Feinstein Delivers the O’Meara International Lecture: The Responsibility to Protect

Lee A. Feinstein, founding dean of the School of Global and International Studies at Indiana University, presented the third annual Patrick O’Meara International Lecture on April 1, 2014 at IU Bloomington.

A U.S. ambassador to the Republic of Poland from 2009 to 2012, Feinstein has had a distinguished career in and out of government. A noted scholar-practitioner, Feinstein has served two secretaries of state and a secretary of defense and has worked at the nation’s top research institutes, including the Council on Foreign Relations and the Brookings Institution.

Addressing international institutions’ ability to cope with new challenges, Feinstein traced the development of a new idea of sovereignty. The phrase responsibility to protect was coined by an international group of scholars assembled by the U.N. in response to the massacres in Bosnia. Responsibility to protect is “the idea that mass atrocities that take place in one state are the concern of all states.” The principle has two parts: first, it asserts “the basic human rights obligation of all states to those living within their borders” and second, “when a state fails in that obligation, the rest of the world has the responsibility to do something. The actions could be diplomatic; they could involve public pressure, embarrassment, naming and shaming, economic sanctions. The actions could be military.”

For Feinstein, this new U.N. principle represents “the biggest change in the definition of sovereignty since the Treaty of Westphalia. The adoption by the U.N. begins to remove some of the classic excuses for doing nothing. It is not illegal to take action when a state has failed.” This notion does not justify individual states taking unilateral action when they perceive violations elsewhere. “It is important to work within the U.N. system. The results will be more effective and more sustainable.”

Feinstein concluded with his belief in the power of ideas. “Changes in norms and legal obligations have only an indirect effect on how states behave, but they matter, and it is worth the effort to keep pressing to change norms in order to evolve the international system so that it can effectively grapple with the challenges we face today.”

The Patrick O’Meara International Lecture was established in 2011 to honor IU’s first Vice President for International Affairs, by bringing to the Bloomington campus distinguished speakers who address critical topics in international affairs.

Video of the lecture is available at https://broadcast.iu.edu/events/omera-lecture-feinstein.html.