The Responsibility to Protect and Counter Terrorism: An Incompatible but Inevitable Interaction

Macaulay Eddy, University of Leeds, UK

Macaulay Eddy is a final year undergraduate student in International Relations at the University of Leeds.


The relationship between the Responsibility to Protect and counter terrorism will be critically analysed – arriving at the conclusion that the doctrines are conceptually and practically incompatible. Nonetheless, it will be discovered that their interaction is inevitable and, as this is likely to only increase, their incompatibility should be studied and managed. It is revealed that counter terrorism has the potential to override the Responsibility to Protect and, therefore, it will be argued that they should be maintained as separate doctrines, particularly in light of their continued interaction. To achieve this conclusion, the concepts of state-centricity and impartiality are analysed with respect to this relationship.


This paper will argue that the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) and counter terrorism are both conceptually and practically incompatible. However, there is considerable overlap and interaction between the two doctrines, which means this incompatibility must be examined and managed when R2P and counter terrorism are found to operate alongside one another. If their relationship is not critically engaged with then, it is argued, R2P becomes subordinate to and marginalised by counter terrorism, which has significant implications for the accountability of atrocity crimes. Therefore, it will be concluded that the two doctrines should be maintained separate from one another. This will be achieved by analysing two concepts with respect to counter terrorism and R2P’s relationship: first, their state-centricity, followed by their implications regarding impartiality. Within the state-centricity concept, the paper will discuss non-state actors’ inclusion within R2P in order to ground its argument before moving on to assess R2P and counter terrorism’s underlying logics. This subsection on the doctrines’ logics will highlight that, in spite of their incompatibility, interaction between counter terrorism and R2P is inevitable. The transnational nature of terrorism and – finally – how counter terrorism takes precedent over R2P will also be explored. Turning to impartiality, the increasing use of force in peacekeeping and its interaction with counter terrorism operations will be discussed, as is the risk of the United Nations (UN) becoming complicit in mass violence and the consequences of the label of terrorism regarding the relationship between these two doctrines. State-centricity is the condition upon which the international order – and, therefore, the UN, R2P and counter terrorism – is predicated, but its caveats also hold important consequences for R2P, counter terrorism and their relationship. Impartiality is important to discuss because whilst it is central to the UN and peacekeeping, which, it is argued, operationalises R2P, counter terrorism remains inherently partial – therefore, this concept reveals crucial insights into this relationship in practice.


The Role of Non-State Actors within R2P

It will now be proposed that non-state actors (NSA) – the form that terrorism is conventionally viewed as taking – can be included within the parameters of R2P. R2P has been conceptualised and implemented in a fundamentally state-centric manner since its inception (Luck, 2015; Matthews and Mulcair, 2015; Welsh, 2016). This is likely due to the framing of R2P in the UN 2005 World Summit Outcome Document as concerning the responsibilities of states, thereby marginalising the role of NSA (Matthews and Mulcair, 2015; United Nations General Assembly, 2005). Luck makes the important observation that R2P was destined to be conceived state-centrically because the question posed to the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS) was inherently state-centric, and therefore so was its answer (ICISS, 2001; Luck, 2015). Indeed, this analysis should not be understood as contradicting the state-centricity of R2P, but rather complimenting it – as the primary responsibility must always lie with states (Welsh, 2016). However, the rise of the Islamic State (IS), among other terrorist organisations, and the atrocities that have been committed by them implores us to reconsider R2P in how it relates to such actors (Bellamy, 2015; Ralph, 2015). From a legal perspective, NSA arguably hold protection responsibilities under the Geneva Conventions, which designate to all members of the international community a duty to uphold human rights – this can be extrapolated to the atrocities of R2P (Zimmerman, 2020). Although the Geneva Conventions apply only in times of armed conflict, because atrocity crimes – with the exception of war crimes – occur outside of armed conflict, NSA can be considered to have a R2P (Zimmerman, 2020). This legal basis is becoming increasingly salient with the recognition that not all states possess a monopoly on the use of force within their territory (Matthews and Mulcair, 2015; Zimmerman, 2020). In former UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon’s first report on R2P the notion of incorporating NSA into the doctrine was proposed, wherein it is claimed that international assistance against NSA committing atrocities can help the host state restore its sovereignty (Ki-Moon, 2009). This implies that a NSA can inherit sovereignty from a state if it acquires the monopoly on force in a given territory, and therefore the protection responsibilities that come along with it – as sovereignty is now conditional on the fulfilling of the R2P (ICISS, 2001). So, NSA can be considered applicable to R2P, as can terrorist organisations, which represents an overlap between the doctrine and counter terrorism. However, this only accounts for the international legal basis for their protection responsibilities, and we must therefore also account for the committing of atrocity crimes by NSA.

Non-state actors, as well as having protection responsibilities, also relate to R2P through their committing of atrocity crimes. Terrorist attacks and atrocity crimes can often overlap, where atrocities are adopted as a terror tactic because they garner publicity and attention and represent a challenge to international and national authorities (Karlsrud, 2019; Luck, 2015; Matthews and Mulcair, 2015; Zimmerman, 2020). Luck appears to suggest that the committing of atrocities as part of terrorist tactics is a challenge to R2P itself (Luck, 2015). To demonstrate this, violence committed by IS in the territory that it controls across Syria and Iraq is widely believed to be tantamount to atrocity crimes (Bellamy, 2015; Luck, 2015; Matthews and Mulcair, 2015; Ralph, 2015; Welsh, 2016; Zimmerman, 2020). Specifically, the terrorist organisation has been accused of committing genocide against Yazidi peoples and for having attempted the ethnic cleansing of Shi’ite, Alawite, Christian and moderate Sunni populations (Bellamy, 2015). The UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights has claimed that terrorist acts committed by IS and its affiliate organisations in Iraq may constitute war crimes and crimes against humanity (Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, 2015). Here, then, IS has been accused of committing the full spectrum of atrocity crimes in a territory in which it has a legal R2P. Indeed, Bellamy emphasises that acts of terrorism must fall under the remit of R2P as well as counter terrorism because, when they constitute atrocity crimes, they are essentially the same phenomenon: mass violence against civilians (Bellamy, 2015). Therefore, NSA can be viewed as applicable to R2P through atrocity crimes committed by them. Bellamy’s assertion, however, conceals a wider issue: if terrorist acts fall under the jurisdiction of both R2P and counter terrorism then their interaction is inevitable – this is what the remainder of the paper will address. While this analysis may lead one to think that R2P and counter terrorism are complimentary and mutually reinforcing doctrines, it will be argued that they are not compatible. A significant reason for this is the fundamentally different logics underpinning them.

The Contradictory Logics of R2P and Counter Terrorism

The underlying logics of R2P and counter terrorism have considerable implications for their relationship. Zimmerman contends that, with counter terrorism’s ongoing shift from its original state-centric focus toward a more human rights focus, the two doctrines are increasingly compatible (Zimmerman, 2020). Because they both emphasise the primacy of the state as the first responder but also instil obligations on the international community to act when necessary, it is suggested that they share a conceptual basis and are mutually-reinforcing (Zimmerman, 2020). Whilst I agree with Zimmerman’s assertion that there are overlaps in the prescriptions for preventing both atrocities and acts of terrorism, such holistic measures have hardly been implemented (Karlsrud, 2019). Indeed, Pillar Two of the UN Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy (UN General Assembly, 2006), which largely concerns direct military operations, has been considerably prioritised over the other components (Karlsrud, 2019; Ki-Moon, 2016). Therefore, the conceptual shift of counter terrorism toward human rights does not seem to have materialised in practice. Zimmerman acknowledges this to a certain extent but insists on emphasising the increasingly clear link between counter terrorism and human rights, and therefore with R2P – which this paper disagrees with (Zimmerman, 2020). This deals with only the methods that might be employed by the two doctrines in the pursuit of their aims – whilst this is important to consider, as will be done to a greater extent later in the paper, this raises the question of what the aims of R2P and counter terrorism are.

Now that it has been established that counter terrorism remains largely conceptually state-centric, its underpinning logic can be identified and juxtaposed with that of R2P. Counter terrorism emphasises the state-centric tenets of non-intervention against a sovereign state and that the nation-state’s monopoly on the use of force should be consolidated (Gallagher and Lawrinson, Forthcoming; Zimmerman, 2020). R2P, on the other hand, derives from moral considerations that privileges human rights and human protection (Gallagher and Lawrinson, Forthcoming; Welsh, 2016). With these two different standpoints, it can be observed that counter terrorism and R2P conceive of security differently. On the one hand, counter terrorism, which emphasises state-centricity, considers security as that of the state in that it seeks to protect and reinforce its sovereignty and territorial integrity (Welsh, 2016; Zimmerman, 2020). On the other hand, R2P conceptualises security as that of the individual and of populations against mass violence; human security is as important as the security of the state and, indeed, state sovereignty becomes conditional on the fulfilment of this (ICISS, 2001; Rhoads, 2019; Welsh, 2016). Whilst it will be maintained that R2P and counter terrorism do not possess mutually reinforcing logics, their individual conceptual foundations are more complex than the state-centric versus human-centric dichotomy that this might imply. This argument will be expanded upon fully in the following section, but it will be argued that R2P is human-centric in its interpretation of security but bound by state borders in its approach to ensuring this conceptualisation of security. This also somewhat reconciles the debate as to whether R2P is human- or state-centric. Counter terrorism, on the other hand, is considered state-centric in how it defines security, but it transcends the boundaries of states in its approach to ensuring the security of them. Therefore, there is a clear conceptual conflict between the two. If they were to be implemented alongside each other under the assumption that they are complimentary, their contradictory logics would mix in a detrimental manner and work against each other, risking the overriding of R2P’s protection by the national security regime (Luck, 2015; Welsh, 2016). Ralph makes the astute point that, with counter terrorism being inherently national interest-based, self-interestedness could seep into R2P and thereby compromise its legitimacy (Ralph, 2015). It could allow states to claim that they are fulfilling their R2P through counter terrorism operations which, because of their opposing logic, do not constitute these protective measures (Ralph, 2015). These tensions can be seen playing out in the context of Mali where R2P – embodied in the UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) – emphasises protecting the population from atrocities committed by both the Malian government and the jihadist terrorist and Tuareg rebel groups, while counter terrorism prioritises the restoration of Mali’s territorial integrity through the Sahel-wide Operation Barkhane and its French predecessor Serval (Charbonneau, 2019; Gallagher and Lawrinson, Forthcoming; Karlsrud, 2017; Karlsrud, 2019). The contrast in logics and purposes is clear which, therefore, serves to demonstrate the incompatibility of R2P and counter terrorism.

Yet whilst R2P and counter terrorism exhibit contradictory logics, reality shows they coexist in practice, as most clearly seen in Mali (Gallagher and Lawrinson, Forthcoming). Indeed, the question is not whether the two doctrines can coexist, but how they might coexist: because of the changing nature of conflict, and that UN peace operations are increasingly deployed in volatile and ongoing situations, R2P and counter terrorism are going to continue to interact. This is problematic due to their incompatible natures, but there must be space for their coexistence as it is inevitable. Establishing a clear division of labour and roles between the two parallel forces would be essential: notably with peacekeepers refraining from excessive use of force and physically distancing themselves from the counter terrorism operation (Andersen, 2018; Rhoads, 2019). MINUSMA has been coordinating and sharing intelligence with Operation Barkhane and such closeness should be avoided (Gallagher and Lawrinson, Forthcoming; Griffen, 2016; Karlsrud, 2015). Resolving the tensions between R2P and counter terrorism will prove to be very difficult, as often solutions that are implemented to improve peacekeeping produces a host of new issues that require addressing. For instance, Western militaries’ return to UN peacekeeping has been long-awaited by some, but their participation in MINUSMA has produced more concerns with excessive use of force as advanced military technology is employed in an increasingly combative nature (Karlsrud, 2015). This seems to have been exacerbated by the presence of terrorist groups in Mali. Therefore, interaction between R2P and counter terrorism is inevitable and – with their incompatibility in mind – efforts should be made to reconcile their tensions, in order to minimise the damage inflicted to R2P.

The Transnational Nature of Terrorism and Counter Terrorism

The regional nature of terrorism holds significant implications for R2P because the doctrine’s approach is state-centric: it can address atrocities only within the geographical borders of the state in which it is authorised to do so. If a regional terrorist group commits atrocity crimes within the borders of another state – where R2P is not authorised to act – then this threat poses a considerable challenge to R2P. Terrorism is becoming increasingly regional in nature, defying state borders which traditionally demarcate the geographical boundaries of conflict; Boko Haram, al-Shabab and IS are often cited as typical regional terrorist groups (Bere, 2017; Charbonneau, 2017; Karlsrud, 2019; Matthews and Mulcair, 2015). The situation in Mali demonstrates the regional nature of terrorism with attacks being launched from Mali’s territory against neighbouring states, particularly Burkina Faso, Niger and Cˆote d’Ivoire (Bere, 2017). Indeed, Operation Barkhane and the G5 Sahel Joint Force were deployed to counter the increasingly regional threat terrorism poses to the Sahel region (Charbonneau, 2017; Charbonneau, 2019; Karlsrud, 2017). Beyond the incidence of violence, the spreading of extremist ideologies can also become a regional problem. In Mali, the traditional Maliki Islam has been influenced and increasingly overridden by Wahhabi Islam, originally from the region around the Persian Gulf, which is forming the basis of the extremist jihadist ideology inspiring terrorist acts in the Sahel (Karlsrud, 2019).

This reveals more about the state-centricity of counter terrorism as its methods appear to transcend national borders, more than its fundamental logic might imply. R2P faces a problem here if a terrorist organisation commits atrocities against civilians on a regional scale because its prescriptions and responses are limited to the borders of the state in which the violence was committed. In this sense, R2P may encounter difficulty in assembling a regional response to atrocity crimes as this would rely on the willingness of states to cooperate. This expands upon the argument posed in the previous section that R2P and counter terrorism are state-centric in different respects. Counter terrorism, in its privileging of the security and sovereignty of the nation-state, is state-centric in what it seeks to secure. However, due to the transnational nature of the terrorist threat, its approach in ensuring this security transcends this state-centrism by engaging in conflict on a regional scale. On the other hand, R2P emphasises the security of the individual and, in this sense, can be considered more human-centric, while its ability to respond to threats that endanger this individualised security are more restricted by state borders. Therefore, R2P and counter terrorism, in different ways, both challenge and reinforce state-centricity and this demonstrates further the conceptual incompatibility of the two doctrines. Moreover, insight into NSA’s protection responsibilities can also be gleaned from the implications of borderless terrorism: it suggests that a NSA can acquire sovereignty – and, therefore, a R2P – from multiple states if the territory that it controls transcends national borders. IS is the archetypal example of this, with its monopoly on force having stretched across the Iraqi-Syrian border (Matthews and Mulcair, 2015).

The regional nature of counter terrorism also has consequences for state sovereignty and intervention. Charbonneau argues that by emphasising the transnational nature of a terrorist threat, counter terrorism operations are able to claim that they are not interfering in a sovereign state’s internal affairs (Charbonneau, 2017). For instance, Operation Barkhane possesses an unprecedented level of freedom of movement across regional borders in the Sahel (Charbonneau, 2019). This allows counter terrorism – and specifically, Operation Barkhane – to bypass the traditional debates around sovereignty and intervention that other international doctrines are often subjected to and frustrated by (Charbonneau, 2017). R2P is certainly one of these doctrines, as it is the target of much contestation by the international community (Rhoads, 2019). This could, perhaps, mean that counter terrorism has the potential to override R2P due to it avoiding these international debates as it allows it to respond to an act of violence swiftly, while R2P may be still being subjected to contestation. This argument will be explored more in the following section, as avoiding the contestation around sovereignty and intervention might, in part, explain why counter terrorism seems to take precedence over R2P.

Counter Terrorism Taking Precedence Over R2P

Luck highlights that although R2P may have a theoretically close relationship with other norms, parallel implementation can be more complex as other doctrines can often be privileged over it (Luck, 2015). This appears relevant to R2P’s relationship with counter terrorism as the threat of terrorists often seems to take priority for states, with the chances of international assistance or intervention being much higher if there is a threat of terrorism rather than a threat of mass violence (Ralph, 2015). It appears as though a discursive division can, and has been, established between R2P and counter terrorism through labelling acts of violence that constitute atrocity crimes as terrorism, thereby placing the response exclusively within the realm of counter terrorism (Zimmerman, 2020). This has the effect of subordinating R2P to other doctrines and infers that terrorist threats are of a higher priority than atrocities, even when, paradoxically, the act of terrorism qualifies as an atrocity crime. This also serves to demonstrate that the doctrines are not compatible.

Relatedly, this prioritisation of terrorism can also serve to undermine R2P when atrocities are committed in the name of counter terrorism. For example, during the Sri Lankan government’s war against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam both sides of the conflict committed atrocities against civilians (Secretary-General’s Panel of Experts on Accountability in Sri Lanka, 2011; Zimmerman, 2020). However, the UN Security Council (UNSC) predominantly condemned the Liberation Tigers and rarely the government because it was able to invoke counter terrorism and thereby downplay its committing of atrocities – Sri Lanka even claimed that R2P supported their counter terrorism campaign because it contributed to protecting civilians (Zimmerman, 2020). We observe here how the UNSC became caught between the contradictions of these two doctrines, to the detriment of R2P. Therefore, these norms should not be considered complimentary as counter terrorism has served to undermine the central function of R2P in the prevention of and accountability for atrocity crimes. This echoes Charbonneau, who claims that the label of terrorist seems to set the boundaries for what is legitimate violence and what is not: which is further analysed later in this paper (Charbonneau, 2017).


The Increasing Use of Force in UN Peacekeeping

The use of force has been a central point around which contestation of peacekeeping has revolved (Andersen, 2018; Karlsrud, 2015; Rhoads, 2019; Tardy, 2011). Over the last two decades this debate has evolved through different phases, moving from the so-called crisis of confidence in the 2000s to the crisis of overstretch in the 2010s (Andersen, 2018). This conceptual vacuum led to the Panel on United Nations Peace Operations, resulting in the 2000 Brahimi Report which birthed the concept of ‘robust peacekeeping’ as the solution for protecting civilians (Panel on United Nations Peace Operations, 2000). Robust peacekeeping is broadly understood as peacekeeping missions with freedom of movement and the means to protect itself and prevent spoiling of the mission mandate – intended to confer a greater degree of credibility on the institution of peacekeeping (Panel on United Nations Peace Operations, 2000; Tardy, 2011). However, the Brahimi Report, while very significant, did not resolve the UN’s crisis of confidence and while debate continued, peacekeeping began yet again to shift into new territory – into what Karlsrud argues is peace enforcement (Karlsrud, 2015; Tardy, 2011). The crisis of overstretch, also coined the ‘pragmatic turn’, represented a doctrinal shift with the principal change centring around the increase in targeted military action (Andersen, 2018; Karlsrud, 2015). Whereas, previously, the use of force in peacekeeping was exercised limitedly and within tight legal parameters under Chapter 7 of the UN Charter, force was now being built into mission mandates and, further, specific targets began to be identified for this military action (Karlsrud, 2015; Rhoads, 2019). For example, since stabilisation has been written into MINUSMA’s mandate, it has constituted peace enforcement having been mandated, essentially, to militarily engage the jihadist group Al-Qaeda in the Maghreb (Karlsrud, 2015). It can be proposed here that perhaps MINUSMA was pushed into the terrain of peace enforcement not only because of the incidence of terrorist groups in the Malian conflict, but because of the counter terrorism operations against them. Peacekeeping missions, therefore, have been pushed into a realm for which they were not designed. The High-Level Independent Panel on Peace Operations (HIPPO) sought to explicitly resist this transition and emphasised a political and enabling role for the UN (Andersen, 2018; HIPPO, 2015). Beyond this, the increasingly militarised role for the UN challenges the traditional principles of peacekeeping: impartiality, host state consent and minimum use of force become at risk from a militarily aggressive peacekeeping mission (Andersen, 2018; Karlsrud, 2015; Karlsrud, 2019; Rhoads, 2019). The violation of these principles through robust peacekeeping undermines the protection of civilians, as will be revealed later in the paper (Karlsrud, 2015; Rhoads, 2019; Tardy, 2011). If, then, we maintain that the UN should be impartial and employ minimum use of force, it becomes clear that counter terrorism would conflict with this – and by extension, R2P. The remainder of the paper will address this.

Peacekeeping Missions and Counter Terrorism Operations

Considering Gallagher and Lawrinson’s assessment that R2P and peacekeeping are congruent doctrines because peacekeeping operationalises R2P, it seems prudent that R2P is discussed regarding counter terrorism and impartiality (Gallagher and Lawrinson, Forthcoming). Peacekeeping and counter terrorism have been deployed alongside one another and there are increasingly vocal calls from the international community for the UN to begin conducting both operations themselves using peacekeepers (Karlsrud, 2017; Karlsrud, 2019). However, UN counter terrorism operations would be highly problematic because they, at their core, involve the identification and suppression or neutralisation of an enemy, which would severely damage the traditional UN principle of impartiality (Andersen, 2018; HIPPO, 2015; Karlsrud, 2017; Karlsrud, 2019; Rhoads, 2019). Indeed, the UN would come to be viewed as a party to the conflicts it is attempting to mediate (Andersen, 2018; Karlsrud, 2019; Rhoads, 2019). This would be detrimental for R2P as, if the UN is considered to be involved in the conflict or to be partial, it could put civilians in greater danger by inciting retaliation against peacekeepers whom civilians may be near to (Andersen, 2018; Karlsrud, 2015; Rhoads, 2019; Tardy, 2011). For instance, MINUSMA’s peacekeepers have been repeatedly targeted by terrorist groups resulting in a death toll of two-hundred and six, as of October 2019 (Charbonneau, 2017; Gallagher and Lawrinson, Forthcoming; Karlsrud, 2019; United Nations, 2019b). Retaliation may also occur against sectors of the population that the UN is perceived to favour: particularly, in South Sudan, the government has – by restricting and monitoring the UN Mission in South Sudan’s (UNMISS) freedom of movement – been able to identify the location of civilians by knowing where peacekeepers are operating (Rhoads, 2019). With the South Sudanese government being a significant committer of atrocity crimes, this, therefore, endangers civilians (Griffen, 2016; Rhoads, 2019). The UNSC has also stated that these attacks may constitute war crimes (UN, 2019a), which compromises R2P further by potentially inciting atrocity crimes which then go unaccounted for. These concerns have become increasingly salient with the realisation that the UN, in both Mali and South Sudan, is increasingly viewed as not only a party to the conflict but a part of the Global War on Terror, rendering peacekeepers even more attractive targets for terrorist organisations (Karlsrud, 2019).

Complicity in Atrocity Crimes

Impartiality proves difficult when several parties to the conflict are involved in the committing of atrocity crimes, especially so when one of these parties is the host state (Luck, 2015; Welsh, 2016). This moral hazard becomes more complicated when the host state requests Pillar Two assistance under R2P against a NSA when both sides are implicated in mass violence (Welsh, 2016). The implication here is that the UN could end up supporting actors complicit in atrocity crimes, thereby becoming complicit themselves. For instance, in South Sudan the government has been one of the most significant committers of atrocities, while the Malian government has committed human rights violations potentially amounting to atrocity crimes (Bere, 2017; Griffen, 2016; Karlsrud, 2019; Rhoads, 2019). In such situations, it is advised that peacekeeping should terminate state-building activities so as to avoid strengthening governments complicit in atrocities and preserve impartiality and R2P (Andersen, 2018). While the pragmatic turn in UN peacekeeping has involved a receding role in state-building, it has encouraged missions to extend state authority – for instance, MINUSMA – (Andersen, 2018; Griffen, 2016; Karlsrud, 2015) which becomes problematic when R2P and counter terrorism are implemented as parallel operations. Indeed, with the recognition that the South Sudanese government had manifestly failed its R2P by committing atrocities against its own population, the UNSC stripped UNMISS of its state-building mandate with Resolution 2155 (Rhoads, 2019; United Nations Security Council, 2014). This communicated a clear message: that the UN would not support a host state guilty of perpetrating mass violence. While this was important for R2P, the resultant deteriorating relationship between UNMISS and the government produced a host of new challenges – perhaps most importantly, the exclusion of the UN from the politics of the peace process (Rhoads, 2019). This demonstrates, therefore, that attempting to reconcile the consequences of the interaction between counter terrorism and R2P has limited success, reinforcing their incompatibility and that, ideally, they should not be interacting in the first place. Of course, however, they are destined to. Further, Operation Barkhane replaced Serval to allow collaboration between France, Mali and its neighbouring states in the Sahel to confront the regional terrorist threat (Charbonneau, 2017; Charbonneau, 2019; Gallagher and Lawrinson, Forthcoming; Karlsrud, 2017; Karlsrud, 2019). This has meant that counter terrorism operations in Mali have been cooperating with states with a record of human rights violations, particularly Chad and its own Operation Epervier (Amnesty International, 2018; Bere, 2017). This is problematic for R2P because it can be observed again how its relationship with counter terrorism can involve it in human rights violations.

The Politicised Label of Terrorism

The use of the label of terrorism – and, by extension, counter terrorism – is problematic for R2P. Terrorism is an inherently political term as it entails moral judgements on certain actors which then affect the legitimacy that actor is granted (Andersen, 2018; Bere, 2017; Charbonneau, 2017; Charbonneau, 2019). This becomes difficult as terrorism is not a stable concept and is highly contested, therefore the label is at risk of being applied inconsistently and politically (Andersen, 2018; Karlsrud, 2019). The UN has shifted its rhetoric from counter terrorism to preventing violent extremism in order to avoid its toxicity and the connotations of the Global War on Terror, and this has proven less controversial than the terrorism narrative – portraying its politicised nature (Karlsrud, 2019). The implication here is – returning to Charbonneau – that the label of terrorist is able to set the boundaries of legitimate and illegitimate violence (Charbonneau, 2017; Charbonneau, 2019). This has significant consequences for R2P because if counter terrorism has the power to determine the legitimacy of violence, this could override R2P’s ability to condemn atrocity crimes and hold perpetrators accountable for them. Therefore, if a NSA has been depoliticised and delegitimised by being labelled as terrorists, this could allow the state to wield legitimate violence – in the name of counter terrorism – irrespective of the scale or severity of it (Charbonneau, 2017). This violence could be tantamount to atrocity crimes, but R2P might not be able to confront it because of the guise of counter terrorism – this, therefore, presents a considerable challenge to R2P. We observed this scenario earlier with respect to Sri Lanka (Secretary-General’s Panel of Experts on Accountability in Sri Lanka, 2011; Zimmerman, 2020). Furthermore, a potential result of this toxicity of the labelling of terrorism is that UN peacekeeping missions could be susceptible to manipulation by host states in their operationalisation by aiming it toward political opposition that they have labelled terrorists – a possibility Karlsrud cautions against (Karlsrud, 2019). It could be argued that this was attempted in Mali but MINUSMA has, to a large extent, been able to resist the government’s demands for it to militarily engage jihadists and Tuareg rebels in the North, with the exception of Al-Qaeda in the Maghreb perhaps (Bere, 2017; Charbonneau, 2017; Karlsrud, 2019). Therefore, the terrorism label illustrates that R2P can be marginalised and disarmed by the politicised nature of counter terrorism, reinforcing that they should be maintained as separate.


This paper has argued that R2P and counter terrorism hold an incompatible relationship. Their contradictory underpinning logics and the consequences of their parallel operationalisation in practice serves to illustrate this argument. There are points of overlap, however – such as terrorist organisations potentially having protection responsibilities and being able to commit atrocity crimes – but these should not be understood as evidence of their compatibility. Instead, they highlight that the two doctrines are inevitably going to clash – as they are increasingly invoked and implemented alongside one another – and therefore demonstrate the need for this relationship to be examined and managed both conceptually and in practice. This is all the more urgent when counter terrorism takes precedence over R2P and disarms it with terrorism’s highly politicised nature, inhibiting R2P’s fundamental purpose of identifying and responding to atrocity crimes. Therefore, R2P and counter terrorism’s separate and contradictory nature should be emphasised in order to preserve R2P’s mission and legitimacy, particularly in light of the realisation that the doctrines are going to increasingly interact.


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