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 Responsibility to Protect, An Established Norm in International Relations? Misapplication in Myanmar, Application in Libya and Non-Application in Syria

Julia Smith, London School of Economics and Political Science, UK

Julia Smith is a current MSc student at the London School of Economics and Political Science, where she studies Gender, Media and Culture. She previously graduated from the University of Leeds with a BA in International Relations.


R2P is often described as a ‘norm’, but there is considerable disagreement about what kind of norm it constitutes. This paper analyses the normative status of R2P and suggests that the contestation and inconsistency that continue to plague R2P make it difficult to argue that it is an established norm in international relations, as this implies a degree of stability and permanency. However, the paper also challenges the idea that international norms can ever become established in this way, as this is based on a false expectation of linear normative development. It suggests that instead of progressing in a unidirectional way towards universal establishment, norms are never stable and are constant ‘works-in-progress’ that are continually contested and transformed through practice and by a range of actors. The paper uses the examples of R2P’s misapplication in Myanmar in 2008, controversial application in Libya in 2011 and non-application in Syria since 2011 to demonstrate this. These examples highlight how contestation surrounding R2P has led to valuable feedback in the form of initiatives such as Responsible Protection, Responsibility While Protecting, The Responsibility Not to Veto and the Uniting for Peace Resolution. The engagement of a wide range of global actors in challenging and transforming R2P through these initiatives is ultimately beneficial for the legitimacy and the evolution of the norm.


The UN’s failure to respond to the Rwandan genocide in 1994 was one of many cases that highlighted the inability of the international community’s existing framework to effectively respond to mass atrocities (Thakur, 2016). In 2000, then UN Secretary General Kofi Annan challenged member states, asking ‘if humanitarian intervention is, indeed, an unacceptable assault on sovereignty, how should we respond to a Rwanda, to a Srebrenica – to gross and systematic violations of human rights that affect every precept of our common humanity?’ (Annan, 2000, p.48). The International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS) was founded shortly after to address this dilemma and their 2001 report first introduced the concept of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P). The 90-page report was later condensed into 3 paragraphs and endorsed by all UN member states in the 2005 World Summit Outcome Document.

R2P reconceptualised sovereignty as a responsibility, stating that the primary responsibility for the protection of populations lies with the state, but in instances where a population is suffering grave harm in the form of genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity or ethnic cleansing, and the state is unwilling or unable to avoid it, the principle of non-intervention is replaced by the responsibility to protect (ICISS, 2001). When a state is ‘manifestly failing’ to protect its population, it becomes the responsibility of the international community to first assist the state in meeting its responsibilities and, when necessary, to intervene without consent from the state (Ban, 2009, p.1). R2P reframed the controversial principle of humanitarian intervention by shifting focus from the rights of intervening states to the rights of populations and was thus proposed as the answer ‘to reconciling the neuralgic rejection of humanitarian intervention by the global South with the determination by the North to end atrocities’ (Thakur, 2016, p.417).

R2P is often described as a ‘norm’, defined as a ‘collective understanding of the proper behaviour of actors’ (Legro, 1997, p.33). Norms have both regulative and constitutive effects, as they both regulate state behaviour by setting a standard of appropriateness, but also shape state identities and interests (Labonte, 2016; Glanville, 2016). Though most scholars recognise R2P as a norm, there is much less consensus about what kind of norm it constitutes. Whilst Bellamy argues it is an ‘established’ norm, many scholars point to the significant contestation surrounding R2P, as well as its inconsistent application, to suggest it is still an ‘emerging’ norm (Bellamy, 2015; Serrano, 2011; Junk, 2016). Others have pointed to the reluctance of the international community to intervene in mass atrocities post-Libya as evidence that R2P is ‘a norm in decline’, or worse, already ‘dead’ (Voordewind, 2017, p.1; Newton, 2013; Reiff, 2011).

This paper suggests that the contestation and inconsistency that continue to plague R2P make it difficult to argue that it is an established norm in international relations, as this implies a degree of stability and permanency. However, the idea that R2P can become established in this way is predicated on a false expectation of linear normative development, based on Finnemore and Sikkink’s norm life cycle model (Finnemore and Sikkink, 1998). My understanding of normative development is instead informed by scholars such as Krook, True and Acharya, who suggest that instead of progressing in a unidirectional way towards establishment, norms are never stable but are ‘works-in-progress’ that are constantly contested and transformed through practice and by a range of actors (Krook and True, 2010; Acharya, 2013). Examples of R2P’s misapplication in Myanmar in 2008, controversial application in Libya in 2011 and non-application in Syria since 2011, demonstrate this argument clearly. R2P’s misapplication in Myanmar prompted ‘conceptual clarification’ about the scope and applicability of R2P, whilst R2P’s controversial application in Libya and non-application in Syria have led to significant proposals such as Responsibility While Protecting and Responsible Protection and have reignited debates about The Responsibility Not to Veto and the Uniting for Peace Resolution, all of which are valuable contributions to R2P’s normative evolution (Badescu and Weiss, 2010, p.355). Instead of showing R2P to be clearly established or not established, these cases demonstrate how ‘norms are subject to ongoing attempts to reconstitute their meanings, even as they exert effects on patterns of social behaviour’ (Krook and True, 2010, p.109).

R2P: Established Norm or Not? 

Much of the discourse surrounding the normative status of R2P is influenced by Finnemore and Sikkink’s norm life cycle theory, which suggests that norms pass through three stages (Finnemore and Sikkink, 1998). The first stage is ‘norm emergence’ where norms are promoted by ‘norm entrepreneurs’. Then the norm reaches a ‘tipping point’ and enters the ‘norm cascade’ stage, when a ‘critical mass’ of at least one third of all states adopts the norm, including ‘the most critical states’, without whom the success of the norm is jeopardised. Following ‘norm cascade’, norms enter the final stage of ‘norm internalisation’ where they achieve ‘a taken-for-granted quality’, are no longer subject to debate, and could be described as ‘established’ (Finnemore and Sikkink, 1998, p.895-901). Applying this theory to R2P, it might seem reasonable to conclude that it has successfully passed through the stages of ‘norm emergence’ and ‘norm cascade’. The work of norm entrepreneurs such as Gareth Evans, Ramesh Thakur, Edward Luck and Kofi Annan successfully lead to its unanimous adoption by all UN member states in 2005 (Labonte, 2016). Since then, the UN Security Council (UNSC) has referred to R2P in 69 of its resolutions (Global Centre for R2P, 2018). There has also been some domestic institutionalisation of R2P. In 2010, the R2P Focal Points Initiative was launched and 59 countries from across the globe have now appointed a senior level official to be responsible for the domestic promotion of R2P (Weiss, 2011). Moreover, the EU and 49 other states have joined the organisation Group of Friends of the R2P, reaffirming their commitment to the norm (Hehir, 2017). Thus, R2P has been adopted by a majority of the world’s states, including those ‘most critical’, suggesting it has successfully cascaded throughout the international system.

However, Shawki suggests that this would be an inaccurate conclusion; although R2P has been officially endorsed by UN member states, it remains highly contested and controversial (Shawki, 2011). This indicates that the norm is still being shaped and is still in the initial stage of ‘norm emergence’ (Shawki, 2011). Labonte argues that R2P should be understood as a collection of norms rather than a single norm, and whilst pillar one relating to a state’s primary responsibilities to protect its population is established and has reached the final stage of norm internalisation, pillars two and three regarding the international community’s responsibility remain to be contested and are not yet at the tipping point (Labonte, 2016). The UNSC resolutions lend support to this argument, as most have only reminded states of their pillar one responsibilities and have rarely acknowledged the existence of pillar three (Hehir, 2017). This has lead Hehir to question whether R2P represents genuine progress, as pillar one is essentially a reaffirmation of pre-existing human rights norms and international law (Hehir, 2017). Reinhold further suggests that R2P cannot even be considered an ‘emerging norm’ because the majority of states do not recognise their pillar two and three responsibilities to protect foreign populations, which are crucial elements of R2P (Reinhold, 2010, p.55). However, Reinhold later contradicts this argument by suggesting that if she were to adopt Finnemore and Sikkink’s life cycle theory, she would locate R2P in the second stage of ‘norm cascade’ (Reinhold, 2010, p.74).

This divergence in academic opinion suggests R2P does not obviously fit into one stage of the norm life cycle theory. As Ercan suggests, this linear model ‘falls short as a tool in explaining the transformation that R2P has gone through’ (Ercan, 2014, p.37). Firstly, it suggests that contestation signifies that a norm is still in the initial stage of norm emergence, ignoring how norms continue to be contested and transformed through practice, whilst exerting effects on behaviour. Norms are ‘works-in-progress’ that will never be ‘finished products’ that are fully established and stable (Krook and True, 2010, p.104). As Krook and True suggest, ‘the ongoing potential for contestation means, in turn, that co-option, drift, accretion and reversal of a norm – including disputes over whether it is a norm at all – are all constant possibilities’ (Krook and True, 2010, p.104). R2P is especially vulnerable to contestation ‘because of its inherently indeterminate nature’ (Welsh, 2013, p.386). The R2P developed by the ICISS in the 2001 report is different from the R2P ‘lite’ endorsed by the UN, which has resulted in different expectations about when and how the norm should be applied (Shawki, 2011). Furthermore, the 2005 World Summit Outcome Document was deliberately vague, as ‘excess precision’ not only prevents the necessary consensus for the signing of international agreements, but also inhibits ‘possibilities for incremental adjustment necessary to sustain consensus’ (Wiener, 2004; Glanville, 2016, p.188).

Another fundamental flaw of the norm life cycle theory is highlighted in the criticism that ‘R2P represents a failure of the West to impose new global norms’ (McCormack, 2010, p.69). Norm life cycle theory assumes that norms diffuse in a unidirectional way from norm entrepreneurs to the international system, or from the West to the Rest. Acharya’s concept of norm circulation instead explains how norms undergo a ‘multiple-agency, two-way, multi-step process of norm diffusion, based on resistance, feedback and repatriation’ (Acharya, 2013, p.47). New international norms do not exist in a ‘vacuum’ but rather ‘inhabit a highly competitive landscape’ and must compete and fit with other norms, beliefs and practices (Florini, 1999, p.376; Labonte, 2016, p.135). Instead of passively accepting a norm, local actors engage in ‘norm localisation’ and ‘norm subsidiarity’ (Acharya, 2013, p.469). They adapt external norms and reconstitute them to fit better with pre-existing local beliefs and practices, whilst also altering local practices in accordance with the new norm (norm localisation). Local feedback is then ‘repatriated’ back into the international realm, which reshapes but also strengthens the international norm (norm subsidiarity). Norms are never established because they are constantly contested and transformed through their application in different locations and contexts. This contestation and feedback is a form of agency and can work to strengthen a norm’s legitimacy, as international norms are more likely to be accepted if a wider range of actors have contributed to their creation and diffusion (Acharya, 2013, p.466-469).

In summary, the idea that a norm such as R2P can become ‘established’ is based on Finnemore and Sikkink’s norm life cycle model that is insufficient in explaining the development of R2P. My understanding of norm development is instead informed by scholars such as Krook, True and Acharya, who understand norms as ‘works-in-progress’ that are continually contested and transformed through practice and by a range of actors (Krook and True, 2010; Acharya, 2013). Thus, norms such as R2P can never be stable, static or fully established. The following examples of Myanmar (2008), Libya (2011) and Syria (2011- present) demonstrate how R2P’s misapplication, controversial application, and non-application have all provoked valuable contestation and feedback that have reconstituted the norm and contributed to its normative evolution.

Misapplication in Myanmar 

Cyclone Nargis in May 2008 was the worst natural disaster to date in Myanmar and left 140,000 dead and up to 2 million seriously affected (Junk, 2016, p.80). The Myanmar government were neither willing nor able to manage the crisis and both refused visas to international staff and blocked the entrance of foreign aid (Junk, 2016). This sparked discussions over whether natural disasters or the deliberate obstruction of international relief justified an R2P response (Reinhold, 2010). French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner argued that the situation indicated the ‘manifest failure’ of the Myanmar government to protect its population (Junk, 2016, p.82). He advocated for the activation of R2P and a UNSC resolution that would force the government to accept international aid. Ramesh Thakur pointed out that ‘overwhelming natural or environmental catastrophes’ were included in the ICISS report as possible grounds for an R2P response in instances where a state was refusing aid or demonstrating an inability or unwillingness to manage the situation (Thakur 2008 cited in Junk, 2016, p.83). Furthermore, ICISS co-chair Gareth Evans suggested ‘there is at least a prima facie case to answer’ for the ‘intransigence’ of the Myanmar government ‘being a crime against humanity – of a kind which would attract the responsibility to protect principle’ (Evans, 2008).

However, Kouchner’s proposal was overwhelmingly met with opposition from states and R2P advocates. Edward Luck, then Special Advisor to the UN Secretary General on R2P, suggested that invoking R2P in Myanmar was a ‘misapplication’ of the norm, as the 2005 World Summit Outcome Document, which was what the international community agreed to, focused specifically on genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes and ethnic cleansing (Hilpold, 2015). Luck stated ‘there is no agreement among Member States on applying [R2P] to other situations, no matter how disturbing and regrettable the circumstances’ (Luck 2008 cited in Hilpold, 2015, p.49). Western governments mostly supported increased international pressure, but did not support the activation of R2P, whilst Russia, China and South Africa vehemently opposed Kouchner’s proposal, regarding it as an unwelcome attempt to expand R2P beyond the limits agreed to in 2005 (Junk, 2016).

Disagreements surrounding the invocation of R2P in Myanmar demonstrated the significant lack of consensus about the scope and applicability of R2P, even after its endorsement and institutionalisation. Reinhold states that the Myanmar case has ‘thrown into sharp relief the international consensus on R2P’, further suggesting ‘in light of such dissent […] R2P cannot be considered a “new norm” or an “emerging norm” because there remain to be significant misunderstandings about what it actually is’ (Reinhold, 2010, p.57). However, this argument is based on the expectation that once norms have ‘emerged’ they are free from such contestation. Instead, contestation must be seen as ‘part and parcel of normative evolution’ and can, perhaps counterintuitively, advance the development of a norm (Welsh, 2013, p.395). Scholars such as Badescu and Weiss have argued that misapplications can advance norms by providing ‘conceptual clarification’ (Badescu and Weiss, 2010, p.355). They explain that ‘in objecting to abuses, other actors are obliged to specify principles and clarify situations […] and so, mistakes and abuses can play a role in furthering norms and even in reinforcing their salience when strong voices thoughtfully and persuasively contest misrepresentations’ (Badescu and Weiss, 2010, p.361). The misapplication of R2P in Myanmar forced the international community into clarifying when R2P can and should be applied. The Myanmar debate had the effect of returning R2P ‘to its roots’ by ‘re-centring’ the norm on its original objectives of preventing and responding to genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes and ethnic cleansing (Junk, 2016, p.78).

Application in Libya 

On 17th March 2011, the UNSC adopted Resolution 1973 authorising ‘all necessary means […] to protect civilians and civilian populated areas under threat of attack’ in Libya in response to mass atrocities and threats of further atrocities by the Gaddafi regime (Loiselle, 2013, p.328). This was an unprecedented move and marked the first time in history that the UN had authorised an intervention without consent from the state. Ban Ki-moon commended the UNSC for its ‘historic decision’ stating it ‘affirms, clearly and unequivocally, the international community’s determination to fulfil its responsibility to protect civilians from violence perpetrated upon them by their own government’ and marked a ‘coming of age’ for the R2P norm (Ban, 2011 cited in Tocci, 2016, p.52). For Evans, the Libyan case was ‘at least at the outset, a textbook case of the R2P norm working exactly as it was supposed to’ (Evans, 2011, p.40). Despite the intervention garnering initial support, there have been huge divisions over R2P’s implementation in Libya. Though the resolution permitted ‘all necessary means’, many states, particularly the BRICS, did not interpret this to mean regime change and thought NATO had misappropriated R2P and acted beyond its mandate (Paris, 2014; Stepanova, 2016). The Libyan situation ultimately confirmed their longstanding suspicions that R2P could be used by Western powers to pursue their own strategic objectives. Furthermore, the fallout from Libya created a power vacuum, which has led to civil war, the rise of extremist groups and the destabilisation of North Africa (Kuperman, 2015).

The controversial application of R2P in Libya has led some scholars to suggest that future interventions are unlikely to get UNSC approval and thus R2P is a ‘norm in decline’ (Morris, 2013; Voordewind, 2017, p.1). However, as Welsh at the time suggested, if Libya can further discussions surrounding pillar three, ‘then it truly will have advanced the international community’s understanding and implementation of the responsibility to protect’ (Welsh, 2011, p.261). It certainly has contributed to such discussions and resulted in valuable feedback, most notably in the form of Brazil’s ‘Responsibility While Protecting’ (RWP) and China’s ‘Responsible Protection’ (RP). The theme of both proposals is that R2P in its present form is susceptible to abuse and offers an excuse for Western interventionism (Garwood-Gowers, 2016). Both ideas focus on pillar three and are inspired by aspects of the 2001 ICISS report that were omitted from the 2005 agreement, such as the ‘code of conduct’ for intervention, which emphasised criteria such as just cause, right intention, last resort, proportional means and reasonable chance of success, as well as the responsibility to rebuild after intervening (ICISS, 2001). RWP has four main recommendations for post-Libya applications of R2P. It emphasises the need to exhaust all non-military options first, to ensure that the use of force is legal and mandated by the UN, that intervention produces the least amount of violence and instability possible and is proportional, so that more lives are saved than cost (Paris, 2014, p.589). It also recommends that the UNSC develops enhanced measures to ‘monitor and assess the manner in which the resolution is interpreted and implemented’ (Paris, 2014, p.589).

Similarly, China’s ‘Responsible Protection’ was first proposed by Ruan Zongze, vice president of the China Institute for International Affairs in 2012 and was later expanded on at a conference in Beijing where representatives from other states were invited to discuss the concept (Stuenkel, 2015; Garwood-Gowers, 2016). RP’s six main principles draw heavily from RWP. It suggests that the aim of any intervention must be to protect innocent people and those intervening must remain impartial, that the UNSC is the only legitimate actor to initiate R2P type protection, that all diplomatic means must be exhausted before a military intervention, that the purposes of protection must be to mitigate human catastrophe rather than overthrow governments, that the protectors must be responsible for post intervention rebuilding and that the UN must establish ‘mechanisms of supervision, outcome evaluation and post factum accountability’ (Garwood-Gowers, 2016, p.103-109). As Garwood-Gowers states, ‘RP continues RWP’s push towards “fleshing out” the normative content of what is currently a largely indeterminate third pillar’ (Garwood-Gowers, 2016, p.93). RWP and RP demonstrate that Brazil and China recognise R2P as a norm worth engaging in and, perhaps even more importantly, they indicate that both states acknowledge that military intervention for humanitarian purposes is, under particular circumstances, justified (Kenkel and De Rosa, 2015; Garwood-Gowers, 2016). Furthermore, RWP and RP demonstrate that R2P has not simply diffused from the West to the Rest. These initiatives are valuable Brazilian and Chinese contributions to the normative conversation on R2P and the engagement of these powers will ultimately enhance the norm’s legitimacy.

Non-application in Syria 

Several scholars have argued that the inability of the international community to effectively respond to mass atrocities in Syria represents the ‘death’ of R2P (Newton, 2013; Reiff, 2011). Over 500,000 Syrians are estimated to have died during the conflict that began with the government crackdown on civil unrest in 2011 (Graham-Harrison, 2017). In addition to those who have died, there are now approximately 5.6 million refugees, 6.1 million IDPs and 13 million people inside Syria requiring humanitarian assistance (UN News, 2018). The UN has been in deadlock due to members of the P5, Russia and China, repeatedly using their veto on UNSC proposals. The UNSC has seen numerous resolutions fail in Syria and those that have passed have been limited to humanitarian aid and investigations into chemical weapon use, and have not been effective neither in ending the civil war nor ensuring the protection of civilians. Clearly, both the Syrian government and the international community have fallen short of their responsibilities to protect the Syrian people from mass atrocities (Hehir, 2017, p.340).

Welsh argues that ‘inconsistency is built into the very fabric of R2P’ because it recommends that the international community act on a ‘case-by-case basis’ (Welsh, 2013, p.388). Thus, R2P can be best understood as a ‘responsibility to consider’ (Welsh, 2013, p.367). R2P does not condone military intervention in all cases and the 2001 ICISS report’s ‘code of conduct’ insists that any intervention must be minimal in terms of its scale, duration and intensity, must solve more problems than it creates and must have a reasonable chance of success (ICISS, 2001). Seeing as military intervention is unlikely to be effective or simple in as complex and multifaceted crisis as Syria, the lack of military intervention does not represent a violation of the norm (Glanville, 2016). However, military intervention is not the only way states can fulfil their responsibilities. Ralph and Souter suggest that with regards to Syria, the responsibility to protect is being fulfilled by states such as Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt and Iraq, that have taken almost 4 million refugees between them, arguing ‘R2P is not entirely failing’ in Syria ‘but the world is relying on five states to uphold it’ (Ralph and Souter, 2015, p.69). Out of the stronger states with a greater capacity to help, only Germany has been meeting its responsibilities. It is obvious that the wider international community has failed to do everything in its power, short of military intervention, to protect the Syrian population and so, in this instance, has violated R2P.

Though the Syrian case undermines Bellamy’s assertion that R2P is an established norm ‘utilised almost habitually’, it does not represent the ‘death’ of R2P (Bellamy, 2015, p.161; Panke and Petersohn, 2011; Ercan, 2014). As Gallagher states, ‘undoubtedly shaped by the norm life cycle theory, a rather crude birth/ death narrative has surrounded R2P since its inception’ (Gallagher, 2015, p.255). The expectation that transgressions represent the ‘death’ of a norm ignores how failures can further the normative conversation in important ways. For example, the UNSC’s impotency during the Syrian crisis has resulted in two significant proposals for UN reform. Firstly, the proposal by the ‘small 5’ (Costa Rica, Jordan, Liechtenstein, Singapore and Switzerland) to bring back the ‘responsibility not to veto’ (RN2V) in mass atrocity situations, which was originally part of the 2001 ICISS report (Blätter and Williams, 2011). They introduced a resolution to the General Assembly in May 2012, which recommended that the P5 should provide an explanation for their use of the veto and refrain from using it to block UNSC action aimed at halting or averting genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing (Citizens for Global Solutions, 2014). Though their motion was subsequently withdrawn following pressure from the P5, it remains an important initiative and is now being spearheaded by a group of 21 members states called the ACT (the Accountability, Coherence and Transparency group) that focuses on UNSC reform (Citizens for Global Solutions, 2014, p.9).

Similarly, debates have reignited over General Assembly Resolution 377 A (V) or the ‘Uniting for Peace’ resolution (Carswell, 2013). The resolution, originally passed in 1950, states that in the event of a paralysed UNSC due to a vetoing P5 member, Emergency Special Sessions can be called by either 7 members of the UNSC or by a majority of UN General Assembly (UNGA) members. These sessions can be requested if members consider the UNSC to be failing in its primary responsibility for the maintenance of international peace and security, and  has been used 10 times since its adoption to convene emergency sessions at UNGA (Cabrol, 2017; Carswell, 2013). In 2016, 223 civil society organisations and NGOs from 45 different states called for an Emergency Special Session at UNGA in response to Russian and Chinese vetoes on Syria (Cabrol, 2017). This was ‘the first time in history that such a considerable alliance of organisations, governments, and UN officials had called for change in the UN system’ (Cabrol, 2017). Though UNGA did not respond to their request on this occasion, the Uniting for Peace resolution still holds ‘significant potential’ as a ‘safety valve’ that is capable of shifting the responsibility for the protection of threatened populations from a paralysed UNSC to UNGA (Carswell, 2013, p.456). These initiatives reflect the international community’s desire to be able to fulfil its responsibilities without needing the consent of the P5. Rather than marking the ‘death’ of the norm, R2P’s failure in Syria has furthered the normative conversation by reigniting debates about the RN2V and the Uniting for Peace Resolution which, if successful, could significantly reshape R2P.


To conclude, significant contestation and the inconsistent application of R2P, highlighted by the examples of Myanmar, Libya and Syria, make it difficult to argue that it is an ‘established’ norm in international relations, as this implies that it is stable and permanent. However, as I have suggested throughout this essay, the idea that a norm can become established in this way is based on a false expectation of linear normative development, influenced by Finnemore and Sikkink’s norm life cycle theory (Finnemore and Sikkink, 1998). I have argued, with reference to Acharya’s concept of norm circulation, that instead of progressing through the three stages of norm emergence, norm cascade and norm internalisation, norms undergo a ‘multiple-agency, two-way, multi-step process of norm diffusion, based on resistance, feedback and repatriation’ (Acharya, 2013, p.471). This is clearly demonstrated in the examples of R2P’s misapplication, controversial application and non-application in Myanmar, Libya and Syria. Instead of progressing in a unidirectional way towards universal establishment, from the West to the Rest, R2P has been constantly challenged and transformed through practice and by a range of actors. These examples highlight how contestation has led to valuable feedback, which has furthered the normative conversation about R2P. The engagement of a wide range of global actors in challenging and transforming R2P is ultimately beneficial for the legitimacy and evolution of the norm. Though the future of R2P is unclear, one thing is for certain: the remainder of its normative journey ‘will not be teleological’ (Labonte, 2016, p.146).


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