Shortcomings of the ‘Responsibility to Protect’: An Analysis of the Saudi-led Coalition Intervention in Yemen

Melly Hu, King’s College London, UK

Melly Hu is a current International Conflict Studies MA student at King’s College London. She holds a BA degree in Economics and Communication from the University of Washington. Her previous professional background includes experience in the investment management and digital marketing fields.

More often than not, the subject of international intervention seems to exist in a state of paradox. Due to the lack of an international response, tragedies such as the Rwandan genocide are allowed to occur. Conversely, the international community is also held culpable when the perception is that too much action had been taken, such as in Libya. When the United Nations created the ‘Responsibility to Protect’ (R2P) doctrine, it aspired to address the need for human protection in armed conflicts (but not only) in the most altruistic manner. However, for states fraught with mass atrocities, R2P brings to light the limitations of its impact as well as its intentions. Today, the situation in Yemen represents a case worth analysing through the lens of R2P.

The Yemeni Civil War began in 2015 between the Houthi rebel movement forces seeking to reinstate former President Ali Abdullah Saleh and the government forces of current President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi. The deadly crisis has since affected millions of Yemenis who are currently facing a humanitarian disaster in the war-torn country. When the Saudi-led coalition was formed that same year, the prospect of an international intervention was welcomed in the hope of ending the civil conflict and stabilising the country. Now, more than a year on from the coalition’s first air campaign, Yemen is in an increasingly worsening state, with millions of civilians either displaced or in desperate need of humanitarian assistance (GCR2P, 2017). To blindly accept Riyadh’s actions as R2P activism is optimistic, if not naïve. Although the concept of R2P is encouraging progress towards improving human protection, the international intervention in Yemen calls into question R2P’s infallibility from misuse.

This paper will proceed in the following parts. The first section of this essay will contextualize the design of R2P by briefly summarising its inception and its core assumptions regarding international intervention. The second section will examine some of R2P’s major design flaws that leads to a polysemous interpretation of this principle, hindering its ability to establish normative best practices during international interventions. This ultimately gives way for states to exploit the doctrine to their best interest, as Saudi Arabia is doing. The third section will assess how Riyadh’s incursion into Yemen is exacerbating the conflict and explores underlying motivations for its involvement, further illustrating that its actions do not conform to the expectations of what R2P was created to achieve. The paper will conclude that R2P has serious shortcomings that render it vulnerable to abuse in the self-interest of states, especially in international interventions.

Background and Core Assumptions of the ‘Responsibility to Protect’

The ‘Responsibility to Protect’ principle was first introduced into the United Nations in 2005, adopted by all the Heads of State and Government and has been reaffirmed several times since. R2P consists of three pillars that are “equally weight[ed] and nonsequential”: 1) states hold the responsibility to protect their populations from mass atrocities such as genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing, and crimes against humanity; 2) the international community has the obligation to assist and encourage states to meet that responsibility; 3) when a state has failed to protect its citizens, the international community holds the responsibility to take timely and decisive action to prevent the mass atrocities from occurring (GCR2P, 2017).

The first and foremost concern in the introduction of R2P was its potential infringement upon Westphalian state sovereignty. The principle was criticized as being a liberal cosmopolitanism agenda, used by major Western powers to impose their ideals and power over ‘weaker’ states (Kurtz and Rotmann, 2015, p. 6). To counter, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon (2008) stressed that “R2P is an ally of sovereignty, not an adversary”, by placing the primary responsibility of protection on the state concerned. However, the fact that the pillars are equally weighted and nonsequential, as stated above, demonstrates otherwise, as Pillar III then legitimizes intervening states to ‘meddle’ (Badescu and Weiss, 2010, p. 361). Nonetheless, in the evolution of the R2P norm, the anti-imperialist view (primarily held by Venezuela, Belarus and Cuba that asserts state sovereignty should be preserved without fail) conceded to the prevalent agreement that action should indeed be taken in the wake of mass atrocities. More than a decade later from R2P’s conception, the matter of establishing a norm for best practices is still an issue at hand.

While liberal cosmopolitanists support R2P as it is in alignment with their desire for “increasingly strong and comprehensive international treaties and institutions”, the realist approach is sceptical of the states’ “conflicting interests of power” (Chandler, 2014, p. 65; Kurtz and Rotmann, 2015, p. 12). From the latter perspective, the concern is that states could abuse “humanitarian justifications for other political interests, such as regime change” (Kurtz and Rotmann, 2015, p. 15). Especially regarding international military interventions, Paris (2014, p. 572-573) claims that “decisions to use armed force almost always involve a mix of motives, including self-interest”. This is especially applicable in Yemen’s case, as it could be argued that the driving force behind Riyadh’s decisions is primarily (if not exclusively) self-interest, masked behind thinly-veiled altruism.

At the core of R2P is the fundamental assumption that centers on human protection. For the purposes of analysing R2P, Ban Ki-moon (2011) has differentiated human protection from the larger concept of human security; human security includes the security of states, while human protection “addresses more immediate threats to the survival of individuals and groups”. While there is less debate about whether or not human protection should take place, there is still disagreement on how it should manifest operationally. Notably, Pillar III of R2P requests action to be taken by the international community when the situation requires it. Although the UN has stressed a “strong preference for dialogue and peaceful persuasion”, Pillar III also encompasses coercive action (United Nations – Report of the Secretary-General, 2009).  While coercive measures could include “political, economic, or judicial steps,” most states tend to interpret it as coercive military action (Evans and Sahnoun, 2002, p. 103). This poses a challenge because, as Thakur (2013, p. 61) points out, “the use of force – no matter how benevolent, enlightened, or impartial in intent – …is inherently controversial”. Recalling the case in Libya, the heavy bombardment in civilian-populated areas “did not look, resemble, or feel, like humanitarian protection” (Dunne and Gifkins, 2011, p. 516). Therefore, whether the use of force is an asset or a liability to human protection remains tentative; the case of Yemen, however, seemingly demonstrates the latter.

Another assumption is the expectation that no state is ever exempt from R2P. Since adopting the principle in the 2005 UN World Summit, states have been bound to this permanent duty. Therefore, Bellamy (2013, p. 10) concludes, “the question is never one of whether or not RtoP ‘applies’ – because this wrongly implies that there are situations in which states do not have a responsibility to protect their populations – but of how best to realise its goals in any given situation”. Indeed, this assumption that holds this perpetual burden over states invokes a whole set of challenges. As the UN chose to implement R2P without requiring explicit oversight, who is to say what the ‘best’ way to act in an international intervention? This in turn also poses additional challenges to establishing normative standards in practice.

Implementation Flaws of R2P

Although the implementation of R2P happened in rapid succession from when it was first introduced, it was not without adjustment before reaching a consensus from member states. First, early drafts of the doctrine had to be revised in order to appease some permanent member states (in particular China and Russia). Ban Ki-moon ultimately ‘softened’ the language in the doctrine, settling for a universal feel that did not bend favour to Western states (Bellamy, 2010, p. 145). Any mention of the International Criminal Court, condemnation of torture, or sexual violence again women and children were ultimately not included in the final draft. In addition, the UN has admitted that the doctrine’s language does not effectively “grapple with the practical implementation of protection standards” (UN Security Council Report, 2005). Consequently, the final agreed-upon language of R2P was less specific than earlier drafts of the doctrine, rendering it more liable to manipulation. More importantly, how the discourse is used continues to be an influential factor in shaping the international norm of R2P, as will be exemplified in the case of Yemen.

Second, Ban Ki-moon also rejected including any guidelines on the decisions to use force by states in the case of an international intervention that has not been mandated by the UN Security Council (Bellamy, 2010, p. 143). The implication to leave this clause out is that states can then proceed with independent decision-making as well as freedom from UN oversight. Although states favoured this because it respected principles of state sovereignty, it does not lend any progress towards establishing a norm for the use of coercive measures under R2P. Both of these concessions will ultimately result in the outcome of how the intervention in Yemen was justified.

Finally, Bellamy (2010, p. 143) additionally calls for attention to the inconsistent manner in which the principle has been applied, citing Russia’s intervention in Georgia (where there were no apparent mass atrocities) to contrast the lack of action taken by the international community in countries where mass atrocities have been ascertained such as Somalia or Iraq. Termed “selectivity of engagement” by Kurtz and Rotmann (2015, p. 16), the discrepancies in the use of forceful interventions result in what appears to be a double standard, further feeding the realist view that states will only involve themselves when there is self-gain. Indeed, Riyadh has some obvious ulterior motives that serve in its best interests that will be explored in the following sections.

Riyadh’s R2P-style Rhetoric as Justification for the Intervention in Yemen

Riyadh might have considered these identified limitations of R2P when it made the decision to intervene militarily. In Yemen’s case, R2P was not formally invoked by the UN but it nevertheless was an important aspect when Riyadh announced its justification for the intervention in Yemen. On March 25, 2015, Riyadh issued a statement to announce the launch of its military intervention into Yemen as its ‘responsibility’ to “protect the people of Yemen and its legitimate government from a takeover by the Houthis” (Saudi Ambassador Al-Jubeir, 2015). Announcing the next phase of the campaign, the Saudi-led coalition’s goals again were “continuing to protect civilians, continuing to fight terrorism…and to intensify relief and medical assistance to the Yemeni people” (Abdul, 2015).

Although the statements used rhetoric associated with R2P, any mention of the ‘mass atrocities’ occurring in Yemen that explicitly allows international intervention to act on behalf of the concerned state is glaringly absent. Amidst all of the recognized ambiguities of R2P, surely the clause to protect civilians from mass atrocities should be clear. It is no coincidence that Riyadh has omitted any inferences to mass atrocities; it would have undoubtedly drawn more international criticism towards the hard-line air campaigns that it conducted indiscriminately toward civilian areas, rendering it more difficult to justify the intervention on the grounds of R2P.

From Riyadh’s perspective, it could be reasoned that they were simply acting upon what the R2P doctrine had asked of the international community, in a both timely and decisive fashion. Yemen was already on the brink of collapse due to the ongoing civil war, thus Riyadh viewed itself as the much-needed proponent to defeat the Houthi rebels and end the war, ultimately ‘protecting’ Yemenis (Perkins, 2016, p. 314). Moreover, the international community – including U.S., UK, and France – has affirmed its support for the Coalition, further corroborating Riyadh’s rationale. While critics deduct that political and economic interests, in terms of weapons sales and oil trade, are the primary reasons for Western support of the intervention, Saudi Arabia is nevertheless emboldened by the lack of international criticism for its coercive operations. In essence, the very same doctrine that was designed to protect civilians has equally protected Riyadh’s from international condemnation.

Assessing Riyadh’s Underlying Motivations for the Intervention

Beyond Riyadh’s rhetoric, the actual military behaviour in the course of the intervention also raises doubt that the Coalition is acting on behalf of R2P principles. Since the beginning of the Coalition’s aerial bombardment in March 2015, Human Rights Watch (2016) have reported up to 4,000 civilians killed and another 7,000 wounded. In addition, schools, markets, and hospitals have all been targeted by the airstrikes led by Saudi Arabia. The situation seems to take a turn for even worse when reports of child soldiers being armed by Saudi Arabia emerged. This is in addition to the grave humanitarian crisis that over 80% of the population in Yemen is faced with – both Houthi and Coalition forces have been accused of restricting food and medical supplies from civilians (Human Rights Watch, 2016). As the number of civilian deaths, injuries, and displacements continue to rise, it is becoming more and more apparent that the international intervention led by Saudi Arabia is exacerbating the conflict.

Assuming the cynicism from a realist perspective, the logical inclination is to infer that Riyadh has ulterior motives other than the responsibility of protecting civilians in its interventionist goals. First, the geostrategic location of Yemen is of paramount importance to Saudi Arabia. As part of the Arabian Peninsula and sharing a border with Saudi Arabia, Yemen’s instability would threaten the flow of the five million barrels of Saudi oil exports per day that pass through the Arab Gulf (Cordesman, 2015, p. 11). Additionally, sustainable stability will ensure that the war does not spill over from its coterminous neighbour as well as prevent any surge of refugees into Saudi Arabia. As long as Saudi’s wealth depends on its oil exports, its geopolitical interests will remain a priority in its grand strategy.

The high geopolitical stakes at hand then lead to the belief that the larger strategy and motive for the Saudi intervention is to establish hegemony in the Middle East. As Iran is Saudi Arabia’s greatest competitor for regional dominance, the mutual contention between the two states therefore manifests as a race to exert their respective influence over the other less powerful states in the region. Not only is Iran excluded from the Saudi-led Coalition, Iran stands allegiant to the Saudi-opposed Houthi rebels. In this regard, dictating the outcome of the civil war will result in a Yemeni government favourable to the respective state. Since Yemenis have long enjoyed employment opportunities in the oil-rich Saudi Arabia, they already hold a “strong incentive to defer politically to Saudi Arabia” (Okruhlik and Conge, 1997, p. 558). Thus, the escalation of the civil war was then “sufficient for Saudi Arabia to seek patronage” for Yemen, much in the same way it holds political leverage over Bahrain (Matthiesen, 2013, p. 29).

Along with political and economic implications, there is also a religious aspect to the rivalry. While both Iran and the Houthi rebels are Shia majority, Saudi Arabia is overwhelmingly Sunni. Thus, the struggle for the control of the jurisdiction of Yemen has become a proxy war over influence of the Muslim world. With Yemen under Riyadh’s control and ultimately reinstating the ousted President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi, Saudi Arabia would gain leverage over Iran. While sectarian conflicts in the Middle East are not uncommon, the strife over Yemen illustrates a case of political sectarianism in which the political economy of the Gulf is inseparable from sectarian affiliation (Matthiesen, 2013, p. 8).

Returning to the matter of R2P, it would be problematic to view Riyadh’s actions in Yemen without larger consideration of its overarching political goals. From a realist point of view, the existence of a legitimizing doctrine such as R2P has only made it easier to justify the Coalition’s aggressive military intervention for the sake of self-gain. However, this is not to say that Riyadh’s actions are absolutely barren of human protection interests, only that there are pre-existing motivations that cannot be ignored in the assessment of the intervention.


Despite the shortcomings of R2P, the creation of the doctrine has brought about significant progress for human protection. The purpose of this analysis is not to suggest that R2P is a doomed concept nor was it to blame Saudi Arabia for Yemen’s ongoing civil war. By critically evaluating the Saudi-led coalition’s military intervention, it becomes apparent that the design of R2P is susceptible to misuse. As Kurtz and Rotmann (2015, p. 19) summarize, “the strategic use of the R2P concept to frame and justify certain diplomatic or military interventions underscores the pitfalls of vague principles in international politics”. The implications reach far beyond the war in Yemen; generally, when there is a flexible normative structure for policy on an international level, exploitation is likely to occur. In summary, R2P should be taken as a dynamic doctrine that the international community collectively continues to critique, develop, and ultimately, improve.


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