Responsibility to Protect: A Failed Principle?

What is the Responsibility to Protect (R2P)?

In 2005, with the World Summit Outcome document (A/RES/60/1), and reaffirmed in 2006 with UN Resolution 1674, the United Nations adopted the Responsibility to Protect (R2P). The principles of R2R were grounded in sovereignty as noted by the 2005 World Outcome Summit Document:

“Each individual State has the responsibility to protect its populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity. This responsibility entails the prevention of such crimes, including their incitement, through appropriate and necessary means. We accept that responsibility and will act in accordance with it. The international community should, as appropriate, encourage and help States to exercise this responsibility and support the United Nations in establishing an early warning capability.”

The first pillar of the R2P approach was for nation-states to reaffirm their commitment to human rights and to prevent and prosecute crimes against humanity. While rooted in sovereignty, this pillar also expressed the need for states to cooperate with, encourage, and support other states to facilitate the protection of human rights. However, the more important part of R2P deals with how states behave when violations against humanity occur within a given nation-state. Under certain conditions, the United Nations can intervene to protect citizens from leaders of nation-states committing crimes against humanity. The World Outcome Document states,

“The international community, through the United Nations, also has the responsibility to use appropriate diplomatic, humanitarian and other peaceful means, in accordance with Chapters VI and VIII of the Charter, to help protect populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity. In this context, we are prepared to take collective action, in a timely and decisive manner, through the Security Council, in accordance with the Charter, including Chapter VII, on a case-by-case basis and in cooperation with relevant regional organizations as appropriate, should peaceful means be inadequate and national authorities manifestly fail to protect their populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity. We stress the need for the General Assembly to continue consideration of the responsibility to protect populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity and its implications, bearing in mind the principles of the Charter and international law. We also intend to commit ourselves, as necessary and appropriate, to helping States build capacity to protect their populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity and to assisting those which are under stress before crises and conflicts break out.”

Notice that initially, the means to facilitate R2P should be peaceful. However, the U.N. also affirms that if peaceful means are inadequate on a case-by-case basis, collective action may be taken against the perpetrator. The language above invokes Chapter VII of the United Nations Charter, entitled “Action with Respect to Threats to the Peace, Breaches of the Peace, and Acts of Aggression.” Under this Chapter, peace-keeping and peace-enforcing operations are possible. While the U.N has participated in many peacekeeping missions, peace-enforcement operations have been used sparingly throughout history, such as with the Gulf War in the 1990s intended to expel Iraqi forces from Kuwait. R2P clearly allows for the violation of sovereignty under some conditions, but as with all United Nations Resolutions, operations require unanimous consent of the Security Council’s Permanent Five (P5) – The United States, Russia, The People’s Republic of China (PRC), the United Kingdom, and France. (Sometimes the P5 is referred to as the P5+1, which refers to the countries mentioned above plus Germany, which plays a role as one of the primary powers in the European Union. Before Brexit, the United Kingdom, France, and Germany were referred to as the EU3, and the P5+1 was commonly referred to as the EU3+3.) During the Cold War, it was almost impossible to get the U.S. and USSR to vote yes on the same Resolution (the Korean War is an exception, as the USSR boycotted the U.N. to protest China’s absence after the Chinese Civil War was won by Mao and the Chinese Communist Party). In today’s international political environment, P5 divisions have been numerous as the U.S. often fails to agree with the People’s Republic of China (PRC), Russia, and many times France. In regards to R2P, this institutional design provides an immediate obstacle for collective action in the name of human rights. Still, R2P is an important international principle, even if it never really became an international norm. Of course, R2P is also inconsistent with non-intervention and sovereignty under some conditions, and non-intervention can be considered among the first principles of international law and institutions.

Lack of R2P In Action

The R2P principle is often cited by the United Nations for responses to human rights violations. However, what about the crisis in Darfur? Many scholars argue that the U.N.’s response to the crisis in the Darfur region of Sudan (and the Sudanese Civil War in general) highlights the failure of R2P (see here). Three years after the International Criminal Court (ICC) accused Omar al-Bashir (and issued a warrant) of war crimes, genocide, and crimes against humanity, he was reelected in multiparty elections in 2011. More recently, the Syrian Civil War highlighted another failure of R2P, as Bashir al Asad repeatedly used chemical weapons on the civilian population (see here for a robust treatment). Historically, R2P failed again in Myanmar, especially with the treatment of the Rohingya people. In fact, Nishikawa argues that because R2P is primarily about sovereignty (in that states agree to protect their citizens from human rights violations) “stateless” individuals such as the Muslim Rohingya people are not adequately covered by the resolution. The problem is that the Rohingya people’s citizenship is contested in the regions of both Myanmar and Bangladesh, as neither government recognizes them as citizens of their nation-state. Technically this places them outside of the political community and sovereignty of these countries. Nishikawa writes,

“Because R2P is about sovereignty and inherently couples sovereign responsibility with citizenship, it cannot help the Rohingya or other groups of people whose citizenship is contested. After all, sovereignty does not help the stateless whose membership in the political community is not acknowledged even though leaving stateless people to suffer is morally unacceptable.”

Nishikawa, Yukiko. (2019). “Saving the Stateless? Myanmar, the Rohingya and R2P.” Oxford Research Group: Breaking the Cycle of Violence.

This handful of examples clearly demonstrates that the United Nations has not actualized the R2P principle in the most extreme circumstances. Even a cursory look at the crises in Sudan, Syria, and Myanmar reinforces the need for international action. R2P was initially a function of what happened in the massive humanitarian crises of Rwandan and Kosovo. Even so, when similar situations arose post-R2P, not much has changed. Currently, Myanmar is back in the news, as the military has staged another coup and issued a year-long state of emergency. This comes as a response to an election in which the military supported the opposition candidate. Unsurprisingly, the military has accused widespread fraud, a claim that Myanmar’s election commission has refuted. The winner of the election, Ms. Suu Kyi (of the National League for Democracy (NLD) party), is under house arrest and has been charged with possessing illegally imported walkie-talkies. Many other NLD officials have also been detained. Mass protests have broken out, and the newest reports indicate that live ammunition is being used against the citizenry. These reports come from a United Nations human rights investigation. NPR reports that,

Andrews, a special rapporteur for Myanmar, also known as Burma, said that in similar circumstances in the past, the Security Council had “mandated sanctions, arms embargoes, and travel bans” and called for “judicial action at the International Criminal Court or ad hoc tribunals… All of these options should be on the table,” he said, adding that “growing reports and photographic evidence” pointed to the use of live ammunition against protesters.”

It also must be acknowledged that the international community’s quick response to condemn the coup is not necessarily congruous with the United Nation’s attempt to attribute responsibility for the Rohingya Genocide to Suu Kyi and her civilian government (see here). Even so, time after time, R2P seems like more of an aspiring principle than something that demands action. There are several more crises worthy of R2P, such as the war in Yemen, the Uighurs’ treatment in China, China’s treatment of the Falun Gong, and the PRC’s current crackdown in Hong Kong. No matter how we slice it up, when citizens of the world need the U.N. most, R2P seems to fall short of the goal-line. Unfortunately, this is expected, as the political obstacles are mammoth.

Why R2P Fails

The primary reason R2P fails is political. It is tough to get anything past the P5, as the powerful nations in that group often have self-interests that contradict each other. In terms of human rights violations, China and Russia (especially China) tend to veto resolutions that could someday be used as a precedent to interfere in their sovereignty. Moreover, since sovereignty is a primary norm of the United Nations and all International Relations, the bar for R2P intervention is extraordinarily high. But we also have to consider the national interests and resource problems of collective action. Security Council resolutions are easier to obtain when the more powerful nations have an interest in the situation and are willing to pay the costs of conflict. For example, in the 1990s Sadam Husain threatened the price of oil when he invaded Kuwait and attempted to increase Iraq’s oil supplies by force. Though this was a U.N. operation, the U.S. took the lead and paid a large part of the costs, especially in terms of military personnel. According to James Baker in an NBC News report,

“…oil-rich states in the Persian Gulf took on most of the cost of the effort. But most of the nearly 700,000 troops involved in the six-week conflict came from the United States, with 383 Americans losing their lives. According to Pentagon calculations, the United States spent \$7.3 billion on the Gulf War effort (about \$13 billion, after adjusting for inflation). That’s just about 12 percent of the costs of the operation.”

The division of the first Gulf War costs was paid by nation-states interested in defending the oil supply (especially Kuwait, which yielded 26% of the costs). In other crises, such as the one in Sudan, it is harder to find reasons that align with powerful states’ interests. In others, such as the Syrian Civil War, it is clear that opposing national interests (between the U.S. and Russia) have led to a lack of action by the U.N. There are few collective action problems larger than the ones faced by nation-states under anarchy – free-riding, common-pooled resource issues, and prisoner’s dilemmas abound.

Neorealists would argue that this is precisely why international institutions fail; intergovernmental organizations (IGOs) such as the U.N. are nothing more than a reflection of global power, and the operations they pursue (or don’t pursue) are a reflection of the international balance of power. Neo-liberal institutionalists might argue that, while institutions can lower transaction costs and sometimes overcome anarchy, accomplishing that goal is more difficult for situations involving high politics (although not impossible). Constructivists might argue that international regimes, and the norms these regimes embed into the system, will result in changes in state behavior over-time. However, R2P seems to be one of these principles that struggle in the face of international power structures. The U.N. pays homage to these principles, but real collective action is continually stifled. There is a broader discussion of IR theory and the role of institutions, regimes, norms, and ideas to be had in this context, but it is outside of the scope of this post (see here, here, here, and especially here, here, and here).

The bottom line is that, while R2P is supported as a broad framework, it tends to fail in practice due to various political obstacles. Even with the transition from Trump’s “America First” to Biden’s new multilateralism, the issues outlined above are unlikely to be overcome any time soon. In its most drastic form, the primary problem is that R2P contradicts the norm of sovereignty. Moreover, nation-states’ self-interested leaders are unlikely to dedicate resources to a peace-enforcing operation unless it impacts their position in global affairs. Even more pressing, when the peace-enforcing operation might set a precedent for future operations, it is unlikely that all members of the P5 will agree, especially when several members are accused of human rights violations themselves. In the end, R2P has never lived up to its hype and has not become an international norm – at least not a “strong” international norm embedded in the system.

On a closing note, I am not arguing that the United Nations has been a failure. In fact, the U.N.’s peacekeeping missions are effective after acknowledging the selection effect associated with the mission’s difficulty (see this important article by Virginia Page Fortna). I am also not arguing that U.N. sanctions and other non-force related punitive methods are useless – although this is also heavily debated in political science. I am saying that R2P has not faired well. While the principle is morally significant and worthwhile, it is plagued by underlying issues that are unlikely to be resolved. Instead, it would be more beneficial for powerful nations like the United States to take a leadership role in preventing and assisting in these crises. Historical examples demonstrate that the most successful U.N. missions were ones in which a powerful state (the United States) took the initiative.

However, war is always costly in blood, treasure, and political consequences. We cannot expect leaders of nation-states to intervene when their security (broadly defined) is not at stake, especially when the costs of conflict might be higher than the benefits (broadly defined). President Clinton learned that lesson when his public opinion dipped after the Black Hawk Down crisis during the humanitarian intervention Somalialia (see here for a discussion of how public opinion constrains the use of force). In fact, this led to airpower’s primary use during the Kosovo crisis, which some argued wasn’t as effective as it could have been. The domestic politics of international action make it clear that public support is necessary for long-term military operations. The domestic politics of foreign policy is another reason why R2P seems like an overreach as a global principle. So, while I lament that R2P fails in circumstances where it is needed most (when force is necessary to stop atrocities), its structure precludes its success. Nevertheless, the international community, and powerful states such as the United States, can use their leverage (mainly in economics) to continue to put pressure on regimes that violate human rights. If anything, even more pressure needs to be placed on regimes such as in Myanmar. Our biggest hope might not rest with R2P or international intervention but with Civil Resistance and the power of the people. In future posts, I plan to discuss global resistance movements and their ability to achieve change successfully. For now, this discussion has outlined the obstacles with an important U.N. principle that is often invoked but rarely actualized.