09/08/2013 01:18 pm ET Updated Nov 08, 2013

Saving Humanitarian Intervention From Itself

This piece was originally published in a longer form on Foreign Policy's Democracy Lab.

In 2005, the world's countries endorsed the Responsibility to Protect (R2P), a principle that holds countries to protect foreign citizens from mass atrocities, even at the expense of sovereignty. Syria's civil war constitutes the latest tragic example of the inability to implement R2P effectively. The use of chemical weapons has now sparked an intense debate in Washington and elsewhere over whether to finally intervene.

Though noble and important, R2P has proved problematic in practice. Once atrocities occur, military means are often the only reasonably certain way to stop them. The cost of military campaigns and the dearth of alternatives frequently prevent countries from fulfilling their commitments.

To protect populations more effectively, promote sound governance and generate greater economic opportunity over time, leaders should instead embrace a new doctrine: The Responsibility to Participate.

This approach would identify situations where exclusion of populations from political participation or socioeconomic opportunity and a lack of accountability of leaders to their people have the potential to threaten national and regional security. Examples include Syria two years ago and Egypt last year, when evidence of discontent over deposed president Mohamed Morsy's accumulation of power began to mount. In such situations, outside powers would invoke the Responsibility to Participate as a framework of principles for action.

In Egypt, for example, the new R2P would have provided a useful context for trying to prevent the strife that recently turned violent. Under the doctrine, global powers could have called formally on Morsy to renounce his decree last November that placed his decisions above judicial scrutiny and to rethink the controversial constitutional referendum in December. The United States issued only tepid language on these points last year.

Although Morsy rescinded the November decree the following month, hearing demands clearly and collectively expressed by global powers might have encouraged further reform and given citizens the confidence to pursue their interests through the political system and not by supporting a military takeover, as many ultimately did.

Using the new R2P to boost popular engagement could take numerous forms. It could mean more pressure on governments to hold elections with an even playing field for all candidates. It could mean developing tools to allow minorities or other excluded groups to participate more fully in political debate or gain a fairer share of resources. It could mean liberalizing laws governing media or civil society. It could mean respecting rights to free speech, assembly and religion.

These are already common refrains from the United States and other democratic powers. However, the Responsibility to Participate would bring the international community together coherently behind them, using a standardized set of tools to be applied when stability is under threat.

Shortages of participation and accountability are amenable to a range of tools far more palatable than military ones. Diplomatic pressure, sanctions and targeted foreign aid (or the withholding thereof) can all have an effect. Countries such as Russia and China would undoubtedly see these steps as thinly disguised Western interference. But these ideas stand a chance of attracting global support if packaged more coherently as an alternative to outright violations of sovereignty.

Many leaders may not agree to reforms that would empower their citizens at their own expense. But there are grounds to hope that others would. The Responsibility to Participate would provide a framework for increasing accountability and freedom, allowing leaders who oblige to stay in office.

This raises another question. The Responsibility to Participate, if accepted, could allow leaders to substitute small reforms for deeper steps -- perhaps including their own departure -- needed for their people to enjoy true freedom and opportunity. But they can already do so, with or without the doctrine. Moreover, even modest improvements can be preferable to stagnation or revolutions that struggle to replace autocracy with something better, as in Egypt today.

Creating a new R2P framework could ensure that these improvements stick. Even if leaders allowed greater participation and accountability, their rule would undoubtedly remain imperfect. This makes it essential to maintain vigilance over time and to continue supporting political parties, independent media organizations, civil society groups and other progressive bodies operating in non-democracies.

Finally, the Responsibility to Participate should not apply in all situations. For leaders responsible for atrocities, such as al-Assad, there can be no alternative to leaving office and facing justice. In addition, once citizens have entered the streets en masse and their leader's legitimacy has clearly evaporated, the best policy is generally to back the revolutionaries and help them build an accountable and participatory government.

The hope is that the Responsibility to Participate could become an accepted principle that helps align the incentives of governments with those of their people. It would not solve every problem of poor governance, exclusion and instability. But if it can help avoid the kind of violence we are seeing in Syria or Egypt -- and the painful debates over whether to intervene -- it is worth a try.

Blair Glencorse is executive director of the Accountability Lab. Charles Landow, formerly of the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, is an independent researcher based in Zurich.