Accepting R2P’s Failure

It's time for proponents of R2P to face up to the facts argues Robert Murray.
By: /
November 26, 2013
Vice-President, Research, Frontier Centre for Public Policy; Adjunct Professor, Department of Political Science, University of Alberta.

At what point do we determine an idea or doctrine to be a failure?  Is it when we present a hypothesis, test it, and deduce failure upon the results of the test?  If so, is an idea for which there is insufficient support to even run tests really deserving of continued attention?

These questions become increasingly poignant when examining the debate over the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) doctrine and its application to international affairs.  First articulated in 2001 in the report of the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty, R2P was originally intended to provide very clear guidelines about the moral responsibility states have to protect their own people.  In instances where a state is unable or unwilling to enforce rights, international society was said to have a responsibility to intervene on behalf of those afflicted populations to ensure their safety and security.  The doctrine can be reduced to three essential pillars: the responsibility to prevent atrocity and suffering; the responsibility to intervene in cases of rights violations; and the responsibility to rebuild post-intervention so as to prevent abuses of rights in the future.

R2P is rhetorically pleasing and is founded upon the noblest of intentions but since 2001, its track record of success is, frankly, abysmal.  Admittedly, the timing of the original report was unfortunate – it was released a week before the 9/11 attacks, after which national security took the place of human security in the policies of western states in particular.  In an effort to salvage the principles of R2P, the UN General Assembly agreed at the 2005 World Summit to guarantee that R2P would be applicable in at least four circumstances: war crimes, ethnic cleansing, crimes against humanity and genocide.  It is important to note that all four of these were already banned in international law, and thus the 2005 version of R2P sanctioned by the UN was a simple readmission of existing laws or conventions, thus doing further harm to what was supposed to be a revolution in norms and values of international society.  Rather than revolutionizing the way states understood human security and the moral imperatives associated with a new way forward, states retreated into existing law, removed the core aspects of conditional sovereignty, and proclaimed it R2P.

Some R2P proponents argue that the doctrine has been increasingly successful in recent years, evidenced by humanitarian intervention efforts, states adopting R2P in principle, and especially by the justifications provided by the UN Security Council for the 2011 intervention in Libya.  Still, ongoing abuses of rights in areas like Syria, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Bahrain and the Central African Republic (to name a few) begs the question of why R2P remains a doctrine invoked when convenient rather than one that is consistently enforced.

At its core, R2P was a political effort to alter how international society understood and enforced sovereignty.  Though there has never been a concept of sovereignty that banned intervention completely in law or practice, the ICISS report sought to put the onus of rights protection on decision-makers and institutions.  As warfare shifted from interstate to intrastate, a radical solution was needed to stop governments from massacring their own people.  R2P not only codified individual rights on a global stage but also sought to deter violence against civilian populations by proposing a legal framework for intervention.

Prior to R2P, the practice of humanitarian intervention was purely ad hoc and was invoked under vague interpretations of Chapter VII of the UN Charter, or in some cases such as Kosovo, with no legal justification at all.  R2P deserves credit for forcing individual states and institutions to grapple with incredibly difficult questions relating to the division of responsibility for human security protection.

Unfortunately, it seems that no state or body wants that responsibility.  The 2001 and 2005 versions of R2P both designate the UN Security Council as the body through which decisions pertaining to R2P use, especially intervention, would take place.  The problem with this is clear, in that the structure of the UN, especially the Security Council, is great power politics 101, with no regard for much else beyond self-interest.  Interventions to date have been approved as a reflection of rational calculation rather than a genuine adoption of norms or a belief in human security.  The reasoning for intervention in Libya seems quite clear now that two years have passed – the Libyan military posed no threat, it was assessed as an easy and short-term mission, it has the support of the Arab world and was invited, and there was a strict prohibition against boots on the ground and any sort of peacebuilding mission.  Under the pillars of R2P, only the intervention aspect was met, and even it was haphazard.  Without a commitment to rebuild and oversee a transitional era in Libya, the UN Security Council and NATO failed in every way to effectively implement R2P.

In 2011, Libya was heralded as a triumph for R2P.  In 2013, Libya is known to be a disaster. 

Another recent test case has been Syria.  Egregious atrocities have been committed by the Assad regime against its own people, chemical weapons are known to have been used, yet the world is far more fixated on Iran’s nuclear program than on the suffering of Syrian civilians.  The great powers continue to put maintaining deterrence and implementing their national security agendas ahead of protecting global human rights.

Some R2P advocates remain hopeful that, in time, the values that orient R2P will gain wider acceptance and become more deeply internalized.  Recognizing that intervention efforts have largely failed and therefore that the norm diffusion timeline is likely to be a long one, advocates have shifted the debate away from intervention toward a greater emphasis on prevention. In the hopes of preserving their relevance, they are reinventing R2P as an aspirational doctrine that the society of states should strive for – much like the MDG’s. 

And they have succeeded, in a sense: R2P has become the humanitarian intervention poster-child for a powerful political lobby spanning the globe.  But the costs of this rhetorical prominence to their long-term goal are significant: the politicization of R2P is eroding international support for the concept for it is hard to disguise that many of the influential thinkers and decision-makers seeking to rally support for R2P are doing so to serve their own agendas rather than for any moral reason.

As a theory, R2P has been falsified again and again, but its proponents are unwilling to accept its defeat.  Whether this is noble or crazy remains unclear, but there is no reason to believe R2P will ever become the robust norm it was intended to be.