The Responsibility to Protect (R2P) initiative from the United Nations is an emerging but still being navigated norm in international relations. R2P asserts we cannot just leave states to administer their own sovereign affairs if they are not protecting their civilian populations.

This is good news for ethnic groups being targeted, or not protected, by their governments. It is also healthy news for our soldiers who are less likely to be held back from interfering in situations such as the Rwandan genocide.

The International Society for Military Ethics (ISME) hosted their second annual conference in the UK in 2012 on this R2P theme and published the best papers on what became their first of now 11 volumes. The editors – David Whetham of the UK Defence Academy and Visiting Fellow at the Australian Defence College, and Bradley Strawser, a US Air Force Officer turned philosophy and ethics teacher – frame R2P as a moral obligation to help, likened to adults walking down a beach who see a child struggling in the waves.

Yet, the processes for discerning when and how to act can become much more complex. Thus, it is worth considering how R2P has been applied (or misapplied), and what it means for international relations, affected soldiers, and civilians. Thirteen writers across ten chapters examine not only government policies and military strategy, but also the lived experience of soldiers engaged in humanitarian interventions in Kosovo, Iraq, Libya, and Mali.

The volume begins with four broadly historical chapters. David Fisher in ‘Libya – A Last Hurrah or Model for the Future?’ charts how humanitarian intervention has been utilised (or overlooked) over the last 3 decades. He focuses on an insightful case study of NATO’s intervention in Libya (2011) which illustrates how Just War Tradition can guide justifiable intervention.

Robert Wilton was heavily involved in Balkan affairs for the UK Government and then in advising Kosovo’s PM. His 'Object Lesson or Subject People: On the Receiving End of the Responsibility to Protect’ offers a realist perspective on how R2P can affect local civilians and governments with neo-colonialism and negative side-effects. He is also more pessimistic than Fisher about R2P’s future, suggesting the Kosovo intervention may be the last of its kind given other perceived failures in Bosnia, Afghanistan, and Iraq.

Peter Lee, an ex-Royal Air Force (RAF) chaplain and now Lecturer in Military and Leadership Ethics at RAF College Cranwell, writes ‘Tony Blair and Military Intervention: Protector or Provocateur?’. He considers Blair’s seminal role as PM in advocating for the Doctrine of the International Community in his 1999 Chicago Speech. He then analyses how Blair used the justifiable reasons of threat to civilians and last resort in Kosovo (1999) while critiquing his actions intervening in Iraq (2003).

Jean-Baptiste Jeangène Vilmer offers ‘Ten Myths about the Responsibility to Protect: A Realist Critique’ to critically consider possible antecedents, disputed history, and neo-colonial tendencies of R2P while explaining it is considered an obligation but not yet legally binding.

Three chapters investigate dilemmas of what R2P means for those engaged in war – as soldiers, medics, and journalists. Mark Clegg considers the challenges of balancing force protection and the lives of those being protected in ‘State Responsibility to Protect Deployed Servicemen: The US and UK Approaches to Operational Risk during the 2000s’. With implications for when to go to war and with how much force, he explains the dilemmas of Coalition forces that have used excess force which alienated the population and made the operation riskier.

The exercise of ‘courageous restraint’ can help win the hearts of minds of local people and benefit longer-term force protection. This is insightful material for commanders and soldiers in peacekeeping and other stability operations.

Royal Navy Doctor Anthony Dew and philosopher Don Carrick collaborated in ‘Military Medical Personnel – A Unique Responsibility to Protect’. They explain the advances in military medicine that have increased survivability – especially with medics closer to the battle – but also the changing status and safety of medics. Some medics hesitate to wear the insignia as it can make them more, rather than less, of a target. Implications for medical and military ethics demand more attention and so this chapter is valuable for health staff and their commanders. It is also relevant for chaplains as members supposedly protected from attack by the Geneva Convention but who may be seen as force multipliers and prized targets by certain threat forces.

Wing Commander Sophie Paul unpacks dilemmas of journalists operating in insecure environments, especially if they act dangerously or need rescue in ‘Our Responsibility to the Irresponsible’. These are important human rights and citizenship questions. They are also significant strategic questions given the pivotal role of journalists as truth-tellers (and aids to whistle-blowers), but also potential military and hostage-taking targets given the war of ideas to which they contribute.

Two of the final chapters are the most valuable for ethical education. Colin Sullivan in ‘The Responsibility to Dissent: Whistleblowing and Military Effectiveness’ urges encouraging whistleblowing rather than stifling it. He discusses Daniel Ellsberg’s leaking of the Pentagon Papers about Vietnam and Katherine Gun’s exposure of UK’s motivation in Iraq (as depicted in the movie ‘Official Secrets’ which may be a useful conversation starter in military ethics classes when treating just war and respectful dissent).

In ‘Dehumanizing the Enemy: The Intersection of Neuroethics and Military Ethics’, Shannon E. French and Anthony I. Jack explore profound implications for teaching ethics to soldiers. They suggest operational environments call for a high degree of mental flexibility and the capacity to switch from combatant to peacekeeper to trainer. Sometimes soldiers need to be highly analytic and sometimes highly empathetic, but when we expect high empathy in combat it can set up soldiers for moral injury. We never want to dehumanise an opponent, but some level of objectifying can help coping strategies (like surgeons need). These writers argue training that emphasises a warrior code with honourable conduct will best protect against moral injury and preserve the lines that should never be crossed:

“Such a code will insist on bright lines demarking honorable and dishonourable behavior and will motivate troops to maintain these lines as a sacred obligation they owe to those who have come before them, top their fellow troops, and to themselves. They should be charged to act with honor because they have chosen to bind themselves to a particular set of values and norms; and their discipline should be such that that commitment will not waver, regardless of what perceptions they may have of those they fight.”


This chapter is my favourite and most highly valuable for all instructors and chaplains. It engages helpfully with scenes from My Lai and Lieutenant Colonel Tim Collins’ 2003 eve of battle speech that are commonly used in chaplains’ character training. It points to training implications that will help prepare soldiers to come safely home from ambiguous conflicts with both healthy bodies and moral souls.

There is no mention in the volume of Australia’s significant contribution to the ideas of R2P, not least from Gareth Evans as Australian Foreign Minister and his subsequent advocacy for R2P and R2P inspired ADF operations. Nevertheless, Responsibilities to Protect: Perspectives in Theory and Practice offers insight into the background, motivation, soldier’s experiences, and local implications of R2P and the related and often wicked problems that call for the best of our ethical thinking and leadership.