In his 2015 book R2P: A Defense, Alex Bellamy warns us that by operating in the “realm of the imminently possible” we become unaware of “the blind spots in our thinking.” The 10th anniversary of the World Summit provides a moment to reflect on R2P’s blind spots. The refugee crisis in the Mediterranean and elsewhere makes that task depressingly easy.
Few commentators talk about asylum in the context of R2P. This is despite the fact that, as scholars Brian Barbour and Brian Gorlick put it, “[t]here may be no easier way for the international community to meet its responsibility to protect than by providing asylum and other international protection on adequate terms.”
This relative lack of attention distorts our assessment of R2P and state practice in many situations, including the Syria crisis, which has been cited as an example of the concept’s failure.
R2P has not necessarily failed in Syria simply because international society has not intervened like it did in Libya. R2P demands that we assess situations on a case-by-case basis. One can convincingly argue that military intervention would not have protected Syrians having previously argued that military intervention could have protected Libyans.
But then R2P does not begin and end with military intervention. Nor does the powerful state’s ‘special responsibility to protect’ dissolve in situations where military intervention is impossible. The powerful cannot hide behind the ‘tragedy’ of the Syrian situation, contented by the claim that military intervention would only have made things worse. There are other ways of fulfilling R2P, including providing asylum and easing the burden on those states meeting the costs of asylum.
Indeed, if we view R2P through an asylum (rather than military intervention) lens, then it is possible to say the responsibility to protect is being fulfilled in the Syria situation. The problem is that R2P is being fulfilled by those states – Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt and Iraq – that have taken in nearly four million refugees between them. These states may have a special responsibility by virtue of geography, of course. But they are less well-placed to provide long term protection. They need assistance.
In a remarkable piece of research published earlier this month, academic Filipe Gracio demonstrated Europe’s failure. Based on his conclusions only Germany could claim to be meeting its responsibility when considering the number of resettlement pledges per capita alongside GDP per capita. The UK, Denmark and the Netherlands, all stood out “as being countries which could afford to shelter more refugees of the Syrian conflict.”
R2P can be used as a critique when it fails to influence states. As Bellamy notes, R2P may have failed to rally a response to the atrocities in Sri Lanka in 2009, but since then it has “enabled the speaking of truth about mass atrocities to power.”
This is true, except R2P’s sword of truth is blunted by its failure to allocate special responsibilities to specific states. The World Summit Outcome Document only articulates a general responsibility. States may respond to R2P’s ‘truth’ by claiming other states are better placed to protect vulnerable populations and the risk of course is that those populations do not get protected, or the burden falls on states that are incapable of shouldering it.
This danger is being realised today. It was made clear in another remarkable article, which Alexander Betts published recently. The current global protection regime, he noted, creates “an obligation on states to protect those refugees who arrive on the territory of a state (‘asylum’), but it provides few clear obligations to support refugees who are on the territory of other states (‘burden-sharing’).” Because of this “more than 80% of the world’s refugees are hosted by developing countries.”
If R2P is to avoid reinforcing these international hierarchies it needs to sharpen its critique of those that bear a special responsibility to protect by virtue of their material capabilities. It is consistent with R2P that these states have a responsibility to assist those who bear a responsibility by virtue of geography.
Now, R2P advocates might argue that not all the world’s refugees are fleeing R2P-situations, but that sounds like hair-splitting. More to the point, this response does not address the key point, which is this: without saying more about sharing the burden of refugee protection, R2P advocates risk reinforcing a hierarchy of states; and this in turn risks weakening the legitimacy of the concept they seek to promote.
For their part, the powerful states might insist that they are assisting others by providing humanitarian aid, which responds to a refugees’ need to be protected in situ; and this is not necessarily an unreasonable response. But the persuasiveness of that response weakens when wealthy states actually exacerbate the vulnerability of refugees by making their passage to safety more difficult, which has been the charge levelled at European states in recent months.
It is not always possible to stop mass atrocity crimes but we should not be blinded by that fact. States have a responsibility to protect those who protect themselves by fleeing the violence, and some states have special responsibilities by virtue of their power. To state this is not inconsistent with R2P. In fact, the UN Secretary General has argued that asylum is a tool of R2P.
But, as Oxford’s Jennifer Welsh also reminded us, seeing this does require a clear reiteration of R2P. Specifically, and in the context of Europe’s commitment to R2P since 2005, she writes that R2P is:
"…framed still very much as a foreign policy issue: i.e., as something we do ‘outside’ our borders. In only rare cases, has the conversation turned inward, to ask what the prevention and response to atrocity crimes could mean for the European heartland itself. But if the spirit behind RtoP is one of collective responsibility – as opposed to a discretionary right to respond – then European states must ask themselves what actions they are taking as part of the shared task of protecting populations."
Blind spots famously play an important role in Shakespearean tragedy. We should not look back in another 10 years and say that R2P stumbled when it saw where millions of refugees were being protected.
This piece is one of several reflections within an ongoing series produced by OpenCanada.org and the Canadian Centre for the Responsibility to Protect. The series commemorates the adoption of R2P at the 2005 UN World Summit and is part of the centre’s ‘R2P at Crossroads: Ten Years since the 2005 World Summit’ advocacy campaign.