Gendered Dimensions of Conflict and Peace: Assessing the effectiveness of UNSCR 1325

Joshua Ellis, University of Cambridge, UK

Joshua Ellis is a final year student at Queens’ College, at the University of Cambridge, reading for an undergraduate degree in Human, Social and Political Sciences. His main area of interest is the issue of identity in conflict.

The unanimous adoption of United Nations Security Resolution 1325 (henceforth UNSC 1325) in 2000 provided the foundation for the international Women, Peace and Security Agenda (George and Shepherd 2016, pp. 297-306). Since then, eight further resolutions have reinforced this agenda, addressing gender-based violence in conflict and calling for increased participation of women in peace processes. UNSC 1325 is therefore seen by its supporters as a turning point, or “watershed” moment (Anderlini, 2010) in the relationship between the expectations of civil society (especially women’s organisations) and the actions of the international system, particularly the Security Council. Moreover, UNSC 1325 created awareness of the normative framework that governs issues pertaining to women, peace and security. Many in fact view this as its greatest success. However, by taking a sequential view of the stages of conflict – from pre-conflict setting through to the peace process – it will become clear that UNSC 1325 has not adequately addressed the gendered dimensions of conflict. Rather, it has failed in three key areas: pre-conflict and the militarisation of society, during conflict itself, and in peace processes. Given the resolution’s four pillars of prevention, participation, protection and peacebuilding (George and Shepherd, 2016), this failure amounts to a serious criticism of the resolution. In this sense, in order to assess adequacy this essay will identify the failure of the resolution to achieve these stated goals. We shall see that this failure has been encouraged, and at times exacerbated by a series of conceptual flaws. The first section of the essay highlights the failure of UNSC 1325 to address the pre-conflict stage. Gendered issues that stem from the militarisation of society pose a security threat to both men and women, and the failure of the resolution to take this period into account limits the scope of the resolution. The second section focuses on the conflict stage itself. The narrow definitions adopted by the resolution along with its strong liberal flavouring have seriously weakened UNSC 1325’s ability to address issues of sexual violence during conflict and the basic rights of women. The final section, on the peace process setting, highlights some of the achievements of the resolution in increasing female participation in peace negotiations. However, it notes that these improvements have been somewhat limited, and are often void of significant meaning.

Gendered Dimensions of Conflict and Peace

Before we can begin our discussion of the adequacy of UNSC 1325 in addressing the gendered dimensions of conflict and peace, it is important to understand exactly what is meant by ‘gendered dimensions’. For the purpose of this essay, it is important that we recognise the breadth of this term. Gendered dimensions do not solely refer to the violence against women in conflict or their participation in peace processes. Whilst this is certainly part of it, one cannot for instance escape the sexual violence that victimises men during conflict. Hence, it will be useful to move away from the liberal conceptualisation of gender found in UNSC 1325 (Shepherd 200, pp. 383-404). Thus, it is important that we acknowledge the gender perspective, as opposed to the just the status of women. That is to say, we consider the implications of conflict and peace for both men and women, through the prism of gender analysis. In other words, asking why the differentiation of power impacts men and women differently. This understanding will allow us to consider gendered dimensions in much more depth, thereby providing a better lens through which to analyse the success of UNSC 1325.

It is also important to be aware of the definition of security, as it is integral to this essay. Gendered dimensions of conflict in particular revolve around questions of security. So much so that UNSC 1325 sets as its goal the ambition of protecting the security of women, and preventing their security from being violated. However, the definition of security has expanded. It is no longer seen as the “absence of violence”  (UN Women, 2015), but also includes political, economic and social dimensions. In this sense, we see a further flaw in the adequacy of UNSC 1325 to deal with the gendered dimension of conflict, as it embraces a narrow definition of security and to a large extent it thereby neglects the broader security rights of women in particular.

Pre-Conflict Setting

Beginning with the situation before the onset of violence, we see a clear failure of UNSC 1325 to address the gendered dimensions of the pre-conflict process, most notably militarisation. Militarisation, or the build-up of a country’s military in preparation for conflict, presupposes a close relation between the political and military elites (Enloe, 1983). It brings with it pressures for men to take up arms and for women to loyally support the men. It often forces men who do not wish to fight into imprisonment or exile. This is a clear gendered consequence of militarisation, creating an environment that punishes men for not submitting to pressures of masculinity which have apparently decided he should be a solider and fight. UNSC 1325 fails to acknowledge this gender-selective issue of conflict, with no reference in the preamble or operative clauses. In fact, UNSC 1325 fails to address this period of conflict, choosing instead to focus on war-time sexual violence, participation in peace processes and the post-conflict vulnerability of displaced women. Therefore, a key problem of UNSC 1325 is in its limited scope.

In order to understand the severity of this implication, it is important to explore in more detail what happens during the pre-conflict stage. Impending conflict stokes the fires of national patriotism. This divisive discourse is often accompanied by a renewal of patriarchal familial ideology (Cockburn, 2001, p. 19) where women are reminded they are the keepers of the hearth and home and men are reminded that their duty is to protect the women. We see this in the disintegration of Yugoslavia. As national feelings intensified in the lead-up to the Bosnian War, women were urged to leave paid employment and attend to their “national duties” (p. 19). Moreover, in extreme forms of patriarchy, men’s honour is seen as depending on women’s purity. Women who seek to escape this code are killed with impunity. For example, Butalia (1995) identifies ‘honour killings’ in the context of communal strife in India as a gendered consequence of this period of militarisation. UNSC 1325 fails to prevent these acts of violence associated with the pre-conflict stage where masculinity is emphasised and patriarchal narratives are enforced. In that sense, the limited scope of UNSC 1325 seriously undermines its ability to adequately address the full extent of the gendered dimensions of conflict and peace.

Conflict Setting

Even when we move to look at conflict more directly, flaws in the adequacy of UNSC 1325 remain. First, touching on its limited definition of security – as we have already briefly discussed – the resolution fails to address issues such as the security of the right to health or the right to education, all of which have gendered dimensions in conflict. Second, UNSC 1325 is inspired by the ‘weapon of war’ narrative and deterrence logic. I shall draw on Kirby (2015) who argues that both these approaches undermine efforts to address gendered dimensions of conflict violence and terror.

Let us deal with each of these flaws in turn. In relation to the failure of UNSC 1325 to protect the gendered dimensions of an expanded understanding of security, the security of women’s education provides a particularly enlightening example. Modern forms of war have ended the public/private distinction and often it is the civilians who are worse affected. As we have seen, the supposed masculinity of the armed forces has meant that in conflict, civilians are predominately women. The story of Malala, shot on a school bus in 2012 or of the schoolgirls who were abducted in Chibok, Nigeria by Boko Haram in 2014 serve as evidence of this gendered violation of the security of basic rights. In other words, girls’ education is threatened particularly by conflict, thereby widening the gender gap in school enrolment. Moreover, girls are frequently left at home due to their family’s strategy to cope with insecurity. This is a result of gender norms that privilege boys over girls. Whilst clause 8C of UNSC 1325 mentions the Human Rights of women, it emphasises those that relate to the constitution such as electoral rights. Furthermore, Clause 6 touches upon “rights and particular needs of women”, but it does not adequately expand on the rights it is referring to, or perhaps more importantly on how to protect such rights from gendered discrimination in conflict. Instead, the focus of the resolution is on security from violence and therefore it does not adequately address the full extent of the gendered dimensions of conflict.

Let us focus then on the aspect of security that UNSC 1325 pays particular attention to that of gender based violence “particularly rape and other forms of sexual abuse” (UNSC 1325, Clause 10). The view of rape as a ‘weapon of war’ is seen most clearly in Clause 11, which calls for the prosecution of those responsible for crimes relating to violence against women and an end to the provision of amnesties. In other words, the underlying implication here is that responsibility lies with the few and not the many. It is not possible to speak of prosecution in terms of the many who commit the act of rape or sexual violence. Nor is the reference to amnesties applicable to such perpetrators. Rather, the resolution clearly adopts the rape as a weapon of war narrative and assumes that responsibility lies with the few who orchestrate this tactic. There are examples from history, which can be invoked to support this narrative. For example, McKinnon as part of her broader argument on rape as tool of genocide (2006: 219) notes that in the Rwandan Genocide, Hutu men raped Tutsi women en masse as part of the attempted destruction of that ethnic group. In some cases, leaders such as Laurent Semanza ordered these assaults. However, Kirby (2015, pp. 457-472) argues that this exclusive focus on military actors’ neglects high levels of civilian and intimate partner violence that occurs in conflict settings. For example, in Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, a household survey revealed high levels of intimate partner sexual violence, despite a general fixation on atrocities by armed groups. In the Kivu region, the number of incidents of civilian and intimate partner violence surpasses 400,00, making it the most prevalent form of violence in this conflict zone (Kirby, 2015, pp. 457-472). Hence, when the continuum of gender violence is reduced to strategic military rape, many incidents will fall outside the purview of public policy. We can see therefore that UNSC 1325 is symptomatic of this failure, and as such it curtails its adequacy when addressing gendered dimensions of conflict.

We have already touched upon the deterrence logic that forms the backbone of the resolution’s approach to gendered violence in conflict. However, the hypothesis that increased prosecution will deter future atrocity further weakens the capacity UNSC 1325 to adequately address gendered violence in conflict settings. The “need to exclude these crimes, where feasible from amnesty provisions” (UNSC 1325, p. Clause 11) increases the chance of spoilers in peace processes, thereby potentially lengthening the period of sexual assault. On a strong interpretation of the ‘weapon of war’ thesis, responsibility for rape lies with senior figures. This is an idea we have already explored. If one were to remove the incentive of amnesty for a cessation of harmful activity, the fear of prosecution would deter guilty parties from coming to the peace table. This would extend the length of the conflict, not just violent crimes against women. Moreover, Kirby (2015, pp. 457-472) argues that as a consequence of pursuing deterrence logic, where reliable systems of prosecution do not exist, sexual violence will increase in proportion with the perception that it will not be addressed by justice systems. Whether one accepts this argument or not, it does not alter the conclusion we seemingly reach that UNSC 1325 fails to adequately address the gendered dimensions of conflict, especially that of rape and sexual violence.

The final pitfall of UNSC 1325 with regards to gender-based violence in conflict is that it does not reflect upon the consequences of gendering sexual violence. It pays no attention to the male victims of sexual violence in conflict. Whilst male victims of rape in conflict may not be as common as women, it is still an important issue. The failure of UNSC 1325 to address this dimension further demonstrates the insufficiencies which stem from the resolution’s liberal leaning of defining gender-based violence in terms of its relation to women. In DRC, 24% of men were victims of sexual violence, 80% of whom experienced sexual violence during periods of conflict (Kirby, 2015, pp. 457-472). However, when war rape is understood as something done by men to women, and therefore patristic on heterosexual dynamics, male victims are often ignored. This gendering of victimhood can motivate homosexual rape, forcing men to occupy the role usually reserved for women. Therefore, the narrow way in which UNSC 1325 defines security, along with its gender specific approach to sexual violence presents an exclusivity to the way in which it addresses the gendered dimensions of conflict. When we take its view of rape as a ‘weapon of war’ and its reliance on deterrence logic, the resolution fails to stand up to any notion of adequacy in addressing gender-based violence – a key gendered dimension of conflict.

Indeed, gender-selective violence in conflict that specifically targets males need not be sexual in nature. In fact, Jones (1994, p.67) notes that in the former Yugoslavia the most “serious atrocities committed against males primarily on gender grounds” were executions aimed at eliminating physical resistance to Serbian occupation. He goes onto argue that the Serb ‘militarised masculinity’ was defined against the subordinate masculinity of their male victims. Puechguirbal (2010, p. 177) recognises the failure of UNSC 1325 to address such issues as symptomatic of the resolution’s position within the liberal peace agenda.

The transformative ability of the resolution has therefore fallen somewhat short of the enthusiasm that surrounded its unanimous adoption in 2000. This concern – that the potential for success of UNSC 1325 has been overstated – is shared in the literature. Cook (2009) supports the aforementioned argument, maintaining that the resolution is “poorly formulated” and its language reproduces the “restrictive gendered framework” (George and Shepherd, 2016, pp. 297-306) of the liberal peacebuilding agenda. In other words, UNSC 1325 engages with women as “gendered and vulnerable actors” (Puechguirbal, 2010, p. 173). This not only limits the scope of the resolution, as we have seen, but it also contributes to “restrictive assumptions about where and how women can contribute” (George and Shepherd, 2016, pp. 297-306) to the peace and securities project. This is most apparent in the peace process setting.

Peace Process Setting

Aside from its concentration on gender-based violence, the main thrust of the resolution concerns women’s participation in peace processes. On reflection, the resolution in this regard has not been without success, albeit incremental. There has been a rise in the number of references to women in the text of peace process, from 11% prior to 2000, to 27% following the adoption of UNSC 1325 (UN Women, 2015). Whilst the percentage is still low, it is a positive trend. Moreover, the overall participation of women in peace processes is ‘inching’ upwards. The Philippines is an example of this success. The peace agreement that ended 17 years of negotiations between the Filipino government and Moro Islamic Liberation Front, signed in March 2014, had strong provisions on women’s rights. Half of the articles mention mechanisms to engage women in governance and protect them against violence. This was seen as a direct result of women participating in negotiations. Furthermore, the important shift came in 2001, a year after the adoption of UNSC 1325, when two women were appointed to the five-member government panel. By 2014, a third of this panel were female (UN Women, 2015).

However, a more nuanced approach questions the real significance of this example. An improvement in numbers does not mean that women are able to effectively influence negotiations and shape their implementation. Sarah Taylor (2008, no pagination), a member of Human Rights Watch, recognised that “it is not enough to acknowledge the right of women to participate in peace processes”, but instead one must actively seek to facilitate their inclusion, and ensure their equality in decision making processes. In Somalia for instance, during the 2001 peace process, women were allocated a quota in all six reconciliation committees. However, any decision required the authorisation of a leadership committee of male clan elders. Hence, it is in this regard that UNSC 1325 has failed to adequately address the gendered dimension of peace processes.


We have therefore seen that UNSC 1325 quite clearly fails to adequately address the gendered dimensions of both conflict and peace. However, in order to show this, I have expanded the original mandate of the resolution. It did not seek to tackle the gendered dimensions of conflict and peace as such, but rather the original intention of the resolution was to establish a normative framework going forward that protected women from gender-based violence in conflict and ensured they would be included in peace processes. There is an element of political necessity here, which my arguments ignored. To construct a resolution that aims to adequately address the entirety of the gendered dimensions of conflict and peace would not be feasible. Its sheer breadth would undermine the political will to implement, let alone the practicality of funding such a project.

In this sense, the most pertinent arguments that relate to the success of the resolution on its own terms are reflected primarily in its failure to protect women from gender-based violence in conflict, and the extremely slow pace of improvement in women’s representation in peace processes. The rape of 500 women in DRC in 2010 just miles from a UN peacekeeping station exemplifies this failure. George and Shepherd (2016, pp. 297-306) note in their review of UNSC 1325 that the main pillars of the resolution include participation, prevention and protection: the resolution focused on “the protection of both the rights and bodies of women” and addressing the issue of women’s role in peace and security governance. Therefore, in the specific terms of the resolution itself, it has failed to adequately address the issues it set out to resolve. Furthermore, in the broad terms of the question, UNSC 1325 has also failed to adequately address the gendered dimensions of conflict on account of its narrow definitions of security and rape, its failure to address gendered dimensions of pre-conflict militarisation and its enervating progress at generating equality for women during peace processes.


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Cook, S. 2009. ‘Security Council Resolution 1820: On militarism, flashlights, raincoats and rooms without doors – a political perspective on where it came from and what it adds’. Emory International Law Review. 23, pp. 125–139

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Enloe, C. 2005. ‘What if Patriarchy is the Big Picture? An Afterword’. In: Mazurana, D. E. and Roberts, A. R. and Parpart, J. L. eds. Gender, Conflict and Peacekeeping. Maryland: Rowman and Littlefield

George, N. and Shepherd, L. 2016. ‘Women, Peace and Security: Exploring the implementation and integration of UNSCR 1325’. International Political Science Review37(3), pp. 297-306.

Jones, A. 2009. Gender Exclusive: Essays on Violence, Men and Feminist International Relations. New York: Routledge

Kirby, P. 2015. ‘Ending Sexual Violence in Conflict: The Preventing of Sexual Violence Initiative and its Critics’. International Affairs91(3), pp. 457-472

MacKinnon, C. 2007. Are women human? Massachusetts: Harvard University Press

Puechguirbal, N. (2010). Discourses on Gender, Patriarchy and Resolution 1325: A textual analysis of UN documents. International Peacekeeping 17(2), pp.172–187

Shepherd, L. 2008. Power and authority in the production of United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325. International Studies Quarterly52(2), pp. 383-404

Taylor, S. 2008. ‘NGO Working Group on Women, Peace and Security, Security Council Debate on Women Peace and Security’, Available from:

Challenging the Establishment: A discussion regarding the normative status of the Responsibility to Protect

Nikita Sinclair, University of Leeds, UK

Nikita Sinclair graduated with a BA in Politics and Parliamentary Studies from the University of Leeds in 2016.

Focusing on norms as “an aspiration for a new reality” (Ralph and Souter 2015, p. 68), the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) appears established, as the “normative aspiration” it represents is almost universally accepted (Ralph and Souter 2015, p. 68). Characterised as “a disarmingly simple idea”, R2P aims to embed the notion that “sovereign states have a responsibility to protect their own populations” from the four atrocity crimes of genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing, and crimes against humanity, advocating that this responsibility must be upheld by the international community if a state can or will not fulfil this duty (Bellamy, 2015, p. 2). With widespread support for the 2005 World Summit Outcome Document (WSOD) and continued commitment demonstrated through annual UN General Assembly debates, the suggestion that R2P is an “established ideal” seems robust (Evans, 2016). However, when considering R2P as a norm indicating “an existing social reality” (Ralph and Souter, 2015, p.68), there is far more contestation. Like much of the academic literature (Badescu and Weiss, 2010; Knight, 2011; Negrón-Gonzales and Contarino, 2014; Shawki, 2011), this essay focuses on this second concept. According to Finnemore and Sikkink’s (1998, p. 904) influential Norm Life Cycle theory, an established norm would exhibit third stage internalisation, demonstrated by the habitual adherence of actors. Dominant debates within the literature characterise R2P as an emerging norm between stage one (emergence) and two (cascade) of the Norm Life Cycle, hence suggesting R2P has not yet reached the status of established norm; automatic conformity appears a distant aspiration.

However, this assessment appears impacted by the high expectations placed on R2P, creating an “expectation gap” between idealised prospects and capabilities (Gallagher 2015, pp. 5-6). The tendency to view “applications in practice and examples of compliant behaviour” (Badescu and Weiss 2010, p. 357) as evidence of norm establishment means consistent intervention is seen as testimony for R2P’s consolidation. As suggested by Luck (2010), assessment is dependent on whether we view the spirit of R2P to be “state’s commitment to prevention and protection” or “legitimation of a military response to mass atrocity crimes” (p. 118). If we agree with Luck’s (2010) first statement and suggest “the true essence of R2P is the understanding that sovereignty denotes responsibility rather than licence” (Morris 2015, p. 1283), this may enable us to manage expectations surrounding the concept. Rather than focusing on intervention, it is more appropriate to view R2P as the “responsibility to consider a real or imminent crisis involving mass atrocity crimes” (Welsh 2013, p. 368). Henceforth, this essay will highlight four factors which constitute unrealistic demands, restricting our ability to perceive R2P as an established norm. These include the expectation of linear development, emphasis on consistent application, lacking appreciation of competing international norms, and overconcentration on pillar three. These aspects limit our nuanced consideration, feeding into the unrealistic expectation level. This must be managed to enhance standing, focusing on the potential of Welsh’s (2013) notion of the responsibility to debate action.

Expectation of linear norm development 

If we base our assessment on Finnemore and Sikkink’s Norm Life Cycle theory, it seems R2P has not yet reached the third stage of internalisation where norms “achieve a “taken-for-granted” quality that makes conformance with the norm almost automatic” (1998, p.904). This linear model presents norm development as a process where entrepreneurs shape and promote the norm, which is gradually adopted by recipient states (pp.900-901). R2P has engendered a variation of responses; including acceptance, misapplication, localisation and feedback (Negrón-Gonzales and Contarino, 2014, p.259). Following the linear model, this suggests R2P has not yet reached cascade stage, as there is significant contestation indicating the norm is still being shaped (Badescu and Weiss, 2010; Knight, 2011; Shawki, 2011). However, although influential, Finnemore and Sikkink’s (1998) model has since been challenged, as it promotes a “moral cosmopolitanism view of norm diffusion” which fails to explore the crucial role of local actors (Acharya, 2004, p.242). The Norm Life Cycle model appears too simplistic, suggesting dispute signifies a norm must be stuck in stage one. This ignores the notion that “norms are not objective truths, but rather inter-subjectively held beliefs” which continue to be debated and transformed through practice and according to context (Welsh, 2013, p.380). Acharya’s (2013, p.469) “norm circulation” theory provides a more complex explanation, highlighting a “two-way process” of diffusion where global norms are shaped through their localisation and feedback. Norms are not passively adopted by norm-takers, but tailored to fit local needs and contexts (Acharya, 2013, p.467). Hence, assessment based on the Norm Life Cycle model produces an unrealistic expectation for R2P’s development, suggesting it should diffuse in a clear linear fashion until it appears established as an automatic impulse. By adopting this concept, the agency of states is portrayed as evidence that the norm is still developing. Instead, the input of states should be seen as part of a continual process of norm circulation, rather than a boundary to consolidation. Feedback, such as Brazil’s proposal of ‘Responsibility while Protecting’, should not be framed as exemplifying that the norm is still emerging; rather this illustrates Brazil is embracing the core normative value of protecting populations (Negrón-Gonzales and Contarino, 2014, pp.267-268).

Emphasis on consistency

Many within the literature highlight the inconsistent application of R2P as evidence the norm is not internalised (Capie, 2012; Hehir, 2013); it is still reliant on strategic calculations based on national interest and political will. Negrón-Gonzales and Contarino’s (2014, p.262) study demonstrates that for salient states who are likely to be impacted by R2P events, support is primarily influenced by national interest calculations. This can lead to inconsistencies in state responses, with countries such as India displaying a “normative ambivalence”, reflected in its voting record in relation to Libya and Syria (Negrón-Gonzales and Contarino, 2014, pp.264-266). India has held a shifting position on these two cases, initially voting in favour of Resolution 1970 which highlighted Libya’s own responsibility, but abstaining on Resolution 1973 which proposed military intervention (p. 266). Moreover, in response to Syria, India abstained on numerous resolutions before supporting sanctions in July 2012 (p.267). This incongruity could suggest R2P is not yet established, as its application is still impacted by political vested interests.  Furthermore, UN Security Council (UNSC) discussions on invoking R2P obligations can be presented as fuelled by political will, rather than an internalised normative dedication to the concept. For Hehir (2013, p.137), UNSC action in Libya and inertia in Syria demonstrates that R2P does not impact state behaviour; in actuality the UNSC is just continuing with its “record of inconsistency”. Libya exemplifies this, and is “best understood as an instance where humanitarian necessities converged with political will” (Loiselle, 2013, p.341). The support of regional institutions, such as the League of Arab States, was viewed as integral to securing abstaining votes from China and Russia; demonstrating how the political context was a key factor in enabling the passage of Resolution 1973 (Hehir, 2013, p.149). For Hehir (2013, p.137) this is characteristic of the UNSC, with Libya representing a rare instance “of resolve and timely action” which should be accredited to political will, rather than the normative strength of R2P. These inconsistencies promote the argument that compliance has not become automatic, hence R2P cannot be deemed fully established.

However, this evaluation of inconsistency is once again influenced by the great expectations placed on R2P which shroud comprehensive understanding (Gallagher, 2015). In relation to a Pillar III case of military intervention, paragraph 139 of the 2005 WSOD specifically calls for consideration “on a case-by-case basis” and “in a timely and decisive manner, through the Security Council” (United Nations General Assembly, 2005, p.30). This highlights how inconsistency is in-built into R2P; the policy enshrines a commitment to consider all cases on an individual basis, encouraging a cost-benefit analysis to ascertain whether intervention is an appropriate route (Gallagher, 2015, p.13). Therefore, the assertion that R2P is limited by its varying application must be refuted; this only fuels an irrational expectation that a Pillar III response should be invoked immediately when a state fails to prevent one of the four crimes (Gallagher, 2015, p.8). Hence, as inconsistency is embedded in R2P, it should not be seen as measurement for norm consolidation. Irregularity in application should not be problematic, so long as the UNSC demonstrates a coherent approach (Gallagher, 2015, p.13). Arguments made by the likes of Capie (2012, p.83) exemplify this demanding expectation, viewing Vietnam’s position on R2P as highly selective with support for pillar 3 “much more cautious, calling only for the UNSC to review such incidents on a case by case basis”. Vietnam’s position clearly matches the ‘case-by-case’ requirement outlined in the WSOD, yet Capie (2012) characterises this as an example of limited support. This illustrates how a lack of understanding about R2P places high demands on this normative concept, which in fact contradict one of its key components, the case-by-case consideration. If we tackle this misconception, inconsistency may come to signify that R2P is alive; actively influencing UNSC discussion on individual cases, rather than inciting claims of the norm’s demise.

Lacking appreciation of competing international norms

Moreover, the requirement of consistent application fails to appreciate that R2P does not operate in a vacuum, it exists amongst other normative and non-normative considerations which also have a valid impact on states’ behaviour (Welsh, 2013, p.388). It is unreasonable to suggest R2P should be the core motivating factor as it is not the only norm at the table. Morris (2015, p.400) highlights the UNSC’s “special dual responsibility” comprising the “original obligation to preserve international peace and security” with the R2P norm. This has engendered an “acute normative tension” as the Council must weigh up these two duties which are often found in contradiction (Morris, 2015, p.421). UNSC deliberations regarding R2P should be understood in light of this dual tension; rather than exemplifying the lacking normative clout of R2P or inciting claims that the UNSC is merely fuelled by duplicitous political motives (Morris, 2015; Welsh, 2013). Furthermore, since 2005 the debate has not focused on whether the UNSC has the right or responsibility to protect, but rather how to respond; the existence of a responsibility is not disputed (Marlier and Crawford, 2013, p.409; Morris, 2015, p.209). In this sense, the grounding element of R2P appears uncontested in the UNSC; the norm appears established as it continues to engender debate over how to fulfil our responsibility to protect. Still, decisions over how to respond are influenced by a range of factors, from capability to the protection of international order. Promoting an appreciation of this fact may help to temper the unrealistic demands placed on R2P, enabling us to view the consideration of the R2P norm amongst others as evidence of established practice.

Overconcentration on Pillar III 

Finally, as Pillar III is deemed most controversial, it has received greatest attention with the aspect of military intervention at the forefront of discussions. This overconcentration on pillar three places intervention at the focal point of assessment, encouraging a reductive analysis of the norm’s development (Shawki, 2011, pp.180-186). This phenomenon is demonstrated by academic discussion of Libya and its impact on Syria which has focused on the current reluctance to support intervention by force, suggesting R2P is “woefully short of forward momentum” post-Libya (Morris, 2013, p.1277). However, the primacy of pillar three was never intended, illustrated by Ban Ki-Moon’s (2009, p.2) assertion that R2P “relies on the equal size, strength and viability of each of its supporting pillars”. Therefore, Pillar III should not be deemed as a more important measure for norm consolidation; greater focus should be placed on the non-coercive pillars to foster more manageable expectations (Shawki, 2011, p.189). It should be clear that “R2P should not be seen narrowly; it is not only about the use of military force and is not a synonym for ‘‘humanitarian intervention”” (Badescu and Weiss, 2010, p.367). What is truly at the root of R2P is a requirement to debate how the norm should be realised in practice (Welsh, 2013, p.387). With a wide range of responses available in the R2P toolbox, it is inappropriate to base our assessment of the norm’s trajectory upon what course of action is followed (Welsh, 2013, p.387). By framing the essence of R2P as a “duty of conduct” (p.387) to identify cases involving the four crimes and consider the range of possible responses, Welsh (2013) may provide a useful antidote for the illogical focus on intervention. By this assertion, R2P could be seen as established so long as the UNSC upholds this “responsibility to consider a real or imminent crisis involving mass atrocity crimes” (Welsh, 2013, p.368). This represents a far more realistic expectation for the norm, rather than promoting ambitious assertions such as Luck’s (2010, p.123) claim that “neither an encouraging debate, a consensus resolution, nor even a summit-level declaration constitutes a consolidated norm”. With extensive R2P measures available, it is irrational to focus on the one tenant of military intervention by force; this restricts our understanding of R2P’s broader implications. As the debate and discussion of implementing R2P is an aspect which is relevant for all R2P-defined cases, this is a sensible indicator to assess its robust nature. Therefore, by focusing on R2P as a “duty of conduct” rather than a norm of intervention, we may reach the assessment of ‘established norm’ (Welsh, 2013, p.387).


The idealist aspirations underpinning R2P may appear as universal and established. However, when assessing R2P as “an existing social reality” (Ralph and Souter, 2015, p.68), there is a larger debate to unpack. Following Finnemore and Sikkink’s (1998) Norm Life Cycle model, R2P would most likely be classified between emergence and cascade, disputing the claim it is established. However, this assessment seems impacted by the tendency to “demand too much” from the R2P concept, with a slightly hyperbolic “birth/death narrative” used to mark the norm’s perceived rise or demise (Gallagher, 2015, pp.255-256). Hence, this essay has explored four key areas where unrealistic expectations of R2P must be managed, in order to uphold its position as a consolidated norm. Firstly, the Norm Life Cycle model promotes an unachievable expectance for linear norm diffusion, which does not show an appreciation for more contemporary models of norm circulation (Acharya, 2004; 2013). Secondly, the tendency to discredit R2P based on inconsistency is tackled, demonstrating how inconsistency is in fact a requirement and hence should not be used as criticism. Moreover, this condition for consistency fails to appreciate how other global norms conflict with R2P; it does not operate in a vacuum and so constant application may not be possible. Finally, the preoccupation with pillar three is cited as another damaging expectation; R2P includes an extensive list of possible actions and assessment should not be based on the most controversial of these. By engaging with these four arguments, this essay attempts to reign in the overwhelming standards placed on R2P, potentially enabling the norm to be viewed as established. Ultimately, to uphold this perception, we must adopt a more rational and appropriate assessment such as that proposed by Welsh (2013), which suggests debate and discussion on R2P should be seen as indication that the norm is intrinsically shaping behaviour.


Acharya, A. 2004. ‘How Ideas Spread: Whose Norms Matter? Norm Localization and Institutional Change in Asian Regionalism’. International Organization58. pp 239-275.

Acharya, A. 2013. ‘The R2P and Norm Diffusion: Towards A Framework of Norm Circulation’. Global Responsibility to Protect5(4). pp. 466-479.

Badescu, C. and Weiss, T. 2010. ‘Misrepresenting R2P and Advancing Norms: An Alternative Spiral?’. International studies perspectives. 11(4). pp. 354-374.

Bellamy, A. 2015. Responsibility to Protect: A Defense. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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Evans, G. 2016. ‘How to rid the world of genocide’. The Washington Post [online]. [Accessed 18th February 2016]. Available from:

Finnemore, M. and Sikkink K. 1998. ‘International Norm Dynamics and Political Change’. International Organisation52(4). pp. 887-917.

Gallagher, A. 2015. ‘The Responsibility to Protect Ten Years on From the World Summit: A Call to Manage Expectations’. Global Responsibility to Protect7(5). pp. 254-274.

Hehir, A. 2010. ‘The Responsibility to Protect: Sound and Fury Signifying Nothing?’. International Relations. 24(2). pp. 218-239.

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Luck, E. 2010. ‘Building a norm: the responsibility to protect experience’. In: Rotberg, R. (ed) Mass Atrocity Crimes: Preventing Future Outrages. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press. pp. 108–27.

Marlier, G. and Crawford, N.C. 2013. ‘Incomplete and Imperfect Institutionalisation of Empathy and Altruism in the ‘Responsibility to Protect’ Doctrine’. Global Responsibility to Protect5(4). pp. 397-422.

Morris, J. 2013. ‘Libya and Syria: R2P and the Spectre of the Swinging Pendulum.’ International Affairs89(5). pp. 1265-1283.

Morris, J. 2015. ‘The Responsibility to Protect and the Great Powers: The Tensions of Dual Responsibility’. Global Responsibility to Protect7(3-4). pp. 398-421.

Negron-Gonzales, M. and Contarino, M. 2014. ‘Local Norms Matter: Understanding National Responses to the Responsibility to Protect’, Global Governance: A review of multilateralism and international organizations. 20(2). pp. 255–276.

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Shawki, N. 2011. ‘Responsibility to Protect: The Evolution of an International Norm’. Global Responsibility to Protect. 2. pp. 172-196.

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Shortcomings of the ‘Responsibility to Protect’: An Analysis of the Saudi-led Coalition Intervention in Yemen

Melly Hu, King’s College London, UK

Melly Hu is a current International Conflict Studies MA student at King’s College London. She holds a BA degree in Economics and Communication from the University of Washington. Her previous professional background includes experience in the investment management and digital marketing fields.

More often than not, the subject of international intervention seems to exist in a state of paradox. Due to the lack of an international response, tragedies such as the Rwandan genocide are allowed to occur. Conversely, the international community is also held culpable when the perception is that too much action had been taken, such as in Libya. When the United Nations created the ‘Responsibility to Protect’ (R2P) doctrine, it aspired to address the need for human protection in armed conflicts (but not only) in the most altruistic manner. However, for states fraught with mass atrocities, R2P brings to light the limitations of its impact as well as its intentions. Today, the situation in Yemen represents a case worth analysing through the lens of R2P.

The Yemeni Civil War began in 2015 between the Houthi rebel movement forces seeking to reinstate former President Ali Abdullah Saleh and the government forces of current President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi. The deadly crisis has since affected millions of Yemenis who are currently facing a humanitarian disaster in the war-torn country. When the Saudi-led coalition was formed that same year, the prospect of an international intervention was welcomed in the hope of ending the civil conflict and stabilising the country. Now, more than a year on from the coalition’s first air campaign, Yemen is in an increasingly worsening state, with millions of civilians either displaced or in desperate need of humanitarian assistance (GCR2P, 2017). To blindly accept Riyadh’s actions as R2P activism is optimistic, if not naïve. Although the concept of R2P is encouraging progress towards improving human protection, the international intervention in Yemen calls into question R2P’s infallibility from misuse.

This paper will proceed in the following parts. The first section of this essay will contextualize the design of R2P by briefly summarising its inception and its core assumptions regarding international intervention. The second section will examine some of R2P’s major design flaws that leads to a polysemous interpretation of this principle, hindering its ability to establish normative best practices during international interventions. This ultimately gives way for states to exploit the doctrine to their best interest, as Saudi Arabia is doing. The third section will assess how Riyadh’s incursion into Yemen is exacerbating the conflict and explores underlying motivations for its involvement, further illustrating that its actions do not conform to the expectations of what R2P was created to achieve. The paper will conclude that R2P has serious shortcomings that render it vulnerable to abuse in the self-interest of states, especially in international interventions.

Background and Core Assumptions of the ‘Responsibility to Protect’

The ‘Responsibility to Protect’ principle was first introduced into the United Nations in 2005, adopted by all the Heads of State and Government and has been reaffirmed several times since. R2P consists of three pillars that are “equally weight[ed] and nonsequential”: 1) states hold the responsibility to protect their populations from mass atrocities such as genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing, and crimes against humanity; 2) the international community has the obligation to assist and encourage states to meet that responsibility; 3) when a state has failed to protect its citizens, the international community holds the responsibility to take timely and decisive action to prevent the mass atrocities from occurring (GCR2P, 2017).

The first and foremost concern in the introduction of R2P was its potential infringement upon Westphalian state sovereignty. The principle was criticized as being a liberal cosmopolitanism agenda, used by major Western powers to impose their ideals and power over ‘weaker’ states (Kurtz and Rotmann, 2015, p. 6). To counter, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon (2008) stressed that “R2P is an ally of sovereignty, not an adversary”, by placing the primary responsibility of protection on the state concerned. However, the fact that the pillars are equally weighted and nonsequential, as stated above, demonstrates otherwise, as Pillar III then legitimizes intervening states to ‘meddle’ (Badescu and Weiss, 2010, p. 361). Nonetheless, in the evolution of the R2P norm, the anti-imperialist view (primarily held by Venezuela, Belarus and Cuba that asserts state sovereignty should be preserved without fail) conceded to the prevalent agreement that action should indeed be taken in the wake of mass atrocities. More than a decade later from R2P’s conception, the matter of establishing a norm for best practices is still an issue at hand.

While liberal cosmopolitanists support R2P as it is in alignment with their desire for “increasingly strong and comprehensive international treaties and institutions”, the realist approach is sceptical of the states’ “conflicting interests of power” (Chandler, 2014, p. 65; Kurtz and Rotmann, 2015, p. 12). From the latter perspective, the concern is that states could abuse “humanitarian justifications for other political interests, such as regime change” (Kurtz and Rotmann, 2015, p. 15). Especially regarding international military interventions, Paris (2014, p. 572-573) claims that “decisions to use armed force almost always involve a mix of motives, including self-interest”. This is especially applicable in Yemen’s case, as it could be argued that the driving force behind Riyadh’s decisions is primarily (if not exclusively) self-interest, masked behind thinly-veiled altruism.

At the core of R2P is the fundamental assumption that centers on human protection. For the purposes of analysing R2P, Ban Ki-moon (2011) has differentiated human protection from the larger concept of human security; human security includes the security of states, while human protection “addresses more immediate threats to the survival of individuals and groups”. While there is less debate about whether or not human protection should take place, there is still disagreement on how it should manifest operationally. Notably, Pillar III of R2P requests action to be taken by the international community when the situation requires it. Although the UN has stressed a “strong preference for dialogue and peaceful persuasion”, Pillar III also encompasses coercive action (United Nations – Report of the Secretary-General, 2009).  While coercive measures could include “political, economic, or judicial steps,” most states tend to interpret it as coercive military action (Evans and Sahnoun, 2002, p. 103). This poses a challenge because, as Thakur (2013, p. 61) points out, “the use of force – no matter how benevolent, enlightened, or impartial in intent – …is inherently controversial”. Recalling the case in Libya, the heavy bombardment in civilian-populated areas “did not look, resemble, or feel, like humanitarian protection” (Dunne and Gifkins, 2011, p. 516). Therefore, whether the use of force is an asset or a liability to human protection remains tentative; the case of Yemen, however, seemingly demonstrates the latter.

Another assumption is the expectation that no state is ever exempt from R2P. Since adopting the principle in the 2005 UN World Summit, states have been bound to this permanent duty. Therefore, Bellamy (2013, p. 10) concludes, “the question is never one of whether or not RtoP ‘applies’ – because this wrongly implies that there are situations in which states do not have a responsibility to protect their populations – but of how best to realise its goals in any given situation”. Indeed, this assumption that holds this perpetual burden over states invokes a whole set of challenges. As the UN chose to implement R2P without requiring explicit oversight, who is to say what the ‘best’ way to act in an international intervention? This in turn also poses additional challenges to establishing normative standards in practice.

Implementation Flaws of R2P

Although the implementation of R2P happened in rapid succession from when it was first introduced, it was not without adjustment before reaching a consensus from member states. First, early drafts of the doctrine had to be revised in order to appease some permanent member states (in particular China and Russia). Ban Ki-moon ultimately ‘softened’ the language in the doctrine, settling for a universal feel that did not bend favour to Western states (Bellamy, 2010, p. 145). Any mention of the International Criminal Court, condemnation of torture, or sexual violence again women and children were ultimately not included in the final draft. In addition, the UN has admitted that the doctrine’s language does not effectively “grapple with the practical implementation of protection standards” (UN Security Council Report, 2005). Consequently, the final agreed-upon language of R2P was less specific than earlier drafts of the doctrine, rendering it more liable to manipulation. More importantly, how the discourse is used continues to be an influential factor in shaping the international norm of R2P, as will be exemplified in the case of Yemen.

Second, Ban Ki-moon also rejected including any guidelines on the decisions to use force by states in the case of an international intervention that has not been mandated by the UN Security Council (Bellamy, 2010, p. 143). The implication to leave this clause out is that states can then proceed with independent decision-making as well as freedom from UN oversight. Although states favoured this because it respected principles of state sovereignty, it does not lend any progress towards establishing a norm for the use of coercive measures under R2P. Both of these concessions will ultimately result in the outcome of how the intervention in Yemen was justified.

Finally, Bellamy (2010, p. 143) additionally calls for attention to the inconsistent manner in which the principle has been applied, citing Russia’s intervention in Georgia (where there were no apparent mass atrocities) to contrast the lack of action taken by the international community in countries where mass atrocities have been ascertained such as Somalia or Iraq. Termed “selectivity of engagement” by Kurtz and Rotmann (2015, p. 16), the discrepancies in the use of forceful interventions result in what appears to be a double standard, further feeding the realist view that states will only involve themselves when there is self-gain. Indeed, Riyadh has some obvious ulterior motives that serve in its best interests that will be explored in the following sections.

Riyadh’s R2P-style Rhetoric as Justification for the Intervention in Yemen

Riyadh might have considered these identified limitations of R2P when it made the decision to intervene militarily. In Yemen’s case, R2P was not formally invoked by the UN but it nevertheless was an important aspect when Riyadh announced its justification for the intervention in Yemen. On March 25, 2015, Riyadh issued a statement to announce the launch of its military intervention into Yemen as its ‘responsibility’ to “protect the people of Yemen and its legitimate government from a takeover by the Houthis” (Saudi Ambassador Al-Jubeir, 2015). Announcing the next phase of the campaign, the Saudi-led coalition’s goals again were “continuing to protect civilians, continuing to fight terrorism…and to intensify relief and medical assistance to the Yemeni people” (Abdul, 2015).

Although the statements used rhetoric associated with R2P, any mention of the ‘mass atrocities’ occurring in Yemen that explicitly allows international intervention to act on behalf of the concerned state is glaringly absent. Amidst all of the recognized ambiguities of R2P, surely the clause to protect civilians from mass atrocities should be clear. It is no coincidence that Riyadh has omitted any inferences to mass atrocities; it would have undoubtedly drawn more international criticism towards the hard-line air campaigns that it conducted indiscriminately toward civilian areas, rendering it more difficult to justify the intervention on the grounds of R2P.

From Riyadh’s perspective, it could be reasoned that they were simply acting upon what the R2P doctrine had asked of the international community, in a both timely and decisive fashion. Yemen was already on the brink of collapse due to the ongoing civil war, thus Riyadh viewed itself as the much-needed proponent to defeat the Houthi rebels and end the war, ultimately ‘protecting’ Yemenis (Perkins, 2016, p. 314). Moreover, the international community – including U.S., UK, and France – has affirmed its support for the Coalition, further corroborating Riyadh’s rationale. While critics deduct that political and economic interests, in terms of weapons sales and oil trade, are the primary reasons for Western support of the intervention, Saudi Arabia is nevertheless emboldened by the lack of international criticism for its coercive operations. In essence, the very same doctrine that was designed to protect civilians has equally protected Riyadh’s from international condemnation.

Assessing Riyadh’s Underlying Motivations for the Intervention

Beyond Riyadh’s rhetoric, the actual military behaviour in the course of the intervention also raises doubt that the Coalition is acting on behalf of R2P principles. Since the beginning of the Coalition’s aerial bombardment in March 2015, Human Rights Watch (2016) have reported up to 4,000 civilians killed and another 7,000 wounded. In addition, schools, markets, and hospitals have all been targeted by the airstrikes led by Saudi Arabia. The situation seems to take a turn for even worse when reports of child soldiers being armed by Saudi Arabia emerged. This is in addition to the grave humanitarian crisis that over 80% of the population in Yemen is faced with – both Houthi and Coalition forces have been accused of restricting food and medical supplies from civilians (Human Rights Watch, 2016). As the number of civilian deaths, injuries, and displacements continue to rise, it is becoming more and more apparent that the international intervention led by Saudi Arabia is exacerbating the conflict.

Assuming the cynicism from a realist perspective, the logical inclination is to infer that Riyadh has ulterior motives other than the responsibility of protecting civilians in its interventionist goals. First, the geostrategic location of Yemen is of paramount importance to Saudi Arabia. As part of the Arabian Peninsula and sharing a border with Saudi Arabia, Yemen’s instability would threaten the flow of the five million barrels of Saudi oil exports per day that pass through the Arab Gulf (Cordesman, 2015, p. 11). Additionally, sustainable stability will ensure that the war does not spill over from its coterminous neighbour as well as prevent any surge of refugees into Saudi Arabia. As long as Saudi’s wealth depends on its oil exports, its geopolitical interests will remain a priority in its grand strategy.

The high geopolitical stakes at hand then lead to the belief that the larger strategy and motive for the Saudi intervention is to establish hegemony in the Middle East. As Iran is Saudi Arabia’s greatest competitor for regional dominance, the mutual contention between the two states therefore manifests as a race to exert their respective influence over the other less powerful states in the region. Not only is Iran excluded from the Saudi-led Coalition, Iran stands allegiant to the Saudi-opposed Houthi rebels. In this regard, dictating the outcome of the civil war will result in a Yemeni government favourable to the respective state. Since Yemenis have long enjoyed employment opportunities in the oil-rich Saudi Arabia, they already hold a “strong incentive to defer politically to Saudi Arabia” (Okruhlik and Conge, 1997, p. 558). Thus, the escalation of the civil war was then “sufficient for Saudi Arabia to seek patronage” for Yemen, much in the same way it holds political leverage over Bahrain (Matthiesen, 2013, p. 29).

Along with political and economic implications, there is also a religious aspect to the rivalry. While both Iran and the Houthi rebels are Shia majority, Saudi Arabia is overwhelmingly Sunni. Thus, the struggle for the control of the jurisdiction of Yemen has become a proxy war over influence of the Muslim world. With Yemen under Riyadh’s control and ultimately reinstating the ousted President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi, Saudi Arabia would gain leverage over Iran. While sectarian conflicts in the Middle East are not uncommon, the strife over Yemen illustrates a case of political sectarianism in which the political economy of the Gulf is inseparable from sectarian affiliation (Matthiesen, 2013, p. 8).

Returning to the matter of R2P, it would be problematic to view Riyadh’s actions in Yemen without larger consideration of its overarching political goals. From a realist point of view, the existence of a legitimizing doctrine such as R2P has only made it easier to justify the Coalition’s aggressive military intervention for the sake of self-gain. However, this is not to say that Riyadh’s actions are absolutely barren of human protection interests, only that there are pre-existing motivations that cannot be ignored in the assessment of the intervention.


Despite the shortcomings of R2P, the creation of the doctrine has brought about significant progress for human protection. The purpose of this analysis is not to suggest that R2P is a doomed concept nor was it to blame Saudi Arabia for Yemen’s ongoing civil war. By critically evaluating the Saudi-led coalition’s military intervention, it becomes apparent that the design of R2P is susceptible to misuse. As Kurtz and Rotmann (2015, p. 19) summarize, “the strategic use of the R2P concept to frame and justify certain diplomatic or military interventions underscores the pitfalls of vague principles in international politics”. The implications reach far beyond the war in Yemen; generally, when there is a flexible normative structure for policy on an international level, exploitation is likely to occur. In summary, R2P should be taken as a dynamic doctrine that the international community collectively continues to critique, develop, and ultimately, improve.


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The Responsibility to Protect in Africa: Normative Progress or Sound and Fury Signifying Nothing?

Luc Hinson, University of Leeds, UK

Luc Hinson is a final year student of International Relations and Spanish at the University of Leeds. He is interested in security studies, the RtoP and specifically the RtoP on the continent of Africa.

The Responsibility to Protect (hereafter R2P) is a concept heavily contested by a range of scholars including sceptics such as Hehir and Reinhold. For Hehir and Reinhold, the progress it represents is illusionary; by failing to change international law and order it is a continuation of the status-quo. They state that the current form of RtoP has not changed the powers of the UN Security Council (hereafter UNSC), nor has it ascribed any “new competencies or procedural laws” (Hehir, 2013, p. 152). To dispute these claims, I will call upon arguments of varying levels of advocacy including Bellamy, Ralph, Gallagher, Thakur, Welsh and Williams, and dispel the three challenges of RtoP being ‘business as usual’, a “permanency of inconsistency” (Hehir, 2013) and “sound and fury signifying nothing” (2010), whilst acknowledging the limitations of R2P. A further acknowledgement of the limitations of the word count of this essay explains the focus on exclusively sceptics and advocates. In addition to using the arguments preponed by advocates of the RtoP this essay will focus on the role of the African Union (hereafter AU) in implementing and contesting RtoP, and demonstrating how, to this continent R2P represents anything but progress.

To many, R2P is an African concept. Edward Luck stated that “the concept emerged, quite literally, from the soil and soul of Africa” (Williams, 2009, p. 397). Arguably, the R2P was a direct response to the Rwandan genocide of 1994, and a challenge to the inertia of the UNSC to protect civilians where the state was manifestly failing to uphold its Pillar I responsibilities. As Evans noted in 2007, “nearly 60% of the Security Council’s agenda concerned either specific crises in Africa or thematic issues of concern to the continent” (Evans, 2008, p. 189). There is a clear focus on the continent for the UNSC, and therefore R2P carries the most weight in Africa, both in implementation and contestation. It is currently host to several crises where RtoP has been used as a framework of response; in Sudan, Mali and CAR. Additionally, the AU has been “eulogized for preciously enshrining certain principles of R2P in Article 4h of its constitutive act” (Abbas, 2012, p. 109), being the first regional organisation to fully codify ideas of RtoP in its constitutive document.

Ban Ki-moon has stressed the importance of regional organisations. In his 2011 report on the R2P, he stated that “the surest path for advancing the responsibility to protect is through global-regional-sub-regional partnership” (Ki-moon, 2011, p. 13), giving credence to the cascading norm of RtoP and its regional dimension. By pairing the voices of different advocates with the presence of RtoP in AU protocol, direct evidence of the progress of RtoP will be given.

Business as usual

The notion of R2P as ‘business as usual’ is based on the belief that R2P has failed to achieve any significant changes to international law. However, the discourse surrounding R2P has achieved significant changes to how intervention is discussed.  Bellamy states that “the key debates now are ones about how best to implement R2P, not about whether to accept the principle itself” (2014, p. 12). Ralph and Gallagher echo this sentiment that “the RtoP is now in the room” (2015, p. 241). Furthermore, the debate surrounding sovereignty has been reconceptualised. Deng wrote in 1996 that “sovereignty carries with it certain responsibilities for which governments must be held accountable” (Deng, 1996, p. 1). Those responsibilities have, with the advent of RtoP, been clarified as protection against the four crimes as identified in the World Summit Outcome Document of 2005 (hereafter WSOD).

Business as usual identifies R2P as a continuation of western-led interventions and imperialism, a criticism pegged to humanitarian intervention (HI). The distinctions between HI and RtoP will be further outlined in “sound and fury signifying nothing”, but it is used here to outline two key points to the argument. Firstly, R2P has seen a shift in who controls the invocation of R2P. Bellamy identified that “U.S. diplomats understand that, owing to lingering concerns about U.S. tendencies toward unilateralism on the use of force, R2P would be better served by the leadership of others” (Bellamy, 2015, p. 174). Secondly, western powers have been met with outcry when attempting to abuse R2P as a justification for the use of force, outside of that outlined in the WSOD, notably when Russia (a P5 member) attempted to invoke R2P as justification to invade Georgia (Ibid, 2014, p. 176). This counters the notion by Hehir that R2P can easily be hijacked by the great powers to further their imperialist agendas, as was possible under the guise of HI.

To further challenge the assertion of R2P as business as usual I point to the normative qualities of R2P and its contestation. Both Welsh and Hofmann have pointed to the usefulness of contestation in the development of a norm. Welsh states contestation “should be seen as part and parcel of normative evolution” (2013, p. 395). Hofmann reiterates this: “Contestation is in this sense not a sign of normative regress; it is in fact intrinsic to the normativity or legitimacy of a norm” (Hofmann, cited in Ralph and Gallagher, 2015, p. 245). With R2P, most of this contestation comes from within. States have been vocally critical of the norm and have been involved in developing proposals and amendments to the R2P adding regional input to the norm. Two examples of these proposals would be “Responsibility while protecting” (RWP) emerging from Brazil and “Responsible protection” (RP) emerging from China (Bellamy, 2015, p. 180). Thakur and Orchard identify a process called “Norm Localisation”, which describes how in different international societies norms gain traction and develop at different rates. An example of this is present in the AU policy regarding IDPs. Notably, this is an aspect of the R2P that was outlined by Ban Ki-moon in his 2009 UNSG report where he stated: “The protection of refugees and internally displaced person was a direct goal of the R2P” (Orchard, 2016, p. 297). This entered into hard law on two occasions: Firstly, with the Great Lakes Protocol, and then furthered by the Kampala Convention. These initiatives have seen the protection of IDPs against atrocity crimes enter hard law, demonstrating progress that is far from illusionary (Orchard, 2016, p. 315). These concepts demonstrate how the norm is (a) still undergoing transformation, and (b) that control of the norm is far from unipolar in contrast to HI. This demonstrates clear normative progress.

Permanency of Inconsistency

Hehir points to the “permanency of inconsistency” as one shortcoming of RtoP, specifically focusing on the inertia of the P5, the Veto and the influence national interest still has in shaping foreign policy. Hehir reduces the application of R2P by the P5 to “whether the members of the P5 have a collective interest in – or are at least not opposed to – halting a particular looming or actual mass atrocity” (2013, p. 152). One of the more nuanced advocacy arguments comes from Gallagher, and sets out a “call to manage the expectations” of R2P (2015, p. 256). This is centred around paragraph 139 of the WSOD, which calls for “collective action in a timely and decisive manner through the security council …  on a case-by-case basis” (UNGA, 2005). Integral here is the case-by-case clause. R2P does not represent a linear policy decision making system, rather it is a framework used to address atrocity crimes and their prevention. As each case vastly differs, differing outcomes and decisions are to be expected. Ralph and Gallagher further this: “When states signed up to the World Summit Outcome Document they did not expect a consistent response because they recognised that each situation was different” (2015, p. 244). Expectations of what R2P can do and what R2P itself is, need furthering to fully understand what is achievable in the name of R2P. It is not a catch-all linear decision making process, but instead a framework used on an ad-hoc basis recognizing that each case differs vastly in scope and scale.

To counter ‘permanency of inconsistency’, I look again to the AU and its institutions. Sceptics such as Hehir point to the UNSC’s veto as “the biggest issue regarding the UNSC’s record on humanitarian intervention” (2010, p. 220). As Williams affirms, “Africa is one of the most important crucibles in which the R2P was forged” (2009, p. 413), and has been one of the most dynamic reformers in countering the inertia of the UNSC. The PSC (Peace and Security Council) of the AU has no veto, and therefore no ability “to hold the fate of nearly one billion Africans hostage” (Abbas, 2012, p. 131). Moreover, within the AU we have seen developments in regional military capabilities such as the African Stand-by-Force identified by Ban Ki-moon in his 2011 report (p. 9), encouraging them as an alternative to the at times paralysed and gridlocked UNSC. Essentially, the AU is taking steps to reform the organs responsible for the invocation of R2P in Africa.

The permanency of inconsistency talks of the UNSC as if it were the only organ responsible for invoking R2P. The growing power and responsibilities of regional organisations is apparent. Perhaps of most value in countering the inertia of the UNSC is article 4 of the AU’s constitutive act. Article 4(h) allows for “the right of the Union to intervene in a Member State pursuant to a decision of the Assembly in respect of grave circumstances, namely: war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity” (Abbas, 2012, p. 110). Notably, with no power of veto in the PSC and only a required 2/3 supra-majority to achieve consensus, the mechanisms exist for timely and decisive action (Abbas, 2012, p. 131). The AU and PSC (theoretically) can act in a timely and decisive manner to respond to atrocity crimes on the continent of Africa without UNSC approval, and subsequently seek “retrospective approval” (Abbas, 2012, p. 125). Whilst the AU has never acted in such a manner, the mechanisms are in place to circumvent UNSC inertia.

Development of AU IDP legislation further specifies how the RtoP has made genuine progress. States can fulfil RtoP responsibilities by taking in IDPs and refugees, an idea advanced by Ralph and Souter as a “special responsibility” (2015, p. 713). Both the Kampala Convention and Great Lakes Protocol have been ratified by AU member states indicating successes at the regional level, with aspects of R2P entering hard law and the “internalization” stage of Finnemore and Sikkink’s norm-life-cycle theory., which is useful here in analysing the current trajectory of R2P as a norm. The three stages of a life cycle for a norm are: norm emergence where it begins to gain recognition, norm cascade once the norm passes a tipping point and institutions such as states and INGOs recognize the norm, and finally norm internalization which they define as reaching a “taken-for-granted quality”. They note that the actors responsible for reaching internalization are (notably to the AU and IDP legislation) (1) law, (2) professions and (3) bureaucracy (Finnemore & Sikkink, 1998, pp. 895, 898). Finnemore and Sikkink also discuss the mechanisms integral to internalization as being institutionalization and habit. Williams argues R2P has “found an institutional home in Africa” (2009, p. 416).

Sound and Fury Signifying Nothing 

A further critique by Hehir is that RtoP lacks “substance” and is no more than a “slogan employed for differing purposes shorn of any real meaning” (2010, p, 219). This implies there have not been substantive changes to UNSC practice. Ban Ki-moon appeared to acknowledge the discourse-policy gap when, in his first address as UNSG, he promised to turn R2P from “promise to practice” (Ban, 2009, p. 28). To counter this critique, we look to the normative transition from the doctrine of HI to R2P. Thakur himself states that “R2P was the ICISS answer to reconciling the neuralgic rejection of humanitarian intervention by the global south, with the determination by the north to end atrocities” (2016, p. 417). This highlights two arguments. Firstly, that R2P in substance is vastly different from HI, because it shifts the focus from the intervening states, to that of “the perspective of the victim” (Thakur, 2016, p. 418). Secondly, that R2P is no extension of Western Exceptionalism, with contestation coming from a wide range of non-western states and actors.

Evans further outlines dissimilarities between HI and R2P. Referring to the coercive measures ascribed to Pillar III he states “it is a travesty of the responsibility to protect principle to say that it’s about military force and nothing else” adding “that’s what humanitarian intervention is about, but it’s not R2P” (Evans, 2012, p. 378). Evans describes the dimensions of R2P as being “political, diplomatic, legal, economic or in the security sector” (Evans, 2012, p. 377). This argument is to a certain extent useful in distinguishing between HI and R2P, and demonstrating the successes R2P has achieved. However, simultaneously it provides fodder for sceptics such as Hehir: Evans, by claiming R2P possesses those catch-all dimensions, enables the application of lofty ambitions to the principle. While it is important to emphasise the differences between the two, for the norm to be internalised expectations need to be managed and the limitations of the principle need to be understood. This cannot be achieved through ascribing it the catch all dimensions of Evans. Peter Hilpold supports this: “The shared understandings of R2P to date are not deep enough and its practice remains too inconsistent” (Hilpold cited in Thakur, 2016, p. 421). The norm is still young in comparison to other international norms. With increased use deeper understanding of the limitations will be gained. Currently there are many varying degrees of advocacy for the norm, but when a shared and realistic understanding of what it can achieve is reached, the norm will truly be able to flourish.

Externally to the debates surrounding managing expectations of R2P it is important to note there have been success of R2P that dispel it being merely a slogan. Notably, prior to Resolution 1973 on Libya the UNSC had never “authorized the use of force to protect populations without the consent of the de jure authorities” (Bellamy, 2010, p. 171). This is an invocation of RtoP in the new reconceptualised era of sovereignty as a responsibility, not a right, and a clear demonstration of Pillar III at work. Hehir may dismiss this resolution as the “aberrant ashes of resolve and timely action” (2013, p. 137), but the commitment of the international community to intervene in a state manifestly failing to uphold its responsibilities as sovereign indicate a clear success for the R2P in the fore of intervening, as contentious as its reception may now be.

The AU reinforces these claims. Within the AU there has been direct action in accordance with R2P; in 2009 the AU cited R2P in imposing arms embargos on both Guinea and Niger (Abbas, 2012, p. 129). Moreover, Resolution 1962 by the UNSC upgraded an existing regional peacekeeping operation (UNOCI) to use “all necessary means to carry out its mandate” (Abbas, 2012, p. 128), highlighting again the integral nature of regional organisational cooperation in implementing R2P. Additionally, to counter P5 inertia ECOWAS have adopted a protocol that “allows it to take enforcement actions in any of its member states without their consent” (Abbas, 2012, p. 128), indicative of the reconceptualised notion of sovereignty.


An undeniable shift has occurred in the discourse surrounding sovereignty and intervention. In the wake of Resolution 1973 it is clear to states that sovereignty is not an absolute right, but a responsibility that must be upheld. The focus on the AU displays how on one continent, the normative journey of RtoP has faced strong contestation and reform, but now, on a continent gripped by instances of mass violence, R2P is used as a guiding framework to respond to these crises. The original ICISS report of 2005 stressed that R2P was to be a “guiding principle for the international community” rather than a singular doctrine on intervention (ICISS, 2005, p. XI).

The Ezulwini consensus embodies an African response to African problems, and denotes a proactive approach to regional invocation of R2P. In 2008 the AU chairperson said “the AU would no longer sit and do nothing just because the international community decides to do nothing” (Abbas, 2012, p. 126). This readiness and proactivity is refreshing, and important in a debate dominated by P5 inaction. The UN as a large transnational body suffers from plurality of opinion; it must account for all voices of member states and must debate, at length, every issue brought before it.

This can and does provide a roadblock to the timely action of paragraph 139 of the WSOD. This however, is a logistical problem within the UN, not a substantive issue with R2P. Reiterating Bellamy: the debate is now about implementation, not acceptance. The role regional organisations play is paramount in the progress R2P makes over the next decade. Ban Ki-moon identified them as the “surest path” in ensuring the progress of RtoP. The AU has taken steps of internalization with the enshrining of IDP protection in hard law, the creation of its own SC, stand-by-force and early warning system. The AU is in some respects exemplary progress of R2P internalization on the continent of Africa.

To conclude, this essay has argued that while clear progress of the R2P has been made, it is young and still cascading, to be internalized and enshrined in law. Expectations of what it can do need to be managed. A call for a more nuanced advocacy of the norm that engages with the obstacles to internalization and a deeper understanding of the limits of the norm is needed. If obstacles to internalization can be overcome, great potential for the norm in international society is a certainty.


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Gallagher, A. and Ralph, J. 2015. ‘The Responsibility to Protect at Ten’, Global Responsibility to Protect, 7(3-4), pp. 239–253.

Hehir, A. 2013. ‘The permanence of inconsistency: Libya, the security council, and the responsibility to protect’, International Security38(1), pp. 137–159.

Hehir, A. 2010. The Responsibility to Protect: ‘Sound and Fury Signifying nothing’, International Relations24(2), pp. 218-239.

Orchard, P. 2016. ‘Regionalizing protection: AU and ASEAN responses to mass atrocity crimes against internally displaced persons’, Global Responsibility to Protect, 8(2-3), pp. 295–326.

Ralph, J. and Souter, J. 2015. ‘A special responsibility to protect: the UK, Australia and the rise of Islamic State’, International Affairs, 91(4), pp. 709-723.

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Welsh, J.M. 2013. ‘Norm Contestation and the Responsibility to Protect’, Global Responsibility to Protect, 5(4), pp. 365–396.

Williams, P. 2009. ‘The “responsibility to protect”, norm localisation, and African international society’, Global Responsibility to Protect1(3), pp. 392–416.

Pillar II in Mali: Endless Interference or Making a Difference?

Katie Gabriel, University of Leeds, UK

Katie is a final year undergraduate at the University of Leeds studying International Relations, with a particular interest in the Responsibility to Protect.

On 25 December 2012 under Resolution 2085, the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) commitment was invoked by the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) in reaction to the mounting crisis in Mali (UNSC, 2012). The Resolution permitted an African-led support mission in Mali (AFISMA), which later converted into the Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission (MINUSMA) under Resolution 2100 (Global Centre for R2P, 2013; UNSC, 2013). As it was the Malian government who requested the international assistance, the nature of the mission falls under Pillar II of R2P.

The previous United Nations Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon, identified three broad categories of intervention under Pillar II, (a) “encouraging states” to fulfil their Pillar I obligations, (b) capacity building to “prevent atrocity crimes”, and (c) “assisting states to protect in situations of emerging or on-going crisis” (UNSG, 2014, p. 8). Although Ban Ki Moon’s interpretation of Pillar II evidently encompasses a range of attractive components, the Mali crisis exposes its broad character as overreaching, especially considering R2P’s short lifespan.

This essay is divided into the following sections: firstly, a brief overview of the Mali crisis and how R2P has been invoked to assist Mali’s government in fulfilling its Pillar I responsibilities; secondly, an evaluation of R2P’s short-term contributions in Mali; and thirdly, an evaluation of R2P’s long-term contributions in Mali. Ultimately this essay argues that R2P has made a difference, although the evaluation is far from straightforward. In particular, it questions whether Pillar II, while offering a ‘broad umbrella’ of assistance (Gallagher, 2015, p. 1264), has such a broad scope that it in fact damages its ability to make a long-term difference in humanitarian crises. Finally, it also questions whether R2P has actually had the time to have a prolonged impact on Mali.

The Mali Crisis and Pillar II

In March 2012, a military coup took place against the Malian government, resulting in the formation of a transitional government. In the midst of such political instability, the ethnic Tuareg separatist group, the National Movement for Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), seized the Northern part of Mali (Global Centre for R2P, 2013, p. 11). They were followed by a number of armed Islamist groups, who then side-lined the MNLA. These groups have been accused of committing offenses listed under the R2P, which covers four crimes: genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity.

The intervention was originally an African-led military intervention headed by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and the African Union (AU). Nevertheless, when Islamist groups threatened to progress towards the South, Mali’s Interim President requested immediate military assistance from the French (Global Centre for R2P, 2013, p. 12). Since then, other European states have also contributed assistance through MINUSMA.

In relation to the Mali crisis, the first category under Pillar II is less controversial because the government requested international assistance. Therefore, this essay primarily focuses on the second and third categories. The second category, titled ‘capacity building’, is aimed at the prevention of the four crimes by helping states to identify, manage, and prevent the risk factors that may lead to the outbreak of atrocity crimes (ICRtoP, no date). Ban Ki-moon specified two sets of capacities; the first is aimed at creating “effective, legitimate, and inclusive governance”, and the second is directed at strengthening institutions and actors within a state so that they can prevent the escalation of crises (UNSG, 2014, p. 10). This includes political institutions, the legal system, security sector, and the media (ICRtoP, no date). The third category under Pillar II, titled international assistance or protection assistance, represents a ‘toolbox’ (Gallagher, 2015, p. 1264). It includes expertise in dispute resolution, human rights monitoring, law enforcement and criminal investigation, protection of refugees and the internally displaced, and protection of civilians in humanitarian emergencies (ibid). Undeniably, Pillar II offers a diverse set of useful tools to assist states with protecting its populations from the four crimes, not simply in the short-term, but over an extended period.  Nevertheless, the second section of this essay questions whether Pillar II’s broad scope provides opportunity to protect populations and prevent mass atrocities, or whether it simply sets expectations too high, ultimately undermining R2P’s credibility. Beforehand, it is important to discuss R2P’s more immediate successes in Mali.

The short-term 

This first section addresses why R2P should be considered as having made a significant difference in the Mali crisis. The primary area of success has been the military intervention from the French, the European Union (EU), and MINUSMA. European counterparts provided a vast range of military equipment such as troops, arms, aircrafts, intelligence, and engineering capacities. MINUSMA, for instance, was composed of 11,200 military personnel and 1,440 police personnel at full capacity (ICRtoP, 2015). This was the third largest UN peacekeeping mission, with an approved six-month budget of US$367 million. The European Union Training Mission for Mali (EUTM Mali) also included 550 staff, 200 instructors, and a 15-month budget of €23 million (Weiss & Welz, 2014, p. 898). This demonstrates a huge international response and commitment to the protection of Mali’s populations. It was also a successful military campaign in the short term. The French intervention alone forced Islamist groups out of Timbuktu, Kidal, and Gao. The primary aims of Resolution 2100 were a “strong commitment to the sovereignty, unity and territorial integrity of Mali” and “swift action by the French forces, at the request of the transitional authorities of Mali” (UNSC, 2013, p. 1). The primary aims of the mission therefore reflected the central tenets of Pillar II: state sovereignty and ‘swift and decisive’ action taken by the international community (Gallagher, 2015, p. 1272). However more importantly, both of these aims were achieved. Due to the successful efforts of the interveners, the main population centres of the North were regained in “just a few weeks” with the exception of Kidal (Karlsrud, 2016, p. 791).  Furthermore, the mission successfully protected Malian populations from war crimes and crimes against humanity such as rape, amputations and executions (Human Rights Watch, 2012). These outcomes suggest a considerable difference has been made.

In addition to military assistance, multi-lateral efforts by the AU, ECOWAS, and the UN were made to address political, security, human rights and humanitarian concerns (UNSG, 2013, p. 3). The European Union also created the Capacity Building Mission in Mali, a civilian mission to “deliver strategic advice and training to the three internal security forces in Mali – the police, the gendarmerie, and the national guard” (Karlsrud & Smith, 2015, p. 4). Further, the European Union Training Mission for Mali (EUTM Mali) included training on human rights, international humanitarian law, and the protection of civilians (Global Centre for R2P, 2013). And finally, aside from the EU’s efforts, the AU and ECOWAS successfully deployed 50 human rights monitors to Mali alongside 30 monitors from the UN (ibid). Therefore, it can be concluded that Pillar II’s third category, its ‘toolbox’ of international assistance, was effectively utilized to tackle the Mali crisis in the short-term.

However, the enactment of R2P in Mali could be criticised for its slow orchestration and weak implementation. Although there are strong grounds for this argument, the reasons for the mission’s slowness do not lie with R2P in principle, rather they lie with the various different components of the mission beyond its control. The first is the dangerous nature of the mission, whereby the interveners were dealing with non-state armed groups, not violence committed by the State. Reports found the environment encountered by MINUSIMA “became more challenging than most other UN peacekeeping missions”. They faced many “ambushes, complex attacks, and other asymmetric and terrorist tactics, such as suicide attacks and improvised explosive devices (IEDs)” (Karlsrud & Smith, 2015, p. 4). Although R2P was originally a state-based principle; parallel to non-state armed groups becoming more prominent, Pillar II has become more relevant as a potential framework for tackling these groups. The Mali crisis proves that governments may seek international assistance to protect their populations from groups committing the four crimes under R2P, highlighting Pillar II’s potential for taking on this role (Gallagher, 2015, p. 1270). The new, and highly dangerous environment posed by Mali may have hindered the speed and effectiveness of the mission. Nevertheless, R2P was not designed with the intent to tackle non-state armed groups. Therefore, the overall success of the military interventions should be recognized for their ability to adapt to new threat types. To turn this question around, the crisis in Mali could be argued as having made a notable difference to the future use of R2P, as it has demonstrated its capacity to tackle non-state armed groups with some future improvement.

The second reason for slow and weak implementation can be pinned to the lack of cooperation between the interveners. Bank Ki-moon once stressed the importance of “partnerships” when invoking R2P. Indeed, multilateral approaches contribute to the effectiveness and legitimacy of any intervention (UNSG, 2014, pp. 6-7). Still, without “a harmony of interests” they can be counterproductive (Gallagher, 2015, p. 5). Thomas Weiss and Martin Welz found there were tensions between the AU and ECOWAS over who should lead AFISMA to begin with, largely because the AU became involved after ECOWAS and “had to play catch up” (2014, p. 890). After the later transfer from AFISMA to MINUSMA, tensions surfaced between the AU and the UN. The AU felt sidestepped by the UN when “essential deliberations and decisions were made” (Weiss and Welz, 2014, p. 898). Conversely, the UN and European counterparts became frustrated over the cooperation of troops from the AU and ECOWAS. It was claimed they were inadequately trained and ill-equipped for such a mission (ibid). Again, this helps to emphasize the challenging environment facing the interveners. Although incorporating regional actors within R2P missions is essential; without an upgrade in capacities across the African continent, these “partnerships” will always face difficulties. ­ Jennifer Welsh wrote that “while regional organizations are often touted as the legitimate and preferred actors in crises such as Mali, they cannot always fulfil their mandate. Capacity and politics get in the way” (Welsh, 2013). From this, it can be concluded that in Mali, the incorporation of regional actors hindered R2P’s implementation. Again, this could be argued is no fault of R2P in principle. Nevertheless, if “partnerships” are to become a vital feature of R2P missions, work should be undertaken to prevent the same occurrences in future crises.

In spite of the disagreements between interveners, and the complexities of the mission, the primary aims of the mission, alongside the central tenets of Pillar II, were still successfully achieved. Therefore, this essay holds the firm view that R2P has made a difference in Mali.

The long-term

Despite the short-term successes, the mission has been further criticised for failing to address the root causes of the crisis, subsequently failing to make an overall difference. This section is going to address these concerns, with the overriding view that R2P is not set to deal with such underlying problems. Or if it is, then it certainly is not able yet.

The Malian government’s call for renewed assistance in January 2015 indeed signals that R2P has failed to have an enduring effect in Mali (Gallagher, 2015, p. 1272). While the intervention was able to dissipate the mass violence, restore democratic elections and aid refugees, major concerns persist over the reality of the situation. Malians have since specified many failings of its ‘restored democracy’, such as “systemic corruption, a failing and corrupt judicial system, weak political parties and no opposition, and… lack of civility within communities” (Wing, 2013, p. 479). In the months leading up to the March 2012 coup there were forestalled presidential elections, a Tuareg rebellion, and a resentful military (Wing, 2013, p. 476). Since, the interveners have helped orchestrate the election of a new president and assembly; however, there are claims that it remains ‘business as usual’ (Gallagher, 2015, p. 1272). People are still protesting against the “poor governance performances of state officials” (Vliet, 2014, p. 66). Wing (2013) argues that if Mali’s dysfunctional political system continues, “it is unlikely peace and democracy will return”. In addition to the democratic deficit, there remains the on-going conflict between the Malian government and the ethnic Tuareg’s (Wing, 2013; Wing, 2013, p. 476). This conflict is known to be “one of the fundamental causes of the crisis”, yet it “remains to be addressed” (Global Centre for R2P, 2013).

It is not hard to refute that the root causes have been addressed by R2P, as the entirety of the evidence suggests it has not. However, should R2P be faced with such issues? The premise of the principle is to react and protect populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity (UNGA, 2005, p. 30). It was not created to then combat the vast multitude of deeply rooted issues that perhaps trigger those four crimes, such as weak and corrupt political systems, poor legal systems, and food insecurity. For instance, although the UNSG put forward capacity building as a category within Pillar II, its duties completely breach the four crimes R2P was employed to tackle. As previously mentioned, capacity building may range from introducing educational initiatives, opportunities for dialogue, supporting political institutions and the media, to establishing truth commissions. Not only does it encompass a range of protective measures, its primary focus is towards prevention. Prevention represents a whole other dimension of R2P. Critics such as Thomas Weiss argue that prevention “is superficially attractive but highly unrealistic way to try and pretend that we can finesse the hard issues of what essentially amounts to humanitarian intervention” (2012, p. 113). Doing so increases expectations and sets R2P up for inevitable failure, as it lacks the capacity to tackle such intricate and complex problems. Further, prevention obscures “the most urgent part of the spectrum of the responsibility: to protect those caught in the crosshairs of war” (ibid). As highlighted in the first section, the ‘most urgent’ purpose of R2P was achieved in Mali; its ‘territorial integrity’ was restored and the mass violence dramatically decreased.

Furthermore, the third category, protection assistance, also encompasses a broad range of measures, including dispute resolution, humanitarian intervention, and military intervention. Both categories have opened up the floodgates to an overwhelming and diverse set of eventualities. Even without the preventative dimension of capacity building, the range of protective measures remains ambitious. Consequently, the overreaching scope of Pillar II has created a sense of disillusionment over what R2P is able to achieve. Such disillusionment and high expectations will inevitably damage R2P’s credibility. Before increasing Pillar II’s range of responsive measures, perhaps efforts should be directed towards finessing the more pressing issues surrounding R2P’s implementation. This could include ensuring cooperation amongst the intervening bodies, or strengthening R2P’s capabilities to protect populations from non-state armed groups.

Finally, if Pillar II should in fact represent this ‘broad umbrella’ of both preventative and protective measures, could we not then question whether R2P has had adequate time to make a difference in Mali over a long period? John Karlsrud points out that the intervention under R2P can only be considered a “short-term success” (2016, p. 791). However, after only five years since the crisis began, of course R2P can only be considered a short-term success, it certainly cannot be labelled as anything else. Finding a sustainable solution to the fundamental causes of the crisis, such as a settlement between the Malian government and the Tuaregs, may take decades to achieve. Not only did the crisis take place five years ago, but R2P itself is only twelve years of age (Bellamy, 2015). Again, expectations must be managed over R2P and what it is able to achieve at present.

Meanwhile in Mali, the UNSC renewed the mandate of MINUSMA in June 2015, the EUTM Mali is still in place, and steps are being taken to strengthen Malian capacities through supporting the justice sector and addressing corruption (Human Rights Watch, 2015). If we are to accurately measure the extent R2P has made a difference in Mali, perhaps we should allow it the chance to do so first.


This essay has clearly identified the positive achievements of the French, AFISMA, and MINUSMA military campaigns, indicating their notable successes. Besides military assistance, the interveners effectively tapped into some of Pillar II’s ‘toolbox’ to provide humanitarian assistance and human rights training, allowing for a more rigorous resolution to the crisis. Whether or not R2P has made a difference long-term by dealing with the deeply embedded causes of the conflict is where this question loses clarity. Mali’s ‘restored democracy’ remains highly dysfunctional, reeking with corruption and nation-wide discontent, as well as the on-going tensions between the government and the ethnic Tuaregs. Nevertheless, this essay has questioned whether R2P should have to address these issues, because they stretch far beyond the four crimes it was engineered to combat. I have specifically contested the inclusion of ‘capacity building’ within Pillar II of R2P on the grounds that it distracts focus away from the four crimes, and opens R2P up to another dimension of prevention. Even without the second, the third category alone contains an ambitious set of protective measures. On the other hand, this essay has argued that if in fact Pillar II should be employed to deal with such intricate and longstanding issues, it is far too early to judge R2P’s long-term potential.  With this in mind, this essay concludes that R2P has made a significant difference to Mali in the short-term: partly because of the swift humanitarian successes and partly because we have not yet entered the long-term.


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Welsh, J. 2013. ‘Sending soldiers to Mali may be the only solution’. The Globe and Mail. [Online]. [Accessed 10/02/2016]. Available from:

Weiss, T. and Welz, M. 2014. ‘The UN and the African Union in Mali and beyond: a shotgun wedding?’ International Relations. 90(40), pp. 889-905.

Wing, S. 2013. ‘Mali: Politics of a Crisis’. African Affairs112(448), pp. 476-485.

Wing, S. 2013. ‘Making Sense of Mali’. Foreign Affairs. [Online]. [Accessed 23/02/2017]. Available from:

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#EasyAsAPB? The Chances of Survival of the Genocide and Atrocities Prevention Act

Francesca Freeman, University of Chicago, USA

Francesca Freeman is the Program Assistant of the Next Generation Social Sciences in Africa Program of the Social Science Research Council. She graduated with an Honors BA in Comparative Race and Ethnic Studies, as well as a second major in Anthropology and a minor in Human Rights, from the University of Chicago. While at the University of Chicago, she served on the STAND Managing Committee as the head of outreach in the Midwest for the 2014-2015 academic year and as the Student Director during the 2015-2016 academic year.

On April 24, 1915, the Turkish government began to expel and massacre Armenians living in the Ottoman Empire. 1.5 million people were murdered. On April 6, 1994, Rwandan President Juvénal Habyarimana’s plane was shot down and Hutu militias began moving around Kigali, the capital of Rwanda, killing moderate politicians and journalists deemed a threat to Hutu power. Within a few hours of Habyarimana’s death, the genocide against the Tutsi people in Rwanda had begun and 1 million people were killed in the following 100 days. In July 1995, Serb forces attacked the besieged town of Srebrenica and, over the next ten days, killed 8,000 Muslim Bosniak men. In light of these horrific events, as well as the other countless genocides throughout the 20th century and early 21st century, theorists and policymakers alike have acknowledged the necessity for the US government to develop a strategic and comprehensive approach to genocide and atrocities prevention. Thus, in 2016, several U.S. senators, led by Senators Ben Cardin and Thom Tillis, introduced the Genocide and Atrocities Prevention Act. While the bill did not ultimately pass through Congress, the policies in the bill had significant potential for implementation under John Kingdon’s criteria for survival.


The Genocide and Atrocities Prevention Act was introduced in the Senate on 11 February 2016 as a bipartisan effort to ensure that the United States makes genocide and atrocity prevention a top commitment in both foreign affairs and national security. The bill addressed three key aims: (1) institutionalizing the Atrocities Prevention Board, (2) authorizing the Complex Crises Fund, and (3) mandating training in atrocities prevention and response for Foreign Service Officers.

The Atrocities Prevention Board (APB) is an inter-agency entity tasked with monitoring and preventing genocide and mass atrocities through information-sharing and coordination among U.S. government officials. Each month, high-ranking officials from the Departments of State, Defense, and Treasury, the CIA, FBI, USAID, and National Security Council convene to discuss emerging crises and threats of genocide in countries across the world, and working-level groups meet more frequently to follow specific countries (Norris and Malknecht, 2013, p. 7). The APB itself has the authority to conduct early warning analyses in potential crisis zones and to recommend coordinated, agency-specific government plans of action. In the past five years, the APB has worked extensively and successfully to prevent further atrocities in the Central African Republic (CAR) and in Burundi (Genser and Sewall, 2015). In the Central African Republic, the APB is credited with the impressive speed at which the U.S. was able to respond to and mitigate further violence, and the board ensured that prevention efforts remained a top priority on an international scale. Furthermore, based on the APB’s suggestions regarding Burundi, the U.S. deployed civilian conflict experts, supported various Burundian actors working for peace, and facilitated local and national dialogue to discourage the escalation of tensions and violence.

Despite these successes, the Atrocities Prevention Board has also faced criticism since its founding in 2012 due to issues of commitment and transparency. One prominent issue is the varying commitment of different agencies to the operations of the board. For exapmle, the State Department and USAID have dedicated increasingly large numbers of staff to conflict and mass-atrocity prevention, but the Department of Defense has made relatively little effort in supporting the board (Norris and Malknecht, 2013, p. 14). Additionally, because of the highly confidential nature of the work the board does, and the lack of transparency of the board in general, it can be difficult to understand the impact it has had. While the board may hope that silence and obscurity will allow them to do their work without interference, it increasingly seems that the opposite may be true. Due to the lack of transparency, the Board has received criticism from members of Congress, who, in 2013, had only received one short briefing from then-US Ambassador to the UN Samantha Power. Others complain that the board is too focused on bureaucratic measures, with their focus on “monitoring,” “data collection,” and “analysis,” but does not take sufficient action to prevent these atrocities (Colucci, 2013).

The Board is also widely criticized for its failures concerning the Syria crisis. While many argue that the Atrocities Prevention Board has pushed the Syria crisis to the top of the foreign policy agenda and encouraged the Obama administration to have rigorous debates over potential US responses, the fact remains that thousands and thousands have died, and that the US specifically and the world in general has largely stood idly by. Another fundamental rebuttal of this failure is that the Atrocities Prevention Board is responsible for preventing crises before they happen, and the Syria crisis was well underway before the Board was created or convened. In the five-year existence of the Atrocities Prevention Board, it has seen significant successes as well as prominent challenges. Regardless, the board is one of the United States’ greatest tools in preventing genocide and mass atrocities, and should be encouraged and fostered to be a more ethical, more impactful institution.

The Criteria for Survival

In Agendas, Alternatives, and Public Policy (1995), John W. Kingdon discusses how policies are chosen and enacted. Coined “The Criteria for Survival,” he argues that if policies fulfil the following three criteria, they will likely survive to implementation. Kingdon’s criteria for survival are:

  1. Technical Feasibility
  2. Value Acceptability to Policy Community
  3. Anticipation of Future Constraints

In the following sections, I will apply the Criteria for Survival to the Genocide and Atrocities Prevention Act to prove the potential for the policy to pass through Congress.

Technical Feasibility

Technical Feasibility calls into question whether or not a policy is crafted and ready for successful implementation. Kingdon states, “It is a bit difficult to specify precisely what policy makers mean by technical feasibility, but they all sense, as they react to a proposal, whether it is ‘worked out,’ ‘staffed out,’ ‘worked through,’ or ‘ready to go’” (1995, 131). While many of these technicalities are worked out before the introduction of a bill, there are always loopholes and problems that pose roadblocks for the approval of a policy. Technical feasibility calls into question the possibilities of implementation and both the anticipated and unanticipated results of the policy.

The Genocide and Atrocities Prevention Act was technically feasible for several reasons. First and foremost, the institution that the bill would make permanent, the Atrocities Prevention Board, already existed under the Obama Administration. The mechanisms for its functioning were already in place and would simply be continued with the new bill, regardless of who took the Presidential Office following Obama. Funding for the Complex Crises Fund was also fairly feasible for similar reasons. The fund already existed and thus was simply seeking more money. While budget issues regularly raise tensions within Congress, the amount mandated in the bill was low enough that it would not affect the budget in any significant way. Additionally, the bill had several members of the Appropriations Committee as original cosponsors, including Senators Christopher Murphy of Connecticut, Barbara Mikulski of Maryland, Jeanne Shaheen of  New Hampshire, Jeff Merkley of Oregon, and Christopher Coons of Delaware, and gained several additional co-sponsors from the Appropriations Committee following the announcement of the bill, including Senators Susan Collins of Maine, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Patrick Leahy of Vermont, Dick Durbin of Illinois, and Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin. Totalled, the Genocide and Atrocities Prevention Act had bipartisan support from one third of the Appropriations Committee. In considering the last mandate of the bill, State Department personnel already go through intensive training before being sent to their posts, and the atrocities prevention training would simply be added to these training regimens. Thus, all elements of the legislation would have been easily feasible upon implementation and therefore fulfil this criteria for survival.

Value Acceptability to Policy Community 

The next criteria for survival put forth by Kingdon is the value acceptability to the policy community. Policies that survive must be compatible with the values of the specialists on a given topic (Kingdon, 1995, p. 132). Policies are often supported when they are part of mainstream thinking, despite party lines, and address concepts of both equity and efficiency. One major question around value acceptability in the United States is not necessarily directly related to the policy but related to questions of the size and role of the federal government, and questions of sovereignty interacting with international actors. For example, the U.S. Congress has voted to not ratify certain UN treaties, such as the Convention on the Rights of the Child, because enough congress people did not want to give up the U.S.’ sovereign power to the UN (The Economist Explains, 2013). In many such cases, the U.S. already has laws corroborating the policy, but because it is affiliated with the UN, it loses its ability to survive. Other proposals gain prominence and acceptability because they address some sort of inequity in the community, and fairness and redress is often a powerful argument that moves policies forward. Finally, policy makers look more and more at the efficiency of the policies, both in terms of how much a policy would cost but also how much would be realized from that expenditure, whether these benefits outweigh the cost, and what could be achieved at a lower cost.

Genocide is widely considered one of the world’s most heinous crimes. People from different demographics and across the political spectrum, both in the United States and across the world, have united to condemn past genocides and have made attempts to confront current genocides and prevent future genocides. Thus, genocide prevention efforts are often held at the highest value and have been supported by researchers, policy makers, and lobby groups, regardless of political or partisan influences. Concerning the Genocide and Atrocities Prevention Act specifically, many of the most prominent actors in the genocide prevention field supported the values and policies put forward in the legislation. A wide range of NGO’s with varying backgrounds took leadership on the issue, particularly the Friends Committee on National Legislation, a Quaker lobby group, Jewish World Watch, a Jewish conflict and genocide prevention organization, and STAND: the Student-Led Movement to End Mass Atrocities. Furthermore, the bill had significant bipartisan support from its inception, with several Republican Senators as co-sponsors.

The bill also fulfils the criteria of value acceptability because it addresses a fundamental issue of inequity in the world. Genocide is a severe form of identity based violence and the bill would allow the United States to have a strategic system for identifying where inequities have led to violence and the flexibility to respond to prevent future violence in these regions. Finally, questions of efficiency bolster and promote prevention strategies across the world. According to a report from the United States Institute of Peace, the dangers and costs of waiting to respond once conflicts begin will provide continuing support of genocide and conflict prevention (Woocher, 2009). Thus, the main actors in the policy community were all in support of the bill, and most Americans, regardless of party affiliation agree that genocide prevention should be a top priority. In this light, the policies put forth in the Genocide and Atrocities Prevention act fulfil Kingdon’s second criteria for survival – value acceptability to the policy community.

Anticipation of Future Constraints

Potential for constraints both influence the creation of a policy and how the policy progresses to implementation. According to Kingdon (1995, p. 138):

“Decision makers need to be convinced that the [cost] of the program is acceptable, that there is a reasonable chance that politicians will approve, and that the public in its various facts – both mass and activist – will acquiesce. Anticipation of these constraints within a policy community forms a final set of criteria by which ideas and proposals are selected. Some ideas fail to obtain a serious hearing… because their future looks bleak, while others survive because specialists calculate that they would meet these future tests.”

One test discussed by Kingdon is a budget constraint, meaning that the proposal needs to be financially acceptable to the elected officials. Another test is public acquiescence. Policymakers must at some point receive support either from a general agreement of citizens across a country or from a narrower set of activists who have a special stake in the outcome. Without this anticipated support, a policy likely will not be supported to implementation.

As discussed above, the monetary cost of the bill was minimal, and would not have been significantly higher than what the U.S. was spending on similar efforts when the bill was introduced. The bill also had explicit and extensive support from those with the largest stakes, activist communities and diaspora communities, and likely would not have faced significant pushback from the broader public. Organizations such as the Friends Committee on National Legislation, STAND: the Student-Led Movement to End Mass Atrocities, the Peace Alliance, Darfur Women Action Group, and Jewish World Watch all actively advocated for the passing of this bill. Through lobby days, opinion piece publications, social media campaigns, a widely used hashtag (#EasyAsAPB), and call-in days, staffers heard a significant outcry in support of the legislation. The only major cost as perceived by some congressmen was the fact that the Atrocities Prevention Board does not have significant Congressional oversight, a point which will be explored later in this essay. Therefore, while there were some challenges to this criterion, the bill did not have significant concern regarding future constraints.

Successes of the Genocide and Atrocities Prevention Act

The Genocide and Atrocities Prevention Act was introduced on 11 February 2016. Upon introduction, the bill had fourteen original co-sponsors, 1 Republican and 13 Democrats. In the following months, the bill gained an additional thirteen co-sponsors, meaning that the bill had support from over a fourth of the Senate before it was even introduced in committee or brought to the floor. In total, the bill had 23 Democratic and 4 Republican co-sponsors. While there were significantly less Republican cosponsors than Democratic, genocide prevention is a fundamentally bipartisan foreign policy priority, dating back to President Ronald Reagan’s signing of the law that ratified the United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (Hirschel-Burns, 2016). While the bill did not pass, the support of over a fourth of the Senate shows significant potential and momentum.

Additionally, on 18 May 2016, President Obama issued Executive Order 13729, “A Comprehensive Approach to Atrocity Prevention and Response.” This Executive Order was an important step in institutionalizing the Atrocities Prevention Board, but the Genocide and Atrocities Prevention Act was needed to ensure that the APB would exist regardless of who held the Presidential office. This Executive Order was, along with the Bill, essential to the continuation of the APB, and showed that the Obama Administration would sign the Genocide and Atrocities Prevention Act into law if it passed through the House and the Senate. While the act did not ultimately pass through the Senate, it still had undeniable successes both before and after introduction, suggesting potential for both the policies presented in the bill and potential future legislations, which will be introduced in the 115 Congress.

What went wrong? 

The Genocide and Atrocities Prevention Acts seems to fulfil all elements of Kingdon’s criteria for survival, but the bill did not pass through Congress, was not voted on in the Senate, and did not even make it out of the committee. While the reasons for this are not entirely clear, it seems that the bill got caught up in partisan politics that halted any potential momentum and progress that had already been made. One major issue was that the bill was introduced in a Presidential election year. Very few movements were made in Congress at this time, and given a shortened timeline with the end of that Congress looming, other bills seemed to take a higher priority.

The biggest obstacle the bill faced, however, was that it was held up by a single Republican Senator who refused to schedule a mark-up of the bill in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. According to activists who met with the Senator’s office, two major concerns of the Senator included (1) the creation of a permanent bureaucracy with the ‘codification’ of the Atrocities Prevention Board and (2) the lack of significant Congressional oversight as the Atrocities Prevention Board would be embedded within the National Security Council, which is part of the executive branch. These concerns were surprising for several reasons. The first is that the Senator had included a provision in the Fiscal Year 2017 State Department Authorization Act that authorized the APB through June 2017, although it would be disbanded at that time (S.1635). While this was an impermanent solution for which the Genocide and Atrocities Prevention Act offered a permanent one, it seems that the Senator fundamentally supported the Atrocities Prevention Board, and thus should have supported the bill. Addressing the second issue, one goal of the bill was to increase transparency and congressional oversight of the APB. The bill articulated general parameters for the work of the Atrocities Prevention Board and required regular reports to Congress, meaning that the opposite of the Senator’s presumption was, in fact, true. At the most fundamentally partisan level, the Senator may also have been concerned that there were so many Democrats and so few Republicans, and thus wanted to separate himself from efforts made by those across the aisle.

In the United States Congress, only four percent of bills actually become law (Sunlight Foundation, 2009). It’s thus not surprising that any particular bill gets stuck somewhere along the process to becoming a law. Many of the bills that die in committee do not fulfil the criteria for survival put forward by Kingdon, many get stuck in partisan politics that disallow any forward movement, and even more simply are not considered because there are more important things to discuss at any given time. The failure of the Genocide and Atrocities Prevention Act may have been caused by any one of these reasons. Regardless, it is clear that the policy is sound and that any future legislation has potential for implementation.


Genocide prevention is a fundamental value held by people across the world. In the 115th US Congress, there is significant support for response to genocide and mass atrocities on both sides of the aisle and while strategies for genocide prevention are not always agreed on, there is general consensus that the prevention of genocide and mass atrocities must be a foreign policy priority. Sadly, the Genocide and Atrocities Prevention Act followed in the footsteps of so many other bills –never even making it out of committee and to a vote. Fortunately, the dream of “Never Again” is not yet lost. The Atrocities Prevention Board continues to operate in the State Department, at least through June 2017, and a new bill, entitled the Elie Wiesel Genocide and Atrocities Prevention Act is likely to be introduced in the Senate in mid-2017. As the policies supported in the Genocide and Atrocities Prevention Act theoretically should survive to become policy, under Kingdon’s criteria for survival, the bill should see success moving forward. Additionally, the new bill already has significant bipartisan support through original co-sponsorships, including several Republicans from the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Looking forward, the activist community must strategically refocus its efforts to ensure the new bill is passed. To do so, the new bill must address the concerns held by Republican Senators, and the activist community should continue to appeal to Republican Senators particularly. Additionally, it would be beneficial to work with Senators who have expressed concern about conflicts such as those happening in Syria and Yemen to understand the value of genocide prevention as a means of avoiding similar conflicts in other countries in the future.

When President Obama announced the creation of the Atrocities Prevention Board in 2012 at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, he said:

“Never Again is a challenge to nations. It’s a bitter truth– too often, the world has failed to prevent the killing of innocents on a massive scale. And we are haunted by the atrocities that we did not stop and the lives we did not save… Now we’re doing something more. We’re making sure that the United States government has the structures, the mechanisms to better prevent and respond to mass atrocities” (Obama, 2012).

The promise of “Never Again” has not yet been realized, but the policy is one that politicians have committed to time and time again, leaving glimmers of hope for a world without genocide.


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Genser, J. and Sewall, S. 2015. Chartering the U.S. Atrocities Prevention Board’s Progress: A Conversation with Undersecretary for Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human Rights Sarah Sewall. Council on Foreign Relations. [Online]. 30 March. Available from:

Hirschel-Burns, T. 2016. The Five Things You Need to Know About Obama’s Executive Order on Atrocity Prevention. STAND. [Online]. 31 May. Available from:

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Woocher, L. 2009. Preventing Violent Conflict.  Washington, DC: United States Institute of Peace. [Online]. Available from:

The AK-47, the Responsibility to Protect and the Arms Trade Treaty

Simon Adams, Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect, New York/Geneva

Dr Simon Adams is the executive director of the Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect. 

When we think of the Holocaust our mind slips inexorably towards dismal images of cattle cars stuffed with people, or to gas chambers, crematoria and the cruel irony of the “Arbeit Macht Frei” gate. But of the six million Jews killed during the Holocaust over a million were shot with rifles and other small arms. They were not killed in concentration camps, but were murdered in fields or forests and pitched into mass graves hastily dug outside villages in Nazi-occupied Eastern Europe. Before Auschwitz, Sobibor or Treblinka, the Holocaust began with bullets.

The same is true of most mass atrocity crimes carried out since 1945. From the killing fields of Cambodia to the mass graves of Srebrenica and the burnt villages of Darfur, most of the killing was done with rifles and other small arms. It is for this reason that there is an enduring connection between preventing mass atrocities and confronting the international arms trade.

Despite mistakes and setbacks over the last twelve years, the UN World Summit’s 2005 adoption of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) was a historic turning point in the battle against indifference, inaction and impunity regarding mass atrocity crimes. Since then we have made undeniable progress with regard to the idea that sovereignty entails responsibility. Our failures in Syria and Sri Lanka (to mention just two) have been catastrophic. But the international community has also had success in preventing atrocities or deploying peacekeepers to disrupt and deter perpetrators in the Central African Republic, South Sudan and a number of other conflicts. Politics in the real world is never without blemish, but R2P continues to save lives.

The Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect works closely with the UN Security Council in New York, and with the Human Rights Council in Geneva, to push the international community to consistently uphold its preventive and protective responsibilities. But this is not just a question of providing early warning of developing risks in Burundi, the Philippines, or elsewhere. There is also a need to advance R2P via practical initiatives that undermine the ability of atrocity perpetrators to access the global market in lethal weaponry.

For example, the AK-47, or Kalashnikov, is the most popular weapon in the world today, with an estimated 70 million AK-47s currently in existence (Wilkinson, 2013). Numerous countries manufacture local variants of the ubiquitous assault rifle and while a new Chinese-made AK-47 might cost you $500, you can easily purchase one in many former conflict zones for as cheap as $50. When I lived in Johannesburg during the mid-1990s, leftover AK-47s from the civil war in Mozambique were still making their way through the townships, and some entrepreneurial gangs were even renting out their AK-47s to other aspiring criminals at an hourly rate.

There are many reasons for the AK-47’s enduring popularity. A fully loaded AK-47 weighs less than five kilograms (11 lbs) and is simple to operate. Among its other dubious attributes, this means that despite its lethality the AK-47 can be easily used by a child soldier. The AK-47 does not require much cleaning and it rarely jams, making it a superior killing machine.

During the 1960s and 70s, the AK-47 was the weapon of choice for freedom fighters across the developing world. Following a bitter anti-colonial war, in 1975 the new government of Mozambique even emblazoned an AK-47 on their national flag. I listened to my fellow anti-apartheid activists sing about AK-47s in South Africa during the 1990s. And while AK-47s undoubtedly helped many nations achieve liberation from colonialism, these days it is more often a weapon of mass destruction, especially in Africa.

In the civil wars in Somalia, Liberia and Sierra Leone the AK-47 was omnipresent. It has also been highly visible in recent armed conflicts in the Central African Republic, Mali, Sudan and South Sudan. In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the UN has previously reported that at least ten variants of the AK-47 were circulating amongst the various militias and armed groups who were killing civilians. It has been estimated that there are still at least 300,000 guns in the Congo, not counting those officially in the hands of the army, police and peacekeepers (GRIP and BICC, 2012).

Meanwhile in the Middle East the proliferation of AK-47s and other weapons has been especially noticeable in Iraq, Syria and Yemen. When the so-called Islamic State seized Mosul in June 2014 they became the direct beneficiaries of decades of irresponsible arms flows into Iraq. The atrocities of so-called Islamic State fighters are committed mainly with weapons looted from Iraqi military stocks and previously provided by the United States, Russia and more than two dozen other countries (Amnesty international, 2015).

Overall, the legal global arms trade is now worth an estimated $100 billion annually. According to the respected Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), between 2012 and 2016, the five biggest arms exporters in the world were the United States (33% of all exports), Russia (23%), China (6.2%), France (6%) and Germany (5.6%). More than a quarter of these armaments were exported to the Middle East. The fact that four of the top five arms exporters in the world are also permanent members of the UN Security Council, a body mandated to maintain international peace and security, is unconscionable. Especially when one considers how much the issue of conflict in the Middle East has dominated the Council’s agenda.

Syria, in particular, has been a source of bitter division amongst the permanent members of the Security Council since 2011. According to SIPRI, Russia was the source of 78% of all of the Syrian government’s weapons at the time of the start of the civil war. This means that for the past six years, the government of President Bashar al-Assad has been killing civilians and committing atrocities with Russian-made bullets, rifles, rockets, bombs, tanks, mortars, artillery and attack helicopters (Reuters, 2012). Many of these came to Syria via Rosoboronexport, Russia’s main international arms exporter. Other states have also been providing weapons to President Assad’s enemies as the civil war, and the arms trade that sustains it, shows no signs of abating.

Meanwhile in Yemen, since March 2015 civilians have faced relentless bombing by a Saudi-led military coalition and ongoing attacks by Houthi rebels. Both sides have targeted civilian infrastructure and directly contributed to what the United Nations now considers to be one of the greatest humanitarian catastrophes in the world. Saudi Arabia, in particular, has faced harsh criticism for airstrikes in Yemen that appear to have directly violated international law. But this has not stopped the United States, another permanent member of the Security Council, from recently agreeing to a $110 billion arms contract with Saudi Arabia, despite objections from human rights organisations (Malsin, 2012). Indeed, Washington has celebrated this projected arms transfer as “the single largest arms deal in US history” (Sean Spicer, 2017).

Beyond fighter jets and guided missiles, the annual legal trade in small arms and light weapons, including AK-47s and other assault rifles, is now worth more than $8.5 billion a year, involving more than a thousand companies around the globe (Chelule, 2014). An estimated 12 billion bullets are also manufactured each year, enough to shoot every person on this planet (Oxfam, 2012). It is for this reason that the Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect and other human rights organizations have advocated for an arms embargo to be imposed on South Sudan, Syria and other countries where governments use public funds to buy weapons and ammunition to commit atrocities against their own people.

History teaches us that the proliferation of small arms and light weapons dramatically increases a state’s risk for genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity, a point explicitly made in the UN’s Framework of Analysis for Atrocity Crimes. This is also recognised in UN Security Council resolutions 2117 and 2220 on the arms trade. The growing threat of violent extremism in many parts of the world today also highlights the significant risks to civilians when fragile states and permeable borders allow for the illicit trade in assault rifles and other deadly weapons. Boko Haram, the so-called Islamic State, and various other non-state armed groups benefit from the global market of cheap weapons and plentiful ammunition. The ultimate price of this illegal commerce is paid for by the populations these groups prey upon.

It is for these reasons that we have urged all UN member states to ratify and implement the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) (Adams, 2015). The ATT was the result of a long campaign by both states and civil society to constrain the arms trade and prevent weapons from falling into the hands of terrorists, transnational criminals and governments who may use them commit mass atrocities and other human rights abuses. Our partners at Amnesty International (2012), who helped lead the ATT campaign, pointed out that it was absurd that the global trade in bananas was more rigorously regulated than the trade in AK-47s and other conventional weapons.

Since the ATT entered into force during December 2014, at least 130 states have become signatories and 89 have ratified the Treaty. Any academic or student who is committed to mass atrocity prevention should check if their government has ratified the ATT (see UN Office for Disarmament Affairs). If they have, they should be held to its commitments. If they have not, then there is an obvious need for further public pressure.

In the very first issue of this R2P Student Journal, my friend and colleague Alex Bellamy (2016) wrote that:

R2P is not a self-fulfilling norm. It is a statement of shared expectation – a commitment of what the world ought to do in order to end genocide and mass atrocities once and for all. We all have a role to play and the choices each of us make will shape whether or not things change for the better…

Like Professor Bellamy I am glad that this academic journal and the R2P Student Coalition exists. These are troubling times. There are currently an estimated 65 million people in the world displaced by conflict, atrocities and persecution. But if my own past experience as an activist of the international anti-apartheid movement and a former member of the African National Congress taught me anything, it is that cynicism and complacency have never prevented a single mass atrocity and will not change anything. What the world desperately needs is a new generation of students and scholars who not only critically engage with R2P, but will also become human rights activists and advocates. I hope the authors, editors and readers of this journal will take past lessons in mass atrocity prevention to heart, and turn these words and ideas into action.


Adams, S. 2015. ‘Remarks at Ministerial Side-Event Small Arms and Light Weapons: The Real Weapons of Mass Destruction. New Dynamics in the Fight Against Illegal Trafficking of Small Arms’, Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect, Available from: Global Centre for R2P at a Ministerial side-event hosted by Germany during the UN General Assembly in 2015:

Amnesty International. 2012. ’Amnesty International Stages New York City “Bananafesto” Action in Times Square June 27, Ahead of Historic Arms Treaty Talks at United Nations’, Available from:

Amnesty International. 2015. ‘Iraq: ‘Islamic State’ atrocities fueled by decades of reckless arms trading’, (8 December 2015), Available from:

Bellamy, A. 2016. ‘Fulfilling the Promise of R2P: Our Shared Responsibility, The Responsibility to Protect Student Journal1(1), Available from:

Chelule, E. 2014. ‘Proliferation of Small Arms and Light Weapons: Challenge to Development, Peace and Security in Africa’, Journal of Humanities and Social Science19(5), pp. 80-87

GRIP and BICC. 2010. Study on the Proliferation of Small Arms in Congo (DRC) – Etude sur la prolifération des armes légères en République Démocratique du Congo, Available from:

Malsin, J. 2012. ‘The Big Problem with President Trump’s Record Arms Deal with Saudi Arabia’, Time, Available from:

Oxfam. 2012. ‘Ammunition trade tops $4 billion yet little regulation to control and keep track of who bullets are sold to’, Available from:

Reuters. 2012. ‘Syria arms imports surge, most provided by Russia’, (19 March), Available from:

Spicer, S. 2017. Official Twitter Account, (20 May 2017), Available from:

Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. no date. ‘International Arms Transfers’, Available from:

UN Security Council. 2013. S/RES/2017, Available from:

UN Office for Disarmament Affairs. 2017. ‘The Arms Trade Treaty: Basic Facts’, Available from:

Wilkinson, S. 2013. ‘AK-47: Weapon of the Century, Military History,30(3). pp. 28-35