Global Policy Forum

The Responsibility to Protect: What is the Basis for the Emerging Norm of R2P?

The United Nations advocates the Responsibility to Protect (R2P), a controversial doctrine related to military interventions. Yet many fundamental practical questions remain unanswered and "no-one seems sure of what R2P even is." Practically, there is no clearly defined legal status, set of implementing mechanisms, and monitoring bodies limiting potential for abuses, as well as "no consensus on what actions R2P actually legitimates, nor by whom or when." In fact, Adam Branch argues that "it is precisely R2P's indeterminacy that makes it so popular today," as countries have the flexibility to "protect" according to their will and without worrying about their need to be accountable. Branch explains how this lack of conceptual clarity is particularly worrying for the African continent, where three-quarters of the crises in which R2P has been invoked or applied. Ultimately, R2P engenders a divide between Western "protectors" and African states, whose legitimacy and sovereignty are to be judged by the "international community". But it is also increasingly segmenting  Africa itself as countries have to choose on which "side" they stand.

By Adam Branch

November 6, 2012

Africa has a long history of being 'protected' by the West. And today, with the precipitous rise of the so-called Responsibility to Protect (R2P), it appears that intervention in the name of protecting Africa has returned to the centre of Western concern – or regained its utility. Three-quarters of the crises in which R2P has been invoked or applied have been in Africa and the Special Advisor to the Secretary-General on R2P announced that “the responsibility to protect really came from Africa and the African experience" Africa also provided the military testing ground for R2P and following foreign military intervention in Libya in 2011, according to Ramesh Thakur, “R2P is closer to being solidified as an actionable norm".
R2P’s privileged application in Africa bears comparison to the continent's experience with the International Criminal Court (ICC). Critics have argued that the Court targets Africa because it can operate there in an accountability-free zone, able to intervene in ongoing conflicts, take sides in civil wars, scuttle amnesties and peace processes, or align itself with US military forces – all without being held responsible for the consequences of its actions. But at least with the ICC, there is a concrete institution – prosecutors and judges who make statements and decisions that can be critiqued on legal, political, or moral grounds. With R2P, however, even this modicum of publicity and formalisation is absent. And this makes its expanding use in Africa all the more dangerous.
The first problem is that no-one seems sure of what R2P even is. Its proponents have celebrated it as a norm, a doctrine, a concept, an idea, a principle, a framework, or a lens, while its critics have dismissed or condemned it as an excuse, an ideology, a fad, or an empty slogan. Illustrating this uncertainty is the fact that, while most agree that R2P enjoys no legal status of its own, others seem to give it an almost super-legal status. Take the statement by Susan Rice, current US Ambassador to the UN, for example, who in 2007 invoked R2P to justify a threatened US ground and air attack against Sudan without Security Council approval. Rice cited R2P to dismiss the possible legal problems of invading a sovereign state, asserting:
“Still others insist that, without the consent of the UN or a relevant regional body, we would be breaking international law. Perhaps, but the Security Council last year codified a new international norm prescribing ‘the responsibility to protect’. It commits UN members to decisive action, including enforcement, when peaceful measures fail to halt genocide or crimes against humanity.”

Not surprisingly, there is also no consensus on what actions R2P actually legitimates, nor by whom or when. The problem is compounded by the multiplicity of statements on R2P, from the 2001 International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS) report to the United Nations’ 2004 A More Secure World: Our Shared Responsibility, to the 2005 World Summit Outcome Document, to the Secretary-General’s 2009 Implementing the Responsibility to Protect. The original statement of R2P in the ICISS report explains:
“State sovereignty implies responsibility, and the primary responsibility for the protection of its people lies with the state itself. Where a population is suffering serious harm, as a result of internal war, insurgency, repression or state failure, and the state in question is unwilling or unable to halt or avert it, the principle of non-intervention yields to the international responsibility to protect.”

Of course, the statement poses more questions than it answers. What is the threshold at which responsibility is legitimately taken up by the international community? Who makes that decision? And who is the international community?
The precise sequence of actions necessary to fulfil R2P is also left undefined. According to ICISS, R2P comprises three “specific responsibilities”: the responsibility to prevent, by addressing “both the root causes and direct causes” of crises; the responsibility to react to “situations of compelling human need” by employing “appropriate measures”, up to military intervention; and the responsibility to rebuild, which will help address “the causes of the harm the intervention was designed to halt or avert”.
Given the increasingly expansive formulations of R2P, according to which R2P action is to help prevent, react, and rebuild countries, work with, pressure, and coerce states, and address root causes and prevent the recurrence of conflict, there seems to be little that is not included among the instruments that may be legitimately used in the name of R2P. This could span from development aid to diplomatic pressure, from direct budgetary assistance to invasion and occupation, from traditional reconciliation to international criminal prosecution. Even one of R2P’s most vocal academic supporters, Alex Bellamy, admits that, “it is seldom – if ever – clear what R2P requires in a given situation”.
The result is a situation in which some analysts can condemn the AU-UN intervention in Darfur as a dismal failure of R2P while others can laud it as a success; some blame R2P as an excuse used to prevent effective intervention there while others credit it with enabling international involvement. The same ambiguity characterises discussions of the R2P in Kenya during the post-election violence in 2008. Some would agree with Kofi Annan that “Kenya is a successful example of R2P at work” but others deny that R2P played a role in the unfolding of international involvement, explaining that “the situation was only labelled a R2P situation retrospectively”.
This fundamental indeterminacy of R2P was made even clearer, as was its danger, in the Libya intervention. The doctrine’s first full-scale deployment led to the bombing of civilian infrastructure, the deposing and killing of Muammar Gaddafi, the installing of a rebel government, and the arming of civilians – all in the name of protection. The last was justified by a senior French diplomatic source as:
“an operational decision taken at the time to help civilians who were in imminent danger. A group of civilians were about to be massacred so we took the decision to provide self-defensive weapons to protect those civilian populations under threat…It was entirely justifiable legally, resolution 1970 and 1973 were followed to the letter."
R2P is not only dangerous because it is flexible enough to be used to justify overthrowing governments and arming civilians, but also because it allows those using it to refuse accountability. States can engage in political and military intervention without having to justify those interventions on political or military grounds, only on protection grounds. And they can refuse responsibility for the consequences of their actions – all is fair when civilian protection is at stake. R2P can be used to justify military intervention or non-intervention, invasion or withdrawal.
Thus, it is precisely R2P’s indeterminacy that makes it so popular today. This may suggest something about the West’s current approach to Africa: occasional violent engagement in the name of protection when a state has been declared to have failed in its own protection role, complemented by military assistance to client states in the name of promoting their capacity to protect. This is combined with disengagement when convenient in the name of allowing states to fulfil the protection mandate themselves, all with no objective standards and no accountability.
Mahmood Mamdani has argued that one consequence of R2P is to insti­tute a divided international system that distinguishes African states, whose legitimacy and sovereignty are to be judged by the “international community”, from Western states, whose sovereignty is beyond question and that judge and intervene in Africa.
R2P institutes a divided international system in another way as well: one within Africa that distin­guishes those African states that are favoured by the West and tend to be labelled human rights protectors, responsible, and thus deserving support, from those that are out of favour with the West and are labelled human rights violators, failed or criminal, and meriting international coercion. This is not to say that every Western ally will be termed a human rights protector and every adversary a human rights violator. But, by grounding the judgment as to state legiti­macy in the flexible, informal language of R2P, giving that judgment to those who have the power to claim to speak in the name of the international community, and stripping away the need for the state or interveners to be accountable to African citizenries, this division remains an ever-present and dangerous possibility.


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