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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Between Realpolitik and Humanitarianism: Why Is the Application of the R2P Inconsistent? A Closer Look at Libya and Venezuela

Valentina Uccioli, University College London, UK

Valentina Uccioli is a final-year student at University College London, graduating in European Social and Political Studies. Originally from Italy, her interest for international development, human rights and the Hispanic culture has brought her to Madrid (Spain), Santiago (Chile), and Granada (Spain) as visiting student. She has interned at the Organization of American States in the Dominican Republic.


This paper critically examines the inconsistent application of the concept of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P), focusing on the case studies of Libya in 2011 and Venezuela today. The application of R2P requires a ‘manifest failure’ of the state to protect its citizens. However, it is unclear what threshold ‘manifestly failing’ entails. I use Gallagher’s (2014) criteria to show how in both crises, the Libyan and the Venezuelan governments respectively, were ‘manifestly failing’ their responsibility. In light of this, the paper examines the geopolitical interests of the 5 permanent members (P5) of the UN Security Council (US, UK, France, Russia, China) involved in each crisis. The result shows how the lack of particular interests from China and Russia in Libya prevented them from vetoing Resolution 1973 that allowed a NATO coalition to intervene to protect Libyans. However, in Venezuela, the interests of the P5 diverge, preventing the UN Security Council from providing the country with proper relief, despite the evidence of severe human suffering. Further, this paper finds that the intervention in Libya has led to a discrediting of R2P, since, given the controversial outcome of such intervention, R2P has been linked to regime change. This increased political weight has severely reduced the chances that the UNSC will apply R2P in relation to Venezuela.


Humanitarian interventions have been increasingly common since the end of WWII – owing to the emerging idea that mass atrocities should no longer be protected behind the shield of “national sovereignty”, and that states should act ‘in defence of common humanity’ (Annan, 1999). These notions culminated in 2001 with the formulation of the doctrine of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P), articulated by the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS). The project was aimed at creating a moral imperative for the international community to intervene when a state was failing its responsibility to protect its population from war crimes, crimes against humanity, genocide, and ethnic cleansing (“the four crimes”, as agreed at the 2005 World Summit).

The relevance of the doctrine relies on three main elements. First, it has managed to solve the controversies around the concept of humanitarian intervention, the result of a history of colonial powers invading and conquering countries of the global South on supposed humanitarian grounds. Second, it has achieved a balance between the notion of sovereignty and intervention for humanitarian purposes. It has done so by drawing inspiration from Francis Deng’s idea of ‘sovereignty as responsibility’ (1996), shifting the concept from sovereignty as a right of the state over the population to sovereignty as a duty of the state toward the population in terms of protection. Third, it has created a moral duty for the international community to intervene when faced with mass atrocities.

However, inconsistency seems to be the main trend since the global adoption of the doctrine (Hehir, 2013), formalised through the 2005 World Summit Outcome Document (WSOD). The concept has been invoked several times, but it was never used to allow a military intervention until the crisis in Libya broke out in 2011, when a United Nations Security Council (UNSC) resolution invoking R2P authorised a North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) coalition to protect civilians. However, in the same year heinous crimes were being committed in Syria, but the UNSC did not vote in favour of a similar resolution despite greater atrocities being perpetrated.

In light of this, the aim of this paper is to understand why the application of R2P has been so uneven and what the contributing factors are. In order to understand how these factors interplay, I will use the Libyan and Venezuelan crises as case studies. Libya, considered ‘a textbook example of the doctrine working as it was supposed to’ (Evans, 2012), was the first time the UNSC authorised the intervention in a functioning state against its will. Venezuela is one of the gravest humanitarian crises in Latin American history and serves as a case study to show how crimes against humanity can be perpetrated even in absence of an armed conflict.

One would expect that once it has been determined that a state is failing its responsibility, the international community should feel compelled to act. Nonetheless, as we have seen in multiple cases – Syria in 2012, for instance – there are several other factors that determine whether states will intervene to stop mass atrocities. My hypothesis is that, given the current structure of the UNSC and the veto power, geopolitical interests play a determinant role in the application of R2P, and alongside with the discrediting of the doctrine, they help explain the inconsistent application of R2P.


The doctrine of R2P is composed of three pillars. The first one relies on the assumption that the state has a responsibility for the population’s protection. The second pillar is concerned with the international community’s responsibility to assist and engage with those states that are unable to uphold their responsibility. Finally, the third and most controversial pillar claims that ‘The international community, through the United Nations, [is] prepared to take collective action, in a timely and decisive manner, […] on a case-by-case basis [when] national authorities are manifestly failing to protect their populations’ (WSOD, 2005). However, there is no specific definition for what “manifestly failing” entails, and this is why Gallagher, in his paper “Syria and the indicators for ’manifest failing’” (2014), sets out a series of criteria to determine what is the boundary a state has to cross to show a manifest failure of its responsibility. According to Gallagher, these are: government’s intentions to neglect its responsibility, death toll, displacement of people, weapons of choice, and targeting of children, women and elderly.

I will use these criteria as variables in the comparison between the Libyan and Venezuelan crises to determine whether they meet the criteria and will argue that they do. Secondly, I will analyse the P5’s (permanent five members of the UNSC) geopolitical interests and claim that they did play a role in determining the intervention in Libya and the inaction in Venezuela. Finally, I will evaluate whether the criticism and discrediting suffered by the doctrine of R2P since the intervention in Libya is hindering states’ willingness to use the doctrine to authorise another intervention.



The Libyan crisis started on the 17th of February 2011 when protests broke out following uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt as part of the Arab Spring. Libya’s President and Revolutionary Leader Muammar Qaddafi responded with violent suppression of the demonstrations. In just six days, according to the International Federation of Human Rights, the death toll was estimated at 300 to 400 (Meikle and Black, 2011). Facing this widespread violence, regional organisations, traditionally anti-Western and sympathetic to the Middle Eastern and North African governments, ‘joined the chorus of international protest’ (Zifcak, 2012, p.5). The Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), the League of Arab States (LAS) and the African Union (AU), all condemned the violence and called for immediate talks.

The statements issued by these regional organisations ‘signalled the international community’s heightened concern with respect to events in Libya and provided the necessary backing for decisive action’ (Zifcak, 2012, p.5). In fact, on February 26th, the Security Council issued Resolution 1970, which condemned the Qaddafi regime and demanded an immediate end to violence (S/RES/1970, 2011). However, the Libyan regime refused the allegation, and the further escalation of violence consequently pushed the Arab and African states to become even more vehement in their insistence for action to be taken. The League of Arab States after declaring that the Libyan authorities had lost all their legitimacy, demanded the Security Council to enforce a no-fly zone (LAS, 2011, p. 2).

Nevertheless, Qaddafi started bombing rebel-held areas and, on March 17th, the UNSC adopted the ground-breaking Resolution 1973, authorising coercive military measures to prevent a mass atrocity. This resolution allowed Member States to take ‘all necessary measures to protect civilians and civilian-populated areas under threat of attack’ (S/RES/1973, 2011), imposing a no-fly zone and authorising a coalition of states under the NATO’s umbrella to enforce a ban on flights. Two days after the resolution was adopted, the coalition started bombing the regime’s military positions. However, NATO’s strategy quickly ‘stretch[ed] the terms of Resolution 1973 to their absolute limits’ (Zifcak, 2012, p.8) and soon morphed into regime change.


In contrast with the Libyan crisis, Venezuela’s situation does not have a specific starting date, and does not involve an armed conflict – rather, it is the result of two decades of mismanagement, corruption and authoritarianism. President Nicolás Maduro’s predecessor, Hugo Chávez, implemented a series of populist economic policies to eradicate poverty and inequality, providing the population with access to public services. Thanks to the popularity acquired through these social programmes, the government developed into ‘semi-authoritarian and hyper-populist’ (Corrales, 2015) in order to secure control over the country’s highly profitable oil resources. However, in 2014, one year after Chávez’s death and Maduro’s election, the drop in oil prices led to Venezuela’s economic collapse, caused also by the nature of the regime that disincentivised the government from managing the oil boom efficiently (Corrales, 2015). However, instead of restoring the foundations of a thriving economy and a democratic society, Nicolás Maduro ‘chose the road to overt authoritarianism’ (Venezuelan and Ausman, 2019), leading to one of the worst socio-economic and humanitarian crises in the history of the Western Hemisphere.

In May 2019, the High Commissioner for Human Rights (HCHR), Michelle Bachelet, visited Venezuela and published a report concluding that ‘there are reasonable grounds to believe that grave violations of economic and social rights, including the rights to food and health, have been committed in Venezuela’ (2019, p.14). In terms of political rights, the regime has been undermining the rule of law and the democratic institutions in order to neutralise the opposition and repress any political opponents. The OHCHR (2019, p. 6) has ‘documented a number of cases of arbitrary detention of people for expressing opinions on social media’ and according to the NGO Foro Penal Venezolano, between 2014 and 2019, 15,045 people were detained for political reasons. In several cases, people detained are subject to various forms of torture and degrading treatments such as beating, electric shock, sexual violence and water boarding (OHCHR, 2019).

Moreover, armed ”colectivos” (paramilitary groups that support the regime) have been contributing to the maintenance of the regime’s social control through repression of demonstrations and dissent. As a consequence, the number of extrajudicial executions has risen dramatically. The NGO Observatorio Venezolano de la Violencia (2018) has reported 7,523 extrajudicial killings only in 2018. As a result of the extrajudicial killings, arbitrary detentions, and tortures carried out by Maduro’s forces, in September 2018, the situation in Venezuela has been referred to the International Criminal Court (ICC) for crimes against humanity (ICC, 2018). In February 2020, Maduro responded to such allegations by making its own referral to the ICC, arguing that such crimes were the consequence of ‘the application of unlawful coercive measures adopted unilaterally by the government of the United States of America against Venezuela’ (Maduro, 2020, author’s translation).

Criteria and their application 


Firstly, Gallagher (2014, p. 6) argues that the government’s intentions to neglect its responsibility should be the starting point of the analysis as the state is the key actor of interest in the doctrine of R2P. Gallagher argues that the best way to assess governments’ intentions is to analyse the policies implemented and whether these are ”deliberately facilitating and/or perpetrating” mass atrocities. Secondly, Gallagher (2014, p. 8) claims that the death toll is the second-best indicator for ’manifest failing’, since the higher the number of people being killed the more the state is clearly unable or unwilling to stop the atrocities. As definition of death toll, Gallagher favours Robert Pape’s (2012, p. 43): ‘thousands have died and thousands more likely to die’, as it demonstrates that a systematic ongoing process is taking place, and there is no need for thousands of people more to die before action is undertaken.

Thirdly, the displacement of people indicator is meant to highlight how a massive flow of refugees is a sign of a state’s failure to fulfil both its internal and external responsibility to protect. Gallagher (2014, p.9) explains that R2P’s shift in the concept of responsibility implies that the state is responsible of the safety and welfare of its citizens and therefore, massive flows of refugees ‘help demonstrate that the government is failing its internal responsibility to protect the safety of its citizens as well as its external responsibility as refugees destabilise regional order’.

Fourthly, the weapons of choice is probably the most controversial indicator because, on one hand if government weaponry is being used systematically to carry out the violence, then it is a clear indicator that the government is involved. However, historically, mass atrocities have been carried out without the use of government’s heavy weaponry, therefore making this criterion less indicative to determine a state’s failure to protect its citizens. (Gallagher, 2014, p. 10). Finally, the targeting of children, women and elderly is another controversial indicator, but Gallagher (2014, p.12) argues that ‘the systematic targeting of civilians implies that a policy has been forged’, which means that ‘the government is either responsible for the plan being implemented or is incapable of preventing non-state actors from implementing this strategy’. In the next section, I turn onto the application of these criteria on both Libyan and Venezuelan crises.


The peculiarity of the situation in Libya in 2011 was that Colonel Qaddafi explicitly said what his intentions were. On a televised speech, he explicitly encouraged his supporters ‘to go out and attack the “cockroaches” (protesters) demonstrating against his rule’ (BBC, 2011) and then assured that he ‘would “cleanse Libya house by house”’ (The Economist, 2011). Since the very outbreak of the protests, Qaddafi showed no hesitation in using his security apparatus to violently suppress the demonstrations. Despite the adoption of Resolution 1970 condemning Qaddafi’s actions, the brutal leader had no intentions of stopping until ‘the country [was] purified from the unclean (protesters)’ (Foreign Affairs, 2011). Given the straightforwardness of Qaddafi’s purposes, there is no doubt on his intentions to neglect his responsibility to protect his population.

In terms of death toll, it is hard to establish a number of people killed before the NATO’s coalition intervened. However, within four months from the outbreak of the protests, it is estimated that the death toll has reached between 10,000 and 15,000 (Reuters, 2011). In conclusion, ‘there is sufficient evidence to suggest that Government forces used excessive force against demonstrators, […] leading to significant deaths and injuries’ (Human Rights Council, 2011, p.4).

Gallagher argues that a mass displacement proves that the State is failing its responsibility internally and externally, as refugees destabilise regional order. According to the UN High Commissioner Refugees (UNHCR), in the first half of 2011, 834,207 Libyans crossed the border into Tunisia (2011), a figure that in 2014 was estimated to have reached almost 1,5 million (Bradley, Fraihat and Mzioudet, 2016). Massive flows of migrants, by putting such a burden on the host country and its economy, carry the risk of creating instability, increasing the chances of dangerous instability in an already volatile region.

For what concerns the kinds of weapons used to repress dissidents, there have been reports and witnesses accounts of Qaddafi’s forces using fighter jets (Al Jazeera, 2011) on anti-government marches: ‘deafening sound of military aircraft targeting demonstrators in what opposition groups warned was a “massacre”. For the second night running, [Qaddafi] appeared to have deployed a shoot-to-kill policy to disperse the protests’ (Chrisafis, 2011). The report by the Human Rights Council (HRC, 2011, p.6) also mentions ‘mortars […] and expanding bullets, cluster, munitions and phosphorus weapons in highly populated areas’. Again, there is little doubt concerning the involvement of the Government in the violence that has been inflicted upon the Libyan populations.

Finally, in terms of intentional targeting of women, children, and elderly, various reports, including the one published by the ICC and one by the HRC (2011), have highlighted how rape had been used as a weapon to instil fear in the population and force it to flee. Physicians for Human Rights (PHR)’s 2011 report shows that at least one school was used by Qaddafi forces as detention places where women as young as 14 years old were repeatedly raped. Moreover, the report also mentions eyewitnesses recounting Qaddafi’s security forces forcibly detaining 107 civilians and using them as human shields; other eyewitnesses reporting that the Government forces had ‘demolished a home for the elderly and abducted its 36 resident disabled, elderly, and homeless civilians’.

In conclusion, the Qaddafi regime was manifestly failing to protect its populations from mass atrocities, and it has triggered international action. In the next section I will assess whether the same can be said for Venezuela. However different the nature of the crisis may seem, ‘the conditions Venezuelans face daily are not much different than those in active war zone’ (Bahar and Dooley, 2019).


While Qaddafi was more explicit regarding his intentions of repressing dissidents and using violence, Maduro has nonetheless caused a similar extent of human suffering. Firstly, in order to falsely demonstrate that there is no humanitarian crisis, the government has begun censoring data regarding the conditions under which Venezuelans live and a Human Rights Watch/Johns Hopkins 2019 report explained that, by doing so, the authorities have exacerbated the crisis and that they are ‘responsible for needless loss of life that their denial and destruction have inflicted on Venezuelan people’. Moreover, the OHCHR also provided an account concerning violence, repression and extrajudicial executions. First of all, it details the excessive use of force from security forces during some of the anti-government protests, with the deliberate aim of infusing fear and to discourage demonstrators. Secondly, the HCHR has reported that the security forces in charge of combating drug trafficking and crime, the FAES (in the Spanish acronym, Fuerzas de Acciones Especiales) are responsible for thousands of killings that might amount to extrajudicial executions. The OHCHR (2019, p.10) is concerned that the regime ‘may be using FAES and other security forces to instil fear in the population and to maintain social control’. As a result, the extrajudicial executions and the arbitrary detentions are clear indicators of the intentionality of Maduro’s policies.

Regarding the death toll, as we have seen, the repression in Venezuela has been systematic since at least 2014, when the Maduro regime started evolving into an authoritarian regime and started repressing dissidents. However, probably the most relevant data for the death toll is that regarding FAES’ raids in poor neighbourhoods which are considered to represent almost 8,000 extrajudicial executions (OHCHR, 2019). According to Roberto Briceno-León, director of the NGO Observatorio Venezolano de la Violencia, the total impunity with the FAES shows that the Government is proud of what is being done, and he believes that this represents a state policy of extermination (Olmo, 2019). The deliberateness of FAES’ violent killings and the impunity from the Government prove that a systematic process of unlawful and inhumane killing has been taking place.

In terms of displacement of people, as a result of the regime violating basic rights such as that of health, food, life and safety, according to the UNHCR (2019) currently there are more than 4.7 million Venezuelan refugees. The burden of the crisis has fallen on neighbouring countries, particularly Colombia, Ecuador, Peru ́, and Brazil, creating a considerable risk of instability. In conclusion, by provoking such an outflow of Venezuelans, Maduro is putting his citizens in further danger, while placing the burden on neighbouring countries, pressuring their weak economies, and consequently increasing the risk of instability throughout the whole region.

As already said, in contrast with Libya, the conflict in Venezuela is of a non-armed nature. This does not mean that the extent of human suffering is smaller, but it makes it more problematic to analyse whether the crisis meets the criterion regarding the kind of weapons used. In Venezuela, the Maduro regime is starving its people to death, it is not providing them with the basic needs like healthcare, which has led to a massive spread of once-eradicated diseases that are increasing the death toll exponentially (OHCHR, 2019). In contrast with armed crises like Libya, the Maduro regime is ultimately achieving atrocity crimes as well, but without resorting to weapons. However, given the lack of heavy weaponry involved in the conflict, it is hard to argue whether this crisis meets the criterion regarding the kinds of weapons involved.

The intentional targeting of vulnerable populations is another problematic criterion. The extrajudicial killings carried out by the FAES are indiscriminate in terms of who the targets are, since it seems that the common factor is political opinion. However, the interesting element concerning this criterion is the mention that Gallagher makes to a “third dimension”, drawing from a Save the Children report of March 2013. The report exposes how children are particularly vulnerable to the spread of disease in conflict zones, where it is juxtaposed with the collapse of the healthcare system. This is particularly true for the case of Venezuela, where children are subject to an unprecedented spread of diseases. Alongside with malnutrition, diseases have produced an increase by 65% in infant mortality rate, only in 2016 (PROVEA, 2016). Similarly, in 2016, the maternal mortality rate has increased by 30% (PROVEA, 2016) because of the lack of prenatal and maternal care, and contraceptives, which leads to homemade abortions that put women’s lives in great danger. Furthermore, the vulnerability of women goes beyond Venezuelan borders since, when forced to flee, women undertake dangerous journeys that subject them to risks such as sexual exploitation and trafficking, abuse and violence (Human Rights Watch and Johns Hopkins, 2019). In conclusion, a state is not targeting vulnerable populations only when heavy weaponry is involved, but also when it is failing to provide access to basic medical care, violating the right to health.

Geopolitical interests

After analysing the crisis in Venezuela through Gallagher’s criteria, one could argue that R2P should be applied and the international community take action. However, these criteria are fundamental but not sufficient to determine a multilateral action under Chapter VII of the UN Charter. This is because any international coercive action must be approved by the UNSC. This requirement represents a double-edged sword since, on one hand, it is pivotal in it prevents powerful states from undertaking illegitimate unilateral actions. On the other hand, however, given the current structure of the UNSC, it makes the decision to halt mass atrocities susceptible to the interests of the P5 and their veto power. While it worked in Libya, where there were no major clashing interests, regarding Venezuela the opposite is true.

On general terms, the P5 have differing ideological positions and are to be understood along with their geopolitical interests. While, on one hand, the US, UK, and France have historically always placed great emphasis on humanitarianism, human rights, and democracy, China and Russia have had different approaches. It is argued that the origins of the modern international humanitarian system lie in the Western/European experiences of war (Davey, et al., 2013, p. 1). Indeed, it has even been criticised that human rights are a Western concept and there is a ‘false universalism’ that ‘obscure[s] Western civilizational hegemony’ (Falk, 1997, p. 8). However, the West’s position on human rights and humanitarianism has generally been consistent in terms of support for these regimes. In terms of national sovereignty, while defending such concept, Western states have increasingly defended the idea that, in case of gross violations of human rights, an intervention can be legitimate because the protection of civilians is prioritised – as it was the case with the NATO intervention in Kosovo, 1999.

On the other hand, China and Russia maintain a ‘restrictionist view of the Charter, which sees sovereignty as ranking higher than human rights’ (Kuhrt, 2014, p. 99). In fact, these concepts of “humanitarian intervention” and “limited sovereignty” were considered “unacceptable” by Russia (Kuhrt, 2014, p. 98). Kuhrt (2014, p. 98) relates Russia’s reticence to these concepts to the fall of the Soviet Union, which made Russia ‘far more sensitive to the idea that the sovereignty norm might be eroded’. Similarly to Russia, China has ‘regularly spoken out against interference on human rights grounds in its internal affairs’ (Sceats and Breslin, 2012, p. 1). Moreover, after the widespread condemnation of the Tiananmen Square events in 1989, ‘it became a central plank of [China’s] general agenda within the UN to promote ultra-statist conceptions of sovereignty and the principle of non-interference’ (Sceats and Breslin, 2012, p. 6). China’s strong position on national sovereignty is evident also in its frequent invocation of the principles of non-intervention or non-interference in domestic affairs (Sceats and Breslin, 2012). More generally, ‘for both Beijing and Moscow, safeguarding domestic political security is a predominant concern. They strongly opposed external interventions that could lead to regime change and state fragmentation’ (Chen and Yin, 2020, p. 18).


Russia’s neutral position in the decision to adopt Resolution 1973 in Libya was strategic. North Africa had been of secondary relevance in Russia’s foreign policy, limited to arms and energy issues. Kaczmarski (2011) explains the reasons behind Russia’s position as twofold. Firstly, with no crucial interests in Libya, Russia was more focused on maintaining good relations with the Arab countries who all condemned Qaddafi. Hehir (2013), similarly, argues that the endorsement of a no-fly zone by the LAS was key to the decision of Russia to abstain in Resolution 1973. Secondly, Kaczmarski interprets Russia’s decision as aimed at preserving the growing relations with the West and by not vetoing the resolution, Russia ‘gave very clear political support to France’ (2011). While agreeing with Kaczmarski, Gutterman (2011) also argues that vetoing the resolution would have harmed its prospects of preserving an economic foothold in the country. Thus, Russia’s decision was a low-cost action that would improve its position and involvement in the multilateral system, while not harming any national interests.

China’s relations with Libya were already problematic from before the Arab Spring, since Libyan Foreign Minister in 2009 ‘accused China of exploiting Africa’s resources and people, and condemned its behaviour [. . . ] as neo-colonialism’ (Evron, 2013, p.81). Moreover, similarly to Russia, China attached great importance to the Arab States’ positions in the conflict since maintaining good relations with them was more crucial in China’s national interest (Evron, 2013; Paal, 2011; Hehir, 2013). This is even more so given that China had limited investments in the country. Libya was the fifth country in Africa for Chinese investments, and ‘most Chinese enterprises in Libya had no direct investment in the country’ (Junbo and Méndez, 2015, pp.4-5). In conclusion, similarly to Russia, it was more strategic for China to abstain rather than vetoing Resolution 1973, so as to maintain good relationships with the Arab countries without affecting national interests.

For the United States, the crisis in Libya represented a particular opportunity where its national interests converged with its humanitarian values. Firstly, President Obama claimed US’s responsibility to prevent mass atrocities (Blomdahl, 2018). Second, there was a considerable risk that escalating violence between the Government and the rebels might sow the seeds of a favourable environment for fundamentalist and extremist militancy. In conclusion, the US had little to lose in getting involved while having the chance of promoting ‘a new form of humanitarian intervention, […] they had been sketching out for nearly a decade’ (Blomdahl, 2018, p.4).

France’s interests in Libya were twofold. First, in terms of economic resources, France imported from Libya 15% of its oil (Davidson, 2013). Second, security issues were of crucial importance given the proximity of Libyan shores to France and Europe, thus threatening France with a massive flow of refugees that could heighten security and terroristic risks in the continent. In conclusion, ‘maintaining access to Libyan oil and minimizing the terrorist threat from Libya were important contributing factors in the Sarkozy government’s decision’ (Davidson, 2013, p.319)

For the United Kingdom, the interests involved in the Libyan crisis were similar to France’s, but they assumed a more “humanitarian” stance. In fact, several journalists reported that UK Prime Minister David Cameron’s decision was influenced by the regret of the West’s failure to protect civilians in Srebrenica in 1995 (Blitz, 2011; Stephens, 2011). Moreover, Cameron feared that if Qaddafi was not ousted he would ‘go back to being the recruiting sergeant for terror he was in the 1980s’ (Blitz, 2011). To conclude, the UK Government was determined to stop the mass slaughter and violations of human rights in Libya both for humanitarian reasons and for security reasons, given the fear that was violence to increase in Libya, a new wave of terrorism might have threatened Europe.


The crisis in Venezuela, given its geographical location and its oil reserves, has attracted a variety of actors. According to John E. Herbst and Jason Marczak (2019, p.1) ‘[e]xternal actors are using Venezuela as a battleground for their own selfish national interests, bolstering the corrupt and faltering Maduro regime’.

While pursuing advantageous economic and military deals, Russia’s interest in Venezuela is mainly political. Putin sees Venezuela as a partner in ‘constructing a new multipolar, anti-US world’, a point of leverage in the US’s backyard (Rouvinski, 2019, p.1). In fact, the primary value for Russia is Venezuela’s geographical proximity to the US. Moreover, Putin is exploiting the Venezuelan crisis to show that Russia’s influence goes beyond its natural area of interest, namely, Asia or the Middle East, and to ‘portray Russia’s return as a global power’ (Rouvinski, 2019, p.1). In order to strengthen its position, at the beginning of 2019, Moscow provided Maduro with S-300 systems with two geostrategic goals. First, it was supposed to deter any US military intervention in Venezuela. Second, the equipment ‘came with Russian “experts” (soldiers), who, along with the thousands of Cuban intelligence personnel in the country, could provide security for Maduro’ (Herbst and Marczak, 2019, p. 5). Moreover, were Putin to lose this bet, Venezuela would become ‘a symbol of one of Putin’s greatest failures in the international arena’ (Rouvinski, 2019, p.17). These reasons help understand why ‘there is no doubt that Russia will use its veto power to block any resolution [in the Security Council] that would harm Maduro’ (Jeifets, 2018).

Venezuela’s relations with China date back to two decades ago when Ch ́avez decided to diversify away from the country’s export dependence on the US, with the aim of ‘counterbalance[ing] US influence in Latin America’ (Kaplan and Penfold, 2019, p.15), and saw China as a crucial partner. As Pina (2019) explains, China views ‘the oil-rich socialist country as a significant trading partner and geopolitical ally in its main political and economic rival US’ backyard’. Moreover, “south-south” cooperation is one of China’s foreign policy’s central pillars and Beijing ‘does not want to risk its reputation as a leading partner and trustworthy investor in the global south by siding with a US-backed opposition group and supporting its attempt to unlawfully topple the legitimate government of a sovereign country’ (Pina, 2019). Given the deep financial investments in the country and the geopolitical value it places on the country, China is standing with Russia in the Security Council and vetoing any attempt to adopt resolutions that may alter the situation in Venezuela.

The United States is deeply involved in the crisis and the Trump administration has been repeatedly pushing for international involvement in the crisis – still considering military intervention ‘an option’ (CBS News, 2019). While the US’s desire to restore democracy and protect human rights might be part of the equation, it would be na ̈ıve to ignore its interests in the Latin American country. First of all, Venezuela has the largest oil reserves in the world and both Chavez and Maduro have tried to diversify Venezuela’s oil exports to limit the country’s dependence on the US, therefore threatening key US’ economic interests. Secondly, Chávez and Maduro have always openly attacked the US, with the aim of fostering political integration and anti-imperialism (Kozloff, 2007). In conclusion, the US has considerable interests in pushing for new elections in Venezuela since the current situation represents a threat to its core economic and ideological interests.

In contrast with Russia, China and the US, the UK and France, have no major interests in Venezuela. In addition, given the long history of support for humanitarian values and human rights, they have participated, as part of the European Union bloc, in efforts to promote a political transition in Venezuela and insist on the need to call free and fair elections to restore democracy in the country (Doward, 2019).

R2P discrediting

Resolution 1973 that authorised the NATO coalition in Libya had authorised Member States ‘to take all necessary measures [. . . ] to protect civilians and civilian populated areas under threat of attack’ (S/RES/1973, 2011). While it could be said that Qaddafi was the main perpetrator of the mass atrocities in Libya, it has been widely argued that his death represented an attempt at regime change that exceeded the mandate of the Resolution. A considerable number of UN ambassadors argued that the NATO-led coalition was no longer acting in defence of the population at risk but pursuing the overthrow of Qaddafi. This idea was further encouraged by the op-ed jointly written by the then leaders of the US, the UK, and France – Barack Obama, David Cameron, and Nicholas Sarkozy, in which they argued that NATO was not pursuing regime change, but that it was ‘impossible to imagine a future Libyan government with Qaddafi in power’ (Obama, Sarkozy and Cameron, 2011). Shortly after, various states began questioning the legitimacy of the action and vocally arguing that such actions were exceeding the mandate given by Resolution 1973.

Considering that Russia and China were not supportive of the intervention in Libya, rather, they were focused on preserving their own interests, once the intervention morphed into regime change, they became extremely vocal against it. They insisted on the idea that ‘there was no way in which the relevant resolution could have permitted the extension of the conflict beyond the protection of civilians and towards the objective of regime change’ (Zifcak, 2012, p. 11). This “mission creep” has severely undermined the global consensus around R2P. As Nuruzzman (2013, p.66), ‘[t]he hidden policy of regime change in Libya has, in fact, killed the R2P doctrine’.

In other words, the failure of the NATO-coalition to remain within the Resolution’s boundaries has severely undermined the global support of the doctrine. As a result, it is argued that ‘the campaign in Libya has done grave, possibly even irreparable, damage to R2P’ (Rieff, 2011). Rieff further argues that it is highly unlikely that interventions under R2P will ‘get sanction from the U.N. in the foreseeable future’ (Rieff, 2011). For instance, scholars have argued that ‘If Libya happened again today, China would not abstain’ (quoted in Sceats and Breslin, 2012, p. 49). The intervention in Libya inevitably linked R2P to regime change, increasing the political risk of employing such a principle. Consequently, the result has been that even if the members of the UNSC had agreed on the need to protect civilians in Venezuela, it became highly unlikely they would apply R2P, given its considerable political weight. It could be argued that Venezuelans are not safe unless Maduro is ousted – and wary of the outcome of the intervention in Libya, the UNSC would be extremely reticent to apply the principle of R2P.


The aim of this paper was to understand why the doctrine of R2P, particularly Pillar III, has been applied inconsistently. After analysing the contexts of the Libyan and Venezuelan crises, this paper examined whether these crises met Gallagher’s criteria for ‘manifestly failing’. In the second section, the paper first described the differing positions of the P5 on issues such as sovereignty and human rights. Secondly, reflecting these positions, I analysed what role the geopolitical interests of the P5 have played in each crisis and whether they have determined the outcome. I find that the crisis in Libya represented no threat to Russian nor Chinese interests and therefore they were both refrained from vetoing UNSC resolutions; while the US’s, UK’s, and France’s interests converged with the need to protect Libyans. In this way, the UNSC was able to authorise military intervention to protect civilians. However, the same cannot be said for Venezuela, which has become a playground for East-West geostrategic interests and rivalries. The great relevance both Russia and China put on Venezuela in economic and political terms has prevented the international community from intervening to provide Venezuelans with proper relief. I thus find that geostrategic considerations do have influence on R2P’s application, affecting its consistency. Finally, another element that further explains such inconsistency is the backlash that NATO intervention in Libya had on the consensus around R2P, associating it to the concept of regime change, therefore fostering countries’ reticence to apply it. This paper argues that, as a consequence of this political weight, even if the P5 had converging interests in Venezuela as they did in Libya, it would be highly unlikely they would apply R2P. In conclusion, there are various factors that interact to determine the irregular application of R2P and, while the geopolitical interests are probably the key factor, one cannot overlook how the association of the doctrine to regime change has influenced this inconsistency.


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Responsibility to Protect and the Immanent Logic of Freedom: A Hegelian Analysis of Humanitarian Intervention

Evan Supple, Athabasca University, Canada

Evan Supple is an MA candidate in Interdisciplinary Studies at Athabasca University, Canada. His research interests include international law, environmental politics, and political ontology, based on the work of G. Agamben, A. Badiou, G.W.F. Hegel, and S. Zizek.


The Responsibility to Protect (R2P) was one of the first major gestures made by the international community to ascribe primacy to human rights over sovereign rights. While the version eventually ratified by the UN Member States in 2005 is far less controversial in scope than its initial 2001 theorization, it remains a hotly contested norm. Much of said debate, however, does not directly pertain to R2P but to the international legal constellation in which it is situated. Thus, for a coherent analysis and critique of R2P to emerge, a comprehensive philosophical analysis of both state sovereignty and international relations is necessary. It is the political philosophy of German idealist G.W.F. Hegel that provides the most rigorous dialectical delineation of what form sovereignty and international relations ought to take. This paper begins with an exegesis of Hegelian sovereignty and proceeds to analyze the pillars and foundations of R2P from a Hegelian perspective, ultimately concluding that the programme is largely uncontroversial in itself, but for a just practical deployment, significant renovations to the framework within which it exists are in order.


In the aftermath of the humanitarian disasters of the 1990s, the international community was forced to reconsider how it was to address such atrocities using a framework which had hitherto privileged sovereignty and the concomitant ‘right’ to non-intervention over human rights. In 2000, United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan (ICISS, 2001) posed the question ‘…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?’. This challenge prompted the international community to theorize how these seemingly contradictory principles might be reconciled.

In 2001, the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS) formulated ‘Responsibility to Protect’ (R2P). Its core principles were eventually refined and adopted by UN Member States at the 2005 UN World Summit, a meeting wherein the necessity of multilateral operations was unequivocally reaffirmed. At the heart of R2P is the notion that every state has a responsibility to protect its population and encourage others to do the same. If a state fails to fulfill this duty, evidenced by the occurrence of a mass crime – genocide, war, ethnic cleansing, or crimes against humanity – the responsibility to protect (in this case, intervene) falls to the international community, notwithstanding the norms surrounding sovereignty (United Nations, 2005, para. 138-39). The responsibility to protect has superseded the right to non-intervention, at least as the international law-making community perceives it.

The purpose of this paper is to analyze and critique R2P using Hegel’s (1896) Philosophy of Right. It will become clear that although Hegel would endorse the programme’s theoretical formulation, the framework within which it is invoked in practice is rife with corruption and is decisively incongruous with the normative framework for international relations which Hegel develops. Thus, an analysis of contemporary international relations must necessarily precede and inform any critique of R2P, which is what we seek to accomplish here.

The Sovereign State in Philosophy of Right

Philosophy of Right develops the immanent logic of freedom in an anti-foundatio nalist way. Beginning with the sheer indeterminacy of the individual will, Hegel navigates the dialectic of freedom during which he rebukes the liberal conception, viz. absence of restrictions, since the absence of restrictions is itself a restriction, thus necessitating the conception’s sublation and further determination. Freedom, according to Hegel, must be self-determining, such that it wills only its own development, as opposed to having a transcendental concept like choice for its content. In terms of freedom and its relation to choice, as imminently conceived, it is freedom of choice that matters, not freedom of choice*. Prematurely emphasizing choice in freedom’s dialectical development gives rise to insurmountable impasses.

Of course, the development of freedom does not eliminate choice tout court – it is not a totalitarian order at which Hegel’s dialectic arrives – but its primacy is subverted, and its coordinates are determinately constrained. Hegel’s use of fully self-critical reasoning, absent of transcendental imports not arising from within the dialectic itself, is what necessitates our fidelity to the text, despite our current situation’s waning congruence with it.

The individual will, from its initial moment of sheer indeterminacy, passes through various essential moments such as abstract rights, morality, and the institutions of civil society. These moments are pertinent in and of themselves, but their true significance can only be apprehended from the perspective of the substantive unity that emerges at the dialectic’s self-completion: the state. Each of these moments are sublated (simultaneously negated and preserved) at their points of contradiction as a necessity immanent to freedom’s development, but they are not erased from existence. They simply do not constitute the actualization of freedom. Though parsing out the entirety of Philosophy of Right is beyond the scope of this paper, it is necessary to delineate the concept of sovereignty – the telos of the dialectic – as presented in the third section entitled Ethical Life, where Hegel explicates its two faces: internal sovereignty qua the Constitution and sovereignty vis-à-vis international relations.

The Hegelian quasi-corporatist state, distinct from a Republic, is the realisation of freedom as a concrete universality in which both form and content are identical, as opposed to its less-developed incarnation as an abstract universality in the preceding sphere of morality (civil society without its actualization by the state). The state is ultimately conceived as ‘the supersession of the clash between right (i.e. empty abstract freedom) and welfare (i.e. the particular content which fills that void)’ (Hegel, 1896, p. 319); both elements, the positive and the negative, are systematically reconciled and wedded to one another in the state. The state’s substantive unity is the result of the interconnectedness of its various essential moments (i.e. individuals, families, businesses, police and authority, and the various branches of government), producing the absolute realization of freedom which cannot be formally superseded by any greater entity.

The state is obligated to care for and protect its people, albeit not in the Hobbesian sense since the Hegelian state is to be apprehended as an extension of the individual rather than a politico-theological structure transcendentally imposed in opposition to the individual. The Hegelian state must, for example, work to make charity less necessary by preventing the emergence of a rabble and perpetuating the necessary structures of freedom which enable such prevention (see Hegel, 1896, p. 152). The relationship between the state and its citizens must, however, be reciprocal, such that the individual’s primary duty is to preserve the state at all costs, even when one’s life or property are placed at risk in fulfilling this duty.

In contrast to any objection that such a duty would stand in diametric opposition to one’s freedom, Hegel (1896) maintains that it is in duty that individual freedom is actualized, emphasizing the obverse of freedom’s negativity as integral to its actualization (p. 155). The duty to preserve the state (or conversely, the duty of the state to protect its people) should not logically fall outside of one’s individual interests, since citizens of a legitimate state apprehend their public and private ends as identical. Protecting the state is synonymous with protecting oneself or, in other words, with the perpetuation of freedom’s perennial self-determination. Hegel (1896) explicates that ‘[i]t has often been said that the end of the state is the happiness of the citizens’, to which he responds is ‘imperfectly true . . . if they do not find that the state as such is the means to their satisfaction, then the footing of the state itself is insecure’ (Hegel, 1896, p. 155). The legitimately free state does not thwart the self-determination of its individual citizens. The will (which we must mention in passing must not be conflated with any other capricious psychological faculties such as desire; the will is the pure abstract ego) of individuals and the will of the state must be self-identical. Any state in which such reciprocity does not exist cannot be recognized as a legitimate state.

In contrast to the ‘good’, or civilized, state is what Hegel terms the ‘bad state’ which ‘merely exists … but it has no genuine reality. A hand which is cut off still looks like a hand, and it exists, but without being actual’ (Hegel, 1896, pp. 257-258). Here, ‘actual’ refers to the immanently determined substantive unity of form and content. Dictatorships and totalitarian regimes, often the subjects of intervention, can be classified as bad, or ‘barbaric’ states. A bad state, in other words, can be said to lack the structures of freedom integral to its self-promulgation.

International Relations in Philosophy of Right

Moving beyond the state’s interior composition, the state vis-à-vis foreign relations necessitates a more meticulous examination. The sovereign state has as ‘its essential character from its own point of view . . . singleness . . . exclusive of other units. So characterised, the state has individuality … and in the sovereign an actual, immediate individual’ (Hegel, 1896, p. 310). Since the single state, in the global aggregation of individual states, is aware of its existence as distinct from others and thus does not require anything politically external to function, it can be said to be autonomous. Autonomy constitutes ‘the most fundamental freedom which a people possesses as well as its highest dignity’ (Hegel, 1896, p. 311). Autonomy is directly compatible with the principle of non-intervention; however, autonomy is characteristic of a ‘good’ state and insofar as it maintains this positive designation, legitimate intervention would not be necessary. The same cannot be said of the ‘bad’ state.

Moreover, Hegel posits that states are self-subsistent. Autonomous states are ‘principally wholes whose needs are met within their own borders’ (Hegel, 1896, p. 318). Of course, today states’ needs are often outsourced and satisfied in the territories of other states or via trade. Thus, apropos of the manifold trade networks and global alliances constitutive of the present, sovereign self-subsistence appears as more of a ruse than Hegel purports; however, we must maintain that globalizing dynamics do not necessarily eradicate the possibility of political self-subsistence altogether, despite the advantages of beneficent international cooperation, especially in relation to imminent ecological crises and increasing digital connection.

In reference to international ‘law’, it emerges from relations between states; however, since the state is an autonomous totality, what is absolute in international law ‘retains the form of an ought-to-be, since its actuality depends on different wills each of which is sovereign’ (Hegel, 1896, p. 317). International relations mimic the relations between individuals and institutions in the sphere of morality which precedes the state. A concept of welfare informs the workings of this sphere in both its national and international incarnations, but since it cannot be politically actualized in the latter (an autonomous totality cannot be officially governed by a superior court), it remains abstract and open to individual interpretation. The implication of this is that while the logic of freedom, despite the impossibility of a supranational enforcement mechanism, ought to inform international relations, states are not officially prevented from acting in a way that is contrary to the logic of freedom, thereby creating the possibility for duplicitous action. Such action, apposite to the discussion of R2P below, can be of a positive form, in the sense of manipulating other states to further the state’s own particular self-interest, or a negative form, in the sense of failing to fulfill on the duties determined by the logic of freedom if they hinder the state’s particular self-interest (for example, purportedly unnecessary expenditures delegated toward protecting an external population, with which it shares limited interests or contact, in instances of war or genocide). Hence international ‘rights’, such as that of non-intervention, are purely abstract. This illuminates the fallaciousness of international ‘law’ as it currently exists. This is not to suggest that we ought to ignore such ‘laws’, as they are often invested with great potential, but rather to simply emphasize their non-binding character.

With this position, Hegel departs from Kant who theorized the notion of ‘perpetual peace’ to be secured by a legitimate League of Nations. Hegel (1896) insists that this utopian ideal presupposes an agreement between states, ‘but in any case would always depend ultimately on a particular sovereign will and for that reason would remain infected with contingency’ (p. 319). This will become unambiguous later on when we direct our attention toward the UN Security Council. There can be no Kantian international praetor; at best there may be an arbitrator or a mediator, but such a figure cannot be invested with binding juridical power, as is often (mistakenly) ascribed to the International Criminal Court.

A state is an individual and individuality implies negation, insofar as the state must negate that which it is not in order to clearly delimit its own boundaries and affirm its autonomy. It follows that ‘even if a number of states make themselves into a family, this group as an individual must engender an opposite and create an enemy’ (Hegel, 1896, p. 313). The enemy, or the Other, is tethered to the very concept of the state, albeit not a part of the state’s foundation since it develops out of an immanent necessity and thus independently of an Other. A cluster of states can form an alliance based on their similarities or interests, but such an alliance is not possible for all states because of the necessity of exteriority. To suggest otherwise would be to suggest we could escape from contradiction tout court, which is precisely opposed to Hegel’s stance.

Keeping with the logic justifying the impossibility of a binding international juridical authority, state sovereignty and autonomy are purely formal in the sphere of international relations and consequently, the demand for recognition is also abstract. Recognition, the genuine acknowledgement of another individual’s legitimate existence, depends exclusively on the judgements of individual states. Since each legitimate state represents a particular and actualized set of interests integral to its self-determination, no binding authority can demand that one state recognize another. If a free state is a concrete embodiment of freedom’s self-willing, it would likely recognize an external individual with which it shares a similar end, but the subjective act of international recognition cannot be regulated or prescribed by an international authority.

In reference to the idea of the good that ought to inform international relations, Hegel (1896) posits that ‘the subjective will has not yet been caught up into it and established as according with it. Consequently, it stands in a relation to the good, and the relation is that the good ought to be substantive for it’ (p. 123) but the absence of a supranational concrete universality leaves only an empty shell that can and should be used as a guiding tool but which is vulnerable to manipulation. What is more, ‘[t]he right of giving recognition only to what my insight sees as rational is the highest right of the subject, although owing to its subjective character it remains a formal right’ (Hegel, 1896, p. 124). The abstract nature of this ‘ought’ leaves us without a concrete universal, so any conception of it cannot be realized until it ‘acquires the character of particularity’ (Hegel, 1896, p. 126) which erects an obstacle at the international level. Again, if recognition and its concomitant normative implications ultimately infringe upon a state’s self-interest, there are no legal ramifications should it fail to recognize another.

Despite that Hegel (1896) proposes that legitimate states ought to recognize one another, he clarifies that ‘the absolute right of the Idea to step into existence in clear cut laws and objective institutions’ justifies ‘civilized nations in regarding and treating as barbarians those who lag behind them in institutions which are the essential moments of the state’ (p. 325). If such ‘barbarians’ lack these essential moments, then their claims to sovereignty may be vacuous and thus, their ‘rights’ an empty formality. In striving for recognition by civilized states, less civilized states may be left with no other choice than to develop and actualize freedom; however, as evidenced by manifold historical examples, this is not always the case. Nonetheless, a free state’s genuine recognition of ‘unfree’ states would be antithetical to freedom’s universal willing of itself. Recognition is unequivocally conditional, regardless of whether it is a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ state in question; however, since Hegelian freedom must have itself for its content by universally willing itself, a free state cannot logically disregard the structures of freedom found within other states without being in contradiction with its own freedom. The dilemma, once again, is that no supranational authority can enforce this; self-determination must develop immanently.

The authority of states, albeit absent of looming threats and further legitimated once external recognition is acquired, is a ‘purely domestic matter (one state should not meddle with the domestic affairs of another)’ (Hegel, 1896, p. 318). Of course, the bracketed statement can only function prescriptively (e.g. should not); however, coupled with the fact that he rejects Kant’s utopian theory of ‘perpetual peace’, this is indicative of Hegel’s approval of Westphalian sovereignty, at least its formal character. The latter has as its foundation the sovereign state’s internal right (albeit purely formal) to non-intervention and its duty to respect this right of other states as per the logic of freedom. Hegel (1896) insists ‘not [to] infringe on personality and what personality entails’ (p. 49), which is applicable in the realm of international relations. The implication of this is that he would not endorse an immoral intervention into a free state, perhaps motivated by the dialectical drive toward colonial or imperial expansion (Hegel, 1896, p. 224), as this would be incompatible with the logic of freedom; however, he cannot but leave the international community without a binding mechanism to prevent such an act. While other states can withdraw their official recognition of the unjustly-intervening state (i.e. by imposing sanctions, withdrawing foreign aid, etc.) in response, there is no legal mechanism to thwart the intervening state’s decision to act. A free state would not logically conduct such a mission, but it remains a possibility to be considered.

Conversely, while infringing upon sovereignty by way of an immoral intervention (i.e. on the basis of difference rather than unfreedom or on the basis of a disavowed injustice which is pervasive in the intervening state, such as sexual violence) is to be interpreted as an infringement upon freedom itself, regarding a case in which intervention is conducted to terminate a genocide or war, the same reasoning would not apply. One could not argue that such an intervention would be an infringement upon freedom, despite being an intrusion onto foreign territory. A state in which a genocide or a similar crime occurs cannot be said to be a free or legitimate state and hence, such an intervention would not be found to be opposed to the logic of freedom.

The final point of Philosophy of Right to which we must attend pertains to philanthropy, a concept inherent to any humanitarian programme like R2P. Hegel (1896) states that ‘the substantial welfare of the state is its welfare as a particular state in its specific interest and situation and its no less special foreign affairs’ (p. 320). Though the state is the actualization of freedom, it nonetheless embodies particularity vis-à-vis the global conglomeration of states, in the form of interests and customs, with ‘custom being the inner universality of behaviour maintained in all circumstances’ (Hegel, 1896, p. 321). Hegel (1896) then posits that the state’s aim ‘in relation to other states and its principle for justifying wars [or interventions] and treaties is not a universal thought (the thought of philanthropy) but only its actually injured or threatened welfare as something specific and peculiar to itself’ (p. 320). Though it would be immoral for a state to claim that its welfare has been jeopardized by another state on the basis of claims found to be in contradiction to the logic of freedom, the international community, as stated above, cannot regulate this in a legalized way. It is incumbent upon the state to decide what constitutes a threat to its individuality.

The implication here is that when humanitarian catastrophes, dire as they may be, infringe upon another state’s financial or geopolitical interests, it might be compelled to intervene in the state in which said catastrophe is occurring, often under a philanthropic guise, such that human life must be protected to serve its particular interests (i.e. economic hegemony). One has little grounds to argue against this if it results in the termination of a mass crime; however, the greater dilemma this poses is how to motivate states to intervene into genocidal or war-torn states with which they maintain a limited connection. Since intervening in a crisis that does not directly impact a particular state would drain the latter’s resources, adversely impacting its internal situation, it is unlikely that it would carry out such an intervention based purely on good intention without a modicum of certainty as to what it would gain by doing so. The unavoidable result of this is an unequal distribution of aid which perpetuates the strength of the states which would purportedly be likely to intervene. Thus, a key issue with R2P which we can prematurely surmise here is not so much the aid that is deployed but that which is not. Notably, anticipating the objection that with programmes like R2P it is an international body that decides when interventions are necessary and conducts them, we must reassert that any such body is composed of individual sovereign wills that can withdraw support at any time.

Before concluding this section, we must briefly inquire whether or not Hegel’s theory of the state leaves us with a relativist stance on the value of human life. Hegel (1896) states in the section Morality that substantive right implies the positive action of duty (as opposed to simply the negativity of abstract formal rights) in which ‘the welfare of others too is in question’ (p. 110) and free will ‘has responsibility in general for its deed’ (p. 112). He later posits that welfare pertains ‘in universal terms . . . [to] the welfare of others’ (p. 127), which would logically extend beyond sovereign borders. The protection of life, the ultimate aim of R2P, would therefore be necessary as ‘no one shall be sacrificed altogether on the altar of right’ (Hegel, 1896, p. 122). In other words, the preservation of human life is a universal imperative, as the failure to preserve life equates to the failure to preserve freedom. While freedom is absolutely realized in the state, and despite the primacy of the duty to protect and preserve one’s own state at all costs, the immanent logic that leads to the state’s inception implies a worth and dignity inherent to human life regardless of its sovereign locus. To not further the global development of freedom, regardless of a state’s particular interests, would be in contradiction to the universal self-willing of freedom. Again, such a commitment cannot be enshrined into a binding international law, but its prescriptive significance must not be disregarded.

Despite its inherent deficiencies which cannot eliminate the potential for manipulation by individual states (and despite that a body like the UN is meant to serve as a structure of accountability), Hegel’s logic of international morality remains the most fruitful vehicle to ensure the protection and preservation of human life on a global scale. There is no possible sphere which could supersede it, so it remains fragile, but the international community must be vigilant in harvesting its emancipatory potential.

Hegel and the Pillars of R2P

The precepts of R2P mistakenly presuppose a binding authority invested in the UN, ignoring the issue of the latter’s composition of particular wills, or individual states. Despite numerous contestations based on the interwovenness of the global community, as evidenced by the increase in trade, military alliances, international debt, transnational business, and treaty agreements, nothing has officially replaced the nation-state, so sovereignty retains its absoluteness despite that few, if any, Hegelian states presently exist. Consequently, the international ‘legal’ constellation is essentially a symbolic fiction, though not one wanting an emancipatory dimension to be gleaned from an interpretation aligned with Hegel’s morality. Despite its non-juridical nature, the UN (or a similar body) remains the sole entity that might feasibly prescribe and direct international action.

It is ‘humanity’ that occupies the role of R2P’s subject; however, it is a floating signifier as what the designation concretely typifies varies in terms of its interpretive locus. Because the relationship between states can only be apprehended within the coordinates of morality, R2P must be conceived as an abstract universality. The tenets of R2P take the form of an ‘ought’ insofar as human welfare forms its core, but what constitutes welfare’s materiality cannot be explicitly determined on a global scale without (neo)imperialist implications, thereby leaving this up to individual states to determine. It is possible to identify structures of freedom but the differences which animate them internally cannot always be discerned from the exterior. Thus, an invocation of R2P must solely be directed toward a rehabilitation or implementation of the subject’s structures of freedom, and not the inner universalities (viz. customs) that animate them.

R2P is composed of three pillars, the first being that ‘[e]ach individual State has the responsibility to protect its populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity’ (United Nations, 2005, para. 138). While its initial formulation in the 2001 ICISS document included crimes of sexual violence and famine within its scope, the agreed upon 2005 version is considerably narrower in scope. This certainly mitigates the possibility for UN-sponsored imperialist interventions, as it is definitively evident that a state ravaged by war or genocide would lack the structures of freedom intrinsic to an actual state, whereas the same cannot be so unequivocally asserted about a state with, say, a high presence of sexual violence or famine. Notably in reference to the pillar at hand, international lawmakers often use floating signifiers like ‘protection’ without explicitly defining them, so the content of such designations is specific to particular circumstances. One can, of course, identify a genocide or war, but it is the threshold separating crime and non-crime, the dialectical moment at which quantitative change becomes qualitative, on an international scale that must occupy some of our concern here, as this line could easily be manipulated in an intervention. Irrespective of the abstractness of ‘protection’, one could argue that Hegel would concur with this stipulation as it directly pertains to human life. This pillar, then, is not a site of contestation because of its derivation within the parameters of Westphalian sovereignty.

The second pillar indicates that “[t]he international community should, as appropriate, encourage and help States to exercise this responsibility and support the United Nations in establishing an early warning capability” (United Nations, 2005, para. 138). Informing this principle is precisely the Hegelian moral sentiment that states ought to participate in the universal willing of freedom, which amounts to enabling all states to implement the necessary structures of freedom for this to be possible. Despite possible claims that encouraging the implementation of particular structures of freedom which allow the exercise of this responsibility might amount to an imperialist imposition of liberalism (for example, such ‘help’ may only be offered if an initiative is concretely commensurate with a particular state’s ideological or economic interests), we can quell such opposition by highlighting the pillar’s broad scope. Solely in question here is the enablement of freedom and the protection of human life; concrete life-worlds are no object of concern for this particular stipulation, despite that such objections may have validity in reference to other UN initiatives.

The third pillar of R2P reads ‘[t]he international community, through the United Nations, also has the responsibility to use appropriate diplomatic, humanitarian and other peaceful means… to help to protect populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity’ (United Nations, 2005, para. 139). In other words, sovereignty is subordinated to the ambiguous international moral authority – the particular wills of wealthy states – when mass crimes occur. Diplomatic tactics are initially encouraged, but humanitarian intervention remains an option. One might suggest that Hegel (1896) would not concur, as he argues that states have the duty not to ‘meddle in the domestic affairs of another’ (p. 317) but bearing in mind his stance on what is requisite for freedom’s actualization, his disagreement is unlikely.

Pertinent here is Hegel’s contention that civilized states are justified in regarding less-civilized states as barbarians. This position, coupled with the notion that recognition of other states is a matter of a state’s particular will, partially justifies intervention. Moreover, if a state whose population is faced with an existential political threat would logically lack the essential moments of a free state, as such suffering would not occur in the latter, then more ‘civilized’ states would be justified in intervening on the basis of freedom and the preservation of life. Thus, an intervention truly carried out as a means of promulgating welfare would not be antithetical to the logic of morality.

Prior to continuing, a likely conflation must be clarified: while ‘barbarian’ typically evinces a racist sentiment, interventions based on racism or a failure to respect customary differences are unequivocally unjustified, as per the logic of Hegelian international morality. Freedom must universally will itself and, therefore, not impede the structures of freedom abroad, different as they may appear. A state could not permissibly intervene in another on the basis of anything but their lack of freedom in whatever obvious form this may take, such as war or genocide. Of course, this imperative only exists as an ‘ought’ but if it is not adhered to, freedom itself becomes compromised and consequently, so does the intervening state’s actuality. Historically speaking, it is often non-Western states which lack said structures of freedom, typically due to the impacts of (de)colonization or the Western imposition of neoliberalism, or conversely lack the resources necessary to intervene in other states, which results in the perpetuation of the superpowers’ global hegemony. This historical facticity is not something Hegel foresaw so we must adjust any future R2P efforts accordingly.

Hegel and the Foundations of R2P

R2P rests upon four foundations found in the initial ICISS theorization of R2P but are not expressly stated in the 2005 clauses. It is, nevertheless, useful to direct our attention toward them as they inform the larger set of coordinates within which the ratified clauses are situated. The first foundation lies in the ‘obligations inherent in the concept of sovereignty’ (ICISS, 2001, XI). While the implied conception of sovereignty is not delimited, if we interpret the foundation with Hegel’s conception of sovereignty in mind, we could conclude that he would concur since the state is bound by right to protect its people and is duty-bound to protect human life, again due to the necessity of a state’s universal willing of freedom.

The second foundation lies in ‘the responsibility of the Security Council, under Article 24 of the UN Charter, for the maintenance of international peace and security’ (ICISS, 2001, XI). This is commensurate with Article 139 of the 2005 World Summit Outcome Document which clarifies that any invocation of R2P is to be carried out via the Security Council (United Nations, 2005, para. 139). It is worth noting the corruption of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) and hence, of this foundation. Hegel indirectly privileges the notion of sovereign equality, at least among the ‘civilized’ states, which the UNSC inherently betrays. With its five permanent members (China, France, UK, Russia, and USA) endowed with a mostly unfettered veto power, what ought to remain a neutral international entity becomes corrupted by hegemonic interests. What ‘the UN as a neutral body is duty-bound to preserve’ translates to ‘what the global superpowers choose to maintain’, bringing us back to the point that responsibility can only be conceived as a contingent choice, not subject to binding law. Thus, while a majority of Member States might decide in a moral way on whether or not to intervene, this decision could swiftly be vetoed by the possibly immoral (or purely self-interested) will of a Permanent Five member. It is possible to delineate normative criteria to which these powerful states should adhere; however, such adherence is unlikely in the current situation rife with corruption, as they would possess no obligation to accede.

Hegel (1896) was accurate in proposing that any international law body ‘would always depend ultimately on a particular sovereign will [or sovereign wills in this case] and for that reason would remain infected with contingency’ (p. 319). Even though ‘treaties, as the ground of obligations between states, must be kept’ (Hegel, 1896, p. 319), the veto power automatically robs the Permanent Five of any accountabilities to which they should be held. Resultantly, they are legitimately permitted to pursue their particular interests, despite whether they are moral or not. We can infer that Hegel would reject this foundation due to the corruption of the UNSC; however, this does not yet imply that R2P as a whole must be jettisoned. This illuminates the virtual dimensions which surround it, given that it can only be activated by the UN and hence, leads one to infer that its underlying framework is more the object of concern than R2P itself.

The third foundation lies in ‘specific legal obligations under human rights and human protection declarations, covenants and treaties, international humanitarian law and national law’ (ICISS, 2001, XI). The Hegelian conclusions about this statement should be self-evident by now. The fourth foundation lies in ‘the developing practices of states, regional organizations and the Security Council itself’ (ICISS, 2001, XI), which presents the paradox of contingent foundations. If still-developing practices constitute its foundation, then the latter lacks stability. As per Hegel’s stance on civilized states in relation to ‘barbarians’, he would not wholly reject this foundation. It begs the question of whether, since arguably no states are truly emblematic of the Hegelian framework but since some are far closer than others, any states are justified in intervening in less developed states or states in unrest even if they do not purely embody the Hegelian framework themselves. Perhaps given the reduction of R2P’s scope to mass crimes, the answer to this inquiry is less controversial.

Since the contemporary neoliberal circumstances do not resemble a truly Hegelian paradigm, the reasoning that an intervention might be in alignment with the ‘universal willing of freedom’ would be incoherent, as most states are not exemplars of freedom as it stands. One might, nevertheless, formulate a set of prescriptions for justified intervention that would be founded not upon imperial-expansionist principles but would aim toward the genuine protection of human life and freedom. For example, no intervention motivated by (neo-)colonial interests would be permissible and interventions ought not to be pursued if a commitment cannot be made to leave the subject-state in a better condition than before. An intervention must also not harm the intervening state, as this would conflict with its freedom. Of course, the particulars surrounding interventions must be determined on a case-by-case basis given that radical contingencies cannot be preemptively accounted for in an abstract theoretical framework. It is with such particulars that a more incisive Hegelian critique (or approval) can be developed as opposed to what is possible from our presently formal perspective. Given R2P’s locus in the UN, it is the bridge from theory to practice wherein flaws that, while are perhaps not intrinsic to R2P itself but invariably emerge when the UN deploys it, come to light and necessitate rigorous scrutiny.

The culminating point to be made here is that in cases where unrest is not a singular event to be addressed once but rather a symptom of or a reaction to a larger global dynamic, intervention would all but tend to the root of the problem and may in fact worsen circumstances in general. In the era of global capitalism, when the potency of state sovereignty is receding against the thick texture of capitalism colonizing every inch of the space we inhabit, and when little motivates states to act antithetical or indifferent to their financial or geopolitical interests, prescriptions derived from the logic of morality, certainly leave much to be desired. However, deficient as they may be insofar as implementation is concerned, they are all we can theorize in advance and act in fidelity toward in practice.

In order for R2P’s truly legitimate enactment, aside from the obvious benefits of terminating an egregious instance of lethal violence, internal renovations would be necessary for states most likely to intervene, such as the wealthy and powerful (most particularly the United States). We must assert that internal recovery, specifically for the corrupt members of the Permanent Five, would greatly reduce the number of humanitarian crises requiring intervention since the latter are often stemmed by the brutal forces of unbridled globalization constitutive of the current moment. While no genocidal reaction to the forces of globalization is justified, we must situate any critique within a broader landscape than merely the singular crisis in question. Any intervention would need to be radical, such that the underlying structural causes would be addressed, as well as the material circumstances of the crisis in question.


Despite the predicaments associated with the sphere of morality, within which any legitimacy accorded to R2P is determined, it is all we possess as a guide for ethical international relations. Thus, we must conclude that while Hegel’s account of international relations perhaps yields feelings of impotence, it remains indisputable. It is we who must readjust to the Hegelian paradigm and not the inverse. To equate the lack of an enforcement mechanism to an insurmountable deficiency which cannot but enable international relations dominated by right-of-might would be to lapse into moral vacuity and not to harness the emancipatory possibilities that exist in the formal framework of morality.

As it pertains to R2P itself, we can conclude that if it is interpreted in such a way as to be congruent with the international ‘ought’, such that its purpose is commensurate with the universal willing of freedom and no other particular agenda, then it is wholly permissible and even desirable. It remains relatively uncontroversial to assert that mass crimes ought to be urgently addressed. However, as has crystallized, one cannot enforce such an interpretation at the international level, no matter how the tenets of R2P are formulated. Hence, the object of concern pertaining to any humanitarian intervention must be the locus from which it is activated. In the case of R2P, this means addressing the corruption of the UNSC in order to ensure the most just and consistent commitments to intervene, regardless of what is at stake for the individual states. It must be a universal commitment to human life that informs any decision to invoke R2P and subsequently, must thwart any decision not to invoke it when clearly warranted. Hegel’s case for international morality is not just the best available option but, being devoid of any transcendental imports, the only philosophically justifiable option.

* I am indebted to my advisor, Dr. Wendell Kisner, for this clarification of emphases regarding freedom and choice.


Hegel, G. W. F. 1896. Philosophy of right. Translated by S.W. Dyde London, UK: G. Bell. [Online]. Available from: hive/hegel/works/pr/philosophy-of-right.pdf (Accessed 6 April 2020).

International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty. 2001. The responsibility to protect. Ottawa, ON: International Development Resource Center. [Online]. Available from: ort.pdf (Accessed 6 April 2020).

United Nations General Assembly. 2005. World Summit Outcome Document. New York, NY: UN. [Online]. Available from: ent/desa/population/migration/generalassembly/docs/globalcomglob/A RES 60 1.pdf (Accessed 6 April 2020).

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

Macaulay Eddy, University of Leeds, UK

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


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


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


The Role of Non-State Actors within R2P

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

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

The Contradictory Logics of R2P and Counter Terrorism

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

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

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

The Transnational Nature of Terrorism and Counter Terrorism

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

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

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

Counter Terrorism Taking Precedence Over R2P

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

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


The Increasing Use of Force in UN Peacekeeping

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

Peacekeeping Missions and Counter Terrorism Operations

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

Complicity in Atrocity Crimes

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

The Politicised Label of Terrorism

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


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


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

Diletta Alparone, University of Leiden, the Netherlands

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


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


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

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

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

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

The Responsibility to Protect

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

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

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

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

The Rohingya Crisis

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

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

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

The Rohingya Case and R2P

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

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

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

The UN’s structural weakness

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

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

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

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

Mixed Motives and Policy Misjudgements

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

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

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

Discussion and Conclusion

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

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

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

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


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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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A Critical Analysis of the Strengths and Limitations of the Responsibility to Protect in the Central African Republic Between 2013-2017

Claudia Broadhead, University of Leeds

Claudia Broadhead graduated from Leeds University in 2018 with a First-Class Honours in English and History of Art. She currently works in Refugee Support at the British Red Cross.


This paper will discuss the material implications of the UN Responsibility to Protect in the Central African Republic (CAR), a country which since March 2013 has seen ongoing internal conflict. The paper concentrates on the international community’s response to mass atrocities in CAR from 2013 until 2017. The evocation of R2P as a response to the situation on the ground in CAR has resulted in consensual intervention by the EU and UN. This essay will focus on three dimensions of the R2P norm: its shift from a Westphalian to a liberal interpretation of sovereignty, its nature as a tool that is ultimately driven by international political will, and the role of R2P to facilitate support between the international community and the state’s governing body. The paper will use these three facets to evaluate the success of R2P in CAR and concludes that the limitations of the UN norm outweigh its strengths as a tool to prevent and protect mass atrocity crimes.

The Central African Republic (CAR) has seen an eruption in renewed violence and ongoing atrocities since March 2013, with its situation further deteriorating from late 2016. In brief, the crisis emerged with the predominantly Muslim rebel group Séléka fighting to overthrow the corrupt Bozizé government, which resulted in the formation and subsequent retaliation by the mostly Christian anti-balaka militias. Both rebel groups, as well as armed forces and civilian mobs have committed mass atrocity crimes (UNSC Resolution 2134, 2014, p.1). The instrumentalisation of religion and ethnicity have been central to the human rights violations, however, it is imperative to emphasize that the crisis is far more complex, and fundamentally propelled by political groundings (Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect, 2014). The international community has repeatedly responded to the violence in CAR: France has intervened multiple times since CAR’s independence in 1960, and in April 2014 the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in the Central African Republic (MINUSCA) was established as the third UN mission in 20 years (Cinq-Mars, 2015, p. 7). In 2005, the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) was endorsed into the World Summit Outcome Document as a global norm, following its introduction as a principle in the 2001 International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS) report (ICISS). At the heart of R2P, there are three pillars of responsibility: pillar one stipulates that foremost it is the duty of the state to protect its population from genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing; pillar two indicates that if a state fails, it is the responsibility of the international community to assist; and pillar three specifies that if peaceful means are inadequate and the state is manifestly failing to protecting its population, the international community must take action in a ‘timely and decisive manner’ in accordance with the UN Charter (United Nations General Assembly, 2005, p. 30).  The UN Security Council (UNSC) has invoked R2P 18 times concerning CAR since R2P’s adoption in 2005 through UN Resolutions that emphasise the commitment of the international community to resolving the country’s conflict.

This essay will argue that despite ongoing international efforts to protect populations from widespread human rights violations in CAR, the limitations of R2P outweigh its strengths. The argument will develop by looking firstly at how R2P’s reconfiguration of sovereignty gives states the opportunity to discuss and act, but how this universal shift of sovereignty has failed to be effective in CAR. Secondly, once this opportunity to help has been created, R2P is flawed in its dependence on political will; the lack of vested interest in CAR has led to slow missions that fail to address the systematic and root issues of the human rights abuses. Thirdly, once states do commit to investing in the protection of a threatened population, R2P instructs the international community to assist, in the case of CAR, a corrupt and problematic government, and gives unprecedented power to peacekeepers that is poorly monitored and has led to bad practice on the ground.

The impact of R2P’s reconfiguration of sovereignty in CAR

First proposed in the 2001 ICISS report, utmost sovereignty under the first pillar of R2P was redefined as a conditional right reconfiguring Westphalian sovereignty which dictates the absolute right of state leaders to control their own territory, condemning outside interference on all levels (Cohen and Deng, 2016, p. 88). This shift of the notion of sovereignty to a more liberal orientation can be regarded as a key strength of the norm in reference to CAR because it allows states to discuss and act in situations of widespread human rights violations. Although the report emphasised the value of sovereignty, it stipulated that states had a responsibility to protect their populations and under specific circumstances of state failings to do so, the principle of non-intervention could be overruled (Glanville, 2016, p. 160). In CAR, ‘the successive ruling elites and their entourage never demonstrated any sense of responsibility or accountability towards the populations they were meant to administer’ (UNSC, 2015, p. 27). Widespread human rights violations had been occurring in CAR for a prolonged time, and the failure of the state to lead and take responsibility for its population is a well-recognised cause of the conflict (UNSC, 2015, p. 28). The reconceptualization of sovereignty has led to the international community playing a role in efforts to alleviate the heinous conflict. R2P is therefore a progressive concept in that it encourages states to discuss human rights atrocities across the world, reshaping international relations to prioritise populations threatened by mass atrocity crimes. Jennifer Welsh (2013, p. 368) argues that R2P has been a success because it has altered state behaviour to ‘consider a real or imminent crisis’. Although norm cascade theory set out by Finnermore and Sikkink (1998) is problematic in its assertions, it is useful as a starting point because Welsh (2013, p. 379) contends that R2P has passed its emergence, and is now in the phase of ‘cascade’ and ‘diffusion’ whereby sates are beginning to ‘consistently act on the norm’s precepts’. With reference to CAR, this is evidenced by the 18 UN Resolutions that have been invoked since 2005 in response to the crisis. The recalling of resolutions to support the population of CAR demonstrates how the international community is beginning to consult the norm as a method of international responsibility concerning the four crimes. States are therefore beginning to adopt R2P as worldwide diplomatic language which ensures mass atrocity crimes are considered and discussed, leading to supportive and consented state intervention in extreme situations of widespread human rights violations, as seen in CAR.

In contestation, the liberal shift of sovereignty from its traditional sense under R2P threatens the unconditional right of states, surfacing the threat of interference by international actors. The African Union (AU) is formed of states committed to traditional sovereignty meaning the language of R2P has not been widely adopted by the regional organisation; R2P as a universal principle is therefore flawed in its failure to accommodate for the unique states in Africa (Aning and Atuobi, 2011, p. 16). The AU is an essential component of effective multilateral support. However, due to R2P’s insistence on conditional state sovereignty, the AU has failed to appropriately encourage and assist CAR when mass atrocity crimes have occurred, as articulated by pillar II. Regional organisations are a fundamental aspect of translating R2P practically onto the ground, particularly due to the organisation having an understanding of the dynamics and relations in the area they act within (Aning and Okyere, 2016, p. 355). Article 4(g) of the AU Constitutive Act is a non-interference clause, ‘virtually turning R2P on its head by approaching protection from the vantage point of state regimes rather than the potential victims’ (Aning and Okyere, 2016, p. 363). Therefore, R2P’s reconfiguration of sovereignty is limited in the context of CAR in that the non-conformist states have impacted the role of the AU as an assisting organisation in response to the occurrence of the four crimes in CAR. Despite the AU’s authorisation of the deployment of troops to the African-led International Support Mission to CAR (MISCA) in July 2013, the operation failed to provide sufficient support to protect CAR’s populations from mass atrocity crimes that have continued to exist (Cinq-Mars, 2015, p. 13). A 2014 statement by the UN Secretary-General (Ki-Moon, 2014a) asserted that the 3,500 assigned AU troops were not sufficient to implement MISCA’s mandate. We can identify this as a lack of commitment by the AU to intervene in CAR, compromising the strength of R2P as a globalised norm. The UNSG (Ki-Moon, 2011a, p. 3) notes that R2P should ‘respect institutional and cultural difference from region to region’, while advocates of the global norm emphasise the pragmatic step at the heart of R2P in that it is invoked on a ‘case-by-case’ approach. Critiquing this however, we can use Adejo’s (2001, p. 136) analysis to note that due to old norms of absolute sovereignty, non-interference continues to exist within the institutional framework which has allowed state failings to obstruct AU intervention. Despite the deployment of AU troops to MISCA, their effectiveness was poor due to the insufficient size of the group which suggests the AU’s unwillingness to engage fully with R2P, and thus the mission has had very limited success in protecting threatened populations in CAR.

The failure of R2P to protect a country which has little international interest 

Despite Welsh’s (2013) nuanced approach that celebrates R2P as a norm that has become integrated into international diplomatic language, close analysis of the impact R2P has had in response to the emergence of the four crimes in CAR reveals several limitations of the norm. Effective international assistance through prevention strategies under pillar II are ultimately dependent on the political will of states, particularly the state interests of the Security Council’s permanent five members (P5) (Hehir, 2015, p. 85). This critique of the global norm can be applied to CAR which has been described as a ‘phantom state’ (International Crisis Group, 2007). Cinq-Mars argues that the lack of exploitable resources in the country and the absence of ‘any meaningful institutional capacity’ has led to CAR being disregarded as a priority by the international community (2015, p. 6). Furthermore, due to the structure of the UNSC and the overriding power of the P5 in international decisions, in practice R2P is a concept whose power is vested in the Security Council (Davies and Bellamy, 2014). Aidan Hehir (2017, p. 335) challenges Welsh’s (2013) support of R2P as an integrated norm, instead asserting that the norm’s ‘impact on the behaviour of states has been limited’. R2P has not shifted state mind-sets because international response is fuelled by state interests whereby manipulation of the norm occurs for selfish means (Kowert and Legro, 1996, p. 493). States are given the ability to intervene; but this can lead to intervention for vested interests, or increased violence on the ground and bad practice of the interveners. The Geneva Peacekeeping Platform, an international centre that links experts with peacebuilding actors and facilitates discussion to drive greater knowledge and understanding of peacekeeping issues, reinforces this in relation to CAR, explaining that one factor of the failed peacebuilding efforts is the ‘overly negative and inherently flawed’ perception of the country (Akasaki et. al, 2015). Cinq-Mars (2015, p. 7) concludes that this view of CAR led to ‘reactive and belated’ responses. ‘Reactive’ demonstrates that with no political desire or ulterior motive, the international community prioritised short-term alleviation over the cost of tackling the root causes of the conflict. ‘Belated’ aligns with Hehir’s argument that R2P is a utopian norm because when states are unwilling to respond in a ‘timely’ manner R2P prevents the successful stabilisation of a failing state (Hehir, 2017, p. 340-41). Cinq-Mars (2015, p. 12) interviewed current and former UN staff who described CAR as a ‘punishment posting’ and ‘parking lot of the UN’, suggesting staff are abandoned there while the UN focuses on more important work. Turnover rates of UN staff in CAR are exceedingly high. The absence of exploitable resources and lack of a strong relationship between CAR and any members of the P5 has ultimately shaped the R2P response which has been inadequate in protecting civilians from mass human rights violations (Hehir, 2015, p. 93). CAR being regarded as a forgotten lost cause allows us to conclude with Hehir’s argument that the efficacy of R2P is ‘heavily dependent on political will, as opposed to legal procedure and judicial oversights’ (Hehir, 2015, p. 93).

The failure of the EU and UN to implement prevention and respond to credible early warnings

The lack of political will of states to fully invest in CAR can be identified by the reported failure of the UN and EU to respond to credible early warning systems and implement effective prevention strategies in CAR, and thus R2P has failed to efficiently protect the country’s population (Bellamy and Lupel, 2015, p. 2).  Although atrocity crimes are determined by a multitude of variable factors and conditions making them demanding and strenuous to prevent, prevention strategies including building national resilience, promoting human rights, and adopting targeted preventative measures have been outlined in the UNSG’s 2013 report on prevention and thus enshrined in pillar I and II of R2P (Ki-Moon, 2013). As Simon Adams (2013, p. 1), the Director of the Global Centre for R2P declares, ‘R2P is primarily a preventive doctrine’. Although Hehir (2012, p. 87) argues that the shift of emphasis from intervention in the ICISS report (2001) to prevention in the World Summit Outcome Document (2005) indicates R2P’s failure to impact law, procedure and regulating institutions, it is widely accepted that implementing preventive strategies has resulted in successful aversion from the four crimes (McLoughlin, 2014, p. 414). The UNSG’s 2013 report on prevention noted that early warning mechanisms to alert decision makers to situations that were on the brink of escalation were a vital aspect of atrocity prevention measures (Ki-Moon, 2013, p. 14). With regard to CAR, it was already in April 2013 when public calls were made by XXX for Muslim civilians to be wiped out (Cinq-Mars, 2015, p. 16) and in August 2017 the Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator made a statement that concluded the early warning signs of genocide were visible and action must be taken immediately (O’Brian, 2017). The UN and EU have been heavily criticised for their slow and insufficient response to the rise of widespread human rights violations in CAR (Bellamy and Lupel, 2015, p. 2). The lack of political will to whole heartedly respond to the crisis is a reason for the insufficiency of the international community. Following the December 2013 attacks and warnings of ethnic cleansing, crimes against humanity and war crimes, EU ministers agreed in January 2014 to deploy an EU military operation (EUFOR RCA) in CAR (Council of the European Union, 2014). To ensure its rapid operation, EUFOR RCA was approved in UN Resolution 2134 (UNSC Resolution 2134, 2014, p.3). However, three months later, in March 2014, the already delayed EUFOR RCA mission still required another 500 troops for its deployment (Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect, 2013). On the 9th April, a further three weeks later, troops from EUFOR RCA arrived in Bangui and an initial group of 55 begin patrolling (Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect, 2013). Despite the grave warnings of widespread human rights violations from organisations on the ground in CAR, R2P’s lack of legal binding and dependence on political will has meant the UN and EU have been ineffective at translating agreements into practical action. The delay of deployment in the context of the crisis was shockingly high as without an ulterior motive troops were unlikely to be deployed to CAR. The EUFOR RCA mission was initially restricted to a mere six months, and it was centred in the capital of the country with no troops operating in other critically turbulent areas, therefore R2P’s dependence on political will has allowed conflict to intensify and lives to be lost.

The failure of R2P to address the structural underlying causes of instability in CAR

R2P has allowed the international community to provide short-term direct assistance and stabilisation but has failed to address the structural underlying causes of the occurrence of the four crimes. Again, the lack of political will of states to fully invest in CAR that has led to this. This can be illustrated through events in December 2013 where the UN pulled into action following an outbreak of violence, and although further mass killings were initially supressed, the intervention had short-lived preventative benefits but actually intensified inter-communal violence in the long-term (Cinq-Mars, 2015, p. 15). Early December 2013 saw widespread human rights abuses occur as anti-Balaka militias attacked former Séléka forces in Bangui, killing an estimated 1,000 people in an ethno-religious cleansing mission (Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect, 2013). This was instantaneously followed by the UNSC adoption of Resolution 2127 authorising MISCA and the emergency deployment of French troops to take ‘all necessary measures’ to contribute to the ‘protection of civilians and the restoration of security and public order’ (UNSC Resolution 2127, 2013, p. 7). Unintentionally, international focus to disarm former Séléka rebels placed anti-balaka fighters in a position of superiority resulting in the forced displacement of Muslim civilians by anti-balaka in Bangui and western CAR (Øen, 2014, p. 32). The UN was heavily criticised for its insufficient role in the crisis, once source being the international humanitarian organisation Médecins Sans Frontières who released an open letter to the UN humanitarian system expressing its ‘deep concern about the unacceptable performance’ of UN agencies in CAR (Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect, 2013). The peace missions deployed to CAR were criticised by Cinq-Mars (2015) for lacking the capacity to interrupt violence due to ill-equipped, under-trained and insufficiently supported operations. The structure of R2P as a non-legally binding concept that relies on state responsibility and voluntary assistance has meant that efforts in CAR have been fundamentally reactive, but not thorough investments to address the underlying causes of the conflict. Unfortunately, the international community has intervened in CAR under R2P in a very surface fashion which has lacked capacity, exacerbating violence in some regions and failing to structurally prevent widespread human rights violations due to the absence of addressing the root issues of the conflict.

The role Pillar II has had in supporting CAR’s corrupt government and giving unprecedented power to UN peacekeepers

Transcending beyond political will, even if states do commit to preventing and protecting the population from mass atrocity crimes, pillar II instructs the international community to support CAR’s government, who have been fundamental in fuelling the crisis and have taken part in widespread human rights violations themselves. Pillar II stipulates ‘the international community should as appropriate, encourage and help states to exercise their responsibility and support the United Nations in establishing an early warning system’ (United Nations General Assembly, 2005, p. 30). Its aim is to ensure international assistance helps a failing state to build the resilience to protect its population from the four crimes. In the 2009 UNSG report ‘Implementing the Responsibility to Protect’, Ban Ki-Moon claimed that pillar II is an ‘active partnership between the international community and the State’ and broke down the pillar into three categories: encouragement, capacity building, and assisting States (Ki-Moon, 2009, p. 15). Regarding the third dimension, Gallagher highlights how if those in power are the reason for the lack of ‘accountable political institutions, respect for the rule of law and equal access to justice, and mechanisms for the fair and transparent management of economic resources and assets’, then international assistance may legitimise those responsible for the crisis (Gallagher, 2009, p. 1274). Gallagher’s critique can be applied to the CAR case because it is the state who has played a leading role in fuelling conflict and committing human rights violations, and therefore it is controversial and highly problematic that the international community work side by side with CAR’s government. CAR has failed to be effectively governed by legitimate state authority since its independence in 1960. Bozizé, who ruled from 2003 to 2013, controlled a horrifically corrupt government, holding all the power and marginalising the northern and eastern regions of the country (Cinq-Mars, 2015, p. 6). Ostracising communities outside Bangui led to the rise of anti-government rebel fighters who are legitimately furious (Cinq-Mars, 2015, p. 6). Furthermore, Louisa Lombard (2014) notes that Bozizé engaged in the politicisation of religion which intensified tensions between religious groups, providing further ground for conflict. However, through the October 2013 UNSC Resolution 2088 and MINUSCA’s attempt to establish a legal framework, we can identify two distinct ways that the UN has assisted and ultimately legitimised a government that has manipulated relations and established hierarchy. Firstly, Resolution 2088 both ‘Urges the Government of the Central African Republic to ensure that freedom of expression and assembly, including for the opposition parties, as well as the rule of law are fully respected’, and ‘Demands that all armed groups cooperate with the Government in the disarmament, demobilization and reintegration process’ (UNSC Resolution 2088, 2013, p.3). The UN is encouraging CAR’s government to oversee commitment to human rights and law by all groups, and instructing armed groups to actively work with the government, legitimising it as an actor which holds power and control. Secondly, with the support of MINUSCA there has been efforts to re-establish the court system, yet the UNSG emphasises the rebel group individuals convicted, suggesting elite figures in the corrupt CAR state have continued unscathed (Ki-Moon, 2018, p. 7). Rebel armed groups were responsible for 33% of all human rights abuses, yet the national police and State led military are responsible for 25% of violations (Ki-Moon, 2018, p. 9). Furthermore, in April 2014, Russia and China blocked a proposal by the United States and France at the UNSC to impose targeted sanctions against three individuals, including former President Bozizé (Charbonneau and Nichols, 2014). International assistance in the way of establishing courts and prison systems, although fundamental in establishing a democratic and well-governed State, legitimises the mass human rights violations of the State by majoritively condemning the rebel groups. We can therefore critique R2P as a norm that encourages the international community to aid state’s that are key players in the cause of conflict.

Once states commit to supportive military intervention in the form of peacekeeping, which aims to protect populations at risk, R2P provides unprecedented power to peacekeepers and does not enshrine rigid training and monitoring, which has led to power being misused and abused, and ultimately R2P has created opportunities for bad practice on the ground in CAR.  Prevention by definition ‘involves a bi-lateral dynamic’ (Hehir 2015, p. 91), but accusations of sexual abuse by peacekeepers has hugely weakened the reputation of the military operations (Arieff, 2014).  Hehir’s work on prevention informs us that in the case of CAR the groups planning the attack must be dissuaded by the international community in order for prevention to be successful (2015, p. 91). However, there have been repeated accusations of sexual abuse, many cases involving children, by troops associated with French, AU and UN intervention which has ruptured any sense of trust or working relationships between the armed groups and the peacekeepers. An October 2017 Amnesty International news article reported that UN peacekeepers in Bambari drugged and sexually assaulted a young woman in CAR (Amnesty International News, 2017). The atrocious actions of the UN peacekeeper in this specific case were taken to court and the victim was restored with some form of justice (Amnesty International News, 2017). However, Amnesty (2017) reports that no other allegations of rape involving UN troops, despite the ‘continuous stream of well-documented’ claims, have been criminally investigated. The lack of a strategic framework and rigid monitoring following international assistance and intervention on the ground has allowed peacekeepers to heinously misuse their powerː despite training modules and mobile training teams being used to ensure peacekeepers understand their role in protecting civilians, this is evidently not enough (Ki-Moon, 2014b, p. 17). The UNSG’s 2014 report emphasises ways to identify at risk groups and increase protection capacity for vulnerable women, although this progress is vital, it fails to acknowledge the continuous allegations against peacekeepers themselves and how this can be combatted in the future (Ki-Moon, 2014b, p. 17). The misuse of power by certain troops has been a contributing factor to the failure of the international community to protect CAR’s populations from the four crimes. R2P is thus limited in that it does not ensure rigid training and monitoring of practice on the ground, allowing assault to occur which has jeopardised the success of prevention and restoration missions in CAR.


R2P is advocated for by scholars as a progressive norm that has encouraged conversation about human rights atrocities and has reshaped thought to further prioritise the lives of mass atrocity victims in international relations. However, this article has argued that in the context of the ongoing crisis in CAR, the limitations of R2P outweigh its strengths. There are two key strands of critique that this essay has negotiated, one in reference to the wording of the norm, and another in relation to how R2P is put into practice and interpreted. On one hand, the R2P discourse reconceptualises sovereignty in pillar I and instructs the international community to assist the manifestly failing state in pillar II. These stipulations have meant the African Union has had minimal input in restoring CAR due to its framework tied to legalities of traditional sovereignty. Furthermore, the rest of the international community has been involved in supporting and actively assisting the corrupt CAR government which is criticised for being the catalyst of the entire crisis. On the other hand, the non-legally binding norm has been able to be exploited in its invocation by states and their troops. R2P is dependent on the political will of states to offer their resources and services to protect populations threatened by the four crimes, it is therefore able to be abused in situations of state interest or allied relations which has led to the crisis in CAR being insufficiently responded to by the international community. On a more granular level, the authority that the peacekeepers have has been horrifically misused due to the absence of rigid training and monitoring efforts, which has weakened the opportunity for peacebuilding relations between international troops and local armed groups. Ultimately, R2P creates opportunities for states to help populations threatened by genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing. Nevertheless, its nature as non-legally binding allows states to act most effectively and efficiently in cases of vested interest, while once states do commit to assist, R2P threatens to further violence and legitimise bad practice.


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Welsh, J. M. 2013. Norm Contestation and the Responsibility to Protect. Global Responsibility to Protect. 5, pp. 365-396.

The Final Frontier: R2P and Implementation

Dr Jess Gifkins, University of Manchester, UK

Dr Jess Gifkins has worked at the University of Manchester since 2017, having previously worked at universities in the UK and in Australia. Her research is on global governance in relation to questions of peace and security. She studies decision-making practices within the United Nations Security Council, and have published research on the international response to crises in Darfur, Libya and Syria. She is also interested in debates on the responsibility to protect (R2P). 

R2P has catalysed debate and become remarkably embedded as a feature of International Relations in less than two decades. The early stages of ‘what R2P is’ from the ICISS report in 2001 through to the agreement by all states that they accept their responsibility to protect in 2005 appears linear in hindsight, although it was highly contested at the time (Bellamy 2009; Evans 2008). R2P was then reframed as three pillars by Ban Ki-Moon, which has left a lasting impact on the way R2P is understood. Once there was broad acceptance on ‘what R2P is’, debates followed over what level of support it enjoys from states (for opposing perspectives on this see Gifkins 2016; Hehir 2016). Alongside this there has been extensive debate around whether R2P is a norm, and what type of norm it is. It has been described as a “complex norm” by Jennifer Welsh (2013: 384), by Alex Bellamy as a “collection of norms” (2015: 62), and more recently by Alex Bellamy and Edward Luck as “an established international norm” (2018: 39). Beyond these foundational debates, scholarship on R2P has now shifted to the most critical issue: implementation.

The deceptively simple goal of R2P – preventing mass atrocity crimes – belies huge complexity around domestic governance, deescalating political disputes, inclusion of diverse groups, and best practices on the roles of local, national, regional, and international bodies. Luckily there is a great new book out by Alex Bellamy and Edward Luck which, ambitiously, addresses all of these challenges (2018). The book is titled ‘The Responsibility to Protect: From Promise to Practice’ and it is essential reading for anyone interested in the implementation of R2P.

I will focus on some of the key contributions of this book here. Between the two of them, Bellamy and Luck span more than a quarter of a century of research, advocacy, and diplomacy on R2P, Bellamy as Director of the Asia-Pacific Centre on R2P and consultant to the UN Office on Genocide Prevention and R2P, and Luck as the UN’s first Special Advisor on R2P and architect of the three-pillar approach. The book begins with the kind of history of R2P which can only be told from some distance. Retelling the origin story of R2P the authors highlight how the mandate of the original ICISS report swayed debates towards questions of humanitarian intervention, and that this has had a lasting, and detrimental, impact on focussing debates towards the use of force and away from atrocity prevention.

Drawing from this, the authors stress the importance of prevention, which shifts the central focus of R2P away from the United Nations and towards the practices of states and non-state actors. As Bellamy and Luck explain, “the cornerstone of prevention is the building of an inclusive, non-discriminatory form of politics capable of managing diversity constructively” (2018: 121). Throughout the book they remind us that R2P, under pillar one, applies to all states all the time, and that effective governments prevent violent conflict between groups, as a regular part of governance, whether they consider this R2P or not.

The book highlights a series of aspects of R2P where causal relationships – such as between early warning and action – are not as straightforward as it might have seemed, and they stress the need for further research in these areas. On early warning they suggest that the issue is often not simply of getting timely analysis to the right people, and that early warning is only likely to help if there is already some inclination to act. Similarly, the case study analysis in the book – spanning eight situations including historical conflicts such as Rwanda and Srebrenica and more recent conflicts in Kenya and Côte d’Ivoire – suggests that Security Council involvement and peacekeeping are not necessarily factors that will prevent mass atrocity crimes. Bellamy and Luck find that the ‘successful cases’ they consider in the book all had atrocity prevention as a core priority from local and international actors. They draw from this that “making a conscious choice would appear to make a difference”, but that while this was a necessary factor it was not sufficient on its own (2018: 171). They stress the need for further research on tools that deescalate conflicts and recommend studies that compare large numbers of cases.

In reflecting on R2P as it currently stands, Bellamy and Luck conclude that “decision-making sovereignty remains the single greatest obstacle to R2P implementation today”, by which they mean the authority that states have to decide to take action (or not), as opposed the early R2P debates where it was assumed that territorial sovereignty presented the biggest obstacle (2018: 107). A more banal barrier – but one that remains consequential – is that UN peacekeeping operations rarely have enough force enablers such as helicopters, ground transportation, and intelligence capabilities (2018: 152). For example, lack of helicopters has been an ongoing challenge for the UNAMID peacekeeping operation in Darfur, a region the size of France. For those of you looking for ways to exercise your individual responsibility to protect you could lobby your governments to better equip peacekeeping operations. Without this equipment, even when they are deployed within a conflict, peacekeepers are unable to respond to incidents in a timely manner.

For those interested in the final frontier of R2P – implementation – Bellamy and Luck’s book is essential reading. For additional reading in this critical area there is a forthcoming edited book called ‘Implementing the Responsibility to Protect’ edited by Cecilia Jacob and Martin Mennecke (2019). Keep an eye out for it when it is released in September.

The R2P Student journal – now in its third year – is an excellent model of student-led research and advocacy. If you are a student with an excellent essay of less than 6000 words do consider submitting to the journal. It’s a great way to reach a broader audience with your ideas (beyond the one or two academics who grade your essays). If you are a lecturer teaching courses connected to R2P do encourage your students to submit. It’s a great way to build skills in a new generation of researchers and to demystify the peer-review process.


Bellamy, Alex J. 2009. Responsibility to Protect: The Global Effort to End Mass Atrocities. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Bellamy, Alex J. 2015. The Responsibility to Protect: A Defence. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Bellamy, Alex J. and Edward C. Luck. 2018. The Responsibility to Protect: From Promise to Practice. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Evans, Gareth. 2008. The Responsibility to Protect: Ending Mass Atrocity Crimes Once and For All. Washington D.C.: Brookings Institution Press.

Gifkins, Jess. 2016. ‘R2P in the UN Security Council: Darfur, Libya and Beyond’. Cooperation and Conflict 51(2): 148-165.

Hehir, Aidan. 2016. ‘Assessing the influence of the Responsibility to Protect on the UN Security Council during the Arab Spring’. Cooperation and Conflict 51(2): 166-183.

Jacob, Cecilia and Martin Mennecke, eds. 2019. Implementing the Responsibility to Protect. Global Politics and the Responsibility to Protect. Routledge.

Welsh, Jennifer. 2013. ‘Norm Contestation and the Responsibility to Protect’. Global Responsibility to Protect 5(4): 365-396.