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The Responsibility to Protect (R2P): a death in embryo

By Jed Lea-Henry - posted Wednesday, 22 July 2015

The sheer fact that we are not talking about it means that it has died! With all the harm that we are currently seeing in Syria and Iraq, the Doctrine of the Responsibility to Protect – or R2P – should be rolling off our tongues daily, and should be echoing in the language of our politicians. In the absence of such a prominent role, it is now increasingly obvious that what was once a promising ethical development has, in fact, died a quiet death whilst still only in its embryonic stages.

It all began with an eclectic, yet commissioned for purpose, group of academics, authors and former politicians. Tasked with addressing the "so-called right of humanitarian intervention", a short pamphlet was produced in 2001 entitled The Responsibility to Protect (R2P). It was immediately saved from obscurity by the authorship of Michael Ignatieff - what would otherwise have been a mundane legal document was brought to life by the urgent and emotive prose synonymous with Ignatieff's work.

Rwanda was its self-described launch-pad: in as far as it "laid bare the full horror of [international] inaction". In 1994, as ethnic violence erupted following the assassination of President Juvenal Habyarimana, Force Commander of the UN mission, Major-General Romeo Dallaire, predicted that he could have halted the violence with as few as 5000 international troops. Instead, the international community watched-on passively over the next three months as 800,000 Rwandans were killed, 500,000 women raped, and as half of the pre-conflict population were displaced.


Inaction in Rwanda left such an indelible scar on the face of the international community that it ironically became a point of motivation: a catch phrase around which moral courage could be summoned, and from which political will could form. The interventions in Kosovo and East Timor represented just such moments. Yet for every success story, there were still countless more failures - insipid or simply non-existent commitments that allowed serious humanitarian crises in places such as Bosnia, Somalia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Darfur to simply rumble on unabated.

There was a sense that the moral impetus of such situations was consistently being lost in the face of certain legal and institutional barriers. Although it was often justified through the language of the United Nations Charter, by developments in human rights law, or through normative precedents, the legal basis for humanitarian intervention remained tenuous. There was no explicit humanitarian provision in international law. A situation that brought then-Secretary General of the United Nations, Kofi Annan, to declare "the UN must undergo the most sweeping overhaul in its 60 year history" - R2P was the embodiment of this intent.

To cut through much of the legal detail, where R2P primarily distinguished itself was with a single new idea: where the sovereignty of countries had always been an inviolable aspect of the international order, with R2P such sovereignty became contingent upon the human rights standards within the countries themselves. Specifically, in the event that any country was either "unwilling or unable" to protect its own citizens from mass atrocities, then the international community would not only be legally entitled, but also legally obligated, to intervene.

This shift in practice ought not to be underestimated: it represented a thorough reshaping of the international system, and importantly, if implemented, the end or at least the complete marginalisation of all civil wars and mass atrocities. As overly optimistic as this might sound, it could be - R2P was, after all, a purely academic project.

Yet oddly enough, real momentum began to form behind the initiative – so much so that a UN Panel soon made official note of R2P as an "emerging norm", and then in 2005 the UN World Summit officially adopted R2P. It was reaffirmed six months later by the UN General Assembly, then again in 2009 and 2011. What was once little more than a hopeful idea, had quickly become a global institution.

R2P was further legitimised through practical application, with the UN Security Council referencing it in resolutions concerning Burundi, Mali, Yemen, Cote d'Ivoire, Sudan, the Central African Republic, Libya, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. The buoyant atmosphere was summed up by UK Foreign Minister Jack Straw "if this new responsibility had been in place a decade ago, thousands in Srebrenica and Rwanda would have been saved".


However, it was always going to be the case that the success, or failure, of R2P would need to be judged by its outcomes. And this is where the gloss of R2P began to fade. The three, much championed success stories of R2P were Kenya, Sri Lanka and Libya – yet all three were not quite as they seemed.

In Kenya and Sri Lanka, it was merely the language of R2P that was credited with staving-off, or diminishing the violence – effectively reducing the substance of R2P to that of a diplomatic tool. Moreover, it is almost impossible to judge the real impact that a few well-intentioned statements actually had on these conflicts. And, inexplicably the invocation of R2P in Kenya was likely to be, in retrospect, inappropriate, considering that the violence had not yet reached R2P's self-described thresholds for its use.

Libya was considered to be the high watermark for R2P. As Colonel Gaddafi began suppressing the peaceful protests of his own population, R2P became the driving-force behind the international response – initially to condemn, then to impose embargoes, and later to militarily intervene.

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About the Author

Jed Lea-Henry is a writer, academic, and the host of the Korea Now Podcast. You can follow Jed's work, or contact him directly at Jed Lea-Henry and on Twitter @JedLeaHenry.

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