At the 2005 World Summit, a high-level follow-up to the United Nations’ 2000 Millennium Summit, in a unanimous vote all U.N. member states agreed to the principle of “responsibility to protect.” While it was only two paragraphs (nos. 138 and 139) in the 38-page final statement, for many observers it was the crowning achievement of that particular gathering.
A fact sheet issued by the U.N. after the summit laid out the gist of the principle:
Clear and unambiguous acceptance by all governments of the collective international responsibility to protect populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity. Willingness to take timely and decisive collective action for this purpose, through the Security Council, when peaceful means prove inadequate and national authorities are manifestly failing to do it.
Although ultimately just words either way, it replaced an earlier optional principle, "the right to intervene,"with an active one, a responsibility. The intent was to make sure potential Rwandas of the future could end more like Libyas (but not Darfurs). It’s worth noting, too, that responsibility does not automatically equate to cruise missile.
If a U.S.-led military strike occurs in Syria, the governments involved will cite “responsibility to protect” as essentially forcing their hands in the face of the Assad government’s reputed use of chemical weapons in the nation’s civil war. Commentators have already stated the argument. In The Guardian, former U.N. emergency relief coordinator John Holmes cites the “unduckable challenge” that responsibility to protect, or RtoP, creates in Syria. In The New York Times, Mike Abramowitz, who directs the Center for the Prevention of Genocide, asks “Who Will Step Up for the Responsibility to Protect?"
But looking around the world’s trouble spots, it’s obvious that RtoP is often ambiguous and generally duckable—why was there no real action in Sri Lanka? It’s been invoked by NGOs, nations, and the U.N. itself more than 35 times since January 2006, and in most it has failed to be that “rallying call to action” its rhetoric suggests it would be. In a new paper in the journal Cooperation and Conflict, Alex J. Bellamy, one of the world’s leading scholars on RtoP, asks if the principle is "added value or hot air?"
The hot air camp is substantial. “R2P is undoubtedly a great slogan, though little else,” political scientist Aiden Hehir wrote in 2010. “Given that, as Ban Ki-moon notes, R2P creates no new obligations and reflects pre-existing international law, it is difficult to understand why state behaviour will alter as a result of the emergence of R2P.”
In his new paper, Bellamy looked at how the U.N. and its members responded to the lists 26 mass atrocities that occurred between January 2006 and June 2011. “Of the 10 deadliest episodes of anti-civilian violence between 2006 and 2011, RtoP was invoked in relation to seven and the Security Council acted in only five of these cases.” Oooh, a resolution! In fact, the U.N. issued a resolution 10 times overall in cases where RtoP was invoked, but only three time did even this bureaucratic response come with a year on the initial invocation. Oooh, a late resolution!
Bellamy’s own answer—it lies on the "added value" axis—is supremely unsatisfying if ultimately hopeful. He argues that RtoP creates the “habit” of responding to atrocities, “helping to reshape states’ identities and interests, such that consideration of the protection needs of populations in relation to the threat of genocide and mass atrocities has been internalised to some extent.”
As a result, consideration of protection issues has become almost habitual for some key international institutions, most notably the UN Security Council. By that, the author of this article means that there is a presumption that the international community, whether acting through the Security Council, regional and sub-regional arrangements, or other mechanisms, will involve itself in the protection of populations from these crimes as a matter of routine. To borrow the language explicitly used by the [African Union], the presumption of non-interference has given way to a presumption of ‘non-indifference’ in the face of genocide and mass atrocities.
In short, RtoP doesn’t guarantee meaningful action, whatever that is, but consistently makes sure the debate is occurring routinely, and not occasionally, when violence is afoot. As a recent report authored by Madeleine Albright and Richard Williamson terms it, RtoP has become an “emerging political norm.” And a change in habits may foster a change in values. To quote Barack Obama, “Preventing mass atrocities and genocide is a core national security interest and a core moral responsibility of the United States.”
What all this means in practice is much less clear.
For the U.S. in Syria, it’s less about the war, as the Lowy Institute’s Sam Roggeveen among others has written, and more about the weapons. “Obama seems uninterested in tipping the balance of the conflict one way or another. He merely wants to make a statement that the use of chemical weapons is unacceptable.”
But that statement, with munitions instead of resolutions, still might resonate as various bad actors on the world stage realize that not only is concern internalized, but so is the real possibility of acting on it. Bellamy testified before the U.N. last September: "Such measures do not replace the state's primary responsibility to protect but instead aim to facilitate the full resumption of its sovereign responsibilities." Like not poisoning its citizens.