The European Union and the R2P Norm: A Marriage of Convenience

Sam Greet, University of Leeds, UK

Sam Greet is a final year undergraduate student in International Relations at the University of Leeds, with a year exchange at KU Leuven, Belgium. His main interests include the R2P, Terrorism Studies and China’s role in global power politics.


The European Union’s (EU) fulfilment of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) largely follows the logic of ‘marriage of convenience’. The Union’s bureaucracies have been committed – and somewhat successful – champions in developing the norm and its principles since the Report of the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS) in 2001 and its inclusion in the subsequent UN World Summit Outcome Document (WSOD) in 2005. It has demonstrated considerable capacity in its ability to assist in the responsibility to prevent as well as employing more indirect coercive measures as an economic power. Yet, in practice, the disingenuity of its rhetoric shows the EU and its member states only deliver R2P when it is convenient to do so, based on matching pre-existing resource allocation to other normative pursuits or the foreign policy interests of both the EU as a whole and its individual member states. The EU can be seen to demonstrate inconsistent application and illegitimate inaction in delivering its R2P capacity, as well as bringing detriment to the norm’s development when its member states misuse its invocation for their national benefit. Whether in dereliction of its ‘special responsibility’ towards refugees on and beyond its borders, lack of prioritisation of mass atrocity prevention in South Sudan, continued aid support for Myanmar despite ongoing genocide and ethnic cleansing, or its arms sales to Saudi Arabia used to commit war crimes in Yemen, the EU is a hollow R2P advocate. Until the R2P and its principles are genuinely internalised into both EU and member states’ priorities in the international arena, this marriage of convenience is unlikely to change.


The Responsibility to Protect (R2P) emerged as a solution to the flaws of humanitarian (non)intervention, and as an international norm has faced both its life and repeated ‘death’ (Reiff, 2011). Indeed, R2P has been conceptually developed, misapplied, not applied, praised and criticised. The European Union (EU) has played a prominent role in this process. ‘Fulfilment’ of R2P is judged based on coherent and repeated contributions towards norm development, implementation and legitimacy (henceforth consistency, Wheeler, 2000, p.305), with a wide range of case studies chosen to show trends in the EU’s R2P approach. The extent to which these efforts are fulfilled is benchmarked against the principles of R2P agreed at the UN, as well as by the standards publicly advocated for by the EU. Upon analysis, the extent to which the EU can be claimed to ‘fulfil’ its R2P becomes clearly limited to situations when the norm aligns with the EU and its member states’ existing domestic and foreign policies. Firstly, this is demonstrated through the stark contrast between the EU’s external norm championing and its limited internal capabilities and commitment. Secondly, disingenuous R2P fulfilment through ‘norm clustering’ is exposed when one compares the EU’s Responsibility to Prevent potential to case studies where they could tangibly deliver it. Lastly, illegitimate inconsistency in R2P action abroad, when challenged internally, reaffirms the conclusion that R2P fulfilment is a means to other ends rather than an end in itself for the EU.

The EU and R2P Norm Development 

International Norm Champion

The EU has been a key proponent of the R2P norm and its development since its inception in the ICISS Report (2001) and was a critical player in ensuring its provisions in Article 138 and 139 were included in the World Summit Outcome Document (WSOD) (UNGA, 2005)(Brockmeier et al., 2014, pp.436-439; Bellamy, 2009, p.60). The WSOD agreed on conditional sovereignty within the international community to prevent and react to four mass atrocity crimes: ethnic cleansing, genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes. This responsibility emerges from every state’s agreement to ‘responsible sovereignty’ (Pillar I) alongside the international community’s responsibility to support (Pillar II) – and if necessary, intervene (Pillar III) – if other states are ‘manifestly failing’ to protect their citizens, otherwise articulated as the ‘Three Pillars of R2P’ (UNSG, 2009). R2P has been and remains a ‘contested’ norm without definitive meaning (Welsh, 2013). The EU has been a prominent voice at the UN to try to develop and ‘cascade’ the norm internationally towards worldwide internalisation (see Finnemore and Sikkink, 1998, pp. 895–6 for norm development process).

At the UN-level since the WSOD, the EU pursued ‘high-level coordination’ for the seminal 2009 GA debate (Brockmeier, et al., 2014, pp.443-444); it was the first region to have its own ‘Focal Point’ to champion the norm (Ralph and Staunton, 2019, p.8); its member states are prominent in the ‘R2P Group of Friends’, and the EU and member states have consistently contributed to the UNGA debates, ‘Interactive Dialogues’ and UNSG ‘Annual Reports’ (ibid; Newman and Stefan, 2019). At the EU-level, the R2P has been repeatedly recalled across numerous documents (EU, 2016a; 2008; 2007; 2006; European Parliament, 2011; 2009a; 2009b, Council of the EU, 2008; European Commission, 2017) as a shared value and crucial objective the EU is ‘determined to make operational’ (EU, 2009). This is perhaps most notable recently in its inclusion within the EU Global Strategy (EUGS), where the union commits to ‘promote the responsibility to protect’ alongside other key normative judicial commitments such as ‘international humanitarian law, international human rights law and international criminal law’ (EU, 2016b, p.42). It has helped establish at least Pillar I as an accepted norm in that the question is now not if there is a R2P against the four crimes but rather what circumstances justify assistance or intervention (Bellamy, 2015, p.289; Powers, 2015, p.1274). If ‘rhetoric is action’ for norms (Franco and Rodt, 2015, p.50), then the EU has fulfilled its R2P through leveraging its diplomatic tools towards the norm’s promotion and continued relevance.

Between Rhetoric and Reality

Promotion of the norm has been an active EU foreign policy decision (Brockmeier et al., 2014, 431), because the spirit of R2P is in keeping with the EU’s pursuit of ‘normative’ and ‘ethical’ power perceptions (Newman and Stefan, 2019, pp.5-6; Manners, 2008; 2006). Its ‘constructive ambiguity’ (Shannon, 2000, p.294) and foundations as a ‘principled’ or ‘political’ ideal (Ercan, P. G. and Gu ̈nay, 2019, p.492; Betts and Orchard, 2014) – rather than an accountable legal obligation for any particular state or party (Welsh, 2019, p.54) – has allowed for easy EU norm acceptance and advocacy (Franco 2015, p.1006). ‘Internalisation’ at the EU-level refers to the bloc and its member states’ incorporation of the norm into its internal apparatus, decision-making, actions and reporting. Rarely does the EU’s R2P go beyond simple platitudes and reaffirmation of what was agreed at UN-level (Smith, 2018, p.3; TFotEUPoMA, 2013), with the European Parliament’s (2013) rallying cry for ‘consensus’ doing little to engender change towards genuine internalisation and implementation. The semantics of the EUGS committing to ‘promote’ the R2P norm alongside other laws is indicative of this agreement to endorse the norm in principle (EU, 2016b, p.42) but without a pledge to ‘deliver’ or ‘enforce’ it in practice. This is demonstrated by the absence of explicit reference to R2P in the 2019 EUGS report, which implies it is not a global strategy feature to which the EU is truly committed to convert from ‘Vision to Action’ (EU, 2019). Whilst the EU advocates the ‘never again’ discourse of R2P at the global level (Mogherini, 2018), it actively chooses to pursue ‘procedural’ rather than ‘substantive’ R2P outcomes when given the opportunity (Brockmeier et al., 2014, p.444). This erroneously fuels over-expectant R2P discourses (Gallagher, 2015a; Paris, 2014, p.579). Additionally, the EU has only pursued the norm’s development once existing UN power structures favouring EU member states were guaranteed (Brockmeier,2014, p.438). This demonstrates values-based ‘norms’ such as R2P serve as a useful foreign policy tool for Europe, yet not enough that it would risk changing the status quo it benefits from to see it fulfilled.

The contrast between external championing and limited internalisation (De Franco et al., 2015, pp.995-998; Wouters and De Man, 2013, p.17) has created the EU’s own external ‘capabilities-expectations gap’ between rhetorical support and the reality of what EU foreign policy is capable of (see Gallagher, 2015a, p.259; Hehir, 2012, p.88). In failing to properly integrate R2P strategies into key internal policy documents beyond simple ‘promotion’ and consistently failing to ‘live by example’ the EU, now 15 years into the norm’s existence, is continuing to undermine its potential to be a ‘credible international leader’ (Newman and Stefan, 2019, pp.3-4; Smith, 2018, pp.20-21). In expecting certain external norms to be upheld by others yet not genuinely seeking to deliver them themselves, the EU exposes the ‘double standards’ (Newman and Stefan, 2019, p.13) that emerge from its disjunction between normative projections compared to the practical reality a recurring trend in wider European foreign policy (Pace, 2007, p.1061; Diez, 2005, p.625). There is scope for defence of the EU in that it has a far too complex and conflicted foreign policy apparatus, as well as external pressures and internal member state divergences, to deliver R2P in a consistent manner (Fabbrini, 2014; De Baere, 2012, p.23). However, if this was the case then why does it continue to ‘unambiguously’ commit to the norm so explicitly (Carment et al., 2016, p.10)? Whilst norm localisation – its ‘mainstreaming into existing policies and resource allocation’ (Franco and Peen Rodt; 2015, p.46) – might ‘prune’ the EU’s available options (Acharya, 2009), it still has ‘enormous capacity’ to fulfil R2P (Evans, 2008; see Ercan and Gu ̈nay, 2019, pp.495-500; Smith, 2018, p.1,6-7 for tools available). In fact, international-level advocacy for R2P from the EU bureaucracies has continued despite member states’ failed internalisation of the norm and an internal ‘expectations vacuum’ (Newman and Stefan, 2019, pp.12-14; Gallagher, 2015a, p.260), with member states holding at best internal ‘ambivalence’ (Newman and Stefan, 2019, p.2) and at worst outright disagreement (Smith, 2018, p.4) over the R2P norm. One example is the disinterested case of Germany, which despite being the ‘core’ of the EU project (Bartlett and Prica, 2016), saw the R2P as a largely external norm project. Alongside China and Russia, Germany abstained from one of the most flagrant R2P cases in Libya (De Baere, 2012, p.9). Practical commitment to deliver the R2P has been slow and sparse, acted upon only when convenient (Dembinski et al., 2014, pp.368-370). The EU should be held accountable to the level of international expectation it espouses for itself and for others. As such, it is not fulfilling the R2P to the extent that its international support for the norm predicates it should.

The EU, Norm Clusters and the Responsibility to Prevent

The EU’s Prevention Toolbox

This is not to say that the EU has not taken any action to fulfil its R2P. Regarding Pillar II, we have observed an extensive role foreseen and in part delivered through its ‘Responsibility to Prevent’. Given its limited military instruments and NATO facilities (see Keukeleire and Delreux, 2014, Chapter 3), it would be unfair to judge the EU based on its unfulfillment of ‘rapid and timely’ intervention as this option is not readily available, agreed upon between member states or something the EU has only suggested it could deliver (Fabbini, 2014; Welsh, 2014, p.136). The EU Global Strategy, whilst not directly referring to the R2P norm, notes that ‘we need to collectively take responsibility for our role in the world’ (EU, 2016, p.3). Whilst largely in reference to their extensive ‘civilian power capacities’ in their ‘diplomatic’, ‘development cooperation’ and ‘trade’ tools (EU, 2016, pp.3-4), the EU recognises the combination of ‘soft and hard power’ it can offer for the delivery of global norms through their more structural, long-term military and civilian foreign policy operations (EU, 2016, p.4). This non-explicitly recognises its capacity to operate as Pillar II support of states’ security apparatus, in that it may not be able to intervene directly or rapidly, but it does have the military and civilian apparatus to support other states in their delivery of their own R2P should they request for assistance.

Both commentators (Smith, 2018, p.1; Brosig, 2011) and the EU itself (2018) recognises its primary tools and expertise centre on the delivery of prevention, mainly through ‘structural’ support i.e. in addressing root causes, ‘operational’ support i.e. early warning systems, and ‘direct’ efforts i.e. economic reward/sanctions (see Carment, 2016, p.3; UNSG, 2013; Haugevik, 2009, p.352, EU, 2016, pp.28-32 for prevention tools). For the EU, ‘development, governance, civil society and human rights are all relevant to reducing the risk of atrocities occurring’ and sees its R2P in part fulfilled by the long-term work on these agendas (De Benedictis, 2015; De Baere, 2012, p.22). If the UNSG is correct that ‘development is the best prevention’ (UNSG, 2011), then the EU as the largest aid donor is fulfilling important R2P prevention work (Eggleston, 2014). The EU has also been a prominent supporter of the International Criminal Court (ICC), coined the ‘legal arm’ of R2P (Adams, 2019), as a method of prevention based on prosecution against impunity (Ercan and Gu ̈nay, 2019, p.500; Ford, 2010). Under a wider understanding of R2P action, the EU could be perceived to be fulfilling its responsibility to prevent quite extensively. However, the fact that these actions are rarely – if ever – framed under R2P auspices both hinders norm development (Newman and Stefan, 2019, p.7; Badescu 2014; 2011) and suggests EU ‘R2P’ is simply ‘reframing’ existing EU action (ibid, p.11; Barqueiro et al., 2016, p.37) rather than genuinely committing to specific mass atrocity prevention at the expense of resources, other normative pursuits or foreign policy goals.

The Problem of Norm Clustering

The extent to which the EU is fulfilling its R2P is characterised by a ‘norm clustering’ that groups its mass atrocity prevention with numerous existing actions (Staunton and Ralph, 2019, pp.1-6,17; Lantis and Wunderlich, 2018), most notably becoming synonymous with conflict prevention (Cuyckens and De Man, 2012, p. 111). This conflates the two despite the necessary responses (Badescu and Weiss, 2010, p.451) and risk factors (Ralph, 2014) differing significantly. This allows for easy if somewhat disingenuous ‘implementation’ of R2P without significant change in EU or member states commitments. Both within member states and the EU’s internal apparatus there has been ‘deep rooted suspicion’ over R2P’s added value beyond existing human rights, conflict prevention, governance and humanitarian work (Wouters and De Man, 2013, p.4,19; Cuyckens and De Man, 2012). This scepticism and failure to recognise the uniqueness of atrocity prevention, as well as prioritisation of other interests, has grave consequences.

The Rohingya in Myanmar have faced ‘slow burning genocide’ and ‘ethnic cleansing’ (Darusman, 2019; UNHCR, 2017, UN News, 2017), orchestrated by the military and enabled by the government. The EU pursues democracy promotion and development as their priorities in Myanmar, allocating 688 million in financial support for 2014-20 (EEAS, 2018b). Whilst in theory this is delivering structural prevention, this ‘norm clustering’ only serves to detract from specific mass atrocity action and fails to bring in ‘democracy’ in any more than a procedural sense (Adams, 2019, p.8; Southwick, 2015, p.150). The EU’s position stems from a strategic decision to prioritise norms of democracy (Adams, 2019, p.3; GCR2P, 2017) and other foreign policy gains (Staunton and Ralph, 2019, p.10; Haacke, 2016, p.819) over mass atrocity prevention, despite repeated warnings of the consequences (Green et al., 2018; Zarni and Cowley, 2014). Europe’s role in brokering the repatriation of Rohingya refugees from Bangladesh despite no guarantees of safety from further atrocity crimes (EEAS, 2017; Cappaert and Qu, 2018) and continued minimal conditionality on the aid it provides (Staunton and Ralph, 2019, p.12; Gallagher, 2015b) – despite recently withdrawing aid from Burundi on human rights grounds (Barbière, 2016) – demonstrates the EU’s inconsistent regard for its R2P. Its limited response through refugee aid, varying statements of concern and minor targeted sanctions (EEAS, 2018b) has been slow to materialise and came only after atrocities took place, illustrating that the EU has not truly committed to fulfilling its responsibility to prevent potential mass atrocity in Myanmar (Adams, 2019; Smith, 2018, pp.14-17).

In South Sudan, the outbreak of civil war was not prevented despite the presence of an EU civilian mission prior to its outbreak in 2013 (Smith, 2018, pp.19-20). Notwithstanding sustained warnings of ‘crimes against humanity’ and even fear of ‘genocide’ by both international and European commentators (UN Press Release, 2017; 2013; EU, 2016), an estimated 383,000 deaths were recorded (Specia, 2018). During the pre-conflict ‘peace process’, the EU and others had pursued technocratic and socio-economic driven norms of democratisation and state-building (Pantuliano, 2014; Khadiagala, 2014) that ignored the ‘profound legacy of long-term conflict’ (Clark, 2014; Young 2012), likely to return, and in turn failed to create a South Sudan that could truly bear its own ‘responsible sovereignty’ (Rossi, 2016, p.179). In response to the crisis, the EU took some steps towards its R2P, but most of its interventions called on those involved to act rather than doing so themselves (see Smith, 2018, pp.17-20). The R2P provides a platform to justify a continued EU foreign policy which deepens development dependency and asymmetries with weaker states abroad under the auspices of R2P Pillar II support, reinforced by rhetoric – although contested (Graubart, 2013; Branch, 2011) – that the norm is non-Western and of global consensus in principle (Carment et al., 2016, p.10; De Baere, 2012). Coupled with a reluctance to act on agreed normative principles such as R2P when necessary – or only doing so when it overlaps with existing priorities – this exposes the strategic interests that underpin the EU’s R2P (Barqueiro, p.46; Paris, 2014, p. 572). The Atrocity Prevention Toolkit (EEAS, 2019) could represent a crucial breakaway for mass atrocity prevention away from the ‘policy paradigm’ or ‘norm clusters’ in which it has been ‘entangled’ (Cuyckens and De Man, 2012, p.111) and may represent a genuine commitment to mass atrocity prevention as an end in itself. However, until implementation of this toolkit is consistent, the case studies above show that the EU fulfils its R2P to the extent that it correlates to existing ‘norm clusters’ and priorities such as democratisation or statebuilding, rather than re-prioritising its foreign policy towards mass atrocity prevention.

The EU, Inconsistency and the Responsibility to Protect

Inconsistency in Action

The EU fulfils its R2P not just when it is convenient for the bloc’s normative identity and external activity but also when it serves the interests of its powerful member states. The case of Libya began as a rapid and resounding international community response to a genuine threat of mass atrocity crimes under Colonel Ghaddafi in 2011. This resulted in Resolution 1970, which ‘Recall[ed] the Libyan authorities’ responsibility to protect’ and member state enforced series of restrictive measures (UN, 2011a, p.1), before escalating into Resolution 1973 which invoked the international community’s R2P and permitted member state intervention ‘to take all necessary measures [. . . ] to protect civilians’ (Brockmeier et al., 2014, p.445, UN, 2011b, p.2). In some ways, the EU fulfilled its non-military R2P measures such as ‘asset freezes’, coercive sanctions and ‘travel bans’ effectively and rapidly to bring an end to the Gaddafi regime (see Wouters and De Man, 2013, p.24; Koenig, 2011). Yet, the lack of accountability within the EU foreign policy apparatus allowed for an ‘unchecked […] Franco-British directoiré to act on the EU’s behalf through the European Council (Fabbrini, 2014, pp.189-91) and alongside NATO, using ‘all necessary’ means to go well beyond the agreed mandate in pursuit of their self-interests for regime change (Spencer, 2012; Bellamy, 2011; Pattison, 2011). The partiality and selective protection of rebel civilians showed a flagrant disregard for genuine mass atrocity prevention (Haslett, 2014; Welsh, 2011). This prompted internal EU condemnation with a public statement of criticism against the British-French action from Belgium, The Netherlands and Luxembourg (Castle, 2011, p.4), whilst external BRICS states such as South Africa repeatedly condemned the motives of their actions (UNSC 2011a; 2011b). In keeping with the UK’s inappropriate use of the ICCC report as ‘ex post facto humanitarian justification’ for invading Iraq (MacFarlane, Thielking, and Weiss, 2004; Evans, 2004) and Burma in 2008 by France (Brockemeier et al., 2014, pp.441-4), Libya demonstrates the risk of neo-colonial character emerging in R2P as a rearticulation of long-criticised humanitarian intervention (Jean-Robert, 2012). The UK’s reaffirmation of the legality of liberal interventionism (HoCFAC, 2018) and France’s continued non-R2P droit d’ingérence (Staunton, 2018, p.380) suggests these powers have not seen substantial change within their security cultures, nor genuine commitment to the R2P norm other than co-opting both it and the EU apparatus to deliver their long-standing foreign policy goals (Brockmeier, 2014).

The responsibility to rebuild, initially part of the ICISS report, was omitted from WSOD. However, the EU’s lacklustre post-intervention support in Libya has fallen short of its own commitments to assist with ‘the reconciliation and the reconstruction’ of the country following R2P intervention (see Van Rompey, 2011, Georgieva, 2011), not to mention civilians at risk of human trafficking and wide-spread abuse (Gottwald, 2012). Instead, the EU has since prioritised non-R2P norms and foreign policy interests around security and migration (Coen, 2015, p.1051; Wouters and De Man, 2013, pp.25-6) whilst the population continues to suffer immensely (UNICEF, 2015). The Libya case evidences long-held reservations from non-Western states about the true character of R2P’s Pillar III (Morris, 2013; Murray, 2013, p.43) and the EU more generally as a ‘post-colonial power’ (Nicola ̈ıdis, 2015; Coen, 2015, p.1045). Thus, the EU is in part failing to fulfil R2P due to dominant member states co-opting it for their own foreign policy interests and the damage this does to norm development by delegitimising Pillar III (Dembinski et al., 2014, p.366; Hehir, 2011).

Legitimate and Illegitimate Inaction

There are cases of ‘legitimate inconsistency’ where the EU cannot be expected to take extensive action and fulfil R2P abroad based on ‘genuine cost-benefit’ analysis (Gallagher, 2015a, pp.272; Bellamy, 2015, p.137). To ‘deny the relevance of politics’ and its limitations on available actions (Weiss, 2004), especially when the power resides with an often divergent UNSC (Morris, 2015, pp.5-7), is to overstate the pragmatic expectations set out in the WSOD (Ralph, 2018, p.191, Gallagher, 2015a, p.267). The case of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea is a fair example, being both isolated from the international community and somewhat under the protection of China, a veto wielding UNSC power. The fact that the EU and its member states led calls for an R2P-focused Human Rights Council inquiry into the abuses taking place in North Korea (HRC, 2014), and that this report created behavioural change and restarted human rights relations between the EU and North Korea, is a notable EU R2P success when inaction would have largely been considered legitimate (Cohen, 2016). The complexity and heavily politicised case of Syria – despite overwhelming R2P relevance with extensive war crimes and crimes against humanity committed (GlobalR2P, 2019) – could be another legitimate case as it stands now, especially given its similar ties to vetopower Russia (Coen, 2015, Haslett, 2014, p.203). Yet, it was not always destined to be so complicated. Member states’ failure to internalise the principles of R2P whilst simultaneously using it as a means to justify other foreign policy aims such as ‘accountability’ and ‘regime change’ against Assad (Ralph, 2018, p.193; Gifkins, 2012, p.383) – especially given international suspicion of motives post-Libya (ibid, p.195 and above) – can be seen as a contributing factor to why the R2P failed so cataclysmically in the Syrian case. The EU and its member states restricted potential for genuine de-escalation of mass violence by isolating the more sovereignty-prioritising states who were fearful of further regime changes (Ralph and Gifkins, 2017). This gives further credence to the view that the EU’s R2P is only fulfilled to the extent that it matches existing priorities.

Situations of ‘illegitimate inconsistency’ are even more damaging to the EU’s R2P credentials, where ‘simple selfishness’ means they can neglect action or contribute to atrocities themselves (Gallagher, 2015a, pp.272; Bellamy, 2015, p.137). Simple disinterest produces illegitimate inaction and is a failure of EU R2P fulfilment. For example, the EU was unwilling to contribute to the Democratic Republic of Congo crisis in 2008 despite UN R2P-based request that was well within their means (Smith, 2008, p.4). Likewise, Member States have failed to pursue any of their own mass atrocity prevention initiatives individually (Brockmeier et al.,2014, p.444). In the aforementioned inaction in South Sudan, disinterest again undermined concerted EU delivery of the R2P in a case where it could have had great impact. Conflict of interest also creates illegitimate inaction. In the current civil war in Yemen, atrocities and war crimes are essentially ‘facilitated’ by the EU member states’ support of Saudi Arabia (Baron, 2016; OHCHR, 2019). Despite ‘condemnation’ (Council of the EU, 2018) and comprehensive financial aid (Alattrash, 2018) provided to Yemen, fundamentally the EU has failed to hold its member states accountable to their legally binding 2008 Common Position on arms exports (Oppenheim, 2019a) and to international humanitarian law, leaving this to national courts (Maletta, 2019). National interests, for both arms and non-arms trade and exports, have crippled the EU’s response to Saudi Arabia’s actions (Oppenheim, 2019b) and have meant the EU has not only failed to fulfil its R2P, but its main powers are actively contributing to the crisis. Similar criticisms against their self-interest have been levied against Europe remaining ‘silent’ over abuses by Saudi Arabia and Bahrain (Hehir, 2013, pp.44-45). Likewise, the EU has failed to ‘name and shame’ Eritrea since 2016 despite ‘crimes against humanity’ taking place there (UNHCR, 2018), and continue to provide aid without conditionality because of the country’s role in Europe’s migration strategy (ECR2P, 2019). Likewise, the Kurdish population in Syria and Turkey face ‘ethnic cleansing’ and ‘war crimes’ by Turkish armed rebels as a result of the departure of US forces from Syria in October 2019 (Seligman, 2019; Roebuck, 2019). Key EU member states sell a plethora of arms to the country, and some public condemnation alongside an embargo on new arms sales remains insufficient for the EU to fulfil its R2P as long as old contracts continue to be delivered whilst atrocity crimes take place (Al Yafai, 2019). These cases exemplify an underlying challenge in EU foreign policy in that despite Lisbon’s apparent coordination of activity of member states (Fabbrini, 2014), these will prioritise their foreign policy interests (or disinterests) at the expense of the EU’s espoused goals or commitments, such as R2P.

The Refugee Crisis and R2P as Selective Foreign Policy

Whilst for the most part the EU is agreed to have a ‘unique’ role in R2P as a non-traditional, international proactive foreign policy acting region (Ercan and Gu ̈nay, 2019, p.491), it also has a mixed fulfilment of the norm internally and on its borders. The post-war formation of the EU and its guarantees of Pillar I for European states offers an opportunity for ‘region-to-region learning processes’ on how this may be replicated abroad (ibid, p.499; Wouters and De Man, 2013, p.10). Likewise, its enlargement and accession processes for new members were declared its ‘greatest contribution’ to R2P because it implements structural prevention by spreading EU values to neighbouring states and aspiring EU member states such as Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia etc. (De Baere, 2012, p.10). Its enlargement and accession processes help to internalise EU norms and standards into such nations, ensuring they have the safeguards and normative aspirations long-term to uphold Pillar I. Yet none of this work was done for the R2P norm. When its internal R2P is put under pressure, it is evident how little the norm is fulfilled, such as in the case of the EU’s response to the refugee crisis (Panebianco and Fontana, 2018, p.10). Whilst the WSOD and reports may not necessitate states take in refugees (Bulley, 2017), literature comprehensively suggests asylum and refugee protection represent a prudent and viable Pillar I and II avenue to fulfil R2P commitments as well as existing international humanitarian law (Panebianco and Fontana, 2018; Coen, 2017; Welsh, 2014; UNSG, 2009, Para.35;68; Barbour and Gorlick, 2008). The EU Agenda for Migration (European Commission, 2015) did not reference R2P directly, but acknowledged the ‘duty of protection’ and need for ‘solidarity’ for those fleeing abuse as well as states burdened with their immediate protection or arrival. The manifestation of Europe’s actions on this crisis demonstrate how other factors took and continue to take priority over R2P, with intense securitisation of refugees (Newman, 2017; Ralph and Souter, 2017, p.48); variation in the response of different member states i.e. Germany’s one million intake against Hungary’s mishandlings (Barqueiro, et al.,2016, pp.40-43); and an overall failure to live up to their ‘cosmopolitan commitments’ to human security and protection (Newman and Stefan, 2019, p.13; Newman, 2017, p.60). When one considers the fact that most asylum seekers originated predominantly from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan (UNHCR, 2016), the lack of fulfilment is a dereliction of Europe’s ‘special responsibility’ to protect (Ralph and Souter, 2015). EU member states had a considerable direct contribution to the conflicts and creation of these ‘atrocity crime refugees’ and their failure to provide subsequent civilian refuge and protection suggests a lack of norm internalisation (Ralph and Souter, 2017Souter, 2014), especially as it is refugees who can be ‘at most risk’ of further mass atrocity crimes (Davies and Glanville, 2010).

This is not to say the EU did not fulfil its R2P in other ways for refugees, including comprehensive packages of financial, operational and political support for Middle Eastern and North African states, as well as efforts through the UN and international organisations (Bulley, 2017, pp.62-67). Yet this crucially remained a ‘downstream’ foreign policy agenda (Ralph, 2018, p.195; Barqueiro, 2016, p.994; Welsh, 2014), and has fundamentally been criticised as an ‘outsourcing’ of responsibility (Newman, 2017, p.60, Bulley, 2017, p.61) to ensure refugee burdens remain abroad. The precedence of other foreign policy objectives over the R2P is exposed by the Action Plan with Turkey, which poses serious questions over its ‘safe country’ status (Frelick, 2016) and, even worse, allows for potential refoulement of ‘irregular migrants’ back to the atrocities they fled to Europe to avoid (Bulley, 2017, p.66). This fits into a wider picture of an EU unwilling to bear the political costs of R2P compared to other domestic pressures and foreign policy interests (Coen, 2015, p.1047). In demonstrating ‘solidarity’ with states themselves through Pillar II and not refugees, the EU may be able to technically fulfil its ‘R2P’ through an ‘externalized politics of protection’ through state capacity-building (Panebianco and Fontana, 2018, Bulley, 2017, p.64; Haddad, 2010). Yet the questions remaining over the types of states this reinforces (Gallagher, 2015b) and lack of guaranteed long-term protection compared to what would be secured with asylum demonstrate that foreign policy goals around security, migration and terrorism are – and likely always have been – most important in EU decision-making, with the likes of R2P a normative commitment only fulfilled when convenient.


Judging the extent to which the EU fulfils its R2P is complex and multi-faceted. Its inability to always fulfil R2P is not necessarily a critique, as the self-interest with which it has been approached is both understandable and was predicted by the original R2P norm entrepreneurs (Evans, 2004). The EU has, in many cases, technically fulfilled the R2P in more ways than most, particularly in their structural prevention investment. Yet, this should not be confused with genuine internalisation of the R2P principle. What is worthy of condemnation is both the bloc and its member states’ willingness to claim to be supporting and fulfilling the norm at the UN-level whilst simultaneously failing to consistently deliver their potential for it. The R2P is utilised both for the ‘normative power Europe’ identity as well as pragmatically to excuse member states foreign policy exploits without remorse. Failing to commit politically, economically or conceptually to the necessary uniqueness of R2P at an EU-level means the EU has under fulfilled the immense role it could have, and claim to want, for R2P worldwide. Their co-optation of the concept does damage to the norm’s legitimacy and in turn, has and will continue to have real consequences for those suffering mass atrocities. When truly tested on its R2P credentials, the EU has failed to live up to its ‘own moral logic’ (Newman, 2019, p.59) and ultimately its R2P fulfilment is exposed as only delivered to the extent that it is accidental, convenient or useful to do so, demonstrating little to no sense of true ‘responsibility’ at all.


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

Ananya Sriram, University of Leeds, UK

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


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


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

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

R2P and Systemic Violence

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

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

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

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

National Interest as an Obstacle to R2P

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

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

Realist Perspectives

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

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

Critical Perspectives: Marxism and Critical Theory

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

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

Liberal Perspectives: liberalism, cosmopolitanism and the English School

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

Post-colonial Perspectives

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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Examining the ‘Responsibility to Protect’ Through a Critical Analysis of Norm Theory

Amy Hart, University of Leeds, UK

Amy is a politics graduate from the University of Leeds. During her time at university, Amy took a particular interest in international relations theory, which she continues to pursue in her spare time. She is now pursuing a legal career and has secured a training contract with Shearman and Sterling.


The ‘Responsibility to Protect’ norm has received significant academic attention since it was adopted in 2005. Recent crises have put the norm into practice, leading scholars to question certain aspects, criticising its ambiguous nature. These academic criticisms have attempted to categorise this new norm, resulting in claims that R2P is not an established norm. This paper argues that norm theory is a process, whereby discussions and fluctuations actually improve the implementation of a norm. Distancing itself from the unattainable expectations scholars place on norms, this paper argues that R2P is established and calls for a reconsideration of the norm model to allow for greater flexibility and thus ensuring greater success for international norms.

The Responsibility to Protect (R2P), whilst being a relatively new norm, has become a central feature of international discussions. In light of the ongoing crisis in Syria, the R2P norm has received even more attention regarding its success, or lack thereof, which has resulted in questions concerning its status as an international norm. This essay will argue that the notion of norm establishment should be recognised as a fluid concept, rather than focusing on the fixed nature of the R2P doctrine and seeking to categorise it, which will inevitably result in a view that R2P has failed to become established. Whilst there may not be numerous outcome successes, it is precisely the misuse and contestation surrounding R2P that helps contribute to, and consolidate, its establishment within international society. Rather than a focus being placed on evidence of consistent intervention, R2P’s establishment should be seen as a process to promote discussion and consideration, instead of confining humanitarian success within fixed parameters with a rigid outcome of intervention. This paper begins by examining the criticisms of R2P as an established norm, with a norm defined as “social reality” (Ralph and Souter, 2015, p.68), to provide context for the arguments that will be challenged later in the paper. The next section will comprise of four key points to demonstrate that R2P is in fact established; (1) redefining the norm model (2) the importance of localisation and subsidiarity; (3) the over-emphasis on pillar three; (4) the reality of power hierarchies. This will culminate in the conclusion that R2P is an established norm and that analysts should manage their unattainable expectations which prevent an acknowledgment of the essence and spirit of R2P in the international sphere.

R2P is not an established norm

Lack of consensus over meaning

R2P critics argue that it is not established due to a lack of consensus over the definition of the norm. Shawki (2011, p.183) argues that there are “significant disagreements” surrounding the norm, which prevent it from overcoming the evolutionary stages of norm development. Using the case of Cyclone Nargis in 2008, critics note that it exposed the “starkly diverging interpretations that states attach to the concept of R2P” (Reinold, 2010, p.56), which prevented a coherent coordination of a response to the crisis. In a more recent example, the differing responses to Libya and Syria, where the former received a swift response and the latter received a delayed response, appears to show confusion and “selectivity” (Gallagher, 2015, p.18) regarding the situations in which the R2P should apply (Gallagher, 2015). For Shawki (2011, p.138), this demonstrates that the norm has “not yet reached the tipping point”      as if it were truly internalised, there would have been an automatic response rather than such intense debates over whether intervention should occur. The “controversial” (Shawki, 2011, p.182) nature of the norm prevents the development of a consensus over its meaning, reducing the chances that it will become part of international law (Reinold, 2010) and preventing its establishment as an international norm. Thus, it is clear that R2P has failed to develop a concrete approach to responding to crises due to the lack of consensus surrounding its meaning. The prevailing oscillation within the international community, shown through a lack of uniformity to responses, reflects how it is not an established norm.

The R2P has failed to change state behaviour

A further criticism of the R2P is the notion that it is purely rhetoric with little substance, and subsequently does not alter state behaviour. For instance, Hehir (2012, p.3) argues that the R2P represents an “illusion of progress” as behind its popularised name little action follows. The proliferation of literature and broader international attention have diluted R2P, resulting in its utilisation for a number of theories and proposals that depart from the initial purpose. This in turn demonstrates that the R2P has failed to “consolidate its identity”      and is a part of a series of “rallying cries” (Hehir, 2012, p.5) that the international community has united around with few substantial implications. This idea is supported by the fact that R2P did not actually change international law, enhancing its inability to become established, as it was never codified into law and was only implemented through common agreement. Whilst R2P may have been successful in altering the political discourse of intervention, there has been little change to political action. Therefore, it is not an established norm as it has not re-shaped state behaviour; it is not powerful enough to alter the political will of a state due to its dependency upon moral advocacy rather than having legal significance. In order for R2P to be consolidated, Hehir proposes UN reform to avoid cases where political will prevents protection, such as in Rwandan in 1994.

Inertia of pre-existing norms

A third criticism is that R2P does not actually offer anything new to the political arena. Reinold (2010) argues that despite claims that sovereignty has been transformed by the doctrine, the fundamental tenets of the international community remain the same. Reinhold highlights that R2P is not required to recognise the duty of states to prevent genocide, since this was enshrined over sixty years ago in the Genocide Convention (UN, 1948). This shows that R2P reinforces pre-existing precedents rather than creating any new means to protect people at risk of atrocities. This is emphasised by an analysis of US reluctance to intervene outside of their jurisdiction. Despite evidence of atrocity crimes in Darfur, the US did not invoke R2P, arguing that Sudan should protect people within their own territory. This demonstrates the persistence of original ideals of sovereignty, showing little theoretical change. Even supporters of R2P have noted the resistance to change and the lack of originality, with Bellamy arguing that it is “neither new…nor radical” (2009, p.20). Thus, R2P is not an established norm as it has failed to offer new precedents surrounding intervention and has failed to shift the fundamental logic of sovereignty that preserves domestic jurisdiction. This also feeds into the earlier point that state behaviour is left unaltered by the R2P

Collectively, these arguments form the basis for the view that R2P is not an established norm. A lack of consensus over its meaning makes its establishment in international law unlikely, preventing conceptual clarity and in turn entrenching ambiguity. This demonstrates that R2P has not consolidated a coherent identity amongst the international community, nor has it changed traditional norms of sovereignty. A culmination of these shortcomings means that R2P has little power to change the way that states behave, hindering the progression of the norm and impeding its establishment. These criticisms will now be refuted through four points that challenge these perceived weaknesses of the R2P.

R2P is an established norm

Norm model modification

A shift from traditional models of norm analysis that has a linear approach, insensitive to reality, exposes the established nature of R2P. The traditional norm “life cycle” involves three stages; emergence, cascade and internalisation (Finnemore and Sikkink, 1998).  According to this model, in order for a norm to become established it should have an “automatic” nature, by which states instinctively conform to it rather than questioning its premise; this is referred to in the model as the “taken-for-granted quality” (Finnemore and Sikkink, 1998, p.904, 895). As demonstrated by the criticisms in the previous section, it is evident that if this traditional model is employed it would serve to show that R2P is not established; conceptual ambiguity, inertia and inability to alter states behaviour are not indicative of an automatic response. As Shawki (2011, p.183) asserts, “R2P has not yet reached the tipping point”      that the norm model requires for establishment, due to the controversy and inconsistency surrounding its implementation. Thus, from this perspective R2P is “an evolving” (Shawki, 2011, p.175) rather than an established norm.

However, revisionist theorists, such as Gallagher (2015) have opposed this model for being too linear and argue that a modified version can provide an improved understanding of norms. The revisionist theorists assert that norms cannot be fixed norms that follow a structure in order to become established, enforcing a “tension between a static view of norm content and a dynamic picture of norm adoption and implementation” (Krook and True, 2012, p.103). Simplifying the development of a norm to a formula creates an expectation that all norms will subscribe to this routine evolution and that contestation paralyses a norm between stages, thus preventing establishment. This creates “expectation gaps” (Gallagher, 2015, p.254) as demands for R2P to conform to this model mean that any sign of disagreements that are not a feature of this model immediately disqualify it from an established status. The construction of a “crude birth/death narrative” (Gallagher, 2015, p.255) whereby R2P is forced to be positioned within a strict dichotomy, prevents it from developing as obstacles will inevitably emerge. This is demonstrated by the rhetoric surrounding the cases of Libya and Syria; R2P went from being branded as being fully utilised due to the fast response in the former, to the latter being used to show the “death of R2P” (Newton, 2013). Assessing a norm within such narrow boundaries enforces unattainable expectations. If inaction automatically triggers claims that R2P is dead and is not established, it is unclear as to what is expected of the norm in order for it to assume an established status. Thus, a revision of the norm model will facilitate a conceptualisation that is sensitive to the necessity of fluidity in the case of R2P, rather than forcing its categorisation within a particular stage of a cycle that induces unattainable expectations. Changing the means of analysis will enable critics to see the establishment of R2P as an international norm.

Furthermore, this rigid type of analysis negates the importance of contestation, leaving “norms analytically underestimated” (Weiner, 2004, p.198). Norms will struggle to become recognised as established if the traditionally rigid framework is applied and may overlook elements that are central to its consolidation. As Vans Kersbergen and Verbeek (2007) argue, ambiguity and debates over the meaning of norms can be the reason for their existence. This can be seen through the length of time and number of revisions it took for R2P to even enter the vocabulary of international debate. In contrasts to scholars that criticise the ambiguity of R2P (Shawki, 2011; Hehir, 2013), this shows that it is this precise ambiguity that has allowed R2P to flourish and become integrated within the international arena. Confining a norm to the parameters of consensus negates the importance of contestation; an essential prerequisite, out of which a norm can be refined as a result of disagreements. This can be seen from the Iraq crisis in 2003, which ironically enabled clarification of R2P given its failure in this case (Welsh, 2013). Moreover, critiquing R2P for lacking clarity and for being inconsistent is to critique the fundamental tenets of R2P. Inconsistency is enshrined due to R2P’s “case-by-case” (United Nations General Assembly, 2005, p.30) nature. Critics should redirect their focus to distinguishing between “legitimate and illegitimate inconsistency” (Gallagher, 2015), rather than grouping all deviances as evidence that R2P has not been consolidated and lacks rigidity. Thus, contestation should not be criticised for preventing a norm from being established but is a useful tool through which R2P can be improved and consolidated (Badescu and Weiss, 2010). Norms should be seen as “works-in-progress rather than as finished products” (Krook and True, 2012, p.104), corroborating the idea of exceedingly high expectations. If R2P is viewed in line with this perspective, it is evident that it is in fact an established norm and simply developing as part of an ongoing debate, rather than being constricted by a norm model that does not account for inevitable change.

The weaknesses of the traditional norm model have addressed the criticisms that R2P is not established due to inconsistency and ambiguity (Hehir, 2012; Reinhold, 2010). Conforming to the traditional norm model developed by Finnemore and Sikkink (1998) produces a rigid framework through which R2P is judged, harming its potential to become regarded as established. Not only does this model set unrealistic expectations, but it also overlooks the unique nature of R2P that allows it to operate on a case-specific basis, necessary for the conflicting international arena. Modifying this norm model permits a more realistic view of norms, sensitive to the unavoidable changing international environment. Thus, this section has shown why the criticisms of R2P are a barrier to its visible establishment and that changes to the linear and formulaic original conception will enable R2P to move beyond the assumed evolution stage.

Localisation and subsidiarity

R2P is an established norm as through localisation and subsidiarity it is evident that states see engagement with the norm as important to their identity. The traditional conceptualisation of norms ignores the importance of local actors in norm development, despite the fact that “localisation, not wholesale acceptance or rejection, settles most cases of normative contestation” (2004, p.239). Acharya (2013, p.469) uses a theory of “circulation” in which norms are adapted and modifications are then fed back to the original norm, referred to as norm subsidiarity. Whilst critics have argued that this lack of consensus over meaning shows lack of establishment (Reinold, 2010; Shawki, 2011), Acharya claims that this is in fact indicative of the opposite. Chekel (1999) supports this view, arguing that the distance between the norm makers and norm takers is an inevitable consequence of norm establishment and should not be construed as an impediment to consolidation. Using Brazil’s ‘Responsibility While Protecting’ as an example, this shows a state embracing the premises of the norm and a degree of acceptance, engaging and adapting so that it may be enshrined within a particular context. This fosters a culture of compliance; if a norm fits with a state’s principles they are more likely to interact with the norm, increasing its international presence and therefore showing its establishment. This idea also extends to cases where states actively refuse to engage with a norm or do so in a way that is generally disputed and perceived as straying from R2P. Russia’s actions in the war against Georgia are claimed to have been an abuse of the R2P norm, but despite this initially being portrayed as a failure of the norm’s establishment, this misuse by a specific actor enabled greater clarification (Gonzales and Contarino, 2014). Similarly, China’s precarious relationship with R2P has forced them to “respond to the naming and shaming” (Prankl and Nakano, 2011, p.214) of accusations of violations. Rather than this showing a lack of establishment due to failure of complicity, China is recognising its validity, reinforcing R2P’s establishment. This also serves to strengthen a norm, as rather than states passively receiving an idea, they are actively engaging with it and moulding it to suit their political conditions, generating greater consensus behind it and ensuring a greater probability of its survival due to compatibility resulting from localisation and subsidiarity. States exhibiting a degree of agency should not be perceived as an obstacle to establishment but are indicative of an established norm.

Brazil’s ‘Responsibility whilst Protecting’ is also demonstrative of the established nature of R2P as developing states recognise it as a means to obtain a status as a significant global power. As Gallagher and Ralph (2015) assert, the belief that R2P is a mechanism to ascend in global power hierarchies shows that supporting or rejecting the norm is central to a state’s identity and shapes not only how a state perceives itself, but how other actors perceive it. This highlights how R2P imposes “new expectations” (Kenkel and de Rosa, 2015, p.333) on states and regions as they strive to gain a higher status in the international arena. Therefore, R2P is established as it fundamentally affects the direction of the world order as states are inclined to conform to ideas that have become a prerequisite for power. This supports the idea that R2P is an established norm as if it did not have this level of entrenchment, less emphasis would be placed on it as a source of legitimacy.  R2P’s definitive role is thus evidence of its established nature; incentivising emerging powers and acting as a means to access greater power in the realm of international politics. This directly refutes Hehir’s (2012) claim that R2P is nothing more than rhetoric as if this were the case it would not have to ability to shape the identities of states nor have the ability to determine their position on the international stage. Furthermore, it challenges the claim that the way in which states behave is not affected by the norm. The R2P norm does bare significance in state behaviour, regardless of whether they are motivated by opportunism or on a moral basis. If R2P was not an established norm, states would not invest time in attempting to engage with the norm, both in terms of localisation and subsidiarity processes.

This section has shown that claims by Hehir (2012) that R2P is rhetoric rather than substance are flawed. Local actors actively engaging with the norm shows a degree of acceptance of the fundamental premise of R2P and a desire to integrate it within their own system, demonstrating norm establishment. Furthermore, modifications through subsidiarity strengthens it through improvements that allow it to be entrenched within all states. The influence that it has on state behaviour reinforces that R2P extends beyond rhetoric, having implications for policy as well as informing state identities and serving as a source of legitimacy for states seeking an elevated status in the international sphere. Thus, R2P is an established norm as it frames state actions and legitimates behaviour.

Over-emphasis on Pillar III

Emphasising the military intervention pillar of R2P discounts the importance of other aspects, inevitably producing a conceptualising of an un-established norm. Pillar three, regarding military intervention, tends to be the focus of any discussion surrounding R2P (Shawki, 2011) and has become the criteria upon which the norm’s effectiveness is measured. However, despite this tendency, Badescu and Weiss (2010) assert that R2P is not synonymous with intervention and consists of many other tools such as prevention. Welsh corroborates this view, stating that “R2P is much more than just a means by which the international community can react- militarily or otherwise- to the commission of atrocity crimes” (2016, p.217). Shifting the definitive focus of the doctrine away from the use of force reveals that R2P has been consolidated as the use, of lack thereof, of military intervention is “not an appropriate ‘test’ for effectiveness” (Welsh, 2013, p.367). This is due to the fact the social reality will never create conditions that will allow for consistent intervention to be the appropriate reaction; each case is      unique, and inconsistency is embedded within the R2P doctrine to enable this. If analysis of R2P acknowledges this and broadens the lens through which R2P is assessed, the doctrine can be rewarded for the other objectives that it satisfies; acting as a “catalyst for debate” (Welsh, 2013, p.387) rather than an immediate justification for the use of force.

The case of Syria shows the damaging effects that over-emphasis on intervention can have, detracting from the fundamental internalised nature of the norm. Syria tends to be heralded as a significant failure, given the growing rise of evidence of atrocity crimes being committed and a limited response (Nuruzzaman, 2014). However, this does not mean that the R2P norm is not established but that it has influenced the response in other ways. R2P has been intrinsic to the majority of debates surrounding the use of force in the crisis and has guided deliberations, visibly seen through Obama’s rhetoric around Syria (Glanville, 2016). The norm cannot be branded as unestablished due to the absence of military intervention as this negates the impact of the norm at a constitutive and regulative level; what should be emphasised is that R2P meant that states felt that they were bound to act in some way to protect Syrian civilians or justify their actions if they did not act. This challenges claims that R2P is not an established norm based on its inability to change behaviour. Whilst this may not always result in action, the change is in the fact that states recognise the significance of the responsibility in their decision and that it is fundamental to discussions. Equating the fulfilment of the norm with intervention ignores other methods enshrined within R2P and misconstrues the original intent, as well as interferes with an analysis focusing on the success of R2P in establishing a framework for response.

Thus, this section has demonstrated that R2P is an established norm as it has guided discussions on cases. The trends in analysis to solely use military intervention as the determinant of the norm’s effectiveness provides an account that is narrow in scope. Shifting the focus can enrich discussion to allow the R2P norm flexibility to work on each case differently, as was originally enshrined within the document as well as to respond with the consideration of all factors. Syria is a crucial case in terms of R2P’s      lifespan. The lack of military action shows that the importance of R2P can be seen in other areas not involving the use of force. R2P is therefore established in the sense that it provides a “duty of conduct” (Welsh, 2013, p.387) for states to follow and is acknowledged even when action does not occur.

Reality and Compromise

The established nature of R2P has been clouded by an analysis that does not reflect the nuances within the international environment and the myriad of actors influencing a state. The element of self-interest ultimately infiltrates the majority of international actions, which the norm of protection is also subjected to. States have multi-faceted interests which will affect their behaviour (Ralph and Souter, 2015), which is an inevitable product of a fluctuating international sphere and different diplomatic relationships. As a result, when internalising a norm, states will have to navigate through the terrain of multiple norms rather than isolating the specific elements of R2P, which will often favour their own strategic interests. However, critics have argued that this means it is not established. Wheeler (2000) argues that regardless of the motivations, if civilians are protected and the norm is fulfilled as a by-product of promoting self-interest, this does not mean that the norm has not been established, but that it is part of a plurality of norms. This in reinforced by Paris which he describes as the “mixed motives problem” (2014, p.572) as states will not just be driven by the moral aspects of the R2P doctrine but also their economic and political interests. Assessments of R2P branding it a developing, rather than a consolidated, norm due to this problem judge it unfairly; it is inevitable that R2P will be enmeshed within the various interests of states yet the fact that it can still be fulfilled and enters into discussion alongside these interests is evidence of its establishment. Thus, having a realistic outlook prevents the unavoidable self-interest motivations from impeding upon the achievements of the R2P norm and its consolidated nature amongst other established interests.

Furthermore, the interplay of R2P with other factors also means that its implementation has to be compatible with the existing international normative framework. This is emphasised by Krook and True, arguing that norms are defined “in ways that they anticipate will resonate with audiences” (2012, p.110). If R2P was to propose drastically radical changes to the international community, compliance with the norm would be extremely low, rendering it a failure. The idea of the R2P norm being a “cultural match” (Checkel, 1990) refutes Reinold’s (2010) critique that R2P is not established as it has failed to change existing norms and has not established any new precedents. In order for a norm to obtain a consolidated nature it has to be sensitive to its political environment, which may be hostile towards significantly new ideals. Expanding upon what has already been established is not evidence of a lack of consolidation but demonstrates cautious planning of a norm that has been consolidated with ease amongst existing ideas.

In sum, when assessing the established nature of the R2P norm, the reality of international politics has to be considered. If R2P is to be criticised for not being established simply because it is not the sole driving force behind implementation, then this is an example of flawed thinking (Paris, 2014) and will produce a view of R2P that is setting expectations that cannot be obtained. If the contents of the norm can be achieved in light of self-interest being promoted, this is still evidence of its established nature as it can operate effectively amongst other factors. Furthermore, inertia has a purpose of ensuring greater compliance and an ease for internationalisation and should therefore not be the basis of criticism. Thus, as has been the case for the previous sections, an analysis of the established nature of R2P should be sensitive to the political environment in which it is implemented, as well as the pre-existing normative framework, in order to show its truly consolidated nature.


In conclusion, it is clear that R2P is not a succinct norm that can be easily categorised as established. The ambiguity of the norm has hindered the development of a clear plan for a response and has manifested a lack of consensus over the norm. The lack of radical change has reinforced the idea that R2P is not established, given that it has not changed existing precedents and its popular use has detracted from the original aims, stimulating claims that it is simply rhetoric. However, this essay has shown that these criticisms are only substantial if a traditional norm model is applied. This type of analysis is too formulaic in its approach and will inevitably result in R2P being branded as unestablished given its narrow scope. Broadening the lens produces an analysis sensitive to the fluctuations of the international political environment and is therefore a more legitimate means through which the R2P norm can be assessed. Using this modified approach, it is evident that R2P is established as states and regions are actively working to entrench the doctrine within their existing political frameworks, thereby strengthening the norm. Shifting from a focus on intervention, R2P can be seen to have framed debates on current pressing crises such as Syria and forms part of the numerous norms that affect state behaviour. Thus, critics demand too much from a norm that will inevitably fall short of establishment expectations and altering this approach will show the consolidated nature of the norm that ultimately frames international debate.


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

Nikita Sinclair, University of Leeds, UK

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

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

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

Expectation of linear norm development 

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

Emphasis on consistency

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

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

Lacking appreciation of competing international norms

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

Overconcentration on Pillar III 

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


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


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A Norm-in-Formation? An Analysis of Brazil and China’s Normative Engagement with the Responsibility to Protect

Joseph Jegat, University of Leeds, United Kingdom

Joseph graduated from the University of Leeds in 2016.

The question of whether the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) is an established norm in international relations has been the subject of much academic debate in recent years. This paper will argue that R2P is best described not as a fully established norm, but as a ‘norm-in-formation’ (Negron-Gonzalez and Contarino, 2014). It reaches this conclusion based on three assessments of R2P. First, R2P is a complex norm with a contested nature, which prevents it from being fully internalised by states. Second, contestation surrounding R2P’s Pillar III can actually help to consolidate and further establish the norm rather than weaken it. Third, Brazil and China are engaging with R2P in a way that contributes to its normative formation and establishment in international relations.

This article will be split into three sections. The first section will analyse the complex nature of the R2P norm and will show that contestation is both a normal and beneficial part of R2P’s global diffusion. The second section will assess the ways in which Brazil and China have contributed to the continued normative formation of R2P through their respective concepts of ‘Responsibility while Protecting’ and ‘Responsible Protection’. The third section will offer conclusive remarks.

R2P: A Complex and Contested Norm

Norms in the discipline of International Relations can describe two things. First, they can describe existing social realities, or how the world is. Second, they can describe an aspiration, providing a framework for how the world ought to be (Ralph and Souter, 2015, p.68). As a normative aspiration, R2P is clear. There exists shared expectation that states have a responsibility to protect their populations, and that if they fail to do so, then the international community should help to protect these populations. This basic premise of R2P was unanimously adopted in 2005 and outlined in paragraphs 138 – 140 of the World Summit Outcome Document (UNGA, 2005). Whether R2P is an existing social reality, however, is less clear, and will be the focus of this essay.

R2P is best described as a ‘complex norm’ (Welsh, 2013), as it contains at least two norms, concerning both the responsibility of individual states and of the international community (Bellamy, 2014, p.22). The responsibility of states to protect their populations from genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing (Pillar I) is now a universally accepted norm embedded in international law. Pillar I has a high degree of what Jeffrey Legro (1997) terms ‘specificity’, meaning that it is clear and unambiguous, increasing the ‘compliance-pull’ of the norm (Franck, 1990, in Bellamy, 2014, p.7). The higher the specificity of a norm, the less open it is to contestation, which goes some way to explaining why Pillar I can be considered a fully consolidated norm in the discipline of International Relations. Pillar III (international intervention) on the other hand, and to a lesser extent Pillar II (international assistance), is much less universally accepted, partly because it lacks specificity, leaving it open to subjective interpretation.

The complex and sometimes ambiguous nature of R2P makes it especially vulnerable to criticism (Deitelhoff and Zimmermann, 2013; Garwood-Gowers, 2015). Pillar III in particular lacks conceptual clarity – highlighted, for example, by the lack of a threshold criteria for when international intervention becomes necessary and legitimate. For sceptics such as Aidan Hehir, the lack of clarity regarding intervention ‘influences the extent to which R2P can be deemed to constitute a “norm”’ (2013, p.151). Furthermore, Hehir (2013) argues that R2P had little, if any, influence over the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) decision to militarily intervene in Libya in 2011. Hehir’s criticisms highlight the fact that Pillar III remains highly contested, which prevents R2P as a whole from being considered fully established in International Relations.

Focusing solely on Pillar III, however, ignores the normative consolidation of both Pillars I and II. Although the 2011 Libyan intervention has somewhat stalled Pillar III progression, Pillar II has enjoyed widespread – although not absolute – support from states and has been the primary focus of the United Nations (UN) Special Adviser on the Responsibility to Protect since 2013 (Gallagher, 2015, p.1259). R2P has much more to it than just international military intervention. Perhaps paradoxically though, Pillar III contestation may help to further consolidate R2P in the long term.

Early Constructivist research on norms assumed that the ‘norm life cycle’ was a linear process, whereby norms emerge, cascade and become internalised in a progressive manner (Finnemore and Sikkink, 1998), with a general assumption that once norms had become internalised they were set in stone. More recent work has shown, however, that norms remain contested even after states have internalised them. Norms are of an ‘inherently contested quality’ (Wiener and Puetter, 2009, p.7) better understood as dynamic ‘processes’ subject to ongoing dispute rather than ‘things’ as such (Krook and True, 2010). Norm contestation is, in fact, a regular feature of a norm’s life, which is not necessarily synonymous with normative regression (Hofmann, 2015; Garwood-Gowers, 2015).

If anything, contestation can actually help to clarify and reinforce a ‘norm-in-formation’. Cristina Badescu and Thomas Weiss (2010) find that misapplication of R2P has helped to consolidate the norm by clarifying the boundaries of the concept. For example, former French Foreign Minister Bernard Koucher’s attempts to invoke R2P after 2008 Cyclone Nargis in Burma helped clarify that R2P was applicable only to the four crimes (genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing) and not for humanitarian assistance following natural disasters (Badescu and Weiss, 2010, p.362).

Following this logic, the fallout over NATO’s perceived misuse of R2P during the 2011 Libya intervention may help to clarify the boundaries of Pillar III military intervention. UN Resolution 1973 explicitly stated that authorisation had been granted for NATO to ‘take all necessary measures…to protect civilians and civilian populated areas under threat of attack’ (emphasis added, UNSC, 2011, p.3). It did not authorise regime change, which led to widespread criticism that NATO had overstepped its mandate and used R2P to mask a Western led liberal intervention with the ultimate goal of democratisation. Although NATO’s military actions have led to significant backlash against Pillar III (Garwood-Gowers, 2015, p.320) – as is all too visible in the UNSC stalemate over Syria – in the long term, the lessons learnt from the misuse of Pillar III in Libya may help to clarify the boundaries of Pillar III military action which will help make the norm more legitimate and applicable in the future (Acharya, 2013).

Post-2011 Pillar III contestation has been of what Nicole Deitelhoff and Lisbeth Zimmermann (2013) define as ‘applicatory contestation’. Critics of the NATO intervention have taken issue with the way in which R2P’s Pillar III was interpreted and applied in Libya. They have not directed their criticism towards the more fundamental idea that the international community has a responsibility to protect populations when states are incapable or unwilling to do so. According to Deitelhoff and Zimmermann, this type of contestation usually strengthens a norm’s validity by helping to clarify the boundaries of its usage (2013, p.14). The second type of norm contestation is ‘justificatory’, which challenges core values and may lead to normative regression. Although there is some evidence that post-Libya contestation has been of a more challenging ‘justificatory’ nature (Garwood-Gowers, 2015), in general, states accept that international involvement is necessary is certain crises where mass atrocities have been committed (Bellamy, 2014; Evans, 2016). This suggests that the normative values of R2P may be more internalised than many critics assume.

Constructive engagement: Brazil and China 

The first part of this essay has argued that R2P is a complex norm, comprising multiple tenets that have been internalised to varying degrees. It has also shown that ‘applicatory contestation’ surrounding Pillar III can assist with conceptual clarification, helping the norm to become further established in the long term. The remainder of this essay will focus on the normative contributions made by Brazil and China, as these illustrate the continued formation of the R2P norm. These states have been selected as both have developed important concepts that aim to shape the trajectory of R2P’s advancement. Firstly, however, it is necessary to briefly explore the theoretical ways in which states can influence the development of a norm.

Norm diffusion describes the process by which global norms come to be accepted at the local level. This dynamic and active process is characterised by argumentation at the domestic and international level, which can both advance and restrain normative development (Kenkel and De Rosa, 2015). States engage with this process in a bid to act as ‘norm makers’ rather than ‘norm takers’. Emerging powers such as Brazil and China are particularly keen to be viewed as norm makers – and especially do not want to be viewed as norm takers – as it may help them attain the status of global powers (Kenkel and De Rosa, 2015; Prantl and Nakano, 2011). How states engage with norm diffusion, however, depends, for example, on factors such as compatibility of the global norm with pre-existing local norms (Brosig and Zahringer, 2015, p.352).

For Amitav Acharya, norm creation and diffusion is a two way process best defined as ‘norm circulation’, which combines Acharya’s earlier work on ‘localization’ and ‘subsidiarity’.

[G]lobal norms offered by transnational moral actors are contested and localized to fit the cognitive priors of local actors (localization), while this local feedback is repatriated back to the wider global context along with other locally constructed norms and help to modify and possibly defend and strengthen the global norm in question (subsidiarity) (2013, p.469).

Similarly, Jochen Prantl and Ryoko Nakano (2011) argue that norm diffusion is best described not as a top down linear process but as a ‘feedback loop’, whereby states attempt to alter the properties of a norm to fit their own strategic interests. The concepts of norm circulation and norm feedback highlight the dynamic nature of norm diffusion, and show that states can play important roles in shaping the trajectory of a ‘norm-in-formation’.

Brazilian and Chinese engagement with R2P fits within this theoretical framework. These emerging powers have simultaneously embraced and contested different parts of the norm according to pre-existing local norms, and have then attempted to modify R2P in order to accommodate this feedback. Their clearest attempts at shaping the norm have been in the form of Brazil’s Responsibility while Protecting (RwP) and China’s Responsible Protection concepts. Although both states embrace the central principles of R2P, they have taken issue with the way Pillar III was implemented by NATO in Libya (Kenkel and De Rosa, 2015; Negron-Gonzalez and Contarino, 2014). In China especially, there has been great difficulty in reconciling Pillar III intervention with local norms such as a longstanding and deeply rooted commitment to non-interference and the inviolability of sovereignty (Prantl and Nakano, 2011).

Although Brazil is also bound to the idea of non-interference, South American states’ experiences of military dictatorships have led to a strong normative commitment to human rights (Welsh et al, 2013). RwP, therefore, is aimed at improving the implementation of Pillar III action. It does not undermine the principles of R2P. Brazil’s RwP concept argues for the need to have more specific criteria for authorising military intervention, as existing provisions in the 2005 World Summit Outcome Document are too vague (Tourihno et al, 2016). Similarly, China’s Responsible Protection builds on the ideas of RwP and the original International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty report ‘The Responsibility to Protect’ (2001), and outlines a stricter criteria for Pillar III military intervention. Responsible Protection stresses that any intervention must not negatively affect regional peace and stability, must not be interpreted to equate to regime change, and must not cause greater harm than already exists (Garwood-Gowers, 2016, p.103).

Brazil’s capacity to follow up RwP with concrete proposals for moving forward has been very limited (Welsh et al, 2013), and China’s Responsible Protection is not even official government policy (Garwood-Gowers, 2016). Despite these setbacks, Brazilian and Chinese engagement with R2P is of the utmost importance for the further development of R2P as a norm. These concepts have helped open up the debate on Pillar III intervention (Tourihno et al, 2016), and have highlighted the importance of getting non-Western emerging powers on board with R2P. RwP and Responsible Protection are forms of feedback which shape ‘norm circulation’ (Acharya, 2013), and hold great potential for progressing R2P in the aftermath of Libya. If states perceive themselves as ‘norm shapers’, they are much more likely to embrace and internalise said norm.

As Ramesh Thakur (2016) has argued, there should be a focus on improving the implementation of R2P to safeguard the norm from abuse and failure. This is exactly what RwP and Responsible Protection set out to do, by contesting Pillar III in an ‘applicatory’ manner which could help to clarify the boundaries of the norm, potentially bringing UNSC permanent 5 members Russia and China back on board (Evans, 2016). The willingness of emerging powers to engage with norm entrepreneurship is a positive sign, as the legitimacy of R2P is dependent upon acceptance by non-Western states (Garwood-Gowers, 2016). Long term consolidation of R2P requires a certain degree of consensus over Pillar III actions (Negron-Gonzalez and Contarino, 2014, p.270), and at present, the concepts offered by Brazil and China offer the most promising way forward.


This article has argued that R2P is best described not as a fully established norm, but as a ‘norm-in-formation’ (Negron-Gonzalez and Contarino, 2014). That is because R2P is a complex norm, combining multiple tenets that receive varying degrees of international support. Pillar I has become universally established and is enshrined in international law. Pillar III, on the other hand, is subjective and ambiguous, leaving it vulnerable to interpretation and contestation. Contestation, paradoxically, can aid with conceptual clarification, which will make the norm less vulnerable in the long term. In this way, post-Libya contestation may help to consolidate and further establish Pillar III, increasing the likelihood of state internalisation the R2P norm fully.

Furthermore, this article showed that through a process of feedback and circulation, Brazil and China have made valuable contributions to the continued normative formation of R2P. The RwP and RP concepts have raised important questions that must be addressed if R2P is to continue developing into its second decade. Assessing the point at which R2P can be considered an established norm poses difficulties by itself. Norms do not have a clear endpoint. They continue to evolve for as long as the norm is referred to and acted upon (Brosig and Zahringer, 2015, p.354). It is not within the scope of this essay to assess the theoretical point at which R2P may be considered fully established, but a step in that direction requires widespread consensus and internalisation of Pillar III. At present, this requires constructive engagement with non-Western concepts such as Brazil’s RwP and China’s Responsible Protection.


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Fulfilling the Promise of R2P: Our Shared Responsibility

Prof. Alex J. Bellamy, Director, Asia Pacific Centre for the Responsibility to Protect

We humans have often demonstrated an immense capacity to tolerate colossal inhumanity. As a result, no region of the world has escaped the scourge of genocide and mass atrocities in the past century or so. Time and again there have been impassioned appeals to put an end to these crimes, which shock the very conscience of mankind. Yet until very recently the world’s default response to mass killing, rape, torture and forced deportation was to stand aside and do little. From Phnom Penh to Kigali, the outside world offered little but fine words to the victims of atrocity crimes.

One response to the problem of mass atrocities has come in the form of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) principle. Although – like all human-made things – it is far from perfect, R2P offers the best chance in our own time to build an international community less tolerant of mass atrocities and more predisposed to preventing them and protecting their intended victims. My optimism is based on the fact that R2P has achieved something that earlier projects did not: genuine and resilient international consensus.

R2P was adopted unanimously in 2005 by the United Nations General Assembly, in which all 193 Member States of the UN are represented. Four years later, in 2009, that same body agreed—again unanimously—to continue consideration of the principle’s implementation. The UN Security Council has referred to R2P in no fewer than 40 resolutions. The UN’s General Assembly and Human Rights Council have also adopted resolutions referring to the principle. To those who see Western hegemony lurking in the shadows—it bears pointing out that by virtue of their permanent membership of the UN Security Council, China and Russia have cast more votes at the UN in favor of the principle than have the great majority of Western democracies. This is a truly global undertaking and therein lies the transformative potential of R2P.

R2P is a disarmingly simply idea. It holds that sovereign states have a responsibility to protect their own populations from four crimes that indisputably ‘shock the conscience of humankind’ and their incitement: genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing, and crimes against humanity. It requires that the UN’s Member States assist each other to fulfill their responsibility, because some states lack the physical capacity and legitimacy needed to protect their populations from these crimes. Finally, R2P says that when states are ‘manifestly failing’ to protect their populations from these four crimes, whether through lack of capacity or will or as a result of deliberate intent, the international community should respond in a ‘timely and decisive’ fashion with diplomatic, humanitarian, and other peaceful means and, failing that, with all the tools that are available to the United Nations (UN) Security Council. This can include the use of military force, which is sometimes a tragic necessity. R2P calls specifically for the prevention of the four crimes and of their incitement.

These are the three pillars of the Responsibility to Protect: (1) the primary responsibility of states to protect their own population from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity, and from their incitement; (2) the duty of states to assist each other to build the capacities necessary to discharge the first responsibility; (3) the international community’s responsibility to take timely and decisive action to protect populations from the four crimes when the state in question fails to do so. The principle is simple; it is the politics that surround it and the challenge of realizing its ambition in practice that is so difficult.

This is where individual responsibility comes in. R2P is not a self-fulfilling norm. It is a statement of shared expectation – a commitment of what the world ought to do in order to end genocide and mass atrocities once and for all. We all have a role to play and the choices each of us make will shape whether or not things change for the better. Naturally, whilst we can point to some notable successes – think of the diplomatic effort that ended Kenya’s post-election violence in 2008, of the successful efforts to ensure that Myanmar’s 2015 election was conducted peacefully (in a context where the risk of atrocities was uniformly judged to be very high), and of desperate ongoing efforts to prevent the escalation of violence in Burundi — but our practice sometimes falls well short of the mark as it did in Sri Lanka and as it is in Syria.  The world’s failures to protect are not failures of R2P as a principle, it is rather a failure of national leaders and others to honor the commitments they made in 2005.  R2P creates a shared expectation that allows us to judge when we are succeeding or failing. But translating the promise into practice depends on choices of individuals and groups around the world.

That is why a journal like this is so important. We need fresh thinking, we need analysis, we need to know what is happening, why and with what effects. The international community has never tried to implement a principle like R2P before and there is no blueprint to follow. We need, therefore, to learn from our experience – and to do so rapidly. There are also myriad new challenges, unforeseen a decade ago – in particular those posed by non-state armed groups and violent extremists. By contributing to the debate, generating new knowledge and sharing analysis, journals like this can make an incredibly useful contribution to practice.

As students and academics we have choices. We can choose to use our research, community engagement and other skills to help strengthen R2P and improve its implementation.  We can help figure out what works and what does not work, to learn the lessons from past cases, to help build the capacities that states and societies need to resist the forces of extremism and escalation, to deepen our understanding of how R2P is conceptualized and practiced in different parts of the world, and to hold leaders to account on whether they are fulfilling their commitments. Alternatively, we can choose the comparatively easy path of cynicism and despair: we could condemn R2P as western imperialism (but explain that to the many Africans, Asians and Latin Americans working hard to implement the principle), we could insist that R2P will never work and that only some unimagined global revolution can do the trick (in the meantime, the cost of inaction will be paid in the lives of the victims of today’s and tomorrow’s atrocity crimes), in short we can promote hopelessness from our ivory towers, in the safe comfort of knowing that we will never be held accountable for our ideas or held responsible for making them work in practice. Cynicism is the easy road to take, but that is not the road taken by those who want to make R2P a daily lived reality. They have chosen a much more challenging path, but one that can make a real and positive difference to lives real people lead.

R2P was not designed to be a precious jar sitting on the mantelpiece in perfect conceptual isolation. It was meant to be used, tarnished, brought into the rough and tumble of global political life. As a result, its imperfections and those of its implementation are all too obvious to see. But so too is the progress it is engendering. The world is now more likely to respond to genocide and mass atrocities than it was before R2P. It is much more likely to prioritize protection in its responses.  But there is much more that needs to be done. This important initiative, spearheaded by students from the University of Leeds and the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva, can make an important contribution to delivering on the commitment to R2P that all states made ten years ago. And that, I think, would be time very well spent.