be so unequivocally asserted about a state with, say, a high presence of sexual violence or famine. Notably in reference to the pillar at hand, international lawmakers often use floating signifiers like ‘protection’ without explicitly defining them, so the content of such designations is specific to particular circumstances. One can, of course, identify a genocide or war, but it is the threshold separating crime and non-crime, the dialectical moment at which quantitative change becomes qualitative, on an international scale that must occupy some of our concern here, as this line could easily be manipulated in an intervention. Irrespective of the abstractness of ‘protection’, one could argue that Hegel would concur with this stipulation as it directly pertains to human life. This pillar, then, is not a site of contestation because of its derivation within the parameters of Westphalian sovereignty.

The second pillar indicates that “[t]he international community should, as appropriate, encourage and help States to exercise this responsibility and support the United Nations in establishing an early warning capability” (United Nations, 2005, para. 138). Informing this principle is precisely the Hegelian moral sentiment that states ought to participate in the universal willing of freedom, which amounts to enabling all states to implement the necessary structures of freedom for this to be possible. Despite possible claims that encouraging the implementation of particular structures of freedom which allow the exercise of this responsibility might amount to an imperialist imposition of liberalism (for example, such ‘help’ may only be offered if an initiative is concretely commensurate with a particular state’s ideological or economic interests), we can quell such opposition by highlighting the pillar’s broad scope. Solely in question here is the enablement of freedom and the protection of human life; concrete life-worlds are no object of concern for this particular stipulation, despite that such objections may have validity in reference to other UN initiatives.

The third pillar of R2P reads ‘[t]he international community, through the United Nations, also has the responsibility to use appropriate diplomatic, humanitarian and other peaceful means… to help to protect populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity’ (United Nations, 2005, para. 139). In other words, sovereignty is subordinated to the ambiguous international moral authority – the particular wills of wealthy states – when mass crimes occur. Diplomatic tactics are initially encouraged, but humanitarian intervention remains an option. One might suggest that Hegel (1896) would not concur, as he argues that states have the duty not to ‘meddle in the domestic affairs of another’ (p. 317) but bearing in mind his stance on what is requisite for freedom’s actualization, his disagreement is unlikely.

Pertinent here is Hegel’s contention that civilized states are justified in regarding less-civilized states as barbarians. This position, coupled with the notion that recognition of other states is a matter of a state’s particular will, partially justifies intervention. Moreover, if a state whose population is faced with an existential political threat would logically lack the essential moments of a free state, as such suffering would not occur in the latter, then more ‘civilized’ states would be justified in intervening on the basis of freedom and the preservation of life. Thus, an intervention truly carried out as a means of promulgating welfare would not be antithetical to the logic of morality.

Prior to continuing, a likely conflation must be clarified: while ‘barbarian’ typically evinces a racist sentiment, interventions based on racism or a failure to respect customary differences are unequivocally unjustified, as per the logic of Hegelian international morality. Freedom must universally will itself and, therefore, not impede the structures of freedom abroad, different as they may appear. A state could not permissibly intervene in another on the basis of anything but their lack of freedom in whatever obvious form this may take, such as war or genocide. Of course, this imperative only exists as an ‘ought’ but if it is not adhered to, freedom itself becomes compromised and consequently, so does the intervening state’s actuality. Historically speaking, it is often non-Western states which lack said structures of freedom, typically due to the impacts of (de)colonization or the Western imposition of neoliberalism, or conversely lack the resources necessary to intervene in other states, which results in the perpetuation of the superpowers’ global hegemony. This historical facticity is not something Hegel foresaw so we must adjust any future R2P efforts accordingly.

Hegel and the Foundations of R2P

R2P rests upon four foundations found in the initial ICISS theorization of R2P but are not expressly stated in the 2005 clauses. It is, nevertheless, useful to direct our attention toward them as they inform the larger set of coordinates within which the ratified clauses are situated. The first foundation lies in the ‘obligations inherent in the concept of sovereignty’ (ICISS, 2001, XI). While the implied conception of sovereignty is not delimited, if we interpret the foundation with Hegel’s conception of sovereignty in mind, we could conclude that he would concur since the state is bound by right to protect its people and is duty-bound to protect human life, again due to the necessity of a state’s universal willing of freedom.

The second foundation lies in ‘the responsibility of the Security Council, under Article 24 of the UN Charter, for the maintenance of international peace and security’ (ICISS, 2001, XI). This is commensurate with Article 139 of the 2005 World Summit Outcome Document which clarifies that any invocation of R2P is to be carried out via the Security Council (United Nations, 2005, para. 139). It is worth noting the corruption of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) and hence, of this foundation. Hegel indirectly privileges the notion of sovereign equality, at least among the ‘civilized’ states, which the UNSC inherently betrays. With its five permanent members (China, France, UK, Russia, and USA) endowed with a mostly unfettered veto power, what ought to remain a neutral international entity becomes corrupted by hegemonic interests. What ‘the UN as a neutral body is duty-bound to preserve’ translates to ‘what the global superpowers choose to maintain’, bringing us back to the point that responsibility can only be conceived as a contingent choice, not subject to binding law. Thus, while a majority of Member States might decide in a moral way on whether or not to intervene, this decision could swiftly be vetoed by the possibly immoral (or purely self-interested) will of a Permanent Five member. It is possible to delineate normative criteria to which these powerful states should adhere; however, such adherence is unlikely in the current situation rife with corruption, as they would possess no obligation to accede.

Hegel (1896) was accurate in proposing that any international law body ‘would always depend ultimately on a particular sovereign will [or sovereign wills in this case] and for that reason would remain infected with contingency’ (p. 319). Even though ‘treaties, as the ground of obligations between states, must be kept’ (Hegel, 1896, p. 319), the veto power automatically robs the Permanent Five of any accountabilities to which they should be held. Resultantly, they are legitimately permitted to pursue their particular interests, despite whether they are moral or not. We can infer that Hegel would reject this foundation due to the corruption of the UNSC; however, this does not yet imply that R2P as a whole must be jettisoned. This illuminates the virtual dimensions which surround it, given that it can only be activated by the UN and hence, leads one to infer that its underlying framework is more the object of concern than R2P itself.

The third foundation lies in ‘specific legal obligations under human rights and human protection declarations, covenants and treaties, international humanitarian law and national law’ (ICISS, 2001, XI). The Hegelian conclusions about this statement should be self-evident by now. The fourth foundation lies in ‘the developing practices of states, regional organizations and the Security Council itself’ (ICISS, 2001, XI), which presents the paradox of contingent foundations. If still-developing practices constitute its foundation, then the latter lacks stability. As per Hegel’s stance on civilized states in relation to ‘barbarians’, he would not wholly reject this foundation. It begs the question of whether, since arguably no states are truly emblematic of the Hegelian framework but since some are far closer than others, any states are justified in intervening in less developed states or states in unrest even if they do not purely embody the Hegelian framework themselves. Perhaps given the reduction of R2P’s scope to mass crimes, the answer to this inquiry is less controversial.

Since the contemporary neoliberal circumstances do not resemble a truly Hegelian paradigm, the reasoning that an intervention might be in alignment with the ‘universal willing of freedom’ would be incoherent, as most states are not exemplars of freedom as it stands. One might, nevertheless, formulate a set of prescriptions for justified intervention that would be founded not upon imperial-expansionist principles but would aim toward the genuine protection of human life and freedom. For example, no intervention motivated by (neo-)colonial interests would be permissible and interventions ought not to be pursued if a commitment cannot be made to leave the subject-state in a better condition than before. An intervention must also not harm the intervening state, as this would conflict with its freedom. Of course, the particulars surrounding interventions must be determined on a case-by-case basis given that radical contingencies cannot be preemptively accounted for in an abstract theoretical framework. It is with such particulars that a more incisive Hegelian critique (or approval) can be developed as opposed to what is possible from our presently formal perspective. Given R2P’s locus in the UN, it is the bridge from theory to practice wherein flaws that, while are perhaps not intrinsic to R2P itself but invariably emerge when the UN deploys it, come to light and necessitate rigorous scrutiny.

The culminating point to be made here is that in cases where unrest is not a singular event to be addressed once but rather a symptom of or a reaction to a larger global dynamic, intervention would all but tend to the root of the problem and may in fact worsen circumstances in general. In the era of global capitalism, when the potency of state sovereignty is receding against the thick texture of capitalism colonizing every inch of the space we inhabit, and when little motivates states to act antithetical or indifferent to their financial or geopolitical interests, prescriptions derived from the logic of morality, certainly leave much to be desired. However, deficient as they may be insofar as implementation is concerned, they are all we can theorize in advance and act in fidelity toward in practice.

In order for R2P’s truly legitimate enactment, aside from the obvious benefits of terminating an egregious instance of lethal violence, internal renovations would be necessary for states most likely to intervene, such as the wealthy and powerful (most particularly the United States). We must assert that internal recovery, specifically for the corrupt members of the Permanent Five, would greatly reduce the number of humanitarian crises requiring intervention since the latter are often stemmed by the brutal forces of unbridled globalization constitutive of the current moment. While no genocidal reaction to the forces of globalization is justified, we must situate any critique within a broader landscape than merely the singular crisis in question. Any intervention would need to be radical, such that the underlying structural causes would be addressed, as well as the material circumstances of the crisis in question.


Despite the predicaments associated with the sphere of morality, within which any legitimacy accorded to R2P is determined, it is all we possess as a guide for ethical international relations. Thus, we must conclude that while Hegel’s account of international relations perhaps yields feelings of impotence, it remains indisputable. It is we who must readjust to the Hegelian paradigm and not the inverse. To equate the lack of an enforcement mechanism to an insurmountable deficiency which cannot but enable international relations dominated by right-of-might would be to lapse into moral vacuity and not to harness the emancipatory possibilities that exist in the formal framework of morality.

As it pertains to R2P itself, we can conclude that if it is interpreted in such a way as to be congruent with the international ‘ought’, such that its purpose is commensurate with the universal willing of freedom and no other particular agenda, then it is wholly permissible and even desirable. It remains relatively uncontroversial to assert that mass crimes ought to be urgently addressed. However, as has crystallized, one cannot enforce such an interpretation at the international level, no matter how the tenets of R2P are formulated. Hence, the object of concern pertaining to any humanitarian intervention must be the locus from which it is activated. In the case of R2P, this means addressing the corruption of the UNSC in order to ensure the most just and consistent commitments to intervene, regardless of what is at stake for the individual states. It must be a universal commitment to human life that informs any decision to invoke R2P and subsequently, must thwart any decision not to invoke it when clearly warranted. Hegel’s case for international morality is not just the best available option but, being devoid of any transcendental imports, the only philosophically justifiable option.

* I am indebted to my advisor, Dr. Wendell Kisner, for this clarification of emphases regarding freedom and choice.


Hegel, G. W. F. 1896. Philosophy of right. Translated by S.W. Dyde London, UK: G. Bell. [Online]. Available from: hive/hegel/works/pr/philosophy-of-right.pdf (Accessed 6 April 2020).

International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty. 2001. The responsibility to protect. Ottawa, ON: International Development Resource Center. [Online]. Available from: ort.pdf (Accessed 6 April 2020).

United Nations General Assembly. 2005. World Summit Outcome Document. New York, NY: UN. [Online]. Available from: ent/desa/population/migration/generalassembly/docs/globalcomglob/A RES 60 1.pdf (Accessed 6 April 2020).

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