The Responsibility to Protect doctrine has failed

The recent “In Theory” series on the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) highlighted that arguments for R2P’s efficacy are primarily based on its having prompted a proliferation of supportive statements rather than effective action and tangible results. R2P has undoubtedly garnered widespread state support, but there is a glaring disconnect between this rhetorical affirmation and the egregious human suffering that still characterizes contemporary international politics.

On what basis can we say that R2P is a “huge breakthrough”, as Gareth Evans asserted? Statistical evidence certainly doesn’t support these claims; the Uppsala Conflict Data Program’s extensive quantitative study released in 2015 noted starkly, “The last five years have seen a dramatic increase in organized violence”.  Likewise, in the last year myriad reports — from organizations such as Amnesty International, the International Crisis Group, UNHCR, the Red Cross and Human Rights Watch — have detailed an increase in state-sponsored violence and repression, and a pronounced lack of will among the “international community” to respond to these crises.

We are left with the notion that because states routinely affirm — or at least don’t reject — R2P, we should applaud both its record and future potential. Yet, does the principle’s widespread proliferation really constitute a positive development? States can issue effusive statements of support for R2P without this imposing any constraints on their behavior. Illustratively,  Bahrain described R2P as “the supreme goal” at the same time it was systematically torturing and murdering pro-democracy supporters, while Sudan likewise declared R2P to be “a noble concept” despite its recent record of committing mass atrocities in Darfur. Has R2P not simply become the latest hollow slogan that states can cheerfully, and at times cynically, affirm without cost?

In the same way, while the Security Council has come to routinely employ the term, this need not constitute a positive development: of the 45 Security Council Resolutions passed to date which mention R2P, only six don’t employ the term in a way which explicitly shifts responsibility away from the council onto the host state; this evasion is hardly cause for cheering.

Responsibility to Protect, Alex Bellamy claims, has not failed: Rather, states “have failed to fulfill it”. Yet, if state behavior impelled the emergence of R2P, but the behavior of states has not appreciably changed — though their rhetoric has — surely this constitutes evidence of the concept’s failure. Can we be surprised? The primary institution charged with enforcing international law — the Security Council — is exactly the same today as it was when R2P was born: a conflation of realpolitik and law enforcement, hamstrung by the permanent five members’ veto power. To expect revolutionary change while affirming the systemic status quo is naive. It is indeed striking that much of the current calls for action in response to the various crises around the world — most notably Syria — echo the appeals to “do something” made in the 1990s when the international community’s response to intra-state crises was impeded by geopolitics, with often devastating consequences for human rights. Yet despite the advent of R2P, the manner in which states respond to intra-state crises remains prey to political constraints. Supporters of R2P are left to exaggerate the importance of what states say and offer dubious assurances that a better future beckons.

Aidan Hehir is a reader in International Relations at the University of Westminster.

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