Not Possible in the World That Actually Exists? Examining the Value of The Responsibility to Protect in a World of Systemic Violence

Ananya Sriram, University of Leeds, UK

Ananya Sriram is a final year undergraduate student in French and International Relations at the University of Leeds. Her research interests include atrocity prevention, postcolonial perspectives and human rights.


The ongoing proliferation of atrocity crimes has led many to question whether or not the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) is ‘possible in the world that actually exists’. This essay argues that expectations for R2P are set too high, and that it cannot possibly hope to eradicate mass violence altogether. This does not necessarily represent a failing of R2P as a norm in itself, but rather, a failing of the liberal market system in which it was created. Mass violence cannot be eradicated because it is systemic, and rooting out the structural causes of this violence is beyond the remit of R2P. This essay will critically analyse Reiff’s statement by examining three key points: a) that R2P exists in a world which systemically creates and reproduces mass violence, and therefore cannot hope to eradicate it, b) that in ‘the world that actually exists’, the national interest will always supersede human rights norms, and, c) whether R2P as a norm is experiencing a ‘backsliding’ from the Global North and Global South alike, as the world order moves away from liberal democracy.


In a world plagued by the ongoing proliferation of atrocity crimes, it is all too easy to argue that the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) is ‘not possible in the world that actually exists’ (Reiff, 2018). Although this statement is to some extent true, expectations of R2P are ultimately set too high. At its core, the R2P is a norm designed primarily to shape states’ behaviour. It is not, and has never been, an initiative to eliminate atrocity crimes, despite the promises made by many R2P advocates since its emergence. Eradicating mass violence altogether is well beyond the remit of R2P because the system in which it was created consistently creates and reproduces violence. This represents not a failure of R2P as a norm in itself but rather a failure of the liberal market system in which it was created.

When discussing whether or not R2P is ‘possible’, it is first critical to define R2P itself. At the 2005 World Summit, the then 191 member states agreed to protect their populations from four clearly defined crimes: genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing, and crimes against humanity. More importantly, the World Summit Outcome Document outlined the international community’s responsibility to protect civilian populations around the world from these four crimes should national authorities ‘manifestly fail’ to do so (United Nations General Assembly, 2005). Using this document as the framework for my understanding of R2P, as well as the UN Secretary General’s ‘three-pillar’ approach (Ki-Moon, 2009), I will argue that R2P is only possible to a certain extent because ‘the world that actually exists’ is made up of power structures which create and reproduce violence, thus creating the conditions for repeated instances of mass atrocity crimes. Challenging these power structures is beyond the remit of R2P, designed to be more of a response to mass violence than a solution. This essay will critically analyse Reiff’s statement by examining three key points: a) that R2P exists in a world which systemically creates and reproduces mass violence and therefore cannot hope to eradicate it, b) that in ‘the world that actually exists’, the national interest will always supersede human rights norms and, c) whether R2P as a norm is experiencing a ‘backsliding’ from the Global North and Global South alike as the world order moves away from liberal democracy.

R2P and Systemic Violence

Reiff places the blame for the ‘failure’ of R2P squarely on the shoulders of its architects. The promise made by Australian foreign minister Gareth Evans that R2P would bring the world closer to ‘ending mass atrocity crimes once and for all’ (Reiff, 2018) simply sets expectations too high, creating ambitions that are impossible to fulfil due to the underlying structural violence produced by capitalism. R2P is simply one liberal norm among many that promises peace without having the capacity to implement it since the forces that seek to limit it are much stronger. Indeed, instead of creating an age of peace, the liberal world order has in fact created more violence. A study undertaken by the UN and World Bank (2018) demonstrates an increase in mass violence in the last forty years (1976-2016), with the number of major violent conflicts tripling since 2010. This counters the prevalent narrative that emerged with Pinker’s (2010) argument that we live in the most peaceful time in human history. In an era in which mass violence has increased on such a large scale in such a short time-frame it seems disingenuous to claim that R2P is capable of eradicating mass atrocity crimes altogether.

In limiting its sphere of activity to four crimes only, R2P cannot hope to root out mass violence from modern society, as mass violence often stems from conditions of inequality that are deeply entrenched in society. Though R2P may have a strong foundation in human rights, its moral project will ultimately always be limited by international structures which prioritise economic growth (Reiff, 2018; Duncome and Dunne, 2018; MacArthur, 2008). In many ways, capitalism itself is a system of violence as it is not only built upon the existence of inequality, but it also exacerbates it in order to pursue the accumulation of wealth and capital (Duncome and Dunne, 2018). This allows for the proliferation of mass violence at both the national and international level. At the national level, the unequal distribution of capital can lead to the polarisation of wealth, which creates the underlying conditions of rising inequality. This, in turn, gives rise to populism and prejudice against certain groups, thus creating the conditions for mass violence (Burchill, 2005; Duncome and Dunne, 2018). These can be seen, for example, in Duterte’s rise to power in the Philippines. By ramping up social puritanism and the middle class’s fear of drug use to get elected as President (Coronel, 2019), Duterte then weaponised these fears to justify his ‘war on drugs’ amounting to crimes against humanity (Gallagher, Raffle, and Maulana, 2019). This example demonstrates how violence escalates; as populist leaders exploit inequality by scapegoating minority groups during electoral campaigns, once in office they have the power and capacity to escalate this prejudice into large-scale violence, thus committing atrocity crimes. This establishes a pattern in which the road to mass violence is a long one, starting with domestic structural conditions that are much larger than anything R2P could hope to dismantle.

At the international level, it is impossible to discuss structural violence without first discussing colonialism. The idea of modernity is constructed upon the European colonial project, which involved exploiting labour and extracting wealth from the Global South. The subsequent integration of states into the global economic system through empires created a systemic imbalance between North and South which continues to this day, and in which mass violence occurs daily (Dussel, 1995; Quijano, 2007). The conditions of global inequality are such that every day, millions of deaths occur resulting from poverty, hunger and disease – deaths that would otherwise have been avoidable. Although these deaths do not fall under the remit of the four crimes, they are nevertheless indisputable examples of mass violence, or ‘everyday atrocity’ (Dunford and Neu, 2019). Moreover, states considered part of the Global North actively create the conditions for violence in the Global South by stoking ethnic tensions and supplying arms to both state and non-state actors who then use them to commit atrocity crimes (Dunford and Neu, 2019). For example, it has been established that UK weapons companies profit from arms sales to Saudi Arabia, where weapons are being used to commit atrocity crimes against civilians in Yemen (Amnesty International, 2015; The Independent, 2017). R2P deliberately does not recognise these underlying structural causes of violence as to do so would acknowledge the faults of the liberal market system, as well as the inherent violence of capitalism. Indeed, R2P was never designed to dismantle the liberal world order because it was built by it, and we cannot expect the master’s tools to dismantle the master’s house (Lorde, 1984).

As a liberal norm, R2P is limited by the system in which it was created. Further, it was never intended to challenge existing power structures. Gallagher argues that we have come to expect too much of R2P, and that the ‘inherited expectations’ of ‘Never Again’ following the Holocaust have fuelled an ‘expectations gap’ in R2P, wherein expectations for the norm exceed its capacity (Gallagher, 2015). It is thus crucial to manage the expectations for R2P if it is to be considered a norm of any utility, and acknowledge the fact that it is simply an immediate response, designed only to protect populations from the worst crimes against humanity (Piiparinen, 2012). Although many have argued that R2P is too narrow in its focus on the four crimes, it is equally important to remember that R2P is specific by design: ‘if R2P covers everything, it means nothing’ (Badescu and Weiss, 2010, pp. 367). Although there are valid arguments to be made whereby casting the net of R2P wider risks encroaching on the field of development, the crux of the issue is that R2P requires a narrow approach in order to ensure the agreement of the majority of states, particularly the wealthy and powerful (MacArthur, 2008). Yet R2P’s failure to challenge structural violence may not constitute a failure of the norm itself. By compelling the international community to take action against mass atrocity crimes, it can be argued that the saving of thousands of lives is infinitely more valuable than inaction (Wheeler, 2000). Ultimately, though R2P is severely limited by ‘the world that actually exists’ as it is a world which creates and reproduces violence, R2P still has the potential to provide an immediate, short-term response to this violence. Longer term, structural responses, however, remain unlikely.

National Interest as an Obstacle to R2P

The high expectations placed on R2P have often brought about one-dimensional critiques of the norm that fail to interrogate the complex and nuanced structural forces that stand in the way of R2P’s success. One argument is that states will only implement R2P if it is line with their national interest. This is of course problematic for R2P as a human rights norm as it implies that states will always have an ulterior motive for upholding R2P rather than upholding it for the humanitarian reason of protecting civilians. However, the concept of national interest carries little weight and cannot be taken as a de facto reason for the failure of R2P. The fact that national interest is interpreted differently by most schools of thought in International Relations demonstrates the lack of consensus on what it actually means, leaving it, on the whole, ‘devoid of substantive meaning and content’ (Burchill, 2005, p. 206). Critically, national interest is a fluid concept that may be influenced by factors ranging from leadership to geopolitics. The nebulousness of the term makes introspective analysis difficult, and impedes efforts to account for distinctions between the foreign policy of different leaders (differences in foreign policy approaches between Trump and Obama for example) and differences in state interests. For example, though national security or economic growth are high priorities for the interests of the state, they differ from the interests of the people, which focus more on human need, human rights and wellbeing (Thakur, 2019; Burchill, 2005).

In order to comprehensively evaluate the argument that national interest impedes R2P, it is important to examine the perspectives of different schools of thought in the field of International Relations.

Realist Perspectives

Realists consider national interest as the pursuit of security and territorial gain (Burchill, 2005), and locate it as the primary factor motivating states’ behaviour. In fact, Jackson (1990) claims that states are only ‘morally permitted’ to intervene if such an intervention is in line with national interest, going as far as to argue that this is a fundamental principle of ‘good statecraft’ (Wheeler, 1996, p. 125). However, the assumption in Jackson’s logic that national interest benefits a state’s citizens lays bare the limitations of this approach. Numerous examples expose instances in which states have embarked on interventions in the name of national interest that actively harm its citizens. For example, during the 1993 US-led intervention in Somalia, US soldiers were dragged through the streets of Mogadishu, provoking domestic outrage in the United States (BBC News, 2017). This illustrates the discord between the interests of the state and the interests of its people; the harm that came to US soldiers in Mogadishu effectively turned the tide of public opinion against the intervention, highlighting how US foreign policy was at odds with the interests of its people. Moreover, such losses of domestic legitimacy often have severe impacts on the effectiveness of interventions on the ground, as was the case in Somalia.

It is also worth noting states have intervened in cases where there are no apparent benefits to their citizens, but where the underlying motives of state leaders are clear. For example, the US, UK and France have been accused of seeking to implement regime change in Libya, where the 2011 intervention resulted in the capturing and killing of Colonel Muammar Gadhafi (Reiff, 2011; The Economist, 2011). These two examples demonstrate how national interest is not sufficient to provide effective critiques of R2P; rather, it occludes a nuanced and holistic analysis of the complex, overarching forces which influence states’ behaviour. Situating the realist conception of national interest within a world which routinely creates and reproduces violence exposes the limitations of its critique, as it is clear that the realist perspective overlooks the divergence between the interests of the state and the interests of the people, as well as the larger geopolitical factors that influence state behaviour.

Critical Perspectives: Marxism and Critical Theory

What the realist perspective fails to do is account for ‘whom’ the national interest serves. Critical theorists argue that the idea of a common national interest is a myth created by the elite to present their own interests in a way that appeals to the masses. Elites present R2P in a morally palatable package underpinned by humanitarian values in order to garner public support for interventions. However, this ‘package’ is ultimately a ‘Trojan horse’ (Bellamy, 2015) used to justify interventions furthering the interests of the elite, namely the pursuit of wealth, power and capital (Burchill, 2005). It is true that there is often dissonance between public opinion and the actions of the political elite when it comes to interventions. This was especially visible in public opinion polls regarding the 2011 allied intervention in Libya, wherein 79% of the British public stated that given the post-recession economic climate, the country could not afford to undertake a costly foreign intervention (Ipsos MORI, 2011). Here, the divergence between domestic and foreign interests is clear. It is also important to note that at the time of the 2011 intervention in Libya, then British Prime Minister David Cameron was also implementing austerity measures which were vastly unpopular with the public: 62% of people agreed that spending cuts would harm the economy (Glover, 2011). This illustrates a foreign policy at odds with the domestic one, in which a political leader prioritised investment in the nation’s foreign interests over the welfare of its people, all whilst implementing a harmful economic programme.

The critical theory view provides a useful lens through which to view the complexities of national interest, and also forces us to acknowledge the structural power that political elites can wield – one which does not have the interests of humanity at its heart. It is also perhaps the sole theory to provide us with a means of analysing the underlying structural forces creating violence, which Marxists would argue are a product of capitalism. According to the Marxist view, the only way in which a norm such as R2P could work in ‘the world that actually exists’ is if the capitalist system was overthrown by revolution (Burchill, 2005). This clearly lies beyond the capacity of R2P; as a product of its own system, it was never meant to instigate radical change.

Liberal Perspectives: liberalism, cosmopolitanism and the English School

As a liberal endeavour, the strongest arguments defending R2P are likely to come from a liberal perspective. Advocates of R2P counter the realist view that national interest supersedes R2P by citing two examples where violence was successfully de-escalated through preventative mechanisms, first in Kenya from 2007-13 and in the 2008-10 crisis in Guinea (Welsh, 2016). Welsh argues that the successes of UN preventive diplomacy in Kenya and Guinea lie in their framing through an R2P lens, as well as their operationalisation through the UN secretariat and regional actors. This provides significant examples of the international community coming together solely in the interests of preventing violence (Welsh, 2016). Indeed, it can be argued that at the core of R2P lies a humanitarian project to promote human security as the utmost priority. This is common not only in liberal thought but also amongst English School and cosmopolitan scholars (Bull and Hurrell, 2002; Bohm and Brown, 2015; Burchill, 2005). Indeed, Thakur (2019) argues that R2P aims to elevate the national interest to the international interest, promoting the idea of the universal value of human life above all else. Following this line of thought, cosmopolitan scholars would defend R2P and humanitarian intervention on the grounds of serving a ‘common humanity’ (Newman, 2016), arguing that it is in the common and global interest to intervene in order to save lives (Burchill, 2005). An English School perspective would incorporate the idea of preserving the international order (Bull and Hurrell, 2002), arguing that civilian protection is in the international interest of states because mass violence threatens to destabilise international peace and security (MacArthur, 2008). However, defining mass violence solely in terms of four crimes limits R2P to a method of ‘containment’, only having the capacity to stop the worst instances of crimes against humanity from occurring. If the aim of R2P is truly to elevate the national interest to an international, humanitarian interest, its success is limited by an international system in which mass violence proliferates on a structural level. Though Bohm and Brown (2015) have highlighted this hypocrisy in the cosmopolitan view, their proposal of ‘Jus Ante Bellum’ wherein R2P comprises addressing the systemic causes of mass violence risks extending the remit of R2P to one that is beyond its capacity. As previously mentioned, there is indeed a risk of spreading R2P too thin. The four crimes are what defines R2P; to expand its focus would simply render it meaningless.

Post-colonial Perspectives

When considering how national interest may inhibit R2P, the post-colonial perspective is key. Not only does it provide a vital insight into the importance of historical precedent when discussing R2P but also proves essential to counter unchecked Western imperialism still present today (Chomsky, 2011). The emerging world powers of Brazil, Russia, China, India and South Africa, otherwise known as BRICS, as well as numerous other non-Western states, have expressed concern over R2P on the grounds that it infringes upon state sovereignty (Steunkel, 2014; Ziegler, 2016). Though it can be tempting to argue that this opposition is driven by national interest, a more nuanced critique should incorporate an understanding of colonial history. The desire to protect sovereignty stems from the colonial experience of most BRICS countries excluding Russia, when sovereignty was entirely disregarded by colonial powers and only gained through hard-fought struggles for independence (Ziegler, 2016). Taking this history into account, along with the vastly unjust and unequal world that resulted from it, the concerns of many non-Western states over R2P being a neo-imperial project that justifies Western intervention in the Global South are better understood when situated in context, as is the desire of China and Russia to balance against Western powers in the UN Security Council. These anxieties were particularly salient following the 2011 intervention in Libya which resulted in regime change, propelling an immense backlash from Brazil, China and Russia in particular who felt they had been ‘betrayed’ by Western powers (Steunkel, 2014; Ziegler, 2016). Subsequently, many have taken a position of non-intervention which often inhibits progress on R2P, as demonstrated by China and Russia’s repeated use of the veto against intervention in Syria (Morris, 2013). The 2009 UN General Assembly debate revealed a somewhat precarious consensus on R2P, with the majority of states raising concerns over sovereignty, legitimacy and authority (Newman, 2013). Concerns over R2P being wielded by the ‘strong [to] do as they wish while the weak suffer as they must’ (Chomsky, 2011, p. 11) were summarised in a statement made by the President of the General Assembly: ‘we first need to create a more just and equal world order’ (Brockmann, 2009, p. 6). This statement demonstrates that the problems of R2P lie not in the norm itself, but rather in the international system in which it was created. R2P is often accused of compromising sovereignty and highlighting inequality, uncertainty and instability at a global level, but this is symptomatic of the entrenched problems of capitalism that inhibit R2P.

As we have seen, arguments that national interest acts as an obstacle to R2P limit the discourse surrounding R2P to a state lens; rather, an international lens is required. The global problems of inequality, class divisions and power imbalances inhibit R2P from reaching its full potential (Newman, 2016). R2P cannot fix these problems, as Newman advocates, nor can it be separated from them since such problems make up ‘the world as it actually exists’. Moreover, expectations that R2P will elevate the national interest to an ‘international interest’ (Thakur, 2019) which implores states to act in the best interests of a ‘common humanity’ (Newman, 2016) are too ambitious. R2P is simply one norm among many, and while it can be internalised to shape states’ behaviour, we cannot expect it to be the only reason for states to act.

R2P in a Transitional World Order: Normative ‘Backslide’?

Born in a unipolar world order, R2P is coming of age at a time of great change in which multiple powers challenge the defining norms and institutions of our era (Newman, 2013). Reiff argues ‘the global balance of power has tilted away from governments committed to human rights norms and toward those indifferent or actively hostile to them.’ (Reiff, 2018) Though the international order may be a subjective construct (Newman, 2016), the measures used to define it indicate a relative shift in terms of where power is concentrated, exemplified by the rise of the BRICS. The transitional world order also reflects changes in norms and institutions, R2P being a prime example of a liberal norm facing increasing normative challenges. R2P faces an obstacle in that it is entering a multipolar world order in which the rising, non-Western powers are no longer taking a passive role in norm diffusion and are actively questioning R2P on the grounds of preserving sovereignty, non-intervention, and challenging the hegemony of liberal internationalism (Newman, 2013). Reiff argues that the rise of the BRICS, in which each country has populist or authoritarian governments, presents a challenge to R2P as the global balance of power shifts away from the prevailing liberal ideology. It could be argued that this has led to a normative ‘backsliding’ of R2P, wherein attention and commitment to the norm has waned in recent years. However, there is no evidence that the BRICS are solely responsible for this backsliding. Reiff’s argument that the opposition to human rights norms comes largely from the Global South risks being somewhat colonialist, as the West has proved itself equally susceptible to the rise of populist, right-wing governments which do not prioritise humanitarianism. Examples range from the Trump administration, to Brexit, and the wave of nationalism that has swept across Europe in recent years. Furthermore, the myth that R2P is largely a Western norm has largely been debunked. Indeed, many non-Western scholars have made valuable contributions to the development of R2P, from Francis Deng to Ramesh Thakur (Bellamy, 2015; Smith, 2019). Instead of conceiving of the transitional world order as presenting a challenge to R2P, it is perhaps more useful to see the contestation surrounding it as an essential opportunity to develop and refine the norm in a truly multipolar way. Concerns about R2P’s implementation, in particular, are in need of being ironed out (Newman, 2016; Badescu and Weiss, 2010).

In any case, the fact that R2P is still being debated and contested fifteen years after its inception shows that it is still very much a norm that occupies a strong position on the global political agenda. Advocates would point to this as an indicator that R2P is not undergoing backslide, arguing that the success of R2P lies in its ability to shape state behaviour. Following the model of the ‘norm life cycle’ created by constructivist scholars Martha Finnemore and Kathryn Sikkink (1998), R2P’s ‘tipping point’ occurred in 2005, when a ‘critical mass of actors’ supported the norm by agreeing to the World Summit Outcome Document. The consequent ‘norm cascade’ followed with the norm being further institutionalised with the appointment of a UN Special Adviser for the Prevention of Genocide, as well as the establishment of R2P focal points and prevention networks around the world. Many would claim that the basic principles of Pillar I and II are not only widely accepted but internalised, even by the BRICS (Bellamy, 2015; Welsh, 2016; Steunkel, 2014). Not only is R2P being discussed more in the UN Security Council, but it has also instilled a duty to protect civilians in the international psyche, with inaction becoming less justifiable in the face of mass atrocities (Welsh, 2016). The prevention aspect of R2P has also proven a useful part of the R2P toolkit, with the successes of Kenya and Guinea in mind.

This illustrates that R2P is possible to an extent in ‘the world that actually exists’ given the internalisation of the first two Pillars as well as prevention offering real potential to effectively address mass atrocity crimes. However, R2P remains problematic; this is largely a result of the gap between the institutionalisation of the norm and its implementation. Agreeing to protect civilians is much easier said than done, and the lack of clarity and precedent for ‘good’ interventions have given rise to a ‘gap between rhetoric and reality’ in which states know that they should act and promise to do so, but a lack of consensus on how to act means they seldom do (Welsh, 2016; Newman, 2016; Powers, 2015). This manifests itself in ‘expectations clouding’ (Gallagher, 2015), in which a lack of clarity on the expected outcomes for R2P leaves actors with no moral guidance, no means of evaluating success and no accountability mechanisms (Gallagher, 2015; Newman, 2016). This has resulted in a lack of models for a ‘good’ intervention, and the high probability of worsening the situation leads many actors to take no action at all. The international system is set up in such a way that there is no ‘perfect’ outcome: it is not possible to eradicate mass violence, neither is it possible to intervene without grave consequences. Whatever action is taken will inevitably have consequences further down the line, whether that be immediate loss of life, or the destabilising of entire regions. Ultimately, R2P is a norm that is not built to tackle the complexity of the international system.

Going forward, advocates must accept that R2P is not separate from discussions of poverty eradication, climate change, and systemic inequality. Some have already put forward ways to address the underlying causes of violence. For example, Karen Smith (2019) argues for the integration of R2P into development agendas (ECR2P Lecture, 2019), whilst Bohm and Brown (2015) propose ‘Jus Ante Bellum’, a commitment to addressing underlying causes of violence before engaging in military intervention. Though these propositions may be promising, it is vital to remember that the underlying causes of violence are entrenched in the international system, and cannot be overcome by R2P alone. R2P was never set out to be radical; it is a norm that can only exist within the confines of the system that created it.


In conclusion, the statement that ‘R2P is not possible in the world that actually exists’ is true to an extent. Although R2P has made normative progress in instilling in states the duty to respond to instances of mass violence, the expectation that it would eradicate mass violence altogether is one that it will never live up to since the forces it comes up against are too strong. The international system is one which creates and reproduces violence through market capitalism, and since R2P was a norm created by this system, it will never have the tools nor the power to dismantle it. The high expectations surrounding R2P also bring about critiques, which assume that R2P can transcend all other norms to be the sole motivating factor shaping states’ behaviour. This is simply not the case; R2P does not exist in a vacuum, and there are numerous other norms and institutions which influence how states act. Locating national interest as a focus of these critiques prevents a nuanced and meaningful analysis of the obstacles facing R2P, and often does not take into account the structural limitations of the international system in which it resides. Finally, the transitional world order acts not as an obstacle to R2P, but rather as an opportunity for the norm to develop. Overall, R2P has made as much progress as it can in ‘the world that actually exists’, but is ultimately limited by a system which creates and reproduces structural violence.


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