The Responsibility to Protect in 2012
28 December 2012
Was 2012 a good year for the Responsibility to Protect (R2P)? Overall probably not – R2P’s failure in Syria is a case in point. Brazil’s proposal of ‘Responsibility While Protecting’ did nothing – at least in the short term – to remove the problem of politicised decision-making on whether to intervene, and how. Some key figures changed: Edward Luck and Francis Deng left their posts of Special Advisers on the Responsibility to Protect and on Genocide Prevention, respectively. Adama Dieng of Senegal replaced Francis Deng as Special Adviser on Prevention of Genocide. R2P was debated in a fourth dedicated annual informal and interactive dialogue, ‘Timely and Decisive Response’ in September. Much has changed in both the policy arena as well as in terms of unfolding crises on the ground to which the R2P doctrine is applicable, but the fundamental problems for R2P have remained the same ones R2P advocates have been grappling with since R2P’s inception in Gareth Evans’ and Mohamed Sahnoun’s 2001 report, ‘The Responsibility to Protect’. (…)
Early in 2012, R2P advocates and critics alike were trying to make sense of the meaning for R2P of the aftermath of the NATO-led intervention in Libya. The explicit mention of R2P in Security Council resolution 1973 mandating the intervention in Libya on humanitarian grounds had made Libya a test case for R2P. The intervening states, in favour of the intervention and satisfied with its outcome, believed the intervention successfully averted a genocide by Gaddafi against large parts of the population, hence justified and strengthened the emerging R2P norm. But the fact that NATO justified its military intervention, which essentially amounted to regime change in Libya, with R2P raised concern amongst Russia and China, traditionally more sceptical about R2P and its implications for state sovereignty. It seemed that, by early 2012, any advances that had been made in promoting R2P had been lost.
In January the UN Secretary-General stated that R2P was facing an urgent test in Syria. In policy terms, Syria spelled disaster for the promotion of R2P as a norm sufficiently consolidated to compel states to principled action to prevent and respond to genocide or mass atrocities. Regime change in Libya, following intervention on humanitarian grounds and justified with reference to R2P, gave Russia and China a pretext for resisting multilateral intervention on humanitarian grounds in Syria. The two permanent Security Council members repeatedly vetoed UN resolutions threatening sanctions against Syria. In actual fact the geopolitical context was an entirely different one to that of Libya, and Moscow’s close ties to the Assad regime meant that the likelihood of successful invocation of R2P principles was much lower from the outset – in any case, any trust in R2P and its ability to effect neutral intervention had by then been lost.
Syria, in turn, seriously affected the credibility of the R2P concept to deliver in practice what it promises in theory. Once again, the intervention debate did not revolve around the technicalities of how to apply humanitarian norms and principles in a depoliticised manner. (…) Brazil’s ‘Responsibility While Protecting’ proposal, short ‘RWP’, introduced in a concept note by the Brazilian representative to the UN in November of last year, attempted to save R2P from the criticism that the discharge of the protection responsibility was, in practice, always a political act. It suggested that R2P mandates must be discharged in such a way that the use of force is a last resort only, it is proportional, and that the use of force may not generate more harm than would otherwise occur. In addition, there should be a monitoring and review mechanism whereby it can be ensured that states have the opportunity to debate the implementation of a UN Security Council mandate. However, many states remain sceptical about the implementation of UN mandates, and a more impartial approach to an inherently political problem still seems out of reach.
In sum, the past year was a mixture of success and failure for R2P proponents in New York and elsewhere. In policy terms, Brazil’s ‘RWP’ provided a framework and guidelines for what principled intervention ought to look like once the Security Council provides a mandate for intervention, a real step forward in defining and formalising best practices in the discharge of the Responsibility to Protect. In practice, however – and ultimately, this is what matters most – R2P has been confronted by the same problems facing humanitarian intervention before R2P came into being in 2001, and a lack of real consensus between the great powers has hindered decisive action to halt ongoing atrocities committed in Syria today. (…)
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