Russian inflexibility on Syria, particularly its four vetoes at the UN Security Council since March 2011 to protect the Assad regime, has garnered global condemnation. Over 220,000 people have died in Syria and Russia has refused to budge. Beyond Syria, the Kremlin’s designs in Ukraine have resulted in crippling sanctions. Moscow has nonetheless soldiered on in its support of separatist rebels and de facto annexation of swaths of the east.
In their latest critique of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P), a global norm endorsed by all members of the United Nations in 2005 to prevent and protect populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity, Aidan Hehir and Robert Murray call on Putin’s behavior, particularly in Ukraine, to explain the alleged failure of the normative project.
In their piece published on OpenCanada this week, they state: “Russia’s actions in Ukraine suggest that R2P’s strategy of turning states into responsible, human-rights-orientated actors through the exercise of moral suasion is glaringly anachronistic; does anyone seriously think Vladimir Putin is receptive to the blandishments of humanitarian advocacy?”
Humanitarian blandishments are indeed the last thing President Putin is likely to be receptive of. Nor does the Russian president seem to be attentive of centuries of international law and accepted norms of conduct of between states. Moscow’s conduct in Ukraine and Syria is therefore not the most appropriate litmus test to judge the success or failure of R2P.
Hehir and Murray’s use of the Russian example is a good starting point for a critique of their piece — and the academic cottage industry of R2P critics along with it. We find the first problem in their use of the word “strategy” as it applies to the Responsibility to Protect. This is typical mistake among critical work on R2P, and reflects a misappropriation of agency that is rife in the literature. R2P does not have a strategy. In fact, R2P cannot have a strategy. The Responsibility to Protect is a norm forged and implemented by imperfect actors operating in a complex world. It cannot be independent of these actors and it is only as consistent and effective as they make it.
“Post-R2P Humanitarianism” also plays to a convenient yet inaccurate representation of R2P that conflates the norm solely with the use of force to protect civilians. ‘Failures’ in Libya and Syria are ostensibly front and centre in this critique. Conveniently absent in Hehir and Murray’s piece — and many critical works on R2P — are mentions of the other two pillars of the R2P, including policy options available to states to build their own resilience, as well as those to assist states in upholding their primary protection responsibilities. Successful cases of prevention, such as efforts in advance of the 2013 Kenyan elections, are conveniently neglected.
Boiling R2P down to the use and potential abuse of military force in “hard cases” is as inaccurate as it is self-serving. It is also disconnect from the more meaningful discussions at the United Nations and beyond of how to improve R2P implementation. Following from this, some basic facts further render the authors’ charge of failure obsolete — and prove that R2P is here to stay.
First, apart from the UN Security Council’s shortcomings, the body has institutionalized R2P in the way it works. Between January 2006 and October 2011, the UN Security Council referenced R2P 10 times in its official resolutions. Since then, the Council has referenced R2P 21 times. These include resolutions on Syria, South Sudan, and an historic resolution of the Prevention of Genocide.
Second, a global network of states committed to R2P is being built from the ground up. Forty-three countries from all regions of the world have now appointed a National R2P Focal Point, a senior-level official responsible for mainstreaming R2P and atrocity prevention. The network convenes every year to discuss how to better improve their work and the global ‘business’ of atrocity prevention. These efforts are complemented at UN headquarters, where 46 countries form the ‘Group of Friends for the Responsibility to Protect’ are committed to advancing and operationalizing the norm, including furthering efforts to mainstream R2P within the UN System.
Third, there is a United Nations Special Adviser on the Responsibility to Protect. Together with the Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide, the two officials form the United Nations’ Office on Genocide Prevention and the Responsibility to Protect. The Office has recently released a new Framework of Analysis for Atrocity Crimes, which is helping to “better sound the alarm, promote action, improve monitoring or early warning by different actors, and help Member States identify gaps in their atrocity prevention capacities and strategies.”
Far from being a demonstrable failure, as the authors assert, R2P is in fact alive and well, strengthened by a range of actors at all levels who are constantly seeking to improve the manner in which the international community protects populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity.
Flying in the face of this reality, Hehir and Murray argue that instead of R2P, the world needs a “new international legal architecture.” There is nothing substantive behind this assertion, other than to imply that the real problem with the current international legal and normative architecture is that the authors didn’t invent it.
The International Criminal Court — which the Chief Prosecutor calls the “legal arm of R2P” — comes to mind as one such example. Does it have a place in their new architecture? What of the International Court of Justice? The UN Security Council? The United Nations? Like R2P, are the authors saying we must purge all of these in the construction of this new international legal architecture that they envision?
A more practical — and urgent — question for authors: While their “new architecture” is being built, what of populations facing imminent risk of atrocities in Syria, Iraq, Sudan, CAR and elsewhere? “Sorry, under construction,” is hardly an acceptable response.
Hehir and Murray’s quest for academic purity is noble, but to quote Gareth Evans, the former Australian Foreign Minister, “R2P is a framework for action for pragmatists, not purists, and this is very well understood by those who have to apply it, not just write about it.” To summarize: “Welcome to the real world.”
R2P is the most effective and broadly accepted political tool we have to prevent and protect populations at risk of mass atrocities. The authors propose instead to reinvent the wheel entirely based on a misconstrued representation of how the wheel works. There is much to be done to make R2P implementation more effective and consistent, but there’s absolutely no need to scrap it all and start from scratch.