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Saving Individuals from the Scourge of War: Complementarity and Tension between R2P and Humanitarian Action

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter examines the central place of the protection of the individual in international relations and compares the approach of two areas of international practice that seek to protect the individual in armed conflict: the responsibility to protect (R2P) and humanitarian action. The chapter explores three main aspects of the relationship between humanitarian action and R2P. First, it examines the individualization of armed conflict that is essential to the premise of both these international practices of protection. Second, it sets out briefly the respective histories, ethical goals, and key tenets of each approach. Finally, the main part of the chapter identifies areas of complementarity and conflict between these two approaches to the protection of the individual in times of extreme violence. It notes significant overlap and differences between the essentially apolitical emergency approach of humanitarian action and the more constructivist political and state-building approach of R2P.

Keywords: individualization, humanitarian action, responsibility to protect, civilians, humanitarian principles, advocacy

The Preamble of the United Nations Charter is striking for its embrace of the individual as the main concern of international relations. In particular, the Charter’s ambition to ‘save succeeding generations from the scourge of war’ and its belief in ‘the dignity and worth of the human person and the equal rights of men and women in nations large and small’ makes clear that individual experience is the benchmark of a just world order and social progress. It is the flourishing of individuals that counts in politics and internationalism. The Charter’s explicit recognition that individual human suffering and not just political disorder makes war a major problem in international relations is profound. International peace and security is important to protect the individual and to create for him and her ‘better standards of life in larger freedom’. In short, war is a matter of very individual rights and not simply collective rights.

This individualism in the UN Charter’s political vision and ideology has been a powerful force behind state-based endorsement for two major forms of international action to protect individuals in and from armed conflict: international humanitarian action and its younger relation the responsibility to protect (R2P). These two different forms of individual protection from armed conflict and its related atrocities have much in common but also significant areas in which they conflict. Complementarity is easy to find in their overlapping ethical ambition to save and protect human lives and to embed international norms and hard legal limits to the violence used in political conflicts. But there are also important tensions between these two forms of international protection. These tensions are most evident in situations when R2P deploys military force in the same context as humanitarian action or, in integrated UN missions, seeks to bend humanitarian action to wider political and state-building rationales.

(p. 546) This chapter explores three main aspects of the relationship between humanitarian action and R2P. First, it starts by examining the individualization of armed conflict that is essential to the premise of both these international practices. Second, it sets out briefly the key tenets of each approach. Finally, the main part of the chapter identifies areas of complementarity and conflict between these two approaches to the protection of the individual human person in times of extreme violence.

Common Commitment to the Individualization of Protection

The individualization of international relations has been long in the making. Philippe Sands has observed that the UN Charter’s change of emphasis in 1945 towards the individual is ‘an essential change and remains a vital one’. It means that ‘the individual has a cherished place’ in international relations.1 In international approaches to armed conflict, Gabriella Blum has noted a rapid acceleration in ‘the shift from collectivism toward cosmopolitan individualism in the regulation of wartime conduct’. She argues that the laws, courts, and UN resolutions regulating armed conflict understand wartime liability for actions against individuals as civilians or combatants, and no longer purely frame the realm of armed conflict as simply involving one collective against another. The ‘shift from nationalism to individualism’ in armed conflict means that individuals in war are becoming more legally significant than the ‘parties’ to a conflict.2

Sands and Blum are both realistic about the practical prospects of success for the individualization of international relations. Individualization always requires collective support of some kind. Strong states are necessary to protect individuals in societies that cherish human rights. Internationally, collective action by states for human rights remains essential and problematic at the United Nations. Many states are still powerful enough not to bother about protecting human rights within their own borders and also have little concern to see the liberal rights agenda extend around the world. In such a context, and like many others, Sands and Blum do not see the individualization of war as either a quick win or the only game in town.3 Blum has no illusions: ‘Without a true commitment to cosmopolitanism—which our world is far from espousing—any unqualified commitment to the welfare of individuals is bound to run up against our commitment to collective political structures.’ Sands is similarly realistic in saying that ‘the idea of individual human rights under international law is an exercise in global reconstruction and will be a long game.’4

Humanitarian Action and the Individual

Formal state-sanctioned humanitarian action has been part of the long game of individualization in the international relations of armed conflict for over 150 years since (p. 547) the first Geneva Convention was signed in 1864 after the founding of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). Modern forms of humanitarian action build on a much longer tradition of human kindness in the face of individual suffering in war. Throughout history, villagers and religious orders often informally cared for individuals wounded or impoverished in war. Not everyone who roamed around battlefields after the armies had left the field was looking for gold watches and other valuables. Some looked to see what help and charity they could offer too. This was the resilient tradition of informal charity around the battlefield that Henri Dunant, the Swiss founder of the Red Cross, discovered and joined in with when he found himself at the aftermath of the ferocious Battle of Solferino in 1859.5 From his experience of this informal spirit of compassion, Dunant forged a model of formal state-sanctioned humanitarian action. Its vision of a neutral and trusted third-party humanitarian organization was designed to respond internationally to the suffering of individuals by drawing on the courage and expertise of individual humanitarian volunteers.6 This format of modern humanitarian action, therefore, put the individual at the centre of protection in war as both victim and carer.

Initially focused on the individual combatant as wounded or imprisoned, Geneva law and practice, together with other non-governmental humanitarian action, began to engage at scale with the suffering of individual non-combatants during the First World War.7 In the 1920s, the Red Cross and other humanitarian organizations like Save the Children and the Quakers began to call these individual non-combatants ‘civilians’ to distinguish them from military individuals.8 Humanitarian action, therefore, has a long and legitimate pedigree in modern international relations. Throughout the twentieth century, organizations following this form of protection and care for the individual affected by the scourge of war struggled to reach as many people as possible by emphasizing a life-saving ethic and the impartiality and neutrality of their agencies on and around the battlefield. This work usually involved direct assistance to meet the immediate health, sanitation, food, and shelter needs of war-affected civilian populations. It also involved protection work to realize the legal rights of refugees and people in detention and family messages of various kinds.

The traditional Red Cross model of humanitarian action saved whoever it could but made no claims to be able to prevent massacres or build societies that were less vulnerable to the risks of war and/or more prone to peace. Abby Stoddard has called this the Dunantist model.9 However, in the second half of the twentieth century, new UN agencies and many non-governmental organizations (NGOs) often embraced ‘relief’ and ‘development’ together in single organizations like UNICEF, the World Food Programme (WFP), Oxfam, and CARE. These new organizations were ‘multi-mandated’. They were concerned with saving lives and also creating more just and developed societies in the wake of European colonialism and postcolonial wars. In line with the thinking in Chapter IX of the UN Charter, multi-mandate agencies took a more structural approach to saving people from the scourge of war. They believed that higher standards of living and universal solutions to health and education problems would prevent war and foster peace. Stoddard calls this more structurally engaged tradition of humanitarian action ‘Wilsonian’ because it merged seamlessly into much deeper goals (p. 548) of development and peace in line with US President Wilson’s original internationalist aims behind the League of Nations, forerunner to the United Nations. This development and peacebuilding agenda continues to be deeply important to the mission and philosophy of UN and NGO multi-mandate organizations who even when they are saving individual lives in armed conflict have their eye on long-term goals of social progress. As we will see, they hold this structural ambition in common with pillar 2 of the UN’s more recent R2P project.

The Individual and R2P

To some degree, the international approach that has come to be known as R2P developed out of a natural frustration with the limits of simple Dunantist humanitarian action, which could relieve suffering after it had happened and even inhibit occasional atrocities but which could not prevent war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide or solve the political conflicts that tended to produce them. The apparent humanitarian futility of feeding people one day only for them to be massacred the next day was berated as much in Bulgaria in the 1870s as in Bosnia in the 1990s. Therefore, it was felt by many that a more structural and forceful international approach was required to prevent or halt atrocities. This forceful action was initially discussed in the international relations of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries as humanitarian intervention, a term that used discourse that was linguistically related but obviously very different in intention to non-violent and limited humanitarian action.

R2P pioneers were determined to develop a form of international action that went beyond the simple limits of humanitarian action but they may also have been equally frustrated with the failure of development to address the root causes of atrocity crimes. Deep development programming seemed to fair no better in preventing mass atrocities which could happen in well-educated, middle-income states like former Yugoslavia or low-income states receiving massive injections of peacebuilding and development aid, like Rwanda.10 Development is no sure fix to atrocity either, as Syria’s experience in the Arab Spring shows.

R2P sets out to make good the weakness in international policy and practice by strengthening the UN’s ability to work complementarily with humanitarian and development action by focusing explicitly on prevention. The goal of R2P is to prevent the four big crimes before they happen, either by peaceably reducing the risks of such crimes in a given state or by stopping them forcibly in their tracks when they are already in train or about to be committed.

Like humanitarian action, R2P makes the individual the centre of its attention but focuses on spotting and reducing the risks of violence against her or him rather than duplicating a humanitarian, development, or peacebuilding practice. The Office of the Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide, which also includes the Special Adviser on R2P, is tasked with prevention by supporting risk reduction and early warning, and, if necessary, advising on early non-forceful and forceful international action. But in its (p. 549) core premise, R2P is strongly aligned with humanitarian action because of its central concern to protect the individual from extreme violence and atrocity. Both forms of international policy and practice embody the individualization of international relations that is explicit in the UN Charter.

Comparable Moral Ends

The ethical goals of R2P and humanitarian action therefore overlap in an urgent concern for protecting the individual in extremis. This concern tends to make negative rights more salient than positive rights in the way their ethics are expressed. Both projects share an operational preoccupation with safeguarding the negative liberties of individuals (freedom from bad things) but each project also has an eye on the longer-term realization of people’s positive rights (freedom to be fulfilled and enjoy good things).11

At its current stage of development, R2P is primarily concerned with safeguarding negative liberties as freedoms from mass crimes. Like Leo Kuper in the 1980s, R2P has an ultimate vision of the ‘non-genocidal society’ in which the negative and positive rights of every individual are embodied in a democratic and largely liberal society that has effective control over its potential for mass violence.12 But this ultimate society is not the immediate operational concern of R2P today with its small executive staff at the UN and its difficulty aligning the UN’s specialist agencies and Member States around a positive long-term goal. Instead, R2P ‘as is’ is primarily a warning, risk reducing, and reactive project that is necessarily operationally focused on a more limited mission of stopping bad things than creating good things.

This operational leaning towards a daily preoccupation with negative liberty is also true for humanitarian action, but not quite to the same extent. In most situations where humanitarian action operates, individual suffering is often chronic and protracted. In these long-term operational contexts humanitarian agencies of all kinds—Dunantist and Wilsonian—share a very practical daily desire to improve good things and not only to stop bad things. There is a constant humanitarian programming commitment to realize positive rights like participation, respect, and non-discrimination that are integral to modern notions of humanitarian good practice. There is also a commitment to generate durable solutions that go beyond life-saving and add long-term value to a person’s life and life chances from improved health, education, and livelihoods.13 In multi-mandate (or Wilsonian) agencies like UNICEF, CARE, and Oxfam this vision of improvement and positive liberties is often closely aligned to the commitments of political liberalism and the vision of the flourishing individual that is found in the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights. In this respect, humanitarian agencies seem to be more routinely and practically focused on positive rights than R2P whose small UN executive capability has no hard budgets for investments in positive rights and is incentivized much more by ensuring that mass atrocities do not break out unnoticed on their watch.

(p. 550) The Respective Roles of Humanitarian Action and R2P

R2P and humanitarian action are, therefore, aligned around a core ethical concern to protect the individual with a tendency to focus more on negative rights. In order to understand where these two international projects overlap and differ in more detail it is important to describe their respective forms of operational practice.

The Practices of Humanitarian Action

The operational goals and practice of humanitarian action have been formalized to a very high degree in the last 20 years. The Fundamental Principles of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement of 1965 have been given more specific elaboration in the humanitarian Code of Conduct of 1991 and the Humanitarian Charter.14 These guiding principles for humanitarian action have then been given even greater operational precision in the Sphere Standards which set out detailed process and outcome standards for humanitarian programming in health, nutrition, food security, water and sanitation, and shelter, with cross-cutting standards around gender and protection.15

The humanitarian practice of protection, which includes the prevention of violations and atrocities, has been given much greater precision in key handbooks and standards developed by ICRC and ALNAP in particular.16 Protection work is conceptualized by the humanitarian sector as three possible modes of action: preventive, responsive, and remedial. Prevention stops a threat from coming about. Responsive work tries to stop violations when they are already taking place. Remedial work tries to repair and heal the effects of a violation.17 The importance of achieving ‘humanitarian access’ to victims or potential victims of armed conflict and atrocity is seen as closely linked to effective protection. Strategies for achieving improved access have been developed in new models of good practice led by the Swiss government.18

Within the UN, there has been increasing and consistent support for the norm and practice of humanitarian action in UN resolutions and policy documents dating back to the early 1990s. A great part of this support is embedded in the UN’s concern for the protection of civilians (PoC) which is a formal UN policy developed and coordinated by the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs and the Secretary-General on behalf of the Security Council.19 This PoC agenda precedes R2P and has much wider scope (see Paul D. Williams’s chapter in this Handbook). It is actively concerned with humanitarian action and with securing humanitarian access to civilian populations of all kinds, not only those at risk from the four big crimes.20

(p. 551) The Practices of R2P

The practice of R2P is much more recent and less formally developed than humanitarian action and PoC. The ‘three pillars’ of R2P envisage and enable a variety of roles that range across a spectrum. Pillar 2’s ‘responsibility to assist’ introduces the opportunity of many forms of preventive, risk reducing, and early warning practices. However, initial R2P practice in prevention and risk reduction has stuck to the ‘narrow but deep approach’ that deliberately avoids ‘miring’ R2P in wider debates about economic development.21 This narrow operational agenda has gradually built on earlier UN ideas of early warning, preventive diplomacy, preventive deployment, and ending impunity. The actual practice of ‘doing R2P’ across all three pillars is being elaborated in more detail by the UN, interested states, and civil society although it is yet to have the formal standardization that exists in humanitarian practice.22

R2P’s approach to early warning and risk reduction has been clearly spelled out in the UN’s new Framework for Analysis for the Prevention of Atrocity Crimes, which is recommended to states as the main predictive and monitoring tool for prevention.23 Preventive measures flow out of this framework as policies and practices that can be pursued by states and civil society to actively reduce atrocity risks. These practices are typically distinguished as ‘upstream measures’ and ‘downstream measures’. Upstream measures are more structural and include changes in governance, economic policy, security, and social policy that reduce atrocity risks by ending discrimination, developing confidence-building measures, improving the rule of law, limiting hate speech, and widening economic and political inclusion. Downstream measures are more urgent measures to halt imminent atrocities and move into pillar 3. These include fact-finding, international mediation, police and troop deployment, sanctions, and, ultimately, military force.24 These kind of downstream measures are evident in recent UN and EU policy in the Central African Republic (CAR).25


Alongside their operational practices, humanitarian action and R2P both have in common a strong commitment to public advocacy, which they regard as a valuable accompaniment to field practice. Global and local advocacy is seen to build wide public backing for the cause of individuals at risk and to generate effective pressure for the better implementation of their operational programmes. Every humanitarian agency has a strong advocacy capacity and it is quite normal to hear the Red Cross Movement, UNICEF, Oxfam, the International Rescue Committee, Islamic Relief, Save the Children, and many others speaking out about the disastrous human consequences of armed conflict and political violence.

The UN Office for the Prevention of Genocide has similarly adopted advocacy as a core practice of R2P and makes regular public statements. Popular advocacy has also (p. 552) been prioritized in the practice of R2P. The International Coalition for the Responsibility to Protect (ICR2P) and Crisis Action are both global advocacy coalitions of civil society organizations around the world that are focused on R2P advocacy on early warning and policy recommendations on atrocity prevention.26 Humanitarian advocacy and R2P advocacy both compete for attention in the crowded space of international media and political lobbying around armed conflicts and atrocity risks. However, as we will see, this common commitment to global advocacy is actually an important area of tension between R2P and humanitarian action. Humanitarians have frequently found the clamour of R2P advocacy seriously compromising for their presence on the ground. This was certainly true at times in Darfur when humanitarian organizations often came under suspicion from the Sudanese government for being part of a wider movement advocating for military intervention.

Two Essential Distinctions

Despite their common goals, there are, however, two essential distinctions between R2P and humanitarian action that are obvious from this general description of their respective fields of practice. One turns on scope and the other on force.

The first distinction concerns the scope of their respective operational concerns. The scope of R2P is very narrowly proscribed to a concern with the four big crimes. The planning, organization, and scale of individual suffering has to achieve a certain critical mass before it hits the radar of R2P’s mandate. This makes the threshold of suffering and crimes very high for R2P. Paradoxically, for a policy concerned to limit individual suffering, R2P is framed in the highly collective parameters of ‘mass’ atrocities. In contrast, humanitarian action’s concerns are very broad and are called into play by the general suffering of armed conflict as much as by its mass crimes. So, individuals who are sick with malaria because of destroyed health services, displaced by combat around their homes, lack proper shelter, or are impoverished all have a call on humanitarian action. Individuals who are wounded, detained, and separated from their family are similarly relevant to a humanitarian mandate. Humanitarian action responds to the criteria and minutiae of individual human need in armed conflict, and not every need in war is the result of a mass crime. This scope and humanitarian mandate is very different to that of R2P with its emphasis on preventing and responding to mass atrocities.

The second big distinction between the practices of humanitarian action and R2P turns on the use of coercion. As Urban Reichold and Andrea Binder have noted, there is ‘a common goal but distinct approaches’ to the protection of civilians, and the area of greatest distinction is the use of force.27 On a spectrum that ranges from non-coercive to coercive measures, humanitarian action is naturally at the non-coercive end of the spectrum while R2P can gravitate to coercive sanctions and even further to the most kinetic use of military force, as it did through NATO-led intervention in Libya in 2011. Humanitarian actors will never use coercion or force directly. Instead they (p. 553) negotiate their presence and cultivate what they call acceptance or humanitarian space. Humanitarian agencies may often rely on the security created and sustained by armed actors or police forces (of all parties to the conflict) but they are never armed and dangerous themselves.

Complementarity between Humanitarian Action and R2P

There is significant complementarity of mission and approach between humanitarian action and R2P across areas that R2P has defined as pillar 2 activities relating to international assistance and capacity-building to high-risk states. This pillar recognizes that ‘the international community has a responsibility to encourage and assist states in fulfilling their responsibility to protect their populations’. This general intent to support the state in its protective duties involves definite overlap between humanitarian agencies and R2P. Three areas are worth special note: norm development, substitution, and institution-building.

Humanitarian agencies are often actively involved in training, awareness raising, and persuasion work with government officials, armed forces, and civil society around the implementation of International Humanitarian Law (IHL) and Human Rights Law (HRL). These efforts form part of a deliberate normative process to create a protective environment that endorses the norm of individual protection and restrains the use of indiscriminate violence. This environment-building governance work by humanitarian agencies on norm development and behavioural change is aligned with the same capacity-building objectives of R2P policy and practice.

A second area of overlap is the substitution of core government protection functions with temporary international services. When a state is either not able or not willing to actively protect its civilian population, then humanitarian agencies traditionally adopt a direct role in welfare provision that sees them substituting for the state.28 Humanitarian substitution takes two main forms—protection and assistance.

All humanitarian agencies are actively and routinely engaged in non-violent protection work with communities at risk of, or already experiencing, threats and violations. This protection work often involves direct efforts to improve the physical safety of vulnerable communities and individuals by improved settlement planning, the creation of safe spaces, risk reduction strategies, community protection committees, evacuation, and the strategic placement of international presence.29 Protection work by humanitarian agencies can also involve active efforts to reduce discrimination by ensuring that marginalized or despised minorities at risk are reached and included in humanitarian aid programmes. Obviously, humanitarian work is not always successful at protecting people but it often achieves significant results for particular individuals at risk. Alongside these practical strategies of protection, humanitarian agencies typically (p. 554) develop some form of early warning capability too. Monitoring and alerts are integral to the humanitarian notion of good protection practice. In many high-risk countries, UN R2P alerts draw heavily on humanitarian agency reports and early warning systems to gather statistics about people affected.

Violent physical attack is not the only way that people are victimized as part of the four crimes of concern to R2P. Suffering and death from genocide, crimes against humanity, ethnic cleansing, and war crimes are not only brought about by blade, bullet, and bomb. Destitution, starvation, and disease are routinely relied on as effective killers in such criminal policies.30 Humanitarian action frequently plays a key role in stopping such deaths by delivering very practical assistance in the form of food, water, shelter, and health care to populations who are being deprived of such basic life-saving requirements.

In these two vital forms of substitution for state failures—protection and assistance—humanitarian action practically protects millions of people every day in line with R2P’s common desire to realize a state’s responsibility to protect. If humanitarian programmes were not in place, excess deaths in contemporary conflicts like South Sudan, CAR, DRC, and Syria would rise dramatically and soon merge into obvious charges of ethnic cleansing and mass atrocity by starvation, or lead to even more uninhibited attacks on beleaguered civilian populations. Humanitarian agencies are routinely substituting for states’ failures to protect their populations and so—in line with R2P’s goal—are assisting governments to meet their responsibilities whether these governments want to or not.

A third strategic area in which humanitarian action overlaps with pillar 2 of R2P is by humane institution-building in high-risk countries. The longevity of most armed conflicts means that humanitarian agencies are operationally entrenched in many of the most conflicted countries in the world. By being in such places for so long they inevitably and usually deliberately build deep-rooted humanitarian institutions within national society and form intricate humanitarian networks across the country. The presence of international humanitarian agencies enables many thousands of people to take up humanitarian roles and protect their fellow citizens. International agencies also encourage the development of local humanitarian organizations, although this symbiotic relationship is an ambivalent one in which national organizations often feel dominated and distorted by international patrons. Nevertheless, the creation and capacity-building of humane institutions is an obvious realization of some of R2P’s longer-term goals around prevention capability and atrocity risk reduction.

Tensions between R2P and Humanitarian Action

Despite the alignment of ethical goal and several areas of overlapping activities, there are significant areas of tension between R2P and humanitarian action. Most of these (p. 555) tensions are felt on the humanitarian side where common cause is recognized around the protection of vulnerable populations but where there is a deep scepticism about the UN’s ability to achieve it. Beyond feasibility concerns, there are also major associational concerns that when the UN tries to trumpet and achieve R2P goals, its actions may well exacerbate armed conflicts and compromise perceptions of humanitarian agency neutrality.

As a result, the tensions between humanitarian action and R2P turn on issues of effectiveness, political interference, and contaminated advocacy. Most of these tensions emanate from pillar 3 of R2P which recognizes a much more coercive role for international action by the UN. These pillar 3 concerns of humanitarian actors focus on four issues: the politicization of civilian protection; raised expectations that tend to freeze conflicts and postpone peace-making; the likely failure of force and the widening of conflict; and the contamination of humanitarian agencies by association.

The ethical and theoretical overlap of shared interests in the protection of civilians soon seems to break apart in practice on the ground when pillar 3 comes into play as coercive sanctions or armed force. Two recent instances—in Darfur and Libya—have caused much reflection in the humanitarian community. In Darfur coercive R2P was much touted but never forcibly delivered. In Libya it was very definitely delivered by NATO. The Libya case shows that coercive R2P is very compromising to humanitarian agencies when R2P is delivered to maximum coercive effect. Interestingly, the Darfur case reveals that forceful R2P is equally compromising even when it is merely called upon but never implemented. Darfur is an example of how popular campaigning for R2P can compromise humanitarian action even when military force is never delivered as R2P policy. Popular R2P pressure by civil society coalitions, the International Criminal Court (ICC) indictments, and the targeted sanctions against senior Sudanese government officials over the Darfur atrocities are widely recognized as being the trigger to the expulsion of several humanitarian agencies from Darfur in 2009.31

Humanitarian arguments about the political risks to humanitarian action from R2P are well made by a number of senior humanitarian professionals. All of them share a major concern about what Bernard Pommier has described as ‘the politicization of the protection of civilians’.32 Pommier wisely notes that when the protection of civilians is deployed as a jus ad bellum rationale in international action it naturally takes on a political logic and makes enemies of people on the other side who do not share this logic. This political contest over just cause naturally spills over onto those humanitarian actors, like the ICRC and other humanitarian agencies, who are devoid of partisan politics and work to protect civilians purely as a jus in bello principle of action. Many humanitarian agencies recognize the operational truth in Pommier’s legal observation. When civilians become the casus belli agencies talking about ‘protecting them’ all appear as parti pris in the eyes of politicians and armed forces designated as enemies by the UN. On the ground, older UN terminology of ‘threats to international peace and security’ would make life much easier for humanitarian actors than new R2P discourse.

John Holmes, a former Emergency Relief Coordinator of the United Nations, makes the same point: ‘there is a long-standing fear that R2P will in some way contaminate (p. 556) or interfere with the wider, long-established imperative of the protection of civilians in armed conflict … It is always difficult for R2P to be seen as completely divorced from political concerns.’33 Michiel Hofman, who has worked for many years with Médecins sans Frontières (MSF), draws particular attention to the political risks of UN ‘integrated missions’. In these missions, R2P concerns are folded into joint operations in which UN aid agencies and UN forces of various kinds abandon a third-party role and align obviously against one party in a conflict. Hofman describes serious problems of association arising for humanitarian action from forceful UN operations in Somalia, Afghanistan, Mali, and DRC, which take the side of the state against armed political groups. This political one-sidedness poses serious operational risks to humanitarian action and ‘affects all aid agencies as armed groups have neither the time nor the inclination to note subtle differences between organizations within this international enterprise’.34

These problems of association are also real for humanitarian agencies in their efforts to advocate on behalf of civilians and not only in their operations to deliver aid. Edmund Cairns, one of Oxfam’s most senior advocacy staff, has observed how the politicization of R2P and problems of association with its coercive policies has led Oxfam to drop R2P discourse from its public advocacy. Cairns describes how in the ‘intense period of liberal internationalism’ that followed the Cold War, Oxfam campaigned hard for R2P and the ICC. However, suspicions of Western intent around R2P and local political resentment against its coercive measures on the ground have increasingly rendered Oxfam tactically mute about R2P. Sadly, but realistically, Cairns notes that Oxfam’s reticence on R2P does not ‘reflect any existential contradiction between humanitarianism and R2P. Little could be more humanitarian than to protect civilians from mass atrocities … Humanitarian advocacy, however, is about seeking practical impact as well as upholding principles [so] like others—including the UN Secretary General himself—Oxfam has been careful to distinguish R2P from the wider agenda to protect civilians in armed conflicts.’35

Alongside this politicization of humanitarian action by association with R2P, humanitarians have a more general reservation about militarily coercive R2P. This is, quite simply, that it tends to have significant unintended negative consequences for conflict and peace. Humanitarians often deduce that forceful R2P has a tendency to increase the humanitarian case-load rather than reduce it. This escalation of conflict and suffering has certainly happened after recent interventions in Libya and Somalia. Thinking beyond their humanitarian mandate, many humanitarians have also noted that rising expectations of R2P intervention can have a stalling effect on peace processes on the ground. Ripe moments in local peace-making can be left unpicked as the political factions of persecuted minorities prefer to pin their hopes on international rescue of some kind. As Holmes points out about Darfur:

the idea that the West might somehow intervene had another pernicious effect: it encouraged the rebels and those that supported them in Darfur to think that if they only hung on long enough, and denounced the regime loudly enough, the international community would come to their rescue … This clearly affected their readiness to take negotiations seriously [and] unify their efforts.36

(p. 557) Similarity and Difference

There is a famous aphorism comparing the cultures of Britain and the United States that is variously attributed to several wits, including Oscar Wilde, George Bernard Shaw, and Winston Churchill. The aphorism says that the United States and the United Kingdom ‘are two nations divided by a common language’. In the several ways described in this chapter, this pithy jest encapsulates the relationship between humanitarian action and R2P. These are, perhaps, two humanitarian projects separated by a common language.

Both these international projects share large amounts of ethical ambition in their public discourse. They speak powerfully of wanting to protect individuals from the worst of human violence. Both speak a common language of civilians, protection, prevention, rapid response, law, and responsibility. But when they speak this common language their dialects are different. Humanitarians speak in softer cadences of humanity, neutrality, and independence that aim to communicate a non-threatening and apolitical persona. They use an informal grammar that requests permission, seeks consent, and invites compassion and a respect for international humanitarian law from those in power. The dialect of R2P is more political. Its accent speaks in harder cadences of right and wrong, criminality, punishment, and potential pariah status. The tone of R2P addresses political power in a statist diplomatic grammar that challenges a state’s very place within the wider community of states and sounds often to take sides.

When they speak at the same time and in the same armed conflicts, humanitarian workers and R2P advocates share the same concerns but humanitarians worry that R2P’s strident tones might get humanitarian agencies into a fight that is even worse than the hard struggle they are enduring already.


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                                                        (5.) Dunant 1886, pp. 62–3.

                                                        (6.) Dunant 1886, pp. 116–28.

                                                        (11.) Here I am referring to the distinction implicit in the UN Charter and emphasized in later UN documents, as well as the seminal 1958 essay by Isaiah Berlin. Berlin 1969.

                                                        (13.) Slim 2015, chapter 4.

                                                        (21.) Bellamy 2009, p. 101.

                                                        (22.) For an influential scoping of R2P preventive activities see the Preventive Toolbox prepared for the Australian Government by Reike et al. 2013.

                                                        (24.) ICR2P 2013, p. 23.

                                                        (25.) UN Security Council 2014, S/RES/2149.

                                                        (26.) For ICR2P see <> and for Crisis Action see <>.

                                                        (28.) Substitution is one of the five main operational forms of humanitarian action as set out by Paul Bonard. The others are capacity-building, persuasion, mobilization, and denunciation. See Slim and Bonwick 2005, p. 81.

                                                        (30.) Slim 2007, chapter 3.

                                                        (31.) Holmes 2014, p. 134.

                                                        (33.) Holmes 2014, p. 129.

                                                        (35.) Cairns 2014, p. 154.

                                                        (36.) Holmes 2014, p. 132.