Realpolitik vs. Human Rights’ Protection: The Rohingya Crisis and The Failure of the Responsibility to Protect

Diletta Alparone, University of Leiden, the Netherlands

Diletta graduated with a 1st class degree from the University of Exeter (UK), and is now doing an MSc in International Relations Diplomacy at the University of Leiden. She is also interning at the OPCW department of the Mexican Embassy in the Netherlands.


After the massacres of Rwanda and Srebrenica, the international community claimed a solemn “Never Again” – never again it will permit such overt human suffering without doing anything to stop it. The Responsibility to Protect (R2P) was adopted in 2005, as a response to Kofi Annan’s call for justice and humanity. Nevertheless, while R2P presented successful cases like Kenya (2008) and Cote D’Ivoire (2011), the Rohingya case in Myanmar exemplifies the deep inconsistencies of its application. The Rohingya people have been suffering from state-sponsored destruction and a slow-burning genocide, evidencing a form of laissez-passer from the international community. This paper looks at the factors which have led to the international community’s failure to apply the Responsibility to Protect in Myanmar, claiming that the over-dependence on the UNSC consensus, as well as the presence of broader political and economic considerations, have weakened the demand for R2P in Myanmar.


“We cannot let the evil of ethnic cleansing stand. [. . . ] If we let an evil dictator range unchallenged, we will have to spill infinitely more blood and treasure to stop him later. . . ” (Blair, 1999).

The Responsibility to Protect (R2P) was born as a reaction to the systematic violation of human rights in Rwanda and Srebrenica and embodied the international community’s commitment to “never again” stand in front of gross human suffering without doing anything to halt it. The R2P was unanimously accepted by 150 heads of states at the 2005 United Nations (UN) World Summit, but despite its adoption, the R2P has been applied inconsistently (Paris, 2014, p. 570). R2P presents successes such as Kenya in 2008 and Cote d’Ivoire in 2011, but also failures such as Sri Lanka in 2009, Syria since 2011 (Evans, 2015, p. 7) and Myanmar, where the Rohingya population has been subject to state-sponsored destruction and slow-burning genocide, as reported by Zarni and Cowley (2014, p. 681).

This paper focuses on the application of R2P concerning the Rohingya crisis in Myanmar. More specifically, it looks at the multidimensional reasons behind the laissez-passer of the international community in the face of overt human suffering. The paper thus examines the factors which led to the international community’s failure to apply the Responsibility to Protect in Myanmar. It argues that the international community failed to apply R2P for two main reasons; first, China’s veto and the United Nation’s over-dependence on Security Council consensus for action; and second, the presence of broader political and economic considerations which diluted the need for R2P-related action.

This paper is split into four sections. First, I introduce the theory and debate around the Responsibility to Protect. Second, I provide the historical background of the Rohingya crisis and examine how the Rohingya case is suitable for R2P application. Third, I analyse, in two separate sections, the reasons which obstructed R2P’s application. Finally, I discuss the main results, suggest how to get over this impasse and draw my conclusions.

The Responsibility to Protect

The R2P was created as a response to the failure of the international community to respond to the civil wars and humanitarian crises in the 1990s (Ibrahim and Nordin, 2015, p. 2). The UN was divided between states claiming that “nothing should authorise intervention in matters essentially within the domestic jurisdiction of any state” (UN Charter art. 2, par. 7, 1945), and those who argued that it is possible to use force “to maintain or restore international peace and security” (U.N. Charter art. 42, 1945). Seeking to reconcile the principles of sovereignty and human rights, the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS) published its 2001 report which formed the basis of the Responsibility to Protect norm (ICISS, 2001, vii).

Following its endorsement at the 2005 World Summit, former UN-Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon, defined the R2P as consisting of three pillars (UN General Assembly, 2009): pillar one being that states have “the primary responsibility to protect their population from genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing”; pillar two that the international community should “assist states in fulfilling their protection obligations”; and pillar three that “when a state fails to protect its population or is, in fact, the perpetrator of these crimes, the international community has a responsibility to take collective action in a timely and decisive manner . . . ” (UN General Assembly, 2009). R2P has since been endorsed as a “core principle” by states during the yearly R2P debates at the UN General Assembly (UNGA) – even after the military intervention in Libya – signalling the establishment of R2P as an international norm (Evans, 2015, pp. 3-4). R2P supporters are accused of glorifying R2P as a legitimate and fundamental principle to solve a country’s structural problems (van Mulken, 2018, p. 11). They emphasise atrocity prevention rather than reaction, since R2P’s primary means are a case-by-case combination of diplomatic, economic and political efforts, as stated in Chapter VI and VIII of the UN Charter (ibid

However, the recognition of R2P as an international norm has not automatically translated into the norm’s absorption by states (Cunliffe, 2017, p. 478). As claimed by Hehir (2017, p. 338), while pillar one is rooted in existing international law, pillar two and three are not entrenched in any legal framework and have the sole scope to “guide” state behaviour by providing a normative framework. Thus, unless states go through an alteration of their ideational, material and institutional practices, R2P cannot become a constitutive norm (ibid, p. 343). Consequently, if R2P’s application in one country jeopardises another state’s national interests, the “R2P signatory state” will likely act according to realpolitik, prioritising its interests and compromising its interests only if it expects greater future benefits (Khan and Ahmed, 2019). This claim can also explain R2P’s reputation of inconsistency (Orford, 2013, p. 99). While R2P is based on the generous purpose of preventing and protecting against atrocity crimes, states’ interventions are more realistically connected with power and geo-strategic interests (Paris, 2014, pp. 572-573). As a result, it can be assumed that inaction can derive from a threat to a state’s core interests, which can create an impasse; from the lack of economic-political incentives to act, or conversely, by the gains that “non-action” can produce.

States’ “mixed feelings” towards R2P are observable in their overall acceptance of Pillar I and II and their “discomfort” with the implication of Pillar III, as evident in the position of “cautious supporters” such as China and Russia (Garwood-Gowers, 2016, p. 98). Interestingly, China does not outright obstruct R2P, but rather consistently shows its resistance towards non-consensual military operations (Teitt, 2011 p. 302). China maintains that national authorities have primary protection responsibilities and that military action is an extreme “last resort”, to be considered only after the exhaustion of diplomatic, economic and political means of solution (Garwood-Gowers, 2016, p. 104). China reinvigorates its normative position asserting the primacy of sovereignty, non-coercion and non-interference in a state’s internal affairs (Teitt, 2011, p. 301). No humanitarian military action can be pursued without the consent of the host state, demonstrating the moral argument that human rights protection should not be an excuse for violating state sovereignty (van Mulken, 2018, p. 7). China’s resistance towards non-consensual intervention into another sovereign state has been displayed in its use of veto power inside the Security Council. China’s veto is leading R2P supporters to question the Security Council’s legitimacy in arbitering over human rights crises (ibid, p. 11) and to argue that the UNGA should intervene in instances of deadlocks (Khan and Ahmed, 2019, p. 16).

The Rohingya Crisis

“What can we do, Brother, they (the Rohingya) are too many? We can’t kill them all” (Thet Oo Maung, 2012, in Zarni and Cowley, 2014).

From 1978, Myanmar has been pursuing and executing national and state-level plans to exterminate the Rohingya people in Rakhine State, Myanmar (Zarni and Cowley, 2014, p. 689). The Rohingya is a Muslim ethno-regionalist group, who live in a state composed of 90 per cent Buddhist citizens (Rosenthal, 2019, p. 7). Rakhine State is the ancestral home of the Rohingya, but Myanmar sees the Rohingya as “illegal immigrants” and “Bengalis”. Consequently, the Myanmar government decided to exclude the Rohingya from the list of the 135 state-recognised ethnic groups through the 1982 Citizenship Act (Zarni and Cowley, 2014, p. 689). The 1982 Citizenship Act made the Rohingya stateless. It deprived them of their rights to education, health services, freedom of movement, ownership, marriage and procreation (Ibrahim and Nordin, 2015, p. 4). The strong anti-Muslim sentiment cemented among the Buddhist majority caused episodes of intra-communal violence, but one of the most lethal attacks took place in 2012 (Rosenthal, 2019, p. 7). This incident attracted a heavy military response which led to the destruction of villages and the internal displacement of 140,000 Rohingya (ibid).

Notably, these acts of brutality occurred during “Myanmar’s democratic transition”. From 2011, Myanmar has been implementing reforms to democratise the country, modifying the constitution and establishing a quasi-civilian government, co-led by Aung San Suu Kyi and the military (Rosenthal, 2019, p. 7). Yet, Myanmar’s democratisation in no way halted the most extreme attack against the Rohingya. In August 2017, the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army killed 12 members of the country’s border security, instigating a ferocious military response (Anwary, 2018, p. 96). The military security forces launched a “clearance operation”, during which 660,000 Rohingya were forced to flee, 7000 people died, and many were raped (Rosenthal, 2019, p. 9). The government pushed the remaining Rohingya to move to “security camps” and placed landmines on the borders between Bangladesh and Myanmar to stop the Rohingya from coming back (Anwary, 2018, p. 96). This episode has been described as a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing” (Al Hussein, 2018).

The Rohingya Case and R2P

As outlined by the R2P, if national authorities are not able to protect its people from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity, then the international community should intervene to support these people (Arashpuor and Roustaei, 2016, p. 390). For the international community to act, it must ascertain that atrocity crimes have been committed and that the government is failing to protect its population (ibid, p. 390). As demonstrated through the definition of genocide, articulated in Art. 2 of the UN Genocide Convention (1948), the Burmese government has not just failed to protect its people, but it has taken an active part in the perpetration of violence. As explained by Arashpuoir and Roustei’s analysis (2016), the government’s crimes against humanity and intent to destroy the Rohingya is first evidenced by the 1982 Citizenship Act, which stripped them of their collective identity and cultural heritage. The authors claim that the Rohingya have been targeted and killed since 1978 (UN Genocide Convention art. II, part a) and that the group has received serious physical and mental harm due to forced labour and inadequate health rights (UN Genocide Convention art. II, part b) (Arashpuor and Roustaei, 2016, p. 391). The Rohingya have been isolated in apartheid-like “security camps” and denied instruction, deliberately inflicting a poor standard of life to achieve annihilation (UN Genocide Convention art. II, part c); and finally, they have been subject to laws which constrain their marriage and procreation rights (UN Genocide Convention art. II, part d) (Arashpuor and Roustaei, 2016, p. 391).

These acts of violence are clear warning signs which demonstrate the vulnerability of the Rohingya and the failure of its government to protect them. The international community once promised to “never again” stand in front of an act of gross human rights violation without doing anything to stop it. However, the neglect of the Rohingya genocide appears to be a contradiction which requires further examination.

Reasons behind the International Community’s failure to protect the Rohingya

The UN’s structural weakness

Despite the 2005 agreement that affirmed the UNSC’s commitment to take appropriate action when a state openly fails to protect its population, the Security Council has been largely silent on Burma (Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect, 2010, p. 1). Following the “clearance operations”, diplomats representing the Security Council met with civilian representatives which provided them with satellite evidence and eyewitness reports which showed the violence committed against the Rohingya (Adams, 2019, p. 8). Similarly, Council members participated in several meetings to discuss the underlying sources of conflict in Rakhine State (Adams, 2019, p. 8). The Security Council was clearly conscious of the high degree of violence taking place in Myanmar – however, it took ten weeks for the Security Council to release a Presidential statement that only blatantly emphasised the government’s responsibility to protect its population (ibid, p. 8).

The Presidential statement was watered down by China’s refusal to negotiate any resolution (Joy, 2018, p. 2). China imposed the removal of any reference to the Rohingya’s statelessness and the UN fact-finding missions, reducing the statement’s effectiveness (ibid). China has been vetoing any resolution concerning the Rohingya crisis due to its support of the Burmese authorities and its extensive economic and geopolitical interests in the country (ibid). As expressed by China’s ideological position on humanitarian intervention, any operation supporting the peace process in Myanmar must have the approval and support of Myanmar’s government and people (United States Institute of Peace, 2018, p. 3). The Rohingya issue is considered a matter of internal affairs and any “infringement” would damage China’s foreign policy as well as bring attention to China’s own internal affairs (Joy, 2019, p. 4). Indeed, China likely equates Myanmar’s view of the Rohingya threat to its perception of the Uyghur threat in Xinjiang (United States Institute of Peace, 2018, p. 31). Thus, an R2P resolution in Myanmar would put China’s violation of human rights in the spotlight.

China’s support of R2P in Myanmar would also jeopardize its economic benefits in the region for two reasons. First, China has been assuming a mediating role in the Rohingya issue by ignoring social grievances and claiming that economic underdevelopment is the root cause of the conflict in Rakhine (Joy, 2019, p. 3). Consequently, China has been promoting large-scale infrastructure investments as a means of conflict resolution – as evidenced by the “Kyaukpyu Special Economic Zone” project, which reflects China’s ambition to gain greater access to the Indian ocean and achieve global connectivity (ibid, p. 2). Second, an application of R2P and an achievement of positive peace would downplay China’s economic gains. Indeed, China is benefiting from “neither hot war nor complete peace”: a cessation of fighting would increase its border security and foster its economic investments, however, hostilities between the central government and the Rohingya population increase Beijing’s meddling powers as “friendly neighbour” (United States Institute of Peace, 2018, p. 7). Thus, genuine peace might reduce Beijing’s influence over Naypyidaw and dangerously attract American foreign investments in the region.

As evidenced above, China’s economic and political interests in Myanmar are one of the causes of the Security Council’s impasse. The “UNSC determines whether a specific case poses a threat to international peace [. . . ] or counts as an aggression” (U.N. Charter Art. 39). Thus, as the only legitimate body tasked with the maintenance of international peace and security (Adams, 2019, p. 9), a lack of authorisation from the UNSC constrains the work of the UN High Commissioner on Human Rights (Khan and Ahmed, 2019, p. 7). China’s veto on resolutions and its insistence that the Rohingya issue is Myanmar’s domestic concern created deep inertia in the UN, blocking any enforcement measure (ibid, p. 6). UNSC action was limited to rhetoric, vague statements and refrainment from any tangible diplomatic solution, which demonstrated how the unwillingness of a permanent member can create a complete paralysis in front of gross human rights violations.

Mixed Motives and Policy Misjudgements

The deadlock of the UNSC, due to China’s veto, imposed a hard stop to any concrete resolution concerning the Rohingya humanitarian crisis. China’s position towards R2P is linked to “cautious” and pragmatic behaviour, while the US and European countries are usually described as normative supporters of R2P (van Mulken, 2018, p. 16). Still, it appears that even these actors had economic and political reasons for not encouraging robust R2P related action in Myanmar. Indeed, as part of its “China containment policy”, the United States has been focused on improving its relationship with the Asian countries neighbouring China, as demonstrated by the 1.42 billion USD arms deal with Taiwan (ibid, p. 16). Consequently, introducing new economic sanctions or pressuring to implement R2P would have arguably antagonised Myanmar’s government, going against its “China containment policy” scope (ibid, p. 16). Similarly, the EU had lifted its sanctions on Myanmar, strengthening their bilateral agreements and allocating 688 million to support reforms in education, peacebuilding, governance and rural development (EEAS, 2018, p. 4). The EU preferred a development-based strategy due to its special interests in Myanmar’s regional position, natural resources and investment potentials (ibid). The EU’s approach, therefore, resembled China’s “economic promotion” as a conflict management strategy at the expense of R2P application (ibid).

As a result of Myanmar’s economic potentials for Western states, no country took a strong position in favour of an application of R2P in Myanmar. Due to an overwhelming focus on R2P’s coercive elements, supporters failed to sufficiently emphasise that one of R2P’s core elements is prevention (Kingston, 2015, p. 1164). Despite the lack of a UNSC resolution, states could still engage in atrocity prevention strategies through diplomatic means – however, the absence of a leading actor in the Myanmar case had the effect of curtailing preventive diplomacy efforts. As a fact, France’s leading role during the Central African Republic crisis in 2012 positively pushed for EU preventive action (Smith, 2018, p. 16). Comparably, the prompt response of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), under the leadership of Senegal, achieved a coordinated mobilisation of regional actors, successfully tackling the humanitarian crisis in the Gambia in 2017 (Adams, 2019, p. 11).

The preventive aspects of R2P were further limited by a significant policy misjudgement. Indeed, the international community’s approach was blinded by the international reputation of Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Peace Prize recipient and Myanmar’s de facto leader from 2016 (Carroll, 2019). Indeed, given Myanmar’s democratic transition after decades of authoritarian military rule, the EU and the US thought that by incentivising conflict prevention and democratic promotion, the human rights’ protection in Myanmar would automatically follow (Staunton and Ralph, 2019, p. 12). However, the use of conventional “conflict prevention tools” were unable to address Rohingya’s vulnerability, since they were not involved in any active conflict despite their ongoing suffering (Staunton and Ralph, 2019, p. 12). Similarly, the focus on “democracy promotion” rather than “atrocity prevention” led the international community to exclusively identify the Rohingya crisis as a “human right challenge” that Myanmar had to tackle as soon as possible to safeguard its democratic transition (ibid). Consequently, the emphasis was not placed on the Rohingya’s suffering, but on the possible jeopardization of Myanmar’s developing democracy (ibid). The implementation of the R2P in Myanmar was therefore subsumed by larger political and economic considerations, particularly the belief that the government was a “necessary partner to bring about a successful political transition in Myanmar” (Smith, 2018, p. 12). As a result, the UN and the EU turned a blind eye in the face of Myanmar’s failure to protect its citizens because they believed that the government would have adjusted its behaviour after further democratisation efforts, thus diluting the need for any R2P-related actions.

Discussion and Conclusion

The Responsibility to Protect was created to halt mass atrocities and prevent the occurrence of humanitarian crises as atrocious as the ones which took place in Kosovo, Somalia and Srebrenica. R2P has subsequently been accepted by the international community – nevertheless, “acceptance” has not translated into the “absorption” of R2P, and it revealed how the absence of a constitutive legal framework “which forces the states to do the right thing” weakened R2P’s efficacy in Myanmar (Hehir, 2017, p. 343). The crimes inflicted on the Rohingya have been described as “a textbook example to ethnic cleansing” (Al Hussein, 2015) and “a slow-burning genocide” (Zarni and Cowley, 2014, p. 681), but the international community has decided to ignore these warning signs by turning a blind eye. While Rosenthal’s (2019) report attributes a “collective responsibility” to the international community for R2P’s failure in Myanmar, China’s unwavering veto in any resolution related to the Rohingya crisis allows pointing an accusing finger at the Asian regional power. China’s behaviour reflects the view of an R2P based on the respect of sovereignty and non-intervention, but it also demonstrates pragmatic realpolitik, a precise predilection for the pursuit of national interest and personal gains.

The deadlock created by the Chinese veto has been further worsened by the Western powers’ economic interest in Myanmar, which has both diminished their willingness to create pressure for the application of R2P, and accentuated R2P’s “inconsistency” problem in the eyes of the world (Paris, 2014, p. 570). Moreover, the absence of strong leadership, which emphasises the non-military aspects of R2P, as well as the international community’s significant policy misjudgements, have further undermined preventive diplomacy efforts in Myanmar. Overall, the West’s biggest mistake consisted in the belief that Myanmar’s government was a necessary piece of the puzzle to end the humanitarian crisis in Rakhine State. For this reason, the government was hardly accepted as a perpetrator.

While R2P’s failure in Myanmar results both from mixed motives and a lack of political will, the biggest obstacle still lies in the UN’s over-dependence on the Security Council’s consensus to undertake any humanitarian action. Given the unlikelihood of China lifting its veto on Myanmar, further research should explore the possibility to apply the “Uniting for Peace” principle in Myanmar’s case. The resolution states that, as a result of the UNSC’s failure to exercise its primary responsibility for the maintenance of international peace and security due to a lack of unanimity, the General Assembly, if supported by half of its members, can take power and make appropriate recommendations for collective measures (U.N. General Assembly res. 377A, 1950). The resolution would de facto enable the UN to overcome the impasse.

While the UN has already failed once in Myanmar, completely mismanaging its humanitarian crisis, the international community has now the chance to redeem itself. What it must do is to find the willingness to use the right tools, the courage to regain public trust, and the strength to reaffirm its foundational pledge of “never again”.


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The human right to be enslaved: how human rights’ coercive liberalism was masked as emancipatory

By Matthew Moore

Matthew Moore is a postgraduate student at London School of Economics and Political Science.

Human rights are portrayed in legislation as universal, inalienable and apolitical, which diverts intellectual discourse from the discussion of its theoretical, normative principles and the bearing this holds on the human rights corpus’ emancipatory potential. Liberalism is defined by its principles, tracing back to Locke, who reasoned that states hold a duty to protect humanity via upholding the principles of “lives, liberties and estates” (Locke,1988, p.180). Vitally, for Locke these principles are ontologically assumed as natural rights, the realisation of which is sufficient for the emancipation of individuals. For something to be emancipatory, it must, akin to what Trotsky noted “increase the power of man over nature and … [abolish] the power of man over man” (Trotsky, 1938). In order to be considered emancipatory, human rights must be demonstrated as liberating to mankind, while simultaneously being free from coercion in its means and ends, the presence of which would negate the former. This is echoed by Marx who considered emancipation to be located in the individual wherein “individual man” must “reabsorb in himself the abstract citizen” and “man recognise and organise his ‘own powers’ as social powers” (Marx, 1843). 

The argument advanced here claims human rights are intrinsically liberal, ontologically and substantively, and that the emancipatory potential of human rights is entirely undermined by this liberalism. The structure is as follows. First, it will be contested that despite academic and legislative claims to the contrary, human rights are intrinsically liberal courtesy of mirroring the Lockean ‘social contract’. Human rights share the liberal ontological assumption of natural rights, and implicitly advocate for liberal substantive principles, namely, property rights (‘estates’), self-determination (‘lives’) and the preservation of free markets, the criteria for individual liberty (‘liberties’). This liberalism is derived from human rights being a project of agency which sets its framework for action within the prevailing order, characterised by these principles, and thus implicitly legitimises and advocates for their reproduction. 

Secondly, the significance of human rights’ liberalism will be grounded in the liberal ontology of natural rights being an invalid justification for human rights’ emancipatory potential, as the claim that liberal human rights are self-evidently emancipatory courtesy of their capacity to uphold humankind’s natural entitlements lacks demonstrability and rests on circular reasoning. Moreover, this failure of natural rights unearths a critical issue, for, in successfully presenting liberal principles as universal values, it allows for the movement to be comprehended under the Marxist lens of cultural hegemony as an ideological tool which reinforces the dominant worldview, making the case that human rights’ liberalism renders it coercive in its implementation, and thereby an obstruction to emancipation.  

Finally, in addition to being coercive in their means, liberal human rights are also coercive in their ends, as the freedoms offered are paradoxical in that labourers are free to present themselves on markets, but the act of selling their labour freely ensures their enslavement to capital. Furthermore, Liberal human rights are bourgeois rights, suffering from viewing emancipation as achieved through non-interference, rather than in our relationships with others. These substantive points, coupled with the intrinsic liberalism of human rights undermines its emancipatory potential entirely because any attempt to enforce bourgeois rights will reproduce the coercive relations of production, aggravating the structural difficulties rather than emancipating individuality. 

Human rights as intrinsically liberal 

Mutua (2007, p.25) highlights that the human rights regime “distort[s] the true identity of the corpus,” which makes pinpointing its principles difficult. For instance, Griffin disputes the claim that human rights are tied to liberalism. Contrarily, he suggests there is one sole theoretical claim in human rights legislation, integrated into the UN in 1966, which claimed that “rights derive from the inherent dignity of the person” (Griffin, 2001, pp.5-6). This provides evidence for human rights’ liberalism because the liberal, ontological assumption of natural rights is akin to this claim about humankind’s inherent dignity, with both ontologically asserting self-evident rights as their justifying basis. However, Griffin underestimates the extent of this theoretical, liberal grounding by overlooking the manifestation of the substantive elements of the Lockean social contract being implicitly embedded in human rights legislation alongside natural rights. 

Beitz (2003, p.26) insists that the UN Declaration’s framers found “the philosophical … arguments difficult, … [and] the framers agreed to disagree about the theoretical foundations of human rights”. Yet, conflating a lack of conscious theoretical grounding with an absence of it is mistaken. Indeed, Beitz simultaneously and unwittingly exhumes this liberalism in his acknowledgement that the Declaration contains “provisions associated with economic rights and self determination” (Beitz, 2003, p.28). Because, the economic rights he refers to are found in Articles 23-25 of the UN Declaration, and are not apolitical, but are rights which assume, as Mutua notes, “the legitimacy of capitalism and free markets” (Mutua, 2007, p.31). This is essential as capitalism is characterised by the principles of the liberal Lockean ‘social contract’. For instance, it upholds the right to private property (‘estates’), access to free markets, which is the Lockean embodiment of individual liberties (‘liberty’), and the right to self-determination (‘lives’), completing the trio, rendering human rights as substantively liberal. 

Moreover, Beitz’s insight holds utility in establishing this liberalism as intrinsic to human rights, for, his claim remains plausible. Indeed, human rights’ liberalism is derived from assuming the parameters of the prevailing order as the framework for action. To illustrate this, by granting human rights within the parameters of the characteristics of the prevailing order, namely capitalism, human rights fall under Cox’s notion of a ‘problem-solving theory’, meaning rights are “value-bound by virtue of the fact [they] implicitly accept the prevailing order as its own framework” (Cox, 1981, p.129). This is significant because it suggests human rights’ liberalism will prevail so long as it assumes the legitimacy of the prevailing order characterised by capitalism. Thus, as opposed to being conscious liberal norms, which therein implies the possibility of altering its liberalism, the underlying assumptions of the Declaration’s economic rights render it intrinsically liberal. Because, by assuming the legitimacy of capitalism, a defining aspect of the prevailing order, and with the capitalist mode of production being one characterised by the Lockean principles of a right to private property (‘estates’) and access to markets, then rights will serve to legitimise and advocate for the preservation of that order, ensuring liberalism is integral to human rights’ furniture. The ontological liberalism of natural rights is also eternal intrinsic to human rights, because, human rights are incapable of defending this substantive liberalism, for, if legislation did, it would concede they are principles rather than rights. 

Hence, human rights are substantively liberal courtesy of its problem-solving methodology, and also in its explicit appeal to the liberal ontology of natural rights as a justifying base. Therefore, in order to cogently frame liberalism as critically undermining the emancipatory potential of human rights, this must be reasoned through a critique of the emancipatory potential of the substantive Lockean principles alongside the ontological justification of natural rights. 

Human rights’ means as coercive liberalism  

The liberal ontology of natural rights implies the emancipatory potential of human rights is self-evident because if natural rights exist, human rights are emancipatory in maintaining the rights which humankind are naturally entitled to. Equally, if the validity of this claim is invalidated, presenting liberal principles as incontestable rights unearths a deceptive element in human rights, facilitating a claim that human rights are coercive in their means, emancipations antonym. 

Donnelly and Griffin assert that human rights “are born out of the rights we have as human beings” (Donnelly, 2007, p.282). However, this assertion is impossible to demonstrate. Kant attempts to add a justification, claiming humankind’s rationality holds intrinsic worth, “realised in the adoption of humanity as an end in itself” which is deserving of respect through natural rights (Kant, 1964, p.96). Yet, it does not follow from humanity’s capacity for rational thought that humankind holds self-evident rights. Kant’s argument is undermined by its fallacious circular reasoning, as he ironically appeals to humankind’s capacity for rationality to justify a set of natural rights, but this justification holds no rational basis, due to a lack of capability to clarify or demonstrate it. However, Dworkin critiques this counter-argument, emphasising that “it does not follow from the fact that a statement cannot be proven that it is not true” (Dworkin, 1976, p.81). Dworkin is correct, an absence of demonstrability cannot be conflated with an absence of existence, but, this distinction holds no academic weight. For, as Macintyre notes, Dworkin’s argument can be applied to justify the existence of “witches and unicorns” (Macintyre, 1980, p.69). Even if one concedes that a natural right or a unicorn could exist, proving it is impossible, which ensures that they are asserted as self-evident by Kant, Locke, Griffin and Donnelly. 

Cohen contended that ‘bullshit’ in academia stems from an argument holding “unclarifiable unclarity,” that is, lacking clarity due to an inability for clarification (Cohen, 2013, p.4). This reliance on self-evidence renders the liberal ontology of natural rights as incapable of justifying the implementation of human rights, due to reliance on self-evidence rendering them a phenomenon that is impossible to clarify or demonstrate, ensuring defences of them are ‘Cohen-bullshit’. The Cohen-bullshit of liberal ontology is debilitating to human rights’ emancipatory potential in two ways. First, it shows human rights are not self-evidently emancipatory due to upholding the liberal natural rights of mankind, with the illegitimacy of this liberal ontology ensuring human rights lack a concrete justification. This forms the basis for our second point, for, utilising the liberal ontology of natural rights “as if it could provide us with a rational criterion is to resort to fiction” (Macintyre, 1981, p.70). This is critically debilitating to the emancipatory potential of human rights when combined with the knowledge that UN Declaration acts “as though such documents are the final truth, [implying] that questioning its doctrine is perverse and unwelcome,” unearthing a distinct purpose to commit Frankfurt-bullshit (Mutua, 2008, p.30). Frankfurt-bullshit is a desire to persuade regardless of the truth, and the process of the human rights regime utilising Cohen-bullshit argumentation as a means of justifying and presenting substantive liberal principles as incontestable morality is Frankfurt-bullshit (Frankfurt, 2005, p.19). This Frankfurt-bullshit excavates human rights as a project concerned with persuasion, rather than truth, allowing for it to be conceived of under the Marxist theories of cultural hegemony and a tool in the reproduction of the ruling ideology, which implies that human rights’ liberalism renders the project’s means as inherently coercive, which is the opposite of emancipation. 

Gramsci’s theory of ‘cultural hegemony’ notes the capability of the ruling class to enforce their worldview as the dominant worldview, under which its participants perceive the dominant ideology, the status quo, as a given, in spite of the fact that the order will be aligned with ruling class interests (Gramsci, 2014, p.506). This force ensures that this dominant ideology is reproduced, catalysing the “interpellat[ion] of individuals as subjects” of ideology (Althusser, 1970, p.188). These theories are applicable to illuminate the coercive implementation of human rights, demonstrating that its liberal embeddedness renders them a hegemonic and ideological tool. Gramsci viewed the state as the force of cultural hegemony, not institutions. But, as Cox notes, institutions are “an expression of hegemony, [but] cannot be taken as identical to hegemony” (Cox, 1981, p.137). 

Evidence of the UN, the human rights project’s legislative embodiment being hegemonic is found in an examination of its policy. When the UN was formed, its stated primary aim was the maintenance of peace. This is consistent with Cox’s claim that “institutions … initially encourage collective images consistent with the power relations… [of] a particular order” (Cox, 1981, p.136). Yet, since the early 1970s, the UN has decreased its budget for peacekeeping relative to an increasingly dominant emphasis on “economic development and cultural exchange” (Meisler, 2011, pp.167-8). This economic development and cultural exchange involves advocating for access to markets and property rights across the globe via policy levers inclusive of multilateral aid and humanitarian interventions. These values are the same liberal principles which were previously demonstrated to be implicitly embedded in the UN Declaration of Human Rights’ economic rights. Hence, advocating for economic development and cultural exchange serves to advocate for the liberal human rights globally. Thus, the UN, the legislative and enforcing entity of the human rights project “become[s] the anchor for hegemonic strategy since they lend themselves to the universalisation of policy” (Cox, 1981, p.137). 

Therefore, the UN does not enforce human rights via the discourse of justifying its substantive liberal free market principles, or a defence of property rights, but through ‘economic development’ which implicitly legitimises and advocates for these substantive liberal principles. In doing so, the UN not only entrenches the ruling ideology but ensures the reproduction of ideology by deceptively presenting these principles of the prevailing order as a given, unearthing the sinister coercion in human rights which is incompatible with its emancipatory vision. 

Human rights can thus be critiqued on the grounds Horkheimer dismissed authoritarianism, for, they attempt to be “commands … [which attempt to] dispossess man of his own conscience” (Horkheimer, 1993, p.86). Because, the implicit advocating of these liberal freedoms and globalised spread of them “become[s] a command to conform to the social order based on commodity exchange, to the legal forms that rule it, the representations that justify it, and the practices they call for” (Bidet, 1970, p.27). This is critically undermining to human rights’ emancipatory potential because the coercive ideological interpellation of individuals is intrinsic to human rights’ adoption. For, the subject of ideology can “enjoy his symptom only as its logic escapes him – the measure of the success of its interpretation is precisely its dissolution” (Zizek, 1989, p.21). In other words, the success of liberal human rights’ implementation hinges on coercion because the concession of rights as principles rather than natural in turn concedes that human rights are principles as opposed to rights.  Contrary to being emancipatory, the liberal principles embedded in human rights ensure its coercion as the regime must necessarily present these liberal values as the incontestable rights of man based on the Cohen-bullshit of the liberal ontology of natural rights.  Liberal human rights which assert the validity of property rights and individual liberties to represent oneself on markets inhibits one the individual liberty to disagree with this form of freedom. Thus, liberalism in human rights is undermined by its implementation, which is, as Gramsci notes, “bureaucra[tic] … crystallization of the leading personnel which exercises coercive power, and at a certain point becomes a caste” (Gramsci, 2014, p.246). 

However, criticism of this reasoning, like Botting, claim that “human rights may be unicorns, but they can fight wicked witches” (Botting, 2016, p.65). This implies that the focus on coercive means overlooks the emancipatory potential in human rights’ outcomes. Moreover, Beitz dismisses natural rights, but upholds their ability for “remedying injustice” (Beitz, 2003, p.38). However, while “a means can be justified only by its end … the end in its turn needs to be justified” (Trotsky, 1938). Thus, the response to these critiques is to counter them by extending the argument, contending that the ‘ends’ of human rights that Beitz and Botting hail are not emancipatory, and that the freedoms offered by liberal economic rights are barriers to human emancipation, rather than the guarantor and embodiment of it. 

Liberalism rendering human rights untenable in its ends 

Charvet and Kaczynska-Nay claim that if granted liberal rights, “human beings…are able to take major decisions for themselves [and] it [is] wrong to subject them to the coercive authority of others” (Charvet and Kaczynska-Nay, 2008, p.317). Yet, human rights are a ‘coercive authority’. To illustrate this, human rights are rights to non-interference, which view emancipation as found in our restraints from one another, rather than in our relationships with others. Marx expands, suggesting “none of the so-called rights of man … go beyond egoistic man; an individual withdrawn into himself, into the confines of his private interests and separated from the community” (Marx, 1844). Indeed, ‘lives, liberties and estates’ are means for pursuing private economic interest, which illuminates a paradox in that for those without capital, these liberal freedoms granted under human rights allow them to sell their labour ‘freely’, but in the process, loses their freedom because, as Zizek illuminates, “the real content of this free act of sale is the worker’s enslavement to capital” (Zizek, 1989, p.21). These liberal rights are bourgeois rights, which reflect the interests of the dominant class, ensuring human rights are exposed as coercive not only in their means, but the freedoms themselves are paradoxically coercive. Indeed, “every ideological universal” including human rights to individual liberty, self-determination and property rights “are false as it necessarily includes a specific case which breaks its unity, lays open its falsity” (Zizek ,1989, p.21). Hence, liberalism’s principles are both integral to human rights and incompatible with emancipation due to its freedoms paradoxically containing barriers to freedom and emancipation.

Charvet counters that those without capital are not enslaved by it because “liberalism protects … the freedom to pursue excellence” (Charvet and Kaczynska-Nay, 2008, p.317). Yet, this claim implies that excellence is achieved through becoming bourgeois, exhuming their faulty definition of emancipation, catalysing further emancipatory issues with liberal human rights. Because, insisting that liberal human rights ensure emancipation through giving citizens aspirations to hold capital assumes the belief that “by abolishing [their] existence as bourgeois, you abolish [their] existence as an individual” (Marx, 1977, p.101). Indeed, for Charvet and Kaczynska-Nay, becoming bourgeois is emancipation’s end, with liberal human rights providing the framework. Therefore, they believe themselves to be “an individual only insofar as he is bourgeois” (Marx, 1977, p.101). By hailing liberal, bourgeois rights to property, individual liberty and self-determination as the embodiment of individuality, Charvet and Kaczynska-Nay tacitly deploy the ontology of natural rights refuted earlier, and consequently, hold no rational justification. Indeed, this identification of private property as the abstract embodiment of the emancipation of individuality, neglects that it is Lockean principles are, as Marx notes, “social relation[s] corresponding to a definite stage of production,” namely capitalism, and could only be considered individual “so long as they have not become fetters of the existing productive forces” (Marx, 1977, p.102).

Moreover, to emphasise this critique whilst accentuating human rights’ liberal freedoms as coercive, Charvet and Kaczynska-Nay neglect that the coercive enslavement to capital is not constrained to workers, but also encompasses the bourgeoisie due to the competitive nature of capitalist markets ensuring “most of the surplus value squeezed out of the workers is not consumed … [but] is reinvested in further production” (Callinicos, 2012, p.127). The bourgeoisie are enslaved into a cycle of continuous production of capital accumulation for its own sake, becoming cogs in the reproduction of the capitalist relations of production, yet Charvet and Kaczynska-Nay hold this as the pinnacle of excellence obtainable through liberal freedoms. Hence, human rights’ liberalism does not lead to emancipatory ends for either bourgeois or proletarians, and therefore cannot reward excellence. 

Hence, the final task is to demonstrate that the above ensures liberalism renders human rights entirely incapable of emancipation, a contention subject to criticism by defenders and critics of rights alike. Kolakowski criticises the employment of Marx to disregard human rights’ capacity for emancipation, arguing that “although Marx despised bourgeois rights, he never argued it did not matter whether those rights were valid in bourgeois society” (Kolakowski, 1983, p.85). Yet, bourgeois rights can only be defended within bourgeois society if two assumptions are held. First, that bourgeois rights, despite their flaws, improve the livelihoods of citizens within bourgeois society. Second, one must also assume the presence of bourgeois rights does not act as a barrier to greater emancipation. Yet, Marx proclaimed that “in reality it is a question of revolutionizing the existing world, of practically attacking and changing existing things” (Marx, 1977, p.62). Thus, if Kolakowski’s reading of Marx is correct, Marx was contradicting his own aims, overlooking bourgeois rights as the antithesis to revolutionary, emancipatory change. 

The presence of bourgeois rights which improve lives in bourgeois society, simultaneously act to ensure that bourgeois society is maintained and legitimised, rendering human rights untenable as an emancipatory project to an absolute extent. Mutua, whilst recognising the limitations of human rights’ liberalism, objects, claiming this view is “an abdication [which] … seek[s] to paralyze ourselves intellectually, so we have a rational excuse for doing nothing … this is cowardly [and] nihilistic” (Mutua, 2007, p.19). Yet, Mutua does not justify that this nihilism is misdirected, and suffers from a phenomena Horkheimer noted of the “self-imposed obligation to arrive at a cheerful conclusion … [and] effort to meet this obligation is one reason why a positive conclusion is impossible” (Horkheimer, 1993, p.87). Because, reconstructionist arguments like Mutua’s insist on trying to remedy the symptoms of the disease in the short run, proposing that African countries require “direct foreign investment, aid, and better trade terms” but in the process, Mutua’s proposals reinforce the liberal principles of human rights and serve to aggravate the structural issues (Mutua, 2008, p.37). Mutua is ‘utopian’ because reconstructionists strive for a society which operates “without the point of exception functioning as its internal negation” (Zizek, 1989, p.23). While one can sympathise with human rights’ utility in improving lives in bourgeois society, this cannot be conflated with being emancipatory. Because, these rights, to quote Wilde, are akin to “slave-owners … who were kind to their slaves, and so prevented the horror of the system being realised by those who suffered from it, and understood by those who contemplated it” (Wilde, 1891). 

As clarified earlier, if the end of human rights is to justify as emancipatory to any extent it must, as Trotsky notes, “increase the power of man over nature and … [abolish] the power of man over man” (Trotsky, 1938). Due to its liberalism, human rights fail to this end. While they hold a capacity to dilute problems of the structural issue, they remain a barrier to emancipation courtesy of reinforcing its liberalism, and the coercive practices and paradoxical freedoms it offers – an issue which can only be sufficiently overcome by abandoning the project by reconfiguring the world order. This sounds utopian, but in a different manner to Mutua, because the analysis suggests this is the only sufficient solution, having demonstrated the incompatibility of human rights’ intrinsic liberalism with achieving emancipatory ends. In the human rights projects’ attempts to partially alleviate the issues derived from the paradoxical liberal freedoms offered by it, those liberal, paradoxical freedoms continue to be legitimised and reinforced, ensuring liberalism entirely undermines the emancipatory potential of human rights.


Human rights are intrinsically liberal, substantively and ontologically, and this liberalism entirely undermines the emancipatory potential of human rights. First, it was demonstrated that human rights are liberal as they share the ontological assumption of natural rights and implicitly advocate for the substantive Lockean principles of ‘lives, liberties and estates’ courtesy of its problem-solving methodology which assumes the legitimacy of the prevailing order characterised by a capitalism as the framework for action. This rendered its liberal features as eternal to the corpus’ identity. 

Secondly, it was established that the human rights regime’s justificatory base is reliant on a defence of the liberal ontology of natural rights, a phenomenon which was categorised as Cohen-bullshit due to lack of demonstrability and clarity. This demonstrated that the human rights regime’s liberalism renders it incapable of rationally justifying its emancipatory capabilities. Moreover, this Cohen-bullshit base was demonstrated to hold a distinct purpose to present liberal principles as incontestable morality which unearthed a deception in human rights’ implementation which allowed for it to be conceptualised under Gramsci’s notion of cultural hegemony and Althusser’s ideological apparatus. Thereby, it was demonstrated that human rights’ liberalism renders it a coercive project in its means which interpellates individuals into subjects of ideology, which cannot be defined as emancipatory. 

Finally, this was accentuated by arguing that the Lockean liberal principles in human rights hold a misguided conception of emancipation, viewing emancipation as found in our restraints from one another by enforcing non-interference, rather than in our relations with others. Furthermore, in addition to the aforementioned coercion in its means, the liberal principles of ‘lives, liberties and estates’ are also  coercive in their ends because of the paradoxical freedoms it offers through individual liberty and property rights, which come into antagonistic conflict with the capitalist mode of production by seeking universality without its internal negation. This ensures that the free act of selling labour removes freedom through enslavement to capital. Thus, the emancipatory potential of rights is entirely undermined by its liberalism, because enforcing these bourgeois, economic rights will reproduce these coercive relations of production, exacerbating the structural issues rather than emancipating individuals from them. 


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R2P then and now: A conversation with Professor Gareth Evans about gross human rights violations in a changing global environment

Interview by Charlotte Abbott

Responsibility to Protect Student Journal Editorial Team

The Responsibility to Protect (R2P) concept was first outlined in 2001 with the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS) Report, authored by Professor Gareth Evans and Mohamed Sahnoun. In 2005 Governments unanimously agreed that they have a responsibility to protect populations from four crimes: genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes and ethnic cleansing. Fifteen years on from the adoption of R2P, we spoke with Professor Gareth Evans regarding his involvement in the creation of R2P, and the global factors which have influenced it since 2005. We touched on topics such as the legacy of colonialism, changing power dynamics between States and corporations and the US presidential election.

Moral versus legal obligations

In your recent European Centre for the Responsibility to Protect (ECR2P) Lecture [based on your GCR2P blog piece] titled ‘R2P: The Dream and the Reality’, you suggest that R2P is centred around creating a ‘compelling new sense of moral and political obligation’, as opposed to creating new legal rules. If so, how do we then enforce differing moral and political obligations if these are not embedded in international law?

Being embedded in international law, treaty or customary, does not guarantee effective enforcement: that is international law’s eternal problem. What matters is the political will to enforce the relevant norms, and that has always been R2P’s objective. That applies both in respect of (a) the important international human rights and humanitarian law obligations that do already inhibit states’ treatment of their own citizens or wartime behaviour and which are R2P relevant, and (b) those obligations under Pillars Two and Three of R2P which are not presently (some limited obligations under the Genocide Convention apart) at all cast in legal terms although hopefully they will ultimately evolve, through practical acceptance in years to come, as customary international law. What is abundantly clear is that any attempt to negotiate an R2P treaty would have gone nowhere in 2005 – and has no better prospects now, not least given the attitude of the US Senate to treaty ratification even under adult presidential administrations. Achieving effective implementation of R2P in all its dimensions is overwhelmingly a matter for political, not legal, advocacy and action.

The International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty

The initial International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS) report lacked attention on gender, climate change, business and human rights. Were the ICISS report to be written now, would you include these topics in relation to the prevention of gross human rights violations? What else would you focus on?

No. I would write it as it now is. Without the narrow focus on the ‘four crimes’ in 2005 R2P would have had no chance of being embraced by the World Summit. Of course rape and gender-related crimes are often at the heart of the worst mass atrocity crimes; business can be centrally involved in both abetting and preventing such crimes; and CO2 reduction is an absolutely critical existential issue for the planet. But we don’t help the R2P cause at all by diluting its focus to extend to other public goods issues, whether related or unrelated and whatever their merit. See further my answer to your last question below.

The ICISS report was drafted before the war on terror. In what ways has the war on terror affected R2P implementation? How have R2P and counter-terrorism interacted given their different conceptions of security (human centred for R2P and state-centered for counter-terrorism)?

Counter-terrorism and R2P strategies are conceptually distinct but complementary, in the sense that R2P-atrocity crimes are often perpetrated by terrorist organisations. (R2P is similarly conceptually distinct but complementary to the United Nations ‘Protection of Civilians’ agenda – the latter being concerned with a broader range of protection issues than just atrocity crimes, and only in a wartime/conflict environment.) The main impact of the ‘war on terror’ on R2P was the way in which 9/11 in 2001, just before the ICISS report was published, moved terrorism to centre stage in international security policy discourse, after a decade in which the big debate was about ‘humanitarian intervention’. It remains something of a miracle that we were able to keep enough focus on the broader issue of mass atrocity crimes to win through as we did at the 2005 World Summit.

The development of R2P

Would you agree that the discourse of colonialism continues to affect the way in which R2P operates, in a practical sense? If so, how and why?

Colonialism discourse had a very strong negative impact on Western attempts to gain traction for the ‘right of humanitarian intervention’ in the 1990s. One of the great breakthroughs of ICISS was to change the underlying basis of that discourse by reconceptualising ‘right’ as ‘responsibility’ and ‘intervention’ as ‘protection’. The measure of our success was the unanimity of the 2005 resolution with the states of sub-Saharan Africa, every last one of them passionately anti-colonialist, playing an absolutely crucial supporting role. That dynamic has largely continued, with some states – like Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela – regularly trying to play a spoiling colonialism card, but gaining little traction in UN General Assembly debates and elsewhere for their efforts: the basic elements of the R2P norm are still pretty much universally accepted.

The continuing fallout from the Permanent Three’s overreach in Libya in 2011, which enraged the BRICS countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) in particular, continues to inhibit consensus in the Security Council, and that has a whiff of anti-colonialist/imperialist sentiment about it – ‘these guys are never to be trusted’ –but this dispute has always been more about general geopolitics than anti-colonialism as such.

As Multinational Corporations (MNCs) are becoming increasingly wealthy and powerful, should the R2P be applied to MNCs as well as states (see the case of Uighur Muslims forced labour in Chinese and international MNCs and Facebook’s contribution to the spread of hate speech in Myanmar against the Rohingya)?

Non-state actors, including multinational corporations and terrorist and militia groups, have always been important players in an R2P context. Curbing their behaviour or – in the case of businesses – enlisting their support will often need to be addressed in crafting R2P preventive, reactive and peacebuilding strategies at both national and intergovernmental levels.

Before the US election, you argued that Trump vs Biden’s approach to the COVID-19 crisis would either ‘accelerate defensive nationalism and mistrust of international institutions and processes, or serve rather as a giant wake-up call as to the absolute necessity of effective international cooperation’. In light of Joe Biden’s election, where do you see international commitment to the ‘responsibility to protect’ heading in the next years, and in a ‘post-Covid’ world?

The Biden administration will be genuinely committed to both human rights protection and cooperative multilateralism, and as such I look forward to a renewed commitment by the US to the key elements of the R2P agenda – and certainly to the values which underlie it, and for that to be influential in underpinning wider international support for R2P. There will probably still be over-caution – which I found incredibly frustrating under the Obama administration – about publicly embracing R2P in a domestic, as distinct from UN context (because it implied commitment to certain courses of action, and Washington, whoever is in power, likes to be seen by domestic critics as absolutely unconstrained in keeping all its options open). And there will certainly be extreme resistance – in the prevailing domestic political environment – to rushing into new foreign military adventures. But I don’t think a Biden presidency would just wash its hands should another Rwandan or Bosnian genocide situation erupt on its watch. Syrian type cases – not to mention cases like Xinjiang’s Uighurs – will be much harder, but they always are.

Advice for young scholars and practitioners

What advice do you have for young scholars and practitioners who are interested in working in the field of atrocity prevention/responses to gross human rights violations?

I have spelt this out, in the context of international careers generally, at considerable length in an article for The Conversation. In short, acquire the right professional skills; do your best to acquire relevant experience, through internships in relevant organisations and as much adventurous travel as you can, Covid permitting; give trust to luck; and stay optimistic. It really is crucial that the next generation of scholars and practitioners – those with a serious practical policy, not just theoretical, bent – carry on the fight for effective implementation of R2P in all its dimensions. The task is not just to analyse the world’s behaviour, but to change it. Go for it!

We’d like to end this interview with a question, but this time you’re the one asking it. When it comes to R2P today, what question do you find to be most important? What do you find is the most redundant?

The question I continue to find most unhelpful is the kind originally asked me by the Canadian Foreign Minister Lloyd Axworthy, who initiated the ICISS Commission, and which has been repeated in endless variants in different settings (including this interview request!) since: ‘R2P is such a beautiful idea: why shouldn’t we talk about a ‘responsibility to protect’ the Inuit people of the Arctic Circle from the ravages of climate change?’

The point is that any concept which is about everything ends up being about nothing, certainly when it comes to effective operational implementation. ‘Human security’ – though making the valuable point that individuals count as much as states – has suffered that fate. R2P was designed above all else with an operational objective: to energise effective international responses to mass atrocity crimes, threatened or occurring, behind sovereign state borders: if you make it about lots of other (unquestionably valuable) causes, you completely lose any such traction.

The most important continuing question for me is ‘How do we recreate effective consensus on the UN Security Council when it comes to responding to the most extreme mass atrocity crime cases?’.

Plenty will say that comes down the list, and that the whole present advocacy focus should be on prevention rather than reaction because if the former is effective the latter is redundant. Apart from the practical reply that achieving preventive perfection is unhappily still a distant aspiration, effective reaction to the really hard cases – the Cambodias and Rwandas and Bosnias – is where R2P’s credibility, and longevity, really stands or falls. Get unanimity on these issues in the world’s most important security forum and everything else falls into place; fail, and the cynics and sceptics will continue to gnaw away at the very concept of R2P and its utility in every other context.