The Responsibility to Protect (R2P): a case of selective hearing?

The responsibility to protect – or R2P – is portrayed by a lot of people as a very big thing, a very important thing, and a very good thing. It is commonly understood to represent a step change in progress towards dealing with the great crimes of our age: genocide, ethnic cleansing, war crimes, crimes against humanity. It is based in a simple idea: that the international community have a duty to protect those who are threatened by mass atrocity, to stop atrocities when they break out, and to assist in post-conflict rebuilding.


What’s not to like? Unfortunately, agreeability is not necessarily a good measure of success.

For such an ambitious and universal political project, R2P is not well-known outside of its own networks. And R2P is actually quite hard to define clearly. It is not a law, it is not something connected to a specific institution or agency, it is not written up as a code of practice or standard. A lot of its language and principles sound familiar from previous international statements about war and peace and this makes it seem less distinct an innovation. R2P can best be seen as a reinvigorated international norm: a shared moral principle that the international community has a responsibility to prevent mass atrocities from taking place, or to stop them, or failing that to support recovery processes. This reinvigoration is built on three things.


Firstly hard work generating intergovernmental normative consensus so that practically all states have declared support for R2P.


Secondly, being supportive of state sovereignty so that, rather that focussing on humanitarian/military intervention into states, emphasis is placed on facilitating states to act responsibly. R2P is primarily supposed to be a responsibility held by states with the support of the international community.


Thirdly, a focus not only on intervention but also prevention and rehabilitation.


So, R2P is a norm that reaffirms a humanitarian concern about mass atrocities in a way that is relatively supportive of state sovereignty as long as it is ‘responsibly’ managed; and it is the ‘responsibility’ of the international community to prevent, intervene or support according to the situation. These aspects of distinctiveness underlie the broadly positive viewpoints on R2P shared by politicians, UN staff, and academics. R2P sounds nice. It has become the point-of-reference for international norm diffusion (an academic term that simply mean convincing people to share your point-of-view), appeals for resources to support R2P, and arguments that the international community should be proactive in preventing and stopping mass atrocities. If there is a single way in which this political appeal is formulated it is: no more Rwandas!


But, in this midst of all of this, it is striking that there is no serious attention given to the nature of mass atrocities themselves. I noticed this almost immediately when I started to research R2P. Having done fieldwork in Mozambique, Uganda, and Rwanda – each of which has suffered massive humanitarian disasters – I was perplexed by the fact that the entire R2P literature said nothing remotely relevant to an understanding of the causes, dynamics, or endings of mass atrocities at all. The careful research, detailed understandings, and fieldwork carried out by those interested in these countries were completely removed from the writing on R2P. Why is this?


The answer I have come to is pretty simple: R2P discourse is largely addressed to influential actors within international agencies, politicians within powerful states, fellow researchers and academics, and a scattering of government officials in other parts of the world. This means that there is no need to pay much attention to any real, complex, and difficult cases of mass atrocity. Rather, the main things that R2P discourse does is build up political support for R2P and discuss cases of mass atrocity entirely within the frame of this ambition. Some cases become ‘success stories’: models of R2P good practice or references evoked to encourage more support for R2P. Other cases become ‘lessons learned’: to urge more support for R2P or to get R2P right. The actual examples of humanitarian disaster are analysed just enough to frame them within R2P’s grand political project.


Mass atrocities are, then, ‘thought upwards’ into R2P global discourse. They are not considered in and of themselves. Should this matter? The problem is that better understandings of atrocities reveal how difficult, problematic, and unpredictable intervention is. The declared ‘rightness’ of R2P leaves it removed from the influence of insights derived from closer-grained analysis of specific conflicts.


And, the concrete record of R2P is not encouraging. One might summarise that R2P


  • has not galvanised states to intervene in mass atrocities – most notably in Darfur and Syria;
  • has been evoked as a reason for success in some cases, but in ways that are actually not very clear or convincing – see Cote d’Ivoire and Kenya;
  • has been associated with an intervention which is far from looking like a clear success or an embodiment of R2P’s values – see Libya.


There is an almost fantastic mismatch between grand and heroic statements about R2P and its achievements, prospects and patchy evidence of success. But, for as long at R2P discourse remains disinterested in the difficult and detailed politics of atrocity and intervention, there is no need for those who support it to do anything other than carry on championing it.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s