Monday, April 20, 2015

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7: The Responsibility to Protect

What is the basis for the emerging norm of R2P?
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The HMS Sutherland, part of the NATO forces which were engaged in Libya in 2011. Photograph by Keith Morgan/UK Ministry of Defence.


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[1], and the Special Advisor to the Secretary-General on R2P announced that “the responsibility to protect really came from Africa and the African experience”[2]. 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”[3].

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.”[4]

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”[5].

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[6]. 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”[7].


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”[8] 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”[9].

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.[10]


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[11].

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.

For more information about the course please read our introductory blog post.

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1. How has R2P been interpreted and how have these different interpretations conflicted?

2. Why might Africa be the perfect 'testing ground' for the principles of R2P?

3. What are the potential advantages and potential dangers of R2P's loosely-defined nature?

4. In what ways can notions of R2P create a distincton between countries globally and those within Africa?


Adam Branch, Displacing Human Rights: War and Intervention in Northern Uganda, New York: Oxford (2011)

Alex J. Bellamy, ‘The Responsibility to Protect—Five Years On’, Ethics and International Affairs, Vol. 24, No. 2, Summer (2010), pp. 161-162.

International Coalition for the Responsibility to Protect website,

Mahmood Mamdani, Saviors and Survivors: Darfur, Politics, and the War on Terror, New York, Pantheon, (2009)

[1] International Coalition for the Responsibility to Protect website,

[2] “Newsmakers: Edward Luck, Special Advisor to the Secretary-General,” Interview, August 1, 2011, UN News Center Webpage, hrttp://

[3] Ramesh Thakur, “UN Breathes Life into ‘Responsibility to Protect,’” The Toronto Star, March 21, 2011.

[4] Susan E. Rice, “The Escalating Crisis in Darfur,” Speech before the Spring Africa Speaker Series SAIS, Johns Hopkins University February 21, 2007.


[6] For more on the idea of totalizing intervention, see Adam Branch, Displacing Human Rights: War and Intervention in Northern Uganda (New York: Oxford, 2011).

[7] Alex J. Bellamy, ‘The Responsibility to Protect—Five Years On’, Ethics and International Affairs, Vol. 24, No. 2, Summer 2010, pp. 161-162.

[8] Quoted in Roger Cohen, ‘How Kofi Annan Rescued Kenya’, The New York Review of Books, Vol. 55, No. 13, 14 August 2008.

[9] International Coalition for the Responsibility to Protect, Crisis in Kenya webpage,

[10] Quoted in Dapo Akande, “France Admits to Arming Libyan Rebels—Was This Lawful?” EJIL: Talk!

[11] Mahmood Mamdani, Saviors and Survivors: Darfur, Politics, and the War on Terror, New York, Pantheon, 2009.


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Hi,I think some liberty is being taken with R2P here. You start by saying its invocation is largely within the African context. This is true. However, you conclude the opening section with concerns over expanding use within Africa. Invocation and use are not the same thing. Invoking a responsiblity to protect a people whose government is unwilling or unable to do so, is not the same as enforing such protection. Any steps to do so would still have to pass through the establish legal channels. It is also worth noting that the 3/4 of international cases comes from a total of 13 (2 of which are within the same state), not an alarmingly widespread invocation therefore.We should not always equate the legal and the moral. Arguing that we have a moral responsiblity to protect a people can be exterior to any legal steps required to act on this responsibility. We can only hope this changes; the Syrian situation highlights the danger of the current legal system as it passes through a highly partisan system of Council vetoes.It is unfair to select a paragraph of the commission report and declare it leaves too much unanswered. A careful reading of the rest of the document will display credible attempts to answer many of these questions. It also helps generate discussion on these topics. No one would accept rigid boundaries on what constitutes the suffering of serious and preventable harm. We must recognise the limits of casuistry and not attempt to codify such criteria. Each situation must be judged on its own merits. Traditional just war theory can have a very useful input on this. The bombing of Libyan civilians was a lamentable aspect of the Libyan conflict. It is unfair however to lay responsiblity for this action on the principle of R2P. The responsibility to protect was invoked as a justification for a no-fly zone to protect the civilian populaiton. The subsequent failure to protect the population does not negate the fact that the calls for their protection were legitimate. it only means that there was a failure to effectively carry out this mandate. Finally, I do not think your conclusion follows logically from your premises. The question of accountability appears form nowhere. As I have already said, no advocates of R2P claim that it operates with legal impunity, merely that it provides a moral framework upon which legal arguments can be built. R2P does not attempt to define state legitimacy. Nor does it say that only illegitimate states (whatever that means) can be subject to its invocation. It merely places sovereignty in the people rather than the state. Too often, and I hate to generalise but it is true, in the African context, state sovereignty has been used as a smokescreen for systematic violence. State legitimacy is an irrelavant factor. When the people, who are the sovereign, have their basic rights abused on a grievous scale, external intervention may be necessary to restore sovereign integrity. This is only oxymoronic if we insist on sovereignty being the right of the state. 

a) Invocation and use are directly linked in the justification process. Law doesn't exist in a vacuum. b) What are these 13 cases you mention - are you sure you're not confusing it with humanitarian intervention?c) Traditional Just War theory is the most subjective and partisan justification for colonial wars out there. It does defeat your point. d) Accountability of course follows on from theoretical vagueness. It's the practical application of it. 

a) Invocation and use are certainly temporally linked; you cannot enact R2P without first 'invoking' it. However, my point was that the authorbegan with a worry that R2P has been invoked too frequently, and ended the section by saying R2P has been 'used' to frequently, without an intermediary premise linking the two. The fact that Libya is the first and only recognised 'use' shows the separation of use from invocation. b) The 13 cases are those that the author has linked to with his first footnote: Darfur, Sudan, Burma, Zimbabwe, DRC, Sri Lanka, Kenya, Guinea, Nigeria, Krygyzstan, Cote D'Ivoire, Libya, and Syria. I am not confusing R2P with intervention. The info is that used by the author and by the ICISS.c) Appealing to colonialism is an unfair assessment of both R2P and Just War Theory. Modern JWT is largely based on Walzer who wrote during the Vietnam War. R2P is largely a response to Rwanda in 1994. Neither of these experiences can justifiably be called colonial. The decision to go to war will necessarily be subjective, making objective rules on such issues is very dangerous. It's subjectivity does not prevent the decisions that influence war going through established legal channels. JWT places restrictions on the justifiability of warfare, it does not provide license. If you dispense with JWT, justification for warfare becomes a far easier proposition for those who wish to pursue it for reasons of self-interest.d) R2P really doesn't alter accountability in any way. Any state or coalition that engages in humanitarian intervention must legally do so through the UNSC. This provides legal accountability. Whether or not they invoke a moral appeal to their responsibility to protect will not alter their accountability. NATO was not given a mandate in Libya to act on R2P, the mandate was based on chapter VII of the UN charter. Their actions are accountable to the resolutions that were subsequently passed. I agree that R2P is vague and that it will benefit from sharpening. It must be appreciated however, that R2P is not an attempt to revolutionise or replace international law. It is a new moral perspective on established views of state sovereignty that have been used too frequently to avade international law. Bashir is a prime example of this. I thoroughly recommend Dr. James Pattison of Manchester University on this subject.