The Responsibility to Protect (R2P) principle recalibrated the relationship among and between peoples, states and the international community.
State sovereignty comes with responsibilities, domestic and international, along with privileges. Citizenship confers rights alongside responsibilities, including the right to be protected by States and, should that fail, by the international community. There is a corresponding global responsibility to protect people threatened by mass-atrocity crimes.
R2P became the normative instrument of choice for converting a shocked international conscience into collective action to prevent and stop atrocities. All of us who live in zones of safety have a duty of care to anyone and everyone trapped in zones of danger. But how did R2P come into being, in a world of contestable values and competing interests?
Despite continuing political controversy over implementation and scholarly contention regarding its normative status, R2P is no longer seriously contested in the policy community as principle. Consequently, there’s been no effort to rescind it as the UN’s organising principle for responding to mass atrocities.
However, R2P is under attack for offering too little protection, either against self-interested abuses by powerful countries of the non-intervention norm, or against gross abuses by ruthless national leaders of the human rights norm. The Security Council-authorised and NATO-led military intervention in Libya in 2011 seemed to validate the fear of many critics about the potential for abuse of R2P, just like the previous humanitarian intervention doctrine. The post-intervention instability, volatility, lawlessness and killings in Libya only strengthened the criticism. R2P remains vulnerable also to criticisms that in failing to alter state practice, it has failed to deliver on the promise of protection, most notably in the Syrian civil war.
The end of the Cold War, the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the emergence of Russia as a shrink-wrapped successor state, set in train a cascading set of multiple consequences. With the frozen geopolitical frame unlocked, many local conflicts emerged from the shadow of the Cold War and erupted into complex humanitarian emergencies.
The US-led Western world was the only group capable of alleviating the resulting mass suffering. Demands grew correspondingly for the Western powers to ‘do something’. Efforts to intervene, based solely on humanitarian considerations where no national interests were engaged, lacked sufficient motivation for sustained engagement when difficulties were encountered, as in the 1994 Rwanda genocide. But interventions were mounted with mixed-motive calculations where geostrategic interests coincided with humanitarian tragedies, as in the Balkans in the mid-late 1990s.
The inability of any other actor to be a check on the untrammelled exercise of US-NATO military power, in turn fostered growing faith in using US power to refashion the world in its own image’ This bred ‘exceptionalism’ in the unipolar moment: “the US has rights; all others have responsibilities”. This blinded Washington to the concerns, fears and preferences of others.
However, developing countries still comprised a majority in the UN. They could, and did, deny the West the imprimatur of collective legitimacy by using their numbers. Their historical narrative of colonialism was starkly different from that of the major European colonial powers who thought they had exported civilisation to the natives.
Even now many Westerners fail to appreciate the widespread cynicism among non-Westerners about the hypocrisy and double standards that lie behind Western judgments of other countries’ actions and policies on human rights, considering the historical record of colonial rule. Anyone who wishes to understand the deep-seated cynicism of many people in the global South about the self-sustaining belief in an exceptional and virtuous America should read The Blood Telegram about the genocide in East Pakistan in 1971.
In the use of force within and across borders, states have had to conform increasingly to international standards and normative benchmarks that attempt to tame impulses to armed criminality by states in the use of force – domestically (to commit atrocities), and internationally (to commit aggression).
However, state-sanctioned mass atrocities produced a dissonance, between the norm of non-intervention in the internal affairs of sovereign states and the humanitarian atrocities perpetrated by some brutish thug-rulers on their own peoples shielding behind that norm.
When some States intervened in internal affairs to protect the victims of mass atrocity crimes, their proclaimed emerging norm of ‘humanitarian intervention’ collided with the existing norm of non-intervention. The majority of States rejected the effort to re-legitimise the unilateral use of force internationally by some, in order to circumscribe the arbitrary use of force internally by others.
Thus the existing normative consensus was no longer fit-for-purpose against the brutal facts of the real world. UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan urged member states to find a new consensus on the competing visions of national and popular sovereignty and the resulting ‘challenge of humanitarian intervention’.
In response Canada convened an international commission (of which I was a member) to explore possible pathways to a new normative consensus on the use of force to save strangers, but within the boundaries of both law and legitimacy.
R2P was our answer: reconciling the neuralgic rejection of ‘humanitarian intervention’ by the global South, with the determination by the North to end the atrocities. Henceforth, citizens were to be treated as the bearers of rights, while States had to accept responsibility towards the people and, if they defaulted, the UN would step in to do so.
Our formulation of the three symbiotically interlinked responsibilities embedded in the overall R2P principle – prevent, react, rebuild – are inflection-points along the arc of a conflict-curve. The unanimous endorsement of R2P by world leaders in 2005 limited the ‘triggering events’ to four actions: war crimes, genocide, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity.
The unanimity notwithstanding, R2P implementation is an ineluctably contested normative terrain because, as I argued in my lecture for the Centre in Wellington in March, it lies at the intersection of tension between national and human security, state and human rights, and peace and justice.
All of these are, in themselves, essentially contested concepts. Some states will continue to exhibit the worst of human nature and engage in atrocities. Others will want to respond and help innocent victims based on the ‘better angels’ of human nature. Success can never be guaranteed by any principle or formula for international interventions. But the chance of success can be enhanced, and criticism muted, if interventions are based on an agreed normative framework regarding a triggering threshold, an authorising agent, and implementation guidelines.
One way or another, R2P addressed these concerns and requirements. While it will inevitably be tweaked, it is unlikely to be discarded anytime soon.
Ramesh Thakur is emeritus professor in the Crawford School of Public Policy and a former UN Assistant Secretary-General. His most recent book is: ‘Reviewing the Responsibility to Protect: Origins, Implementation and Controversies’ (Routledge, 2019).