R2P: Implications for World Order (Part 1)

Published: Posted on

The West’s intervention in Libya and the on-going violence in Syria have placed a renewed spotlight on the principle of the responsibility to protect (R2P) human life. In this first post of a two part series, Dr Edward Newman argues that far from emerging into an new international ‘norm’, R2P is exposing fissures in a changing global order. 

This post is the second contribution to the research agenda series on polsis.org, which this month is focusing on Security Studies.


After a decade of academic and policy debate the principle of the responsibility to protect human life (R2P) appears to have won broad support around a clear definition that is relevant to a narrow and specific range of atrocities:  genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity. The 2005 UN World Summit Outcome, in theory representing all UN members, defined R2P strictly in the context of the UN Charter and Security Council authority, on a case by case basis, and emphasized the need for early warning and the prevention of such atrocities. The UN Secretary-General, in turn, formulated a proposal to implement R2P around three themes: the protection responsibilities of the state, international assistance and capacity-building, and timely and decisive response. According to this, R2P is “firmly anchored in well-established principles of international law”, including the bedrock of state sovereignty and – except in the most exceptional circumstances – non-interference. The emphasis is upon prevention and capacity building, and away from the use of armed force for human protection. It is therefore hoped that R2P will finally shed its association with the concept of ‘humanitarian intervention’. Recent diplomatic and academic debate has also had the effect of testing and defining the scope and limits of R2P, especially in terms of its interventionist connotations: it thus cannot be legitimately invoked in response to issues of poor governance or the denial of democracy, or in situations of natural disasters where governments are unwilling or unable to meet the humanitarian needs of victims, or in relation to human rights issues more broadly, or – as in the cases of the US-led intervention into Iraq or Russia’s intervention into Georgia – as a thin veil for geostrategic hegemony. It works best – for example in Kenya following contested elections and communal conflict in early 2008 – when it galvanizes the international community to assist local actors to peacefully resolve crises through a range of concerted activities. R2P, although it does make reference to action through the Security Council if national authorities are manifestly failing to protect their populations from atrocities – as happened in Libya in 2011 – is more about promoting and assisting states to implement existing legal obligations and human rights, and strengthening the norm of human protection.

Defined in this way, R2P – unlike humanitarian intervention – should not be seen as being in tension with existing norms of world order; as the Secretary-General’s report suggested, in line with the World Summit Outcome, “the responsibility to protect seeks to strengthen sovereignty, not weaken it.” The principle should therefore be seen firmly within the rules of procedure and the Charter of the UN, the embodiment of the Westphalian, pluralist society of states.

However, R2P remains controversial in the way that it is conceptualized, defined and invoked, and the nature of these controversies suggest that R2P is indeed problematized by its normative implications for world order. Despite the efforts of R2P advocates – who spend a considerable amount of their time refuting the idea that R2P is about humanitarian intervention and that it is in tension with sovereignty – many governments and commentators raise fundamental objections to R2P. Following the celebrated 2005 UN endorsement of R2P a number of governments have raised concerns and reservations about the principle, and it is notable that these reservations are seen in states – such as China, India, Russia, South Africa, Brazil, amongst others – which are both increasing in influence internationally and which do not reflect the prevailing liberal axis of states which promote norms such as R2P.

The controversies surrounding R2P – including the implementation of Resolution 1973 on Libya – can be related to different ideas of world order. R2P continues to have implications for world order in a number of ways. Firstly, it is ultimately unrealistic to define the application of R2P primarily in terms of assistance and capacity building because the majority of atrocities continue to be perpetrated by states or state-sponsored actors – or as a result of state incapacity or indifference – and so an effective response to genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity would often necessarily involve confronting states and using coercion, including force, with implications for state sovereignty. Moreover, since these atrocities often occur in situations of upheaval or insurgency, intervention inevitably becomes associated with regime change because it influences the outcome of local conflict. In the most egregious cases the first two pillars of the Secretary-General’s agenda – promoting the protection responsibilities of the state, and international assistance and capacity-building – will not apply because the states concerned will be recalcitrant, as Syria was in 2011 and 2012. This leaves us with pillar three – reaction and in theory intervening to prevent or stop atrocities – which raises a range of perennial controversies associated with humanitarian intervention, including a tension between justice and international order. Whilst most world leaders might support R2P in its most abstract form, there are fundamental disagreements about its implementation, especially in relation to difficult cases. Ultimately this points to a tension between pluralist approaches to human rights challenges – which are underpinned by a Westphalian, statist worldview – and a more solidarist worldview which has a contingent view of sovereignty.

Secondly, and perhaps more significantly, the way that R2P debates have been conducted and decisions have been taken in organizations such as the UN Security Council has raised problems relating to collective decision-making and influence in international politics. From this perspective controversies regarding R2P are not necessarily about the implications it holds for the Westphalian international order, but rather in terms of how power is legitimately exercised – or illegitimately abused – in an evolving international balance of power. Thus, the concerns of China, India, Russia, South Africa and Brazil, and others, relate to how R2P is defined and implemented in organizations such as the UN, reflecting broader tensions about the legitimacy and authority of norm diffusion and institutions in international politics. Therefore, rather than R2P emerging into a new norm or world order, it is in fact exposing broader fissures in a transitional world order characterized by rising and declining power and influence. Remaining reservations about R2P around the world are therefore not merely a reflection of lingering concerns or confusion about the principle’s interventionist connotations. Moreover, R2P has become hostage to broader tensions relating to international order that make progress on the protection agenda difficult.

Dr Edward Newman is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Political Science and International Studies at the University of Birmingham, UK. His current research and teaching focus upon security studies, including critical approaches and ‘human security’; intrastate armed conflict, civil war, and political violence; international organizations and multilateralism; and peacebuilding and reconstruction in conflict-prone and post-conflict societies. His personal website is available here.

Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the POLSIS blog, the Department of Political Science and International Studies nor the University of Birmingham.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *