Journal article

The Evolution of Norms of Protection

Major Powers Debate the Responsibility to Protect

R2P Debate Norm Evolution
Source: UN Photo
05 Nov 2015, 
published in
Global Society


In 2015, the world marked the 70th anniversary of the United Nations Charter and the 10th anniversary of the world’s political endorsement of a responsibility to protect populations from genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes and ethnic cleansing. In the decades since diplomats from 51 countries and territories created the UN Charter in San Francisco, collective expectations for the appropriate behavior of states to protect people from harm have evolved tremendously, and the idea of a responsibility to protect (R2P) is a product of this normative evolution.

In fact, the key shift at the normative level had already taken place by the early 1990s, when “[t]oleration of mass atrocities no longer seemed acceptable — it seemed immoral.” Not only had the idea that the international community should prevent grave violations of human rights gained substantial weight vis-à-vis other political priorities. Widely shared normative expectations for protection also far exceeded the foundations of international humanitarian law in their demands on third parties to act preventively, effectively and in a way that balances human security with the demands of state sovereignty rather than subordinating one to the other. Today, advocates for R2P can celebrate the fact that protecting people from serious harm has become a truly international obligation, for humanitarian actors (through influencing conflict parties and meeting the basic needs of victims), human rights observers (through monitoring and reporting), diplomats (through mediation, facilitation and political missions) and military forces (such as UN peacekeeping operations or UN-mandated deployments)

Despite all this impressive progress on the level of normative expectations for protection from (at least) mass atrocities, the R2P agenda itself is widely seen as having passed its peak. This decline is frequently ascribed to the abuse of UN Security Council Resolution 1973 by the coalition intervening in Libya, but reflects a deeper structural change in the global distribution of power. Arguably,” as Jennifer Welsh put it a year before the Libya intervention, RtoP was born in an era when assertive liberalism was at its height, and sovereign equality looked and smelled reactionary. But as the liberal moment recedes, and the distribution of power shifts globally, the principle of sovereign equality may enjoy a comeback.” Globally, despite its deep roots among African intellectuals and small states, the R2P agenda has become identified with a coalition of Western liberal internationalists and major powers seen by many as dangerously keen to pass judgement over the responsible” exercise of sovereignty and power by any country except their own.

This world built on liberal hegemony is increasingly seen as giving way to a different kind of order. The terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001 exposed the vulnerability of the United States and the failure of its intelligence apparatus. The US assault on multilateralism, state sovereignty and human rights in reaction to the attacks soon exceeded the world’s limited empathy with its humbled hegemon. The military setbacks in Iraq and Afghanistan and the exposure of scandals in Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib exposed the limits of US influence as well as its failure to live up to the standards to which it holds others. Rapid economic growth in China, India, Brazil and other emerging economies” led those countries to claim a greater share of influence on global governance. The financial crisis of the late 2000s, where Western economies almost collapsed while emerging economies were holding relatively steady, confirmed these claims, leading to the institutionalization of the Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa (BRICS) forum as well as the short-lived elevation of the G20 as the prime gathering of world leaders to discuss economic governance. While US hegemony is in decline, power has become more diffused and global ideas are diversifying instead of converging to one Western model.

While this power shift in itself does not unfold in a linear way, as illustrated by recent economic woes in every BRICS country, international institutions no longer can ignore the worldviews embraced by the so-called rising powers.” In one way or another, and on different timescales, all of these countries have been shaped by the experience of colonialism (except Russia) and resistance to the US-led hegemonic order. Beyond the overly simplistic, all-or-nothing way of expecting China and others to either join or replace the existing global order, the impact of this shift remains insufficiently understood. Is, as Justin Morris argues, a realignment in global power in favor of those normatively predisposed towards sovereign rather than individual rights … likely … to augur badly for R2P” and human protection from mass atrocities?

While much has been written about the future (or lack thereof) of R2P with reference to Libya and Syria, this special issue seeks to contribute a more systematic approach to analyzing its normative evolution. We ask how key international debates between 2004 and 2014 influenced the discourse on international norms of protection, with an empirical focus on debates about R2P. The articles result from three years of collaborative research between a group of 18 scholars from Brazil, China, India and several European countries about global norm evolution and the responsibility to protect. Working together on the contributions to this issue, we took recent calls for a more diverse and inclusive Global International Relations” discipline seriously, in particular regarding a more universal approach to historical narratives and normative ideas.

Based on our case studies, we argue that R2P did not become an effective means of mobilizing political will or effective action on a case-by-case basis. Essentially, effective instances of mobilization relied mostly on the notion of genocide itself as well as on parallels to the cases of Rwanda and Srebrenica, while the discourse of R2P did little to alleviate the political and practical obstacles to effective implementation of the common intent to protect people from mass atrocities.

Political issues such as the selectivity of engagement by powerful states and practical questions about the effectiveness of different policy instruments have been complicated by mutual caricatures of the respective intentions. Many in the Global South have long viewed R2P as an all-out attack on sovereignty (and, therefore, self-determination) on the part of liberal cosmopolitanists, while many Western policymakers tend to view that skepticism as misguided Third World solidarity with authoritarian governments.

As a result, much angry rhetoric from all sides distracts from the fact that all major powers agree that the protection of populations from mass atrocities is both a national and an international responsibility. Compared to the 1990s, at least, there is much greater and more widespread readiness today to politically support actions that are deemed necessary to protect populations from mass atrocities, and even to make active contributions in that direction if compatible with other strategic interests. This readiness goes far beyond the West,” liberal interventionists” or members of the Group of Friends of the Responsibility to Protect. Gradually, principled debates about sovereignty and non-intervention are giving way to a more constructive discussion about effective and responsible protection of people from mass atrocities.

This introduction starts with an explanation of our research process, how we failed to make much progress analyzing R2P as an emerging norm and how we reconceptualized the problem instead, based on a web of interrelated norms of protection.” It goes on to outline the common conceptual toolkit of eight case studies based on selected insights from discourse theory. Placing the debate into the context of the history of ideas on intervention with humanitarian purposes, the introduction identifies five normative perspectives that the authors found in their case studies. Against this background, we summarize our project’s collective findings. We conclude with an outlook on the research and policy implications of our findings.

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