Examining the ‘Responsibility to Protect’ Through a Critical Analysis of Norm Theory

Amy Hart, University of Leeds, UK

Amy is a politics graduate from the University of Leeds. During her time at university, Amy took a particular interest in international relations theory, which she continues to pursue in her spare time. She is now pursuing a legal career and has secured a training contract with Shearman and Sterling.


The ‘Responsibility to Protect’ norm has received significant academic attention since it was adopted in 2005. Recent crises have put the norm into practice, leading scholars to question certain aspects, criticising its ambiguous nature. These academic criticisms have attempted to categorise this new norm, resulting in claims that R2P is not an established norm. This paper argues that norm theory is a process, whereby discussions and fluctuations actually improve the implementation of a norm. Distancing itself from the unattainable expectations scholars place on norms, this paper argues that R2P is established and calls for a reconsideration of the norm model to allow for greater flexibility and thus ensuring greater success for international norms.

The Responsibility to Protect (R2P), whilst being a relatively new norm, has become a central feature of international discussions. In light of the ongoing crisis in Syria, the R2P norm has received even more attention regarding its success, or lack thereof, which has resulted in questions concerning its status as an international norm. This essay will argue that the notion of norm establishment should be recognised as a fluid concept, rather than focusing on the fixed nature of the R2P doctrine and seeking to categorise it, which will inevitably result in a view that R2P has failed to become established. Whilst there may not be numerous outcome successes, it is precisely the misuse and contestation surrounding R2P that helps contribute to, and consolidate, its establishment within international society. Rather than a focus being placed on evidence of consistent intervention, R2P’s establishment should be seen as a process to promote discussion and consideration, instead of confining humanitarian success within fixed parameters with a rigid outcome of intervention. This paper begins by examining the criticisms of R2P as an established norm, with a norm defined as “social reality” (Ralph and Souter, 2015, p.68), to provide context for the arguments that will be challenged later in the paper. The next section will comprise of four key points to demonstrate that R2P is in fact established; (1) redefining the norm model (2) the importance of localisation and subsidiarity; (3) the over-emphasis on pillar three; (4) the reality of power hierarchies. This will culminate in the conclusion that R2P is an established norm and that analysts should manage their unattainable expectations which prevent an acknowledgment of the essence and spirit of R2P in the international sphere.

R2P is not an established norm

Lack of consensus over meaning

R2P critics argue that it is not established due to a lack of consensus over the definition of the norm. Shawki (2011, p.183) argues that there are “significant disagreements” surrounding the norm, which prevent it from overcoming the evolutionary stages of norm development. Using the case of Cyclone Nargis in 2008, critics note that it exposed the “starkly diverging interpretations that states attach to the concept of R2P” (Reinold, 2010, p.56), which prevented a coherent coordination of a response to the crisis. In a more recent example, the differing responses to Libya and Syria, where the former received a swift response and the latter received a delayed response, appears to show confusion and “selectivity” (Gallagher, 2015, p.18) regarding the situations in which the R2P should apply (Gallagher, 2015). For Shawki (2011, p.138), this demonstrates that the norm has “not yet reached the tipping point”      as if it were truly internalised, there would have been an automatic response rather than such intense debates over whether intervention should occur. The “controversial” (Shawki, 2011, p.182) nature of the norm prevents the development of a consensus over its meaning, reducing the chances that it will become part of international law (Reinold, 2010) and preventing its establishment as an international norm. Thus, it is clear that R2P has failed to develop a concrete approach to responding to crises due to the lack of consensus surrounding its meaning. The prevailing oscillation within the international community, shown through a lack of uniformity to responses, reflects how it is not an established norm.

The R2P has failed to change state behaviour

A further criticism of the R2P is the notion that it is purely rhetoric with little substance, and subsequently does not alter state behaviour. For instance, Hehir (2012, p.3) argues that the R2P represents an “illusion of progress” as behind its popularised name little action follows. The proliferation of literature and broader international attention have diluted R2P, resulting in its utilisation for a number of theories and proposals that depart from the initial purpose. This in turn demonstrates that the R2P has failed to “consolidate its identity”      and is a part of a series of “rallying cries” (Hehir, 2012, p.5) that the international community has united around with few substantial implications. This idea is supported by the fact that R2P did not actually change international law, enhancing its inability to become established, as it was never codified into law and was only implemented through common agreement. Whilst R2P may have been successful in altering the political discourse of intervention, there has been little change to political action. Therefore, it is not an established norm as it has not re-shaped state behaviour; it is not powerful enough to alter the political will of a state due to its dependency upon moral advocacy rather than having legal significance. In order for R2P to be consolidated, Hehir proposes UN reform to avoid cases where political will prevents protection, such as in Rwandan in 1994.

Inertia of pre-existing norms

A third criticism is that R2P does not actually offer anything new to the political arena. Reinold (2010) argues that despite claims that sovereignty has been transformed by the doctrine, the fundamental tenets of the international community remain the same. Reinhold highlights that R2P is not required to recognise the duty of states to prevent genocide, since this was enshrined over sixty years ago in the Genocide Convention (UN, 1948). This shows that R2P reinforces pre-existing precedents rather than creating any new means to protect people at risk of atrocities. This is emphasised by an analysis of US reluctance to intervene outside of their jurisdiction. Despite evidence of atrocity crimes in Darfur, the US did not invoke R2P, arguing that Sudan should protect people within their own territory. This demonstrates the persistence of original ideals of sovereignty, showing little theoretical change. Even supporters of R2P have noted the resistance to change and the lack of originality, with Bellamy arguing that it is “neither new…nor radical” (2009, p.20). Thus, R2P is not an established norm as it has failed to offer new precedents surrounding intervention and has failed to shift the fundamental logic of sovereignty that preserves domestic jurisdiction. This also feeds into the earlier point that state behaviour is left unaltered by the R2P

Collectively, these arguments form the basis for the view that R2P is not an established norm. A lack of consensus over its meaning makes its establishment in international law unlikely, preventing conceptual clarity and in turn entrenching ambiguity. This demonstrates that R2P has not consolidated a coherent identity amongst the international community, nor has it changed traditional norms of sovereignty. A culmination of these shortcomings means that R2P has little power to change the way that states behave, hindering the progression of the norm and impeding its establishment. These criticisms will now be refuted through four points that challenge these perceived weaknesses of the R2P.

R2P is an established norm

Norm model modification

A shift from traditional models of norm analysis that has a linear approach, insensitive to reality, exposes the established nature of R2P. The traditional norm “life cycle” involves three stages; emergence, cascade and internalisation (Finnemore and Sikkink, 1998).  According to this model, in order for a norm to become established it should have an “automatic” nature, by which states instinctively conform to it rather than questioning its premise; this is referred to in the model as the “taken-for-granted quality” (Finnemore and Sikkink, 1998, p.904, 895). As demonstrated by the criticisms in the previous section, it is evident that if this traditional model is employed it would serve to show that R2P is not established; conceptual ambiguity, inertia and inability to alter states behaviour are not indicative of an automatic response. As Shawki (2011, p.183) asserts, “R2P has not yet reached the tipping point”      that the norm model requires for establishment, due to the controversy and inconsistency surrounding its implementation. Thus, from this perspective R2P is “an evolving” (Shawki, 2011, p.175) rather than an established norm.

However, revisionist theorists, such as Gallagher (2015) have opposed this model for being too linear and argue that a modified version can provide an improved understanding of norms. The revisionist theorists assert that norms cannot be fixed norms that follow a structure in order to become established, enforcing a “tension between a static view of norm content and a dynamic picture of norm adoption and implementation” (Krook and True, 2012, p.103). Simplifying the development of a norm to a formula creates an expectation that all norms will subscribe to this routine evolution and that contestation paralyses a norm between stages, thus preventing establishment. This creates “expectation gaps” (Gallagher, 2015, p.254) as demands for R2P to conform to this model mean that any sign of disagreements that are not a feature of this model immediately disqualify it from an established status. The construction of a “crude birth/death narrative” (Gallagher, 2015, p.255) whereby R2P is forced to be positioned within a strict dichotomy, prevents it from developing as obstacles will inevitably emerge. This is demonstrated by the rhetoric surrounding the cases of Libya and Syria; R2P went from being branded as being fully utilised due to the fast response in the former, to the latter being used to show the “death of R2P” (Newton, 2013). Assessing a norm within such narrow boundaries enforces unattainable expectations. If inaction automatically triggers claims that R2P is dead and is not established, it is unclear as to what is expected of the norm in order for it to assume an established status. Thus, a revision of the norm model will facilitate a conceptualisation that is sensitive to the necessity of fluidity in the case of R2P, rather than forcing its categorisation within a particular stage of a cycle that induces unattainable expectations. Changing the means of analysis will enable critics to see the establishment of R2P as an international norm.

Furthermore, this rigid type of analysis negates the importance of contestation, leaving “norms analytically underestimated” (Weiner, 2004, p.198). Norms will struggle to become recognised as established if the traditionally rigid framework is applied and may overlook elements that are central to its consolidation. As Vans Kersbergen and Verbeek (2007) argue, ambiguity and debates over the meaning of norms can be the reason for their existence. This can be seen through the length of time and number of revisions it took for R2P to even enter the vocabulary of international debate. In contrasts to scholars that criticise the ambiguity of R2P (Shawki, 2011; Hehir, 2013), this shows that it is this precise ambiguity that has allowed R2P to flourish and become integrated within the international arena. Confining a norm to the parameters of consensus negates the importance of contestation; an essential prerequisite, out of which a norm can be refined as a result of disagreements. This can be seen from the Iraq crisis in 2003, which ironically enabled clarification of R2P given its failure in this case (Welsh, 2013). Moreover, critiquing R2P for lacking clarity and for being inconsistent is to critique the fundamental tenets of R2P. Inconsistency is enshrined due to R2P’s “case-by-case” (United Nations General Assembly, 2005, p.30) nature. Critics should redirect their focus to distinguishing between “legitimate and illegitimate inconsistency” (Gallagher, 2015), rather than grouping all deviances as evidence that R2P has not been consolidated and lacks rigidity. Thus, contestation should not be criticised for preventing a norm from being established but is a useful tool through which R2P can be improved and consolidated (Badescu and Weiss, 2010). Norms should be seen as “works-in-progress rather than as finished products” (Krook and True, 2012, p.104), corroborating the idea of exceedingly high expectations. If R2P is viewed in line with this perspective, it is evident that it is in fact an established norm and simply developing as part of an ongoing debate, rather than being constricted by a norm model that does not account for inevitable change.

The weaknesses of the traditional norm model have addressed the criticisms that R2P is not established due to inconsistency and ambiguity (Hehir, 2012; Reinhold, 2010). Conforming to the traditional norm model developed by Finnemore and Sikkink (1998) produces a rigid framework through which R2P is judged, harming its potential to become regarded as established. Not only does this model set unrealistic expectations, but it also overlooks the unique nature of R2P that allows it to operate on a case-specific basis, necessary for the conflicting international arena. Modifying this norm model permits a more realistic view of norms, sensitive to the unavoidable changing international environment. Thus, this section has shown why the criticisms of R2P are a barrier to its visible establishment and that changes to the linear and formulaic original conception will enable R2P to move beyond the assumed evolution stage.

Localisation and subsidiarity

R2P is an established norm as through localisation and subsidiarity it is evident that states see engagement with the norm as important to their identity. The traditional conceptualisation of norms ignores the importance of local actors in norm development, despite the fact that “localisation, not wholesale acceptance or rejection, settles most cases of normative contestation” (2004, p.239). Acharya (2013, p.469) uses a theory of “circulation” in which norms are adapted and modifications are then fed back to the original norm, referred to as norm subsidiarity. Whilst critics have argued that this lack of consensus over meaning shows lack of establishment (Reinold, 2010; Shawki, 2011), Acharya claims that this is in fact indicative of the opposite. Chekel (1999) supports this view, arguing that the distance between the norm makers and norm takers is an inevitable consequence of norm establishment and should not be construed as an impediment to consolidation. Using Brazil’s ‘Responsibility While Protecting’ as an example, this shows a state embracing the premises of the norm and a degree of acceptance, engaging and adapting so that it may be enshrined within a particular context. This fosters a culture of compliance; if a norm fits with a state’s principles they are more likely to interact with the norm, increasing its international presence and therefore showing its establishment. This idea also extends to cases where states actively refuse to engage with a norm or do so in a way that is generally disputed and perceived as straying from R2P. Russia’s actions in the war against Georgia are claimed to have been an abuse of the R2P norm, but despite this initially being portrayed as a failure of the norm’s establishment, this misuse by a specific actor enabled greater clarification (Gonzales and Contarino, 2014). Similarly, China’s precarious relationship with R2P has forced them to “respond to the naming and shaming” (Prankl and Nakano, 2011, p.214) of accusations of violations. Rather than this showing a lack of establishment due to failure of complicity, China is recognising its validity, reinforcing R2P’s establishment. This also serves to strengthen a norm, as rather than states passively receiving an idea, they are actively engaging with it and moulding it to suit their political conditions, generating greater consensus behind it and ensuring a greater probability of its survival due to compatibility resulting from localisation and subsidiarity. States exhibiting a degree of agency should not be perceived as an obstacle to establishment but are indicative of an established norm.

Brazil’s ‘Responsibility whilst Protecting’ is also demonstrative of the established nature of R2P as developing states recognise it as a means to obtain a status as a significant global power. As Gallagher and Ralph (2015) assert, the belief that R2P is a mechanism to ascend in global power hierarchies shows that supporting or rejecting the norm is central to a state’s identity and shapes not only how a state perceives itself, but how other actors perceive it. This highlights how R2P imposes “new expectations” (Kenkel and de Rosa, 2015, p.333) on states and regions as they strive to gain a higher status in the international arena. Therefore, R2P is established as it fundamentally affects the direction of the world order as states are inclined to conform to ideas that have become a prerequisite for power. This supports the idea that R2P is an established norm as if it did not have this level of entrenchment, less emphasis would be placed on it as a source of legitimacy.  R2P’s definitive role is thus evidence of its established nature; incentivising emerging powers and acting as a means to access greater power in the realm of international politics. This directly refutes Hehir’s (2012) claim that R2P is nothing more than rhetoric as if this were the case it would not have to ability to shape the identities of states nor have the ability to determine their position on the international stage. Furthermore, it challenges the claim that the way in which states behave is not affected by the norm. The R2P norm does bare significance in state behaviour, regardless of whether they are motivated by opportunism or on a moral basis. If R2P was not an established norm, states would not invest time in attempting to engage with the norm, both in terms of localisation and subsidiarity processes.

This section has shown that claims by Hehir (2012) that R2P is rhetoric rather than substance are flawed. Local actors actively engaging with the norm shows a degree of acceptance of the fundamental premise of R2P and a desire to integrate it within their own system, demonstrating norm establishment. Furthermore, modifications through subsidiarity strengthens it through improvements that allow it to be entrenched within all states. The influence that it has on state behaviour reinforces that R2P extends beyond rhetoric, having implications for policy as well as informing state identities and serving as a source of legitimacy for states seeking an elevated status in the international sphere. Thus, R2P is an established norm as it frames state actions and legitimates behaviour.

Over-emphasis on Pillar III

Emphasising the military intervention pillar of R2P discounts the importance of other aspects, inevitably producing a conceptualising of an un-established norm. Pillar three, regarding military intervention, tends to be the focus of any discussion surrounding R2P (Shawki, 2011) and has become the criteria upon which the norm’s effectiveness is measured. However, despite this tendency, Badescu and Weiss (2010) assert that R2P is not synonymous with intervention and consists of many other tools such as prevention. Welsh corroborates this view, stating that “R2P is much more than just a means by which the international community can react- militarily or otherwise- to the commission of atrocity crimes” (2016, p.217). Shifting the definitive focus of the doctrine away from the use of force reveals that R2P has been consolidated as the use, of lack thereof, of military intervention is “not an appropriate ‘test’ for effectiveness” (Welsh, 2013, p.367). This is due to the fact the social reality will never create conditions that will allow for consistent intervention to be the appropriate reaction; each case is      unique, and inconsistency is embedded within the R2P doctrine to enable this. If analysis of R2P acknowledges this and broadens the lens through which R2P is assessed, the doctrine can be rewarded for the other objectives that it satisfies; acting as a “catalyst for debate” (Welsh, 2013, p.387) rather than an immediate justification for the use of force.

The case of Syria shows the damaging effects that over-emphasis on intervention can have, detracting from the fundamental internalised nature of the norm. Syria tends to be heralded as a significant failure, given the growing rise of evidence of atrocity crimes being committed and a limited response (Nuruzzaman, 2014). However, this does not mean that the R2P norm is not established but that it has influenced the response in other ways. R2P has been intrinsic to the majority of debates surrounding the use of force in the crisis and has guided deliberations, visibly seen through Obama’s rhetoric around Syria (Glanville, 2016). The norm cannot be branded as unestablished due to the absence of military intervention as this negates the impact of the norm at a constitutive and regulative level; what should be emphasised is that R2P meant that states felt that they were bound to act in some way to protect Syrian civilians or justify their actions if they did not act. This challenges claims that R2P is not an established norm based on its inability to change behaviour. Whilst this may not always result in action, the change is in the fact that states recognise the significance of the responsibility in their decision and that it is fundamental to discussions. Equating the fulfilment of the norm with intervention ignores other methods enshrined within R2P and misconstrues the original intent, as well as interferes with an analysis focusing on the success of R2P in establishing a framework for response.

Thus, this section has demonstrated that R2P is an established norm as it has guided discussions on cases. The trends in analysis to solely use military intervention as the determinant of the norm’s effectiveness provides an account that is narrow in scope. Shifting the focus can enrich discussion to allow the R2P norm flexibility to work on each case differently, as was originally enshrined within the document as well as to respond with the consideration of all factors. Syria is a crucial case in terms of R2P’s      lifespan. The lack of military action shows that the importance of R2P can be seen in other areas not involving the use of force. R2P is therefore established in the sense that it provides a “duty of conduct” (Welsh, 2013, p.387) for states to follow and is acknowledged even when action does not occur.

Reality and Compromise

The established nature of R2P has been clouded by an analysis that does not reflect the nuances within the international environment and the myriad of actors influencing a state. The element of self-interest ultimately infiltrates the majority of international actions, which the norm of protection is also subjected to. States have multi-faceted interests which will affect their behaviour (Ralph and Souter, 2015), which is an inevitable product of a fluctuating international sphere and different diplomatic relationships. As a result, when internalising a norm, states will have to navigate through the terrain of multiple norms rather than isolating the specific elements of R2P, which will often favour their own strategic interests. However, critics have argued that this means it is not established. Wheeler (2000) argues that regardless of the motivations, if civilians are protected and the norm is fulfilled as a by-product of promoting self-interest, this does not mean that the norm has not been established, but that it is part of a plurality of norms. This in reinforced by Paris which he describes as the “mixed motives problem” (2014, p.572) as states will not just be driven by the moral aspects of the R2P doctrine but also their economic and political interests. Assessments of R2P branding it a developing, rather than a consolidated, norm due to this problem judge it unfairly; it is inevitable that R2P will be enmeshed within the various interests of states yet the fact that it can still be fulfilled and enters into discussion alongside these interests is evidence of its establishment. Thus, having a realistic outlook prevents the unavoidable self-interest motivations from impeding upon the achievements of the R2P norm and its consolidated nature amongst other established interests.

Furthermore, the interplay of R2P with other factors also means that its implementation has to be compatible with the existing international normative framework. This is emphasised by Krook and True, arguing that norms are defined “in ways that they anticipate will resonate with audiences” (2012, p.110). If R2P was to propose drastically radical changes to the international community, compliance with the norm would be extremely low, rendering it a failure. The idea of the R2P norm being a “cultural match” (Checkel, 1990) refutes Reinold’s (2010) critique that R2P is not established as it has failed to change existing norms and has not established any new precedents. In order for a norm to obtain a consolidated nature it has to be sensitive to its political environment, which may be hostile towards significantly new ideals. Expanding upon what has already been established is not evidence of a lack of consolidation but demonstrates cautious planning of a norm that has been consolidated with ease amongst existing ideas.

In sum, when assessing the established nature of the R2P norm, the reality of international politics has to be considered. If R2P is to be criticised for not being established simply because it is not the sole driving force behind implementation, then this is an example of flawed thinking (Paris, 2014) and will produce a view of R2P that is setting expectations that cannot be obtained. If the contents of the norm can be achieved in light of self-interest being promoted, this is still evidence of its established nature as it can operate effectively amongst other factors. Furthermore, inertia has a purpose of ensuring greater compliance and an ease for internationalisation and should therefore not be the basis of criticism. Thus, as has been the case for the previous sections, an analysis of the established nature of R2P should be sensitive to the political environment in which it is implemented, as well as the pre-existing normative framework, in order to show its truly consolidated nature.


In conclusion, it is clear that R2P is not a succinct norm that can be easily categorised as established. The ambiguity of the norm has hindered the development of a clear plan for a response and has manifested a lack of consensus over the norm. The lack of radical change has reinforced the idea that R2P is not established, given that it has not changed existing precedents and its popular use has detracted from the original aims, stimulating claims that it is simply rhetoric. However, this essay has shown that these criticisms are only substantial if a traditional norm model is applied. This type of analysis is too formulaic in its approach and will inevitably result in R2P being branded as unestablished given its narrow scope. Broadening the lens produces an analysis sensitive to the fluctuations of the international political environment and is therefore a more legitimate means through which the R2P norm can be assessed. Using this modified approach, it is evident that R2P is established as states and regions are actively working to entrench the doctrine within their existing political frameworks, thereby strengthening the norm. Shifting from a focus on intervention, R2P can be seen to have framed debates on current pressing crises such as Syria and forms part of the numerous norms that affect state behaviour. Thus, critics demand too much from a norm that will inevitably fall short of establishment expectations and altering this approach will show the consolidated nature of the norm that ultimately frames international debate.


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