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R2P in Theory and Practice

Abstract and Keywords

This introductory chapter charts the evolution of R2P as a response to repeated failure of international society to respond to genocide and mass atrocities in the 1990s. It shows that the principle emerged from attempts to protect civilians from attack whilst protecting principles of order in international society. In doing so, it suggests that over time debates about R2P have shifted away from concerns about the principle’s normative value and meaning towards questions about its implementation in the most difficult of cases. The chapter attempts to introduce the whole book by surveying the principal normative, political, and operational challenges that confront R2P today.

Keywords: United Nations, genocide, mass atrocities, international society, international law, humanitarianism, politics

The phrase ‘responsibility to protect’, or R2P as it has come to be known, was first coined only in 2001. The ideas behind it, however, were the product of efforts over several decades in international society to identify and define crimes that have, to borrow a phrase from Michael Walzer, ‘shocked the conscience of mankind’ and protect populations from them.1 The story of R2P’s emergence begins in the shadow of the Holocaust when the call of ‘Never Again’ galvanized efforts to define, prevent, and punish the crime of genocide. Advocates such as Raphael Lemkin and some state leaders hoped to build a new society of states that would protect people from the sorts of crimes committed by the Nazis and their allies.

In 1947, the newly established United Nations General Assembly issued the Genocide Convention, which prohibited the crime of genocide, assigned all states a responsibility to prevent it, and demanded that the perpetrators be punished for their actions—much as the wartime Allies had punished the Nazi and Japanese crimes during the Nuremberg and Tokyo trials.2 In 2007, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) judged that, as a result of this convention, all states have a legal responsibility to do what they can, within existing law, to prevent genocide. Specifically, the court found that states had a legal duty to take positive steps to prevent genocide when they have prior knowledge about its likely commission and the capacity to influence the suspected would-be perpetrators.

Two years after the Genocide Convention, the four Geneva Conventions (1949) codified the laws of war and identified deliberate attacks on civilians and prisoners as ‘war crimes’. The subsequent Protocols (1977) to the Geneva Convention established the immunity of all non-combatants, whether in international or non-international armed conflicts, from the intentional use of armed force against them and required that State Parties cooperate with one another to prevent violations of the law and promote compliance with it. In 1998, the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC), which has more than 120 State Parties, extended some of these provisions to contexts outside of armed conflict under the rubric of ‘crimes against humanity’, whilst the International (p. 4) Criminal Tribunal for Yugoslavia (ICTY) confirmed that the practice of ‘ethnic cleansing’ constituted one such crime.

But international practice has seldom lived up to the lofty demands of international law. With concern for human dignity trumped by the global struggle for geopolitical supremacy during the Cold War, genocide and mass atrocities remained quite common.3 Despite advances in international law, the perpetrators of these crimes were often able to act with impunity. Communist regimes used mass violence against civilian populations to eradicate ‘bad elements’, impose their authority, and radically transform societies in breathtakingly short periods of time. Stalin’s Soviet Union, Mao’s China, and Pol Pot’s Cambodia all used mass violence against civilians to achieve their goals, resulting in the premature deaths of tens of millions of people. Historians argue about whether Stalin killed more people than Hitler, but whichever was the bloodiest it is a relatively close run thing. New research on the scale of mass killing in Maoist China, which accounted for several million people before the end of the Cold War, suggests that no people have been killed in larger numbers than the Chinese at the hands of their government.4 Whilst smaller in absolute numbers, Khmer Rouge rule in Cambodia led to the death of more than a quarter of that country’s population in just three and a half years.5 When Vietnam invaded Cambodia in 1979 and put an end to the slaughter, it was censured by international society for violating Cambodia’s sovereignty and subjected to economic sanctions—a clear signal of how low a priority stopping genocide and mass killing was when compared to other goals during the Cold War.6 Other communist regimes, including that in North Korea and several former regimes in Eastern Europe were, in some periods, equally brutal.

But it was not just communist regimes that used extreme violence against civilian populations to prosecute their political agendas. On the eve of the Korean War, South Korea’s military regime rounded up and executed suspected communists and their families. Precisely how many were killed will never be known, but estimates suggest that at the very least, some 100,000 people were killed.7 The massacres were barely reported at the time. A decade later, the Indonesian military orchestrated the killing of approximately 600,000 suspected and actual communists during a six-month spree in 1965–6, raising barely a ripple of international press coverage, let alone condemnation. Similar stories could be told of right-wing regimes in Argentina, Chile, El Salvador, and Guatemala, though the sheer scale of killing was significantly less and by the 1980s, these governments started to come under intense pressure to mend their ways. Nationalism and the politics of self-interest, too, was a cause of mass killing—as with Pakistan’s bloody suppression and potential genocide in East Pakistan (Bangladesh), which left between one and three million people dead and Idi Amin’s reign of terror in Uganda which accounted for between 100,000 and 300,000 lives.

Despite the advance of international laws prohibiting these crimes, very little was done to stop them or to protect vulnerable populations. This was because Cold War politics relegated concerns for human rights below other foreign policy priorities such that perpetrators were often protected by one or other of the superpowers; it was also because sovereignty was generally judged to be a more important value than human (p. 5) rights.8 Where interventions did occur they were driven by concerns other than human protection.

When the Cold War was over, there were hopes that the end of global ideological rivalry would usher in a ‘New World Order’ in which liberalism and human rights would triumph and cooperative arrangements within international society could be fostered in support of these substantive norms. But if the diminishing of global rivalry between East and West helped open up a diplomatic space for taking human rights seriously, it is also the case that ‘global 1989’ exposed the stark disjuncture between the aforementioned international legal responsibilities and actual lived experience. Genocide in Rwanda and Srebrenica; mass killing and ethnic cleansing in Angola, Bosnia, Burundi, Croatia, East Timor, Kosovo, Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Zaire/Congo; state repression in northern and southern Iraq; and acute state fragility and civil war leading to mass human suffering in Somalia; these cases exposed the hollowness of legal responsibilities in the face of armed groups willing and able to generate and use mass civilian suffering for their own ends. The international community was ill-prepared to respond effectively to this tide of human misery and was often divided: UN peacekeepers recoiled in the face of the génocidaires in Rwanda, where 800,000 people were massacred in 100 days, and stood aside as Security Council mandated ‘safe areas’ collapsed in Bosnia—in Srebrenica in 1995, 7,000 men and boys were taken from a UN guarded safe area and massacred; US forces were hounded out of Mogadishu in Somalia taking UN peacekeepers with them and any hope of delivering humanitarian aid to civilians; political and diplomatic efforts were insufficient to stop Angola’s slide back into war or the widely predicted mass violence that greeted East Timor’s vote for independence. In addition to the immediate death tolls, these, and other, crises also created a global crisis of internal displacement as up to 20 million people were forced from their homes but left unable to claim the protections afforded by International Refugee Law because they had not crossed international borders.

As failures of protection mounted and the gap between international society’s declaratory aspirations and its practices turned into a chasm, states and international organizations began to learn the lessons of these failures and to develop new concepts and ideas such as the ‘protection of civilians’ and ‘sovereignty as responsibility’. These, and other, initiatives allowed the then UN Secretary-General, Kofi Annan, to declare in 1999 that ‘state sovereignty, in its most basic sense, is being redefined … States are now widely understood to be the servants of their people, not vice versa.’9 Emerging conceptions of sovereignty as entailing responsibilities clashed, however, with more traditional ways of understanding it. Since 1945 at least, sovereignty had to this point been commonly understood as entailing a right to non-interference (Article 2(7) of the UN Charter). This raised the difficult question of how the international community should respond to situations in which the state failed to protect its own population from conscience-shocking crimes or when the state itself was among the principal perpetrators of such crimes. These questions were brought into sharp focus by the crisis in Kosovo in 1998–9. When international negotiations, sanctions, and observers failed to stem the tide of violence, which included the systematic ethnic cleansing of Kosovar Albanians by (p. 6) Yugoslav government forces, NATO decided to intervene militarily despite not having a UN Security Council mandate to do so. The intervention triggered a major debate on the circumstances in which the use of force for human protection purposes might be justifiable, the intricacies of which were reflected in the findings of an international commission on the issue which found that NATO’s actions in Kosovo were ‘illegal but legitimate’.10

At issue were the relationship between international society’s aspirations for human protection and its basic norms of coexistence and that between the state and its own population. Behind this stood the credibility of international society’s commitment to very basic standards of human rights and the role of the UN in the twenty-first century. UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan set out the dilemmas most succinctly in his 1999 address to the General Assembly:

To those for whom the greatest threat to the future of international order is the use of force in the absence of a Security Council mandate, one might ask … in the context of Rwanda: If, in those dark days and hours leading up to the genocide, a coalition of States had been prepared to act in defence of the Tutsi population, but did not receive prompt Council authorization, should such a coalition have stood aside and allowed the horror to unfold?

To those for whom the Kosovo action heralded a new era when States and groups of States can take military action outside the established mechanisms for enforcing international law, one might ask: Is there not a danger of such interventions undermining the imperfect, yet resilient, security system created after the Second World War, and of setting dangerous precedents for future interventions without a clear criterion to decide who might invoke these precedents and in what circumstances?11

It was in part to find answers to these questions that the Canadian government decided to establish an International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS) in 2000. Its report, entitled Responsibility to Protect, was released in December 2001 and endorsed by Annan, who described it as ‘the most comprehensive and carefully thought-out response [to the dilemma of human protection] we have seen to date’.12 The ICISS attempted to respond to Annan’s challenge by reframing the debate in terms of the primary responsibilities of states to protect their own populations and the residual responsibility of international society when states failed to protect their own from genocide, mass killing, and ethnic cleansing.13

The concept of R2P therefore emerged out of the repeated failure of international society to respond to genocide and mass atrocities in the 1990s. Developments in a range of fields—including peacekeeping, refugee and displacement work, humanitarian relief, international diplomacy, and regional action—in response to the widely felt failures to protect people from great harm in a number of different places, focused international attention on the protection of human life from conscience-shocking inhumanity. Specifically, the crises in Rwanda and Kosovo exposed two critical challenges related to the political will to act (Rwanda) and the authority on which action may be taken (Kosovo). The ICISS argued that states were best placed to protect their own (p. 7) populations and that with the rights of sovereignty also came responsibilities.14 But it also argued that international society collectively bore responsibility for protection and that recognition of this responsibility would help establish the political will and consensus to act in response to humanitarian crises, ideally through the existing institutions of international society.

After six years of advocacy and negotiation, R2P was unanimously endorsed by the 2005 World Summit, the largest ever gathering of Heads of State and Government. The Summit’s Outcome Document was later adopted as a General Assembly resolution. Under the heading ‘responsibility to protect’, Paragraphs 138–40 of the Summit’s Outcome Document declared that:

138. Each individual state has the responsibility to protect its populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity. This responsibility entails the prevention of such crimes, including their incitement, through appropriate and necessary means. We accept that responsibility and will act in accordance with it. The international community should, as appropriate, encourage and help States to exercise this responsibility and support the United Nations in establishing an early warning capability.

139. The international community, through the United Nations, also has the responsibility to use appropriate diplomatic, humanitarian and other peaceful means, in accordance with Chapters VI and VIII of the Charter of the United Nations, to help protect populations from war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity. In this context, we are prepared to take collective action, in a timely and decisive manner, through the Security Council, in accordance with the Charter, including Chapter VII, on a case-by-case basis and in cooperation with relevant regional organizations as appropriate, should peaceful means be inadequate and national authorities manifestly fail to protect their populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity. We stress the need for the General Assembly to continue consideration of the responsibility to protect populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity and its implications, bearing in mind the principles of the Charter and international law. We also intend to commit ourselves, as necessary and appropriate, to helping States build capacity to protect their populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity before crises and conflicts break out.

140. We fully support the mission of the Special Adviser of the Secretary-General on the Prevention of Genocide.

This commitment has been reaffirmed several times by the UN Security Council (including in resolutions 1674 (2006), 1894 (2009), and 2150 (2014)) and in 2009 the General Assembly has committed itself to ongoing consideration of its implementation (A/RES/63/308). In his first report on the subject, the UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon distilled this commitment into three non-sequential and equally important ‘pillars’ of R2P: (1) the primary responsibility of states to protect their own population from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing, and crimes against humanity, and from their (p. 8) incitement; (2) the duty of states to assist each other to build the capacities necessary to discharge the first responsibility; (3) the international community’s responsibility to take timely and decisive action to protect populations from the four crimes when the state in question fails to do so.15

To better understand this commitment, it is important to bear four key points in mind. First, R2P is narrow in scope, but universal and enduring in its coverage. The concept applies everywhere, all the time. In other words, all states have a permanent responsibility to protect their populations from the four crimes. As UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon pointed out in 2012, the question is never one of whether or not R2P ‘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 realize its goals in any given situation. The concept is narrow, though, in that it relates only to the four crimes identified in the 2005 World Summit Outcome Document: genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing, and crimes against humanity and to their prevention. The concept does not relate to threats to human life stemming from natural disasters, diseases, armed conflict in general, or repressive measures16 adopted by non-democratic forms of government.17

Second, states have a responsibility to protect all populations under their care, not just citizens. Paragraphs 138–9 specifically refer to populations and not citizens. This can be significant in situations where states fail to protect sections of a population because they are not judged to be citizens, as in the case of the Muslim Rohingya in Myanmar.

Third, R2P is based on well-established principles of existing international law. The atrocity crimes to which it relates are prohibited by international law. As we noted earlier, states already have obligations to: prevent and punish genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity; assist states to fulfil their obligations under international humanitarian law; and promote compliance with the law. The World Summit agreed that R2P should be implemented through the UN Charter. As such, nothing in the R2P principle as agreed in 2005 permits states or regional organizations to violate the Charter, for example by using force against another state without authorization by the UN Security Council. Force may be used only when authorized by the UN Security Council and when other, peaceful, measures adopted under Chapters VI and VIII of the UN Charter are thought unlikely to succeed.

Fourth, the World Summit Outcome Document calls explicitly for the prevention of the four crimes and their incitement. As such, prevention is a central element of R2P, with other measures contemplated only when prevention fails or (in line with Article 42 of the UN Charter) is thought likely to fail by the UN Security Council. Moreover, Member States declared their support for the mandate of the Special Adviser for the Prevention of Genocide and promised to support strengthening the UN’s capacity for early warning. The Mandate of the Special Adviser for the Prevention of Genocide, appointed in 2004, included tasks directly related to early warning and assessment: (a) to collect existing information, in particular from within the UN system, relating to violations of human rights that could give rise, if nothing were done, to genocide; (b) to bring situations of concern to the Secretary-General and, through him, to the Security Council; (c) to make recommendations to the Security Council, through the (p. 9) Secretary-General, on actions to prevent or halt genocide; (d) to liaise with the UN system on activities for the prevention of genocide and to enhance the capacity of the UN system to analyse and manage relevant information.

Since its adoption in 2005, R2P has become part of the diplomatic language used, albeit unevenly and with patchy results, by international society to prevent and respond to atrocity crimes. Indeed, the practical development of R2P got off to a slow and discouraging start. In the almost five years between Security Council resolution 1674 (2006) and resolution 1970 on Libya (2011), the Council referred to the concept only once (though it did refer to R2P prior to resolution 1674, in resolution 1653 (2006) on the Great Lakes Region of Africa). This came in a highly contentious preambular paragraph in resolution 1706 (2006) on the situation in Darfur, where Sudanese government forces and their notorious allies the ‘Janjaweed’ militia had unleashed a reign of terror resulting in the death of some 100,000 people and the forced displacement of over two million more. The wounds of the diplomatic battle that preceded this resolution ran so deep that the Council demurred from using R2P again in the context of Darfur or any other crisis for that matter.

Although the Security Council backed away from R2P, there were signs that others remained committed to its goals. In late 2007, a dispute about the result of the presidential election spiralled into ethnic and tribal violence in Kenya, resulting in the killing of some 1,500 people and the forced displacement of 300,000 more. The international community responded with a coordinated diplomatic effort. Kofi Annan was appointed mediator by the African Union. Approaching the situation ‘in the R2P prism’, as he put it, Annan persuaded the country’s president, Mwai Kibaki, and main opponent, Raila Odinga, to conclude a power-sharing agreement and rein in the mobs.18 This diplomatic effort, couched squarely in R2P terms, pulled Kenya back from the brink of a terrible fate. It also provided a tangible demonstration of R2P’s capacity to facilitate atrocity prevention through peaceful means.

But with the UN and its Member States so hesitant to implement their 2005 commitment to R2P, few—if any—anticipated the role that the principle would play in the dramatic events of 2011. On 17 December 2010, Mohamed Bouazizi, a Tunisian street vendor, set himself alight in protest at repeated harassment by state authorities. This single act of protest sparked a region-wide revolution that came to be known as the ‘Arab Spring’. In February 2011, the ‘Arab Spring’ reached Libya. Protests there quickly turned into a major uprising that threatened to topple the dictator Muammar Gadhafi, who had ruled with an iron fist for over 40 years. Gadhafi’s forces responded to the challenge with typical brutality and the Libyan leader issued chilling threats of retribution reminiscent of the terms used to incite the Rwandan genocide nearly 20 years earlier.

The following month, in March 2011, the Security Council responded rapidly to the unfolding crisis. Resolution 1970, which was adopted unanimously, referred specifically to R2P, demanded an immediate cessation of violence, established a political process aimed at finding a negotiated settlement, imposed targeted financial sanctions on the regime and an arms embargo, and referred the matter to the ICC for investigation. In sharp contrast to the bitterness of debates about R2P just five years earlier, the inclusion of R2P in resolution 1970 was uncontroversial.

(p. 10) When the Gadhafi regime failed to comply with the Council’s demands and looked likely to topple the rebel stronghold of Benghazi and commit a massacre there, the Council took the unprecedented step of authorizing the use of force against a state to protect civilians from imminent danger, enforce a no-fly zone, and enforce an arms embargo (resolution 1973). NATO and its allies hastily arranged a coalition of the willing which prevented the fall of Benghazi and the widely anticipated massacre there. The conflict dragged on into a stalemate but eventually the regime collapsed and Gadhafi was killed, provoking a new storm of controversy that is discussed later in this Handbook.

Libya was the first time in its history that the Council had authorized the use of force for human protection purposes without the consent of the recognized government concerned. Although the Council had come close in the past it had never before crossed the line.19

A few days after the adoption of its landmark resolution on Libya, the Security Council unanimously adopted resolution 1975 on Côte d’Ivoire. Having lost an election, the country’s now former president, Laurent Gbagbo, refused to stand down. Following the advice of international election monitors, the Council declared Alassane Ouattarra to be the country’s president and authorized the use of force to protect the civilian population. UN forces already stationed in Côte d’Ivoire as part of the UNOCI operation deployed to oversee an end to the country’s civil war and transition to a new, democratic, government acted alongside French forces to stop the escalating violence, remove Gbagbo, and allow the elected president to take his place at the head of the new government.

The Council’s responses to the crises in Libya and Côte d’Ivoire, achieved without a single negative vote, were groundbreaking. They demonstrated a newly found determination to act on the responsibility to protect populations from atrocity crimes, including through the use of force when necessary. But the responses proved highly controversial. Critics complained that NATO and the UN had overstepped their mandates by contributing to regime change, that they had used disproportionate force which increased civilian casualties, and that they had ignored or outright rejected opportunities for further political dialogue. Russia in particular argued that the Libyan experience was a ‘betrayal’ which coloured its thinking on the subsequent crisis in Syria, pushing it to resist Western pressure on the al-Assad regime on the grounds that it might open the door to forced regime change.

The Council has indeed been deadlocked on Syria and has failed to respond adequately to a crisis that has resulted in the deaths of more than 220,000 people and forced in excess of 11 million people from their homes. But controversy over Libya and deadlock over Syria did not inhibit the constructive use of R2P in other contexts. Resolution 1996, adopted in July 2011, established a UN peace operation for South Sudan and called upon the international community to provide assistance to help the new government there to fulfil its responsibility to protect. Resolution 2014, adopted in October 2011, reminded the government of Yemen of its primary responsibility to protect its population. In its September 2011 Presidential Statement on preventive diplomacy, the Council again recalled its commitment to R2P. More recently, resolution 2085 (2012) on Mali (p. 11) authorized an international mission to assist the government there in fulfilling its responsibility to protect, among other things; resolution 2117 (2013) on small arms and light weapons recognized their capacity to result in the commission of R2P crimes, and resolution 2121 (2013) on the Central African Republic underscored the government’s responsibility to protect its own population. At the time of writing, the UN Security Council had referred to R2P in no fewer than 37 resolutions, the UN’s Human Rights Council in some 13 resolutions, and the General Assembly in three resolutions. Most of these resolutions referred to R2P in the context of international responses to major protection crises.

In a relatively short space of time, therefore, R2P has been transformed from a concept proposed by an international commission into a common feature of international responses to genocide and mass atrocities. As UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon observed in 2012, international debate about R2P has moved from a focus on the merits of the principle itself to matters of implementation.20 Organizations and regions once considered hostile to R2P have begun to utilize the norm.21 At the September 2014 General Assembly Sixth Informal Interactive Dialogue on the Responsibility to Protect: Fulfilling our Collective Responsibility, China described R2P as a ‘prudential norm’, argued that ‘states should establish relevant policies and mechanisms’ for implementing it, and noted that it was appropriate for international society to adopt measures to support R2P, including the use of force ‘as a last resort’; India noted that R2P ‘was agreed [upon] by all’ as early as 2005; Indonesia offered emphatic support, saying it ‘fully subscribes to the finest purposes and objectives of the concept of R2P’; Nigeria declared that ‘R2P is apt, based on humanitarian and human rights law, representing a global conceptual and policy shift in the notion of sovereignty and security’; Iran noted that ‘we cannot agree more with the Secretary-General’ and his approach to R2P; the Philippines observed that ‘we subscribe to our shared responsibility’ in relation to R2P; and Argentina declared that ‘since the beginning, Argentina supports the concept of R2P’.22 These statements—all from the Global South and including governments considered quite hostile to R2P—provide strong support for the idea that R2P, once considered deeply controversial, should now be regarded as a norm.

This claim about whether R2P is an established international norm is one that remains contentious in the academic literature.23 Without rehearsing the claims and counter-claims, one way of moving beyond this faultline is to think about R2P as a ‘regime’. Going back to the classic definition in International Relations, regimes are ‘principles, norms, rules, and decision-making procedures around which actor expectations converge in a given issue-area’.24 The regime is nested in the United Nations system where two of its principal organs have shaped its development—the General Assembly and the Security Council. It is also located in the institutional practices and discursive statements of Member States, regional bodies, and other authoritative groupings. What makes it meaningful to talk about it as a regime is that R2P gives effect to multilateral efforts to establish cooperative arrangements to prevent, contain, or halt genocide and other mass atrocities. A key component of a coordination regime is the stipulation of actors’ roles and responsibilities, and whether these are evenly distributed or differentiated (p. 12) (prompting normative considerations as to how and why responsibilities are shared equally or otherwise). Viewing R2P as part of a larger human protection regime enables the analyst to get beyond excessively narrow causal stories.

A myth about R2P that has emerged in recent times relates to the relationship between language and action.25 The fact that relevant international actors do not always directly invoke R2P is not evidence of its absence, any more than its invocation means that it was the only cause to generate a particular outcome. The practices of diplomacy and persuasion are complex and contingent—more often than not defying the kind of conceptual clarity that analysts strive for. Omissions and modulations occur, sometimes accidentally and sometimes conveniently. An instance of the latter might be when speakers try to avoid backing themselves into a political corner for fear of setting a precedent for future action where the costs/risks may be sufficiently grave as to change the calculus of decision.

Martin Wight once noted wryly that moral theorizing about international politics was often inversely related to diplomatic reality. R2P might be a case in point. Theoretical work seems to be at its most biting in moments when R2P gains greatest traction among practitioners. Whether this hypothesis is right, or even desirable, is open to question. What is not in dispute is that R2P has emerged as a frame for how international society thinks about, argues over, and responds to, genocide and mass atrocities. Whatever else might be said, it is not the case that R2P is irrelevant in the theory and practice of security and diplomacy.

Risks of Relevance

Although significant diplomatic and practical progress has been made, it is important to recognize the limits, challenges, and continuing areas of contestation. The precise role that R2P can play in a given situation, like that of any norm or regime, is influenced by a range of other contextual factors and is deeply shaped by politics. As such, variation from case to case is to be expected. What matters in the long term is the extent to which R2P alters underlying patterns of behaviour, an issue addressed by many of the contributors to this Handbook.

The status of R2P as a social norm embedded in a wider regime of human protection—rather than a legal rule backed by the coercive power of the state—means there is a need to do a better job of managing expectations.26 The aforementioned limitations are compounded by the fact that outsiders have relatively limited influence on the conflicts that give rise to genocide and mass atrocities. Although concerted international action can sometimes prevent mass atrocities and protect the vulnerable, this capacity to make a difference should not be taken for granted. International efforts can facilitate, support, and improve protection, but they cannot by themselves provide it in any comprehensive fashion, except through the type of massive interventions that are rarely contemplated. As a result, modesty about the capacity of international actors to protect populations from genocide and mass atrocities is required. ‘Ending mass atrocities once and for all’ is (p. 13) a task that will be achieved primarily within states and societies themselves, albeit with international assistance, and not within a short space of time.

Moreover, although normative consensus on R2P has progressed apace, there remains profound contestation about its implementation in practice. It is one thing for states to agree on a standard of behaviour and another thing entirely for them to agree on how best to achieve those aspirations both in general and in the face of specific crises. The challenges of implementation are no less daunting than the broader normative questions that preceded them, especially in a context where emerging powers challenge the relative weight of different norms and contest established assumptions about appropriate behaviour. How well these practical challenges are addressed will inevitably shape international society’s normative thinking in the future. The consensus that has emerged on R2P is not permanent and immutable and will be influenced by diplomatic practices. There are a number of important challenges here, each of them a recurrent theme in this Handbook.

The most obvious challenge relates to the fact that the use of coercive measures remains deeply controversial and continues to pose questions about the relationship between human protection and international order. This, of course, is not unique to R2P but reflects deep-seated concerns among states about the use of coercion without consent in any context. A key challenge is to improve the legitimacy and effectiveness of the Security Council’s performance in this area. On this question, R2P finds itself wedged between two positions. One, arising from Libya, holds that the Security Council and states acting on its mandates need to be held more accountable for their actions. The NATO-led intervention drew sharp criticism from Brazil, China, India, Russia, and South Africa, among others, who complained that the mission overstepped its mandate by pursuing regime change, employing disproportionate force, ignoring or outright rejecting opportunities for political dialogue, and violating the arms embargo mandated by resolution 1970.27 Particularly troubling for them was the Council’s inability to hold NATO accountable. Some argued that these controversies would make it more difficult for the Council to reach consensus on similar cases in the future.28 It is not surprising that as international society becomes more proactive in its pursuit of R2P, demands for political accountability are becoming more significant. As Jennifer Welsh noted, ‘perhaps the biggest drawback of allocating collective responsibility to the Security Council is the lack of clear mechanisms of accountability’.29 Future agreement about the appropriateness of coercive military force against states as a tool of R2P will likely depend upon steps to address questions of accountability.

The other critical issue for the Security Council, arising from Syria, stems from calls for it to become more decisive in responding to genocide and mass atrocities and less vulnerable to the use of veto. Calls for veto restraint have gained some traction among states.30 France has led the way on this issue, and in 2013 proposed an informal ‘code of conduct’ to limit the use of the veto in situations characterized by genocide and mass atrocities.31 However, at least three of the permanent five members (China, Russia, and the United States) remain sceptical, meaning that the proposal ‘is likely to remain confined to the realm of theory for the foreseeable future’.32

(p. 14) A further set of implementation challenges relates to the political and practical problems associated with marshalling international society’s institutions, capacities, and resources to the goal of protecting populations from genocide and mass atrocities. Politically, the principal challenge revolves around international society’s tendency to privilege states. In practical terms, this makes it much more difficult to advance steps to prevent states from attacking sections of their own populations. An additional political challenge is that R2P remains a relatively low priority for most governments, competing with more pressing security, diplomatic, and international economic concerns.

Among the more important practical challenges is overcoming the tendency to see R2P as disconnected from associated programmes of work in areas such as conflict prevention, peacebuilding, the protection of civilians, international criminal justice, and the protection and empowerment of women and girls. Thus far, as both Roland Paris and Paul D. Williams show in their contributions to this Handbook, practitioners and analysts have tended to treat these agendas as ‘solitudes’ within international society, rather than recognizing their mutual interdependence. This has limited international society’s capacity to develop a coherent regime for human protection. Although recent research has begun to break down these barriers, and an inchoate regime of sorts has emerged through practice, there remain powerful institutional preferences for separating the associated programmes of protection noted here.

With only a handful of exceptions, therefore, states accept that they have made a commitment to R2P and agree on its principal elements. However, important questions remain about how R2P’s status in international society, how we measure its impact on behaviour, the problems and controversies that arise in the context of its implementation, and the impact that structural changes in world politics—most obviously, the emergence of new powers in the Global South—will impact upon the theory, politics, and practice of R2P. The scale and intensity of the challenges facing R2P is not a sign of weakness either with respect to theory or practice. Instead it is evidence of what Edward Luck referred to as the ‘risks of relevance’. Ten years on from the World Summit, many of the diplomats and activists who campaigned for a consensus on R2P would likely have been only too willing to accept the risks that come with relevance.


Annan, Kofi (1999a). ‘Two Concepts of Sovereignty’, The Economist, 18 September.Find this resource:

    Annan, Kofi (1999b). ‘Annual Report to the UN General Assembly’, 20 September.Find this resource:

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                                                                (1.) Walzer 1977, p. 107.

                                                                (2.) See Power 2002.

                                                                (3.) See Bellamy 2012.

                                                                (8.) For the best account see Wheeler 2000.

                                                                (14.) Luke Glanville has shown that responsibility has always been a significant component of sovereignty. Glanville 2013.

                                                                (16.) For example, the denial of civil rights such as free speech, the right to non-discrimination, access to justice, employment rights, constitutional rights, and so on.

                                                                (17.) Contrary to some claims, e.g. Pape 2012. See response by Evans and Thakur 2012.

                                                                (18.) Annan 2012, pp. 189–202.

                                                                (22.) Full statements available at <>.

                                                                (23.) Contrast Labonte in this volume with Bellamy 2015.

                                                                (24.) Krasner 1982, p. 1.

                                                                (25.) This discussion draws upon Dunne and Gelber 2015.

                                                                (29.) Welsh 2012, p. 110.