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The responsibility to protect – much ado about nothing?


Despite its newness, the concept of the responsibility to protect (R2P) looks back at a stellar career. It has been the subject of numerous conferences and academic publications and has been affirmed by the major UN bodies. Indeed, if one were to assess the development of an international norm by the amount of academic attention and general rhetorical support it enjoys, one could be inclined to believe that the responsibility to protect is rapidly evolving into a norm of customary international law.

This article subjects the R2P hype to critical scrutiny and asks probing questions about R2P's viability as a norm. Beneath the thin veneer of rhetorical acceptance of R2P lies a range of hotly disputed issues – in particular but not exclusively regarding the concept's implications for the use of force – which are unlikely to be resolved in the near future. In this article I examine R2P's potential to ‘ripen’ into an international norm. I argue that in the absence of an intersubjective consensus about what R2P actually means, the concept's chances to ‘harden’ into a norm of customary international law are remote. I posit that R2P cannot be considered a ‘new norm’ or an ‘emerging norm’ as it is frequently called, because the vast majority of states simply does not want to be legally bound to save strangers in remote regions of the world.

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1 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, {}.

2 See, for example, Bannon, Alicia L., ‘The Responsibility to Protect: The UN World Summit and the Question of Unilateralism’, Yale Law Journal, 115:5 (March 2006), pp. 11571165 ; Bellamy, Alex J., ‘Whither the Responsibility to Protect? Humanitarian Intervention and the 2005 World Summit’, Ethics & International Affairs, 20:2 (Summer 2006), pp. 143169 ; Bellamy, Alex J. and Williams, Paul D., ‘The Responsibility to Protect and the Crisis in Darfur’, Security Dialogue, 36:1 (2005), pp. 2747 ; Chandler, David, ‘The Responsibility to Protect? Imposing the ‘Liberal Peace’, International Peacekeeping, 11:1 (Spring 2004), pp. 5981 ; Day, Graham and Freeman, Christopher, ‘Operationalizing the Responsibility to Protect – the Policekeeping Approach’, Global Governance, 11:2 (April–June 2005), pp. 139146 ; Etzioni, Amitai, ‘Sovereignty as Responsibility’, Orbis, 50:1 (Winter 2006), pp. 7185 ; Hamilton, Rebecca J., ‘The Responsibility to Protect: From Document to Doctrine – But What of Implementation?’, Harvard Human Rights Journal, 19 (Spring 2006), pp. 289297 ; Holt, Victoria K. and Berkman, Tobias C., The Impossible Mandate? Military Preparedness, the Responsibility to Protect and Modern Peace Operations (Washington, D.C.: The Henry L. Stimson Center, 2006) ; Levitt, Jeremy L., ‘The Responsibility to Protect: A Beaver Without a Dam?’, Michigan Journal of International Law, 25:1 (2003), pp. 153177 ; Pace, William R. and Deller, Nicole, ‘Preventing Future Genocides: An International Responsibility to Protect’, World Order, 36:4 (2005), pp. 1532 ; Stahn, Carsten, ‘Responsibility to Protect: Political Rhetoric or Emerging Legal Norm?’, American Journal of International Law, 101:1 (2007), pp. 99120 ; Thakur, Ramesh, ‘Outlook: Intervention, Sovereignty and the Responsibility to Protect: Experiences from ICISS’, Security Dialogue, 33:3 (September 2002), pp. 323340 ; Weiss, Thomas G., ‘The Sunset of Humanitarian Intervention? The Responsibility to Protect in a Unipolar Era’, Security Dialogue, 35:2 (June 2004), pp. 135153 ; Wheeler, Nicholas J., ‘The Humanitarian Responsibilities of Sovereignty: Explaining the Development of a New Norm of Military Intervention for Humanitarian Purposes in International Society’, in Welsh, Jennifer (ed.), Humanitarian Intervention and International Relations (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), pp. 2951 .

3 On the issue of legal liability and reparation, see Jose Alvarez, ‘The Schizophrenias of R2P’, panel presentation at the 2007 Hague Joint Conference on Contemporary Issues of International Law: Criminal Jurisdiction 100 Years After the 1907 Hague Peace Conference, The Hague (30 June 2007), pp. 11f, {}.

4 International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS), The Responsibility to Protect (Ottawa: International Development Research Centre, 2001), p. xi,{} .

5 Jonathan Marcus, ‘World Wrestles With Burma Aid Issue’, BBC News (9 May 2008), {}.

6 Louis Charbonneau, ‘China, Indonesia Reject France's Myanmar Push’, (8 May 2008), {}.

7 See, for example, Thakur, Ramesh, ‘Should the UN Invoke the Responsibility to Protect?’, The Globe and Mail (8 May 2008) .

8 See, for example, the report of the High-level Panel on Threats, Challenges, and Change, A More Secure World: Our Shared Responsibility (New York: UN, 2004), p. 57 .

9 Wheeler, Nicholas J., Saving Strangers. Humanitarian Intervention in International Society (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000) .

10 Lyons, Gene M. and Mastanduno, Michael (eds), Beyond Westphalia? State Sovereignty and International Intervention (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995) .

11 Boekle, Henning, Rittberger, Volker, Wagner, Wolfgang, Norms and Foreign Policy: Constructivist Foreign Policy Theory (Tübingen: Tübinger Arbeitspapiere zur Internationalen Politik und Friedensforschung, 1999), p. 21 .

12 On the agent-structure nexus see Dessler, David, ‘What's at Stake in the Agent-Structure Debate?’, International Organization, 43:3 (August 1989), pp. 441473 (p. 452) .

13 Wendt, Alexander, ‘Anarchy is What States Make of It: the Social Construction of Power Politics’, International Organization, 46:2 (April 1992), pp. 391425 (p. 413) .

14 On the role of discourses see Yee, Albert S., ‘The Causal Effects of Ideas on Policies’, International Organization, 50:1 (February 1996), pp. 69108 (pp. 95–8) ; and Milliken, Jennifer, ‘The Study of Discourse in International Relations: A Critique of Research and Methods’, European Journal of International Relations, 5:2 (1999), pp. 225254 (p. 229ff) .

15 Finnemore, Martha and Sikkink, Kathryn, ‘International Norm Dynamics and Political Change’, International Organization, 52:4 (November 1998), pp. 887917 .

16 Ibid., pp. 895–904.

18 D'Amato, Anthony, The Concept of Custom in International Law (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1971), p. 97 .

19 International Court of Justice, ICJ Reports 1986 ('s-Gravenhage: Sijthoff), p. 109.

20 Ibid., p. 98.

21 Supra note 17.

22 On law as a ‘linguistic affair’ see Koskenniemi, Martti, From Apology to Utopia. The Structure of International Legal Argument, re-issue with new epilogue (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), p. 529 .

23 See Byers, Michael, Custom, Power, and the Power of Rules. International Relations and Customary International Law (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), p. 5 .

24 See, for example, Finnemore's, Martha and Toope's, Stephen interdisciplinary piece on ‘Alternatives to “Legalization”: Richer Views of Law and Politics’, International Organization, 55:3 (August 2001), pp. 743758 (p. 750), in which they describe international law as a dynamic social process .

25 ICISS, supra note 4.

26 Deng, Francis M., Kimaro, Sadikiel, Lyons, Terrence, Rothchild, Donald and Zartman, William I., Sovereignty as Responsibility. Conflict Management in Africa (Washington D.C.: Brookings, 1996) .

27 Ibid., p. xvii.

28 Ibid., pp. 1, 15.

29 ICISS, supra note 4, p. xi.

30 Ibid., p. xi.

31 Theories of just war originated in Roman philosophy and typically comprise a set of criteria that determine the justness of a war, such as just cause, proper authority, right intention, etc. For a contemporary discussion of the concept of just war see Evans, Mark (ed.), Just War Theory: A Reappraisal (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2005) .

32 ICISS, supra note 4, p. xii.

33 Ibid., pp. xii, xiii.

34 Ibid., pp. xii, xiii.

35 High-level Panel, supra note 8.

36 Kofi Annan, In Larger Freedom: Towards Development, Security and Human Rights for All (New York: UN, 2005).

37 High-level Panel, supra note 8, p. 57.

38 Kofi Annan, supra note 36, pp. 35, 59.

39 See Gareth Evans, ‘The International Responsibility to Protect: The Tasks Ahead’, presentation at the seminar on ‘Africa's Responsibility to Protect’, Centre for Conflict Resolution, Cape Town (23 April 2007), {}.

40 A/RES/60/1 (24 October 2005).

41 Draft Outcome Document, para. 47 (3 June 2005), {}.

42 Nicholas Wheeler, ‘A Victory for Common Humanity? The Responsibility to Protect After the 2005 World Summit’, paper presented at the conference ‘The UN at Sixty: Celebration or Wake?’ University of Toronto (6–7 October 2005), {}, p. 3.

43 Ibid., p. 7.

44 S/RES/1674 (28 April 2006).

45 S/RES/1706 (31 August 2006).

46 Stahn, supra note 2, p. 99.

47 In its interventions in Iraq 1991, Kosovo, and elsewhere the US – mindful of precedent – never expressly endorsed a right to humanitarian intervention. However, US officials have occasionally referred to humanitarian motives as a policy justification for the use of force, without, however, making a statement of general legal principle. See Murphy, John F., The US and the Rule of Law in International Affairs (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), pp. 151f ; see also Stewart Patrick of the US State Department's Policy Planning Staff, ‘The Role of the US Government in Humanitarian Intervention’, Remarks to the 43rd Annual International Affairs Symposium (5 April 2004), {}.

48 See, for example, paras. 15 and 16 of the Final Document of the XIII Conference of Heads of State or Government of the Non-Aligned Movement Kuala Lumpur (24/25 February 2003), {}.

49 Jim Hoagland, ‘Tony Blair, Reflecting’, Washington Post (6 March 2005).

50 Feinstein, Lee, Darfur and Beyond. What is Needed to Prevent Mass Atrocities (Washington, D.C.: Council on Foreign Relations, 2007), {}, p. 28 .

51 For an insightful discussion of this issue see Bellamy, Alex J., ‘Responsibility to Protect or Trojan Horse? The Crisis in Darfur and Humanitarian Intervention After Iraq’, Ethics & International Affairs, 19:2 (Summer 2005), pp. 3153 .

52 Interview (7 December 2007).

54 Interview (27 November 2007).

55 Interview (20 December 2007).

56 At their Kuala Lumpur Summit NAM-governments highlighted the ‘inherent dangers in the emerging trends toward a unipolar world’, a world in which powerful states could trample upon the principles held dear by developing states such as non-interference and sovereign equality. NAM-governments reiterated their criticism of the ‘so-called right to humanitarian intervention’ and voiced suspicion that the concept of the responsibility to protect was merely the doctrine of humanitarian intervention in disguise. They therefore requested their Coordinating Bureau to carefully study the concept and its implications for the principle of non-interference. See supra note 48.

57 S/PV.5781 (20 November 2007).

58 Shulong, Chu, ‘China, Asia and Issues of Sovereignty and Intervention’, Pugwash Occasional Papers, 2:1 (January 2001), {} .

59 Gareth Evans, ‘The Unfinished Responsibility to Protect Agenda: Europe's Role”, panel presentation at the EPC/IPPR/Oxfam Policy Dialogue on Europe's Responsibility to Protect: What Role for the EU?, Brussels (5 July 2007), {}.

60 Quoted in Ibid.

61 Interview (27 November 2007).

62 Ban Ki-moon, Report of the Secretary-General on the Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict, S/2007/643 (28 October 2007, {}, p. 19.

63 Interview (27 November 2007).

64 S/PV.5781 and S/PV.5781 (Resumption 1), (20 November 2007).

65 Ibid.

66 See Roth, Brad R., ‘Bending the Law, Breaking It, or Developing It? The US and the Humanitarian Use of Force in the Post-Cold War Era’, in Byers, Michael and Nolte, Georg (eds), US Hegemony and the Foundations of International Law (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), pp. 232263 .

67 John R. Bolton, Letter Sent to UN Member States Conveying US Amendments to the Section on the Responsibility to Protect of the Draft Outcome being Prepared for the September 2005 High Level Event (30 August 2005), {}.

68 Ibid.

69 Interview (21 November 2007).

70 S/PV.5781 (20 November 2007).

71 Supra note 69.

72 S/PV.5319 (Resumption 1), (9 December 2005).

73 S/PV.5476 (28 June 2006).

74 Akehurst, Michael, ‘Custom as a Source of International Law’, British Year Book of International Law 1974–1975 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1977), pp. 153 (p. 39) .

75 See Gareth Evans, ‘The Responsibility to Protect: Rethinking Humanitarian Intervention’, address to the American Society of International Law, Washington D.C., (1 April 2004), {}. Evans noted that unilateral interventions ‘do not – it would be an understatement to say – find wide favour. As a matter of political reality, it would simply be impossible to find consensus around any set of proposals for military intervention which acknowledged the validity of any intervention not authorized by the Security Council or General Assembly’.

76 ICISS, supra note 4, p. xii.

77 Supra note 48.

78 Supra note 71.

79 Feinstein, Lee, Darfur and Beyond. What is Needed to Prevent Mass Atrocities (Washington, D.C.: Council on Foreign Relations, 2007), p. 38 .

80 For a detailed analysis of the conflict in Darfur see for example Prunier, Gerard, Darfur. The Ambiguous Genocide (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2007 ; rev. and upd. edition).

81 Mohamed, Adam Azzain, ‘The Comprehensive Peace Agreement and Darfur’, in de Waal, Alexander (ed.), War in Darfur and the Search for Peace (Cambridge: Global Equity Initiative, Harvard University, 2007), pp. 199213 (p. 207f) .

82 Daly, M. W., Darfur's Sorrow. A History of Destruction and Genocide (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), pp. 283f .

83 Susan E. Rice, ‘Why Darfur Can't Be Left to Africa’, Washington Post (7 August 2005).

84 Iyob, Ruth and Khadiagala, Gilbert M., Sudan. The Elusive Quest for Peace (Boulder: Lynne Rienner, 2006), p. 154 .

85 S/RES/1706 (31 August 2006).

86 The CPA was concluded in 2005 and ended Africa's longest-running civil war. It contains a schedule for political reform and a democratisation process, which is supposed to culminate in the holding of national elections in 2009.

87 Sudan ‘Backs’ Darfur Force Plan', BBC News (17 November 2006), {}.

88 S/RES/1769 (31 July 2007).

89 Human Rights Watch, Darfur 2007: Chaos by Design. Peacekeeping Challenges for AMIS and UNAMID (New York: Human Rights Watch, 2007), {}, p. 58 .

90 Amnesty International, ‘Obstruction and Delay. Peacekeepers Needed in Darfur Now’ (22 October 2007), {}.

91 S/PV.5784 (27 November 2007).

92 Los Angeles Times, ‘Helicopters for Darfur’ (13 December 2007).

93 Interview (21 December 2007).

94 S/PV.5784 (27 November 2007).

95 Brooks, David, ‘Another Triumph for the UN’, New York Times (25 September 2004) .

96 Daly, supra note 82, p. 293.

97 ‘Bush Toughens Sanctions on Sudan’, BBC News (29 May 2007, {}.

98 S/RES/1593 (31 March 2005).

99 Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, ‘The Crisis in Darfur’, written remarks, Senate Foreign Relations Committee (9 September 2004), {}.

100 Ibid.

101 Supra note 1.

102 Assistant Secretary for African Affairs Jendayi Frazer, ‘Stopping Genocide in Darfur: Ongoing US Efforts and Working with the UN Security Council’ (24 August 2006), {}.

103 Interview (12 December 2007).

104 S/RES/1591 (29 March 2005).

105 Flint, Julie, ‘Darfur's Outdated Script‘, International Herald Tribune (9 July, 2007) .

106 Hoge, Warren, ‘Sudan Flying Arms to Darfur, Panel Reports’, New York Times (18 April 2007) .

107 Borger, Julian, ‘Blair Wants No-Fly-Zone Enforced Over Darfur’, The Guardian, (28 March 28 2007) .

108 Interview (12 December 2007).

109 Flint, supra note 105.

110 Interview (10 December 2007).

111 Interview (7 December 2007).

112 There may be room for debate over whether the ICISS indeed intended to legitimise unauthorised intervention. In the event of Security Council deadlock the ICISS suggested intervention by regional organisations subject to their seeking subsequent authorisation from the Security Council. ‘Seeking’ authorisation after the fact, however, does not mean that such authorisation is actually granted – a possibility which the ICISS must have been aware of. I therefore interpret the passage in the report to mean that the ICISS accepted the possibility of regional enforcement action which the Security Council refused to authorise post hoc.

113 See Hilpold, Peter, ‘Humanitarian Intervention: Is There a Need for a Legal Reappraisal?’, European Journal of International Law, 12:3 (2001), pp. 437468 (p. 452) .

114 See, for example, Institut de Droit International – Session de Santiago, 10th Commission. Present Problems of the Use of Force in International Law. B. Sub-group on Humanitarian Intervention, Rapporteur: W. Michael Reisman (Paris: Edition A. Pedone, 2007).

115 When justifying the bombing of Serbia in 1999, NATO states – with the exceptions of Belgium and the UK – did not justify the war in legal terms. Instead of making statements of general (legal) principle, the intervening states mainly relied on moral and political arguments, as the case brought by Yugoslavia against NATO before the ICJ shows. Yugoslavia had instituted proceedings against NATO states after the start of the air campaign. Although the Court ultimately declined to exercise jurisdiction on the merits, a hearing on the preliminary measures application took place, in which the respondents had an opportunity to elaborate on the justifications for the bombardments. The vast majority of the intervening states did not seize this opportunity to clarify the legal basis of their action. During the hearings only Belgium justified the air strikes by invoking a legal right to humanitarian intervention. See International Court of Justice, Legality of Use of Force Case (Provisional Measures), CR 1999/15 (10 May 1999), {} and International Court of Justice, Legality of Use of Force Case (Provisional Measures), CR 1999/24 (11 May 1999), {}.

116 Ibid. For the British position, see also Tony Blair's Sedgefield speech (5 March 2004), {}: Declaring that ‘we do not accept […] that others have a right to oppress and brutalise their people’, Blair went on to frame the war against Iraq as a logical extension of the R2P doctrine. This, however, was clearly not the intention of the founders of the concept and is one of the reasons why R2P continues to be viewed with suspicion by many developing nations.

117 D'Amato, supra note 18, pp. 61f.

118 International Court of Justice, ICJ Reports 1969 ('s-Gravenhage: Sijthoff), p. 43.

119 See Murphy, supra note 47.

120 Interview (10 December 2007).

121 ICISS, supra note 4, pp. 6, 49, 51, 75.

122 Art. 4h of the Constitutive Act of the African Union.

123 Supra note 99.

124 I thank an anonymous reviewer for alerting me to this possibility.

125 Supra note 70.

126 Reisman, W. Michael, ‘Unilateral Action and the Transformation of the World Constitutive Process: The Special Problem of Humanitarian Intervention’, European Journal of International Law, 11:1 (2000), pp. 318 (p. 15) .

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