Global Policy Forum

Brazil Hosts Workshop on "Responsibility While Protecting"

On Wednesday September 5th, the UN General Assembly held a dialogue on the “Responsibility to Protect” (R2P). This concept, established at the UN in 2005, affirms that if a state fails to protect its citizens, the international community has the responsibility to act through coercive measures, military intervention being the last resort. Concretely, R2P was invoked in the Security Council’s resolution 1973 that authorized Western Powers to intervene in Libya in 2011. Yet, this has been highly controversial as they used their mandate to ensure a “no fly zone” to support regime change in Tripoli. It is for this reason that Brazil is currently promoting a new concept, the “Responsibility While Protecting” (RWP), which calls for greater accountability and “more rigorous criteria for the use of force and to limit the freedom of western powers once military operations are underway.”

By Thomas Wright

August 29, 2012

Last week I attended a workshop in Rio de Janeiro on the Responsibility While Protecting (RWP), a Brazilian concept introduced in late 2011 to curb what it perceives as the excesses of the Responsibility to Protect. Over the course of the workshop, I had the opportunity to hear and interact with senior foreign policy officials and experts from Brazil, South Africa, India, the United States, Canada, and Australia. Here are some observations on the RWP concept (a subsequent post will discuss Brazilian foreign policy more generally).

The IBSA countries—India, Brazil, and South Africa—feel betrayed by the Western interpretation of the mandate it received under UNSC resolution 1973 to intervene in Libya. They realized it meant an initial series of strikes against Libyan air defenses but wanted the West to consider a settlement with Gaddafi after the initial strikes. They claimed to be shocked by the extension of the campaign into one of regime change. The West views Libya as a success of sorts, but IBSA sees it as a dramatic failure and warning.

IBSA officials complained, in particular, that their diplomats were treated dismissively throughout the operation and were left uninformed. This sense of personal humiliation at the hands of the P3 (the US, France, and the UK) appears to be the most significant proximate cause of RWP (although the official reason is the path of the intervention in Libya). The IBSA countries made it clear that they would be extremely reluctant to support any new R2P action in light of the Libyan experience.

The Libya experience led to the formulation of RWP, which seeks to introduce more rigorous criteria for the use of force and to limit the freedom of western powers once military operations are underway. In November 2011, Brazil offered a concept note on RWP. The concept notes lays out criteria for the use of force, argues that the use of force has been largely counterproductive, and criticizes the west for having a hidden agenda of regime change.

Above all, through RWP, IBSA wants greater accountability and consultation with the Security Council once the use of force has been authorized. The benign version of this, which most western powers could be persuaded of, is to more effectively keep the UNSC in the loop. The more radical version, which would not find favor in the West, is to give the UNSC a say over Western military operations and maybe even to require a continuing resolution for military operations after a certain period of time. This is a dead letter in the United States and Europe— giving the UNSC operational control over a military intervention would place troops at great risk and make failure more likely. I left none the wiser as to whether IBSA would be satisfied with the benign version.

I presented a memo at the workshop arguing that RWP would undermine R2P, not strengthen it; that it would meet with considerable opposition in the West; that in practice RWP could result in greater harm to civilians because it incentivizes such behavior by the adversary; and that it does not offer answers to the very real dilemmas of R2P operations or explain what other alternatives might have been possible in R2P cases. On the positive side of the ledger, I welcomed the fact that Brazil has accepted the principle of R2P and has moved away from its traditional stance of defending unconditional sovereignty. It is also encouraging to see the IBSA countries engaging constructively on the future shape of the international order. The workshop organizers seemed genuinely interested in hearing my counterarguments and I found the conversation to be very productive and helpful.

RWP forms a part of the Secretary General’s Report on R2P which is to be discussed at the UN in early September. Some IBSA experts want Brazil to present an updated concept note and rally developing and emerging powers in support of it but this is unlikely. Brazilian officials will push RWP but are of two minds about whether they envision it as an alternative to R2P.


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