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R2P: A Norm of the Past of Future?
Simon Adams
Canadian International Council-
28 February 2014


Dr. Simon Adams is Executive Director of the Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect (New York based ICRtoP member).

The Danish physicist Niels Bohr, an avowed anti-Nazi who also won the Nobel Prize for his work on quantum mechanics, once quipped that “prediction is very difficult, especially if it’s about the future.” The question of whether the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) is a norm of the past or future depends, fundamentally, upon your disposition. Those dismayed by NATO’s “mission creep” while protecting civilians in Libya, or alternatively, by the bitter failure of the UN Security Council to stem the bloodletting in Syria, may well answer that R2P’s moment has passed.
On the other hand, R2P – which was first formulated in the report of the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty in 2001 and adopted at the UN World Summit in 2005 – has been described by the former UN Special Adviser on the Responsibility to Protect Dr. Edward Luck as the fastest developing international norm in history. At a meeting we both attended at the British Houses of Parliament under the aegis of the all-parliamentary group for mass atrocity prevention, Dr. Luck compared the trajectory of R2P since 2005 to the evolution of human rights norms after the Second World War.
Despite the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, the human rights situation in much of the world was still wretched during the 1950s as Cold War hypocrisies plagued the international system. Human rights terminology was worn thin by opportunistic misuse. It is only from the vantage point of a new century that we can look back and proclaim that despite this, human rights still made gradual, but cumulative, normative progress over the second half of the twentieth century. The underlying ideas were not fatally weakened by inconsistent application. The enduring challenge was to work towards universal application.
Less than a decade after R2P appeared in paragraphs 138 and 139 of the World Summit Outcome Document, it is difficult to get a precise measurement of its normative success. But what we can determine is if the tide is rising or ebbing.
Acceptance of R2P is steadily increasing. Following the UN World Summit, the Responsibility to Protect was reaffirmed in Security Council Resolution 1674 (2006) and Resolution 1894 (2009) – both dealing with the protection of civilians during armed conflict. The Council also made reference to R2P in Resolution 1706 (2006) on Darfur. Although there have been divisive debates about R2P with regard to Sri Lanka and elsewhere, Libya and Syria have provided R2P with its biggest challenges. These cases are difficult precisely because they raise issues of accountability and coercion to halt mass atrocities – matters the UN Security Council has always struggled to address with undeviating and proximate determination.
Yet, despite rancour over Syria, the Security Council still invoked R2P more often in the year after Libya and the start of Syria crisis than it had done in the five years prior.
In addition to R2P resolutions on Libya (Resolutions 1970 and 1973), between March 2011 and March 2012 the Security Council invoked R2P in resolutions on Côte d’ Ivoire (Resolution 1975), South Sudan (Resolution 1996), and Yemen (Resolution 2014). There were also two follow-up resolutions on Libya (Resolutions 2016 and 2040). Resolution 2085 of 19 December 2012, which authorized an intervention force in Mali, mandated the force to “support the Malian authorities in their primary responsibility to protect the population.” (…)
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