The Responsibility to Protect isn’t Dead, but its Proponents’ Hubris has Wounded it

A 2011 scene from Tripoli street in the Libyan city of Misrata (Photo: Zohra Bensemra / Reuters)

A 2011 scene from Tripoli street in the Libyan city of Misrata (Photo: Zohra Bensemra / Reuters)

It has been a decade since the international community endorsed the principle of “Responsibility to Protect.” But with hundreds of thousands dead in civil conflicts around the globe, it is clear that the expectations set by this doctrine are not even close to being met.

Adopted by the United Nations in 2005, Responsibility to Protect (R2P) encompasses a deceivingly simple, two-part proposition: First, states have a primary responsibility to protect their citizens from war crimes, crimes against humanity, genocide and ethnic cleansing; and second, if states are unable or unwilling to protect their citizens from such crimes, the responsibility is transmitted to the international community.

When the United Nations Security Council evoked R2P language in response to the 2011 Libyan civil war, many academics and diplomats found cause to celebrate. R2P had finally arrived. Five years later, however, states have refused to apply R2P to the crisis in Syria while a spiral of political violence ravages Libya. What does this mean for the fledgling doctrine?

The international community’s disregard for R2P in Syria certainly does harm to the doctrine. So too does Libya’s languishing in a violent political crisis and the allegations that R2P acted as a veneer for regime change. But what has also wounded R2P is the hubris of some of its proponents — those who over-confidently insisted that R2P had been invoked when it hadn’t and that it existed where it didn’t. By raising expectations bound to be frustrated, these advocates have hurt the R2P doctrine they hoped to elevate.

R2P’s architects and supporters saw the doctrine as a means to fundamentally transform how we conceptualized state sovereignty and responsibility, overlapping the two concepts to entrench and propagate respect for universal human rights and the sovereign integrity of states. But the principle experienced a rather rocky birth. Despite a multitude of candidate situations, in its first years R2P was never successfully invoked as a means to effectively protect civilians. While the doctrine had achieved what international human rights expert David Scheffer called “rhetorical presence” in international relations and law, little substantive advances have been made. In 2008, Gareth Evans, one of R2P’s chief proponents, asked whether it was “an idea whose time has come … and gone,” and observed that states seemed to exhibit “buyers remorse” towards the idea. Making matters worse, when R2P-type language was eventually evoked by states, it was done to advance nefarious political interests. Russia, for example, employed R2P-style rhetoric to justify its invasion of Georgia in 2008 and, later, its annexation of Crimea. In short, R2P’s future looked bleak.

But as the regime of Moammar Gaddafi threatened to indiscriminately slaughter citizens protesting the dictator’s forty-year rule in early 2011, Libyan diplomats joined states across the region and world to call for an intervention to protect civilians. The U.N. Security Council responded by passing two resolutions. On Feb. 26, 2011, Resolution 1970 was passed unanimously. In referring the situation in Libya to the International Criminal Court, the council recalled “the Libyan authorities’ responsibility to protect its population.” A few weeks later, the council passed Resolution 1973, which evoked the language of R2P even more substantively by “[r]eiterating the responsibility of the Libyan authorities to protect the Libyan population and reaffirming that parties to armed conflicts bear the primary responsibility to take all feasible steps to ensure the protection of civilians.” Resolution 1973 subsequently authorized U.N. member states to take “to take all necessary measures … to protect civilians and civilian populated areas under threat of attack in the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya.”

Proponents of R2P immediately heralded the language of Resolutions 1970 and 1973. For Ramesh Thakur, one of R2P’s architects, the apparent invocation of the doctrine was a “game-changer” that “breathed life” into R2P. Academics Alex Bellamy and Paul Williams went so far as to assert that, “Libya reflects a new politics of protection.” U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon emphatically declared that “Resolution 1973 affirms, clearly and unequivocally, the international community’s determination to fulfill its responsibility to protect civilians from violence perpetrated upon them by their own government.” International relations and U.N. expert Thomas G. Weiss similarly stated that Libya signaled that R2P was “alive and well.”

The problem with such proclamations was that, in their overzealous drive to read R2P into Resolutions 1970 and 1973, many scholars and diplomats alike failed to realize that neither resolution actually operationalized the R2P doctrine.

In both resolutions, the Security Council only invoked the first half of the R2P equation. The resolutions made clear that the international community accepted that Libya had a responsibility to protect its citizens. The council also agreed that, in the absence of doing so, a military intervention, i.e. “all necessary measures,” was appropriate. However, as I have argued elsewhere, missing from either resolution was any suggestion that the international community itself bore responsibility for protecting Libyan citizens.

State decision-making further elucidates that a full invocation of R2P was not in the cards. First, key members of the NATO-led coalition that intervened in Libya declined to refer to their mission as an example of R2P. For example, Canada, which had helped to spearhead R2P in the early 2000s, pointedly refused to invoke the doctrine, instead justifying its intervention as the result of “a mandate of protection” and a “resolve to protect civilians”. Other states, like the U.K., affirmed Libya’s responsibility to protect its civilians but no such responsibility on the part of the international community.

Second, Justin Morris has found, states on the Security Council did not actively contemplate R2P whilst negotiating an appropriate response to events in Libya: “The official record of the UNSC’s deliberations over Resolution 1973 gives little support to assertions that R2P was a major influencing factor on decisions over the most appropriate form of intervention. Throughout the council’s deliberations only France and Colombia referred to the concept, and even then only in respect of Libya’s responsibility to protect its citizens.”

The refusal of Security Council states to confirm their responsibility to protect civilians in Libya should not be surprising. It was no accident. States have little appetite to pass resolutions or set precedents that would leave them legally bound to act similarly in future cases. As James Pattison has observed: “States are seemingly reluctant to accept this responsibility for fear of being obliged to act robustly in response to similar cases.” States are careful to maintain their ability to pick and choose the contexts in which they will intervene. Therefore, when scholars and observers ask: why did R2P apply to Libya but not Syria, the answer is simple: R2P wasn’t applied in Libya, precisely so that it wouldn’t have to be applied in cases like Syria.

Today, states may be experiencing another bout of buyer’s remorse with regards to R2P. The fact that it won’t be applied in Syria certainly damages the doctrine. So too does the chaos and political violence that has beset Libya since 2011. And while Libya was not actually a case of R2P, because so many actors so passionately insisted that R2P had been invoked in Libya, any counter-claims that the intervention was not based on R2P will fall on deaf ears. There is a real and ever-present cost to academics and diplomats attempting to talk and write norms into reality. The Responsibility to Protect is not dead. But the doctrine is bearing the cost of its proponents’ hubris.

A version of this article first appeared at the Monkey Cage blog, for the Washington Post.


For more analyses on R2P post-Libya, make sure to read Adrian Gallagher’s The Responsibility to Protect Ten Years on from the World Summit: A Call to Manage Expectations and Aidan Hehir’s The Permanence of Inconsistency.


About Mark Kersten

Mark Kersten is a consultant at the Wayamo Foundation, a Senior Researcher at the Munk School of Global Affairs, and a law student at McGill University Law School. He is also author of the book, 'Justice in Conflict - The Effects of the International Criminal Court's Interventions on Ending Wars and Building Peace' (Oxford University Press, 2016).
This entry was posted in International Law, Libya, Responsibiltiy to Protect (R2P), Syria. Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to The Responsibility to Protect isn’t Dead, but its Proponents’ Hubris has Wounded it

  1. I guess one of these days, when everybody is exhausted and the whole world has PTSD, we’re going to have to peer behind the curtain and see the military industrial complex which as a profit-motivated entity has zero interest in there ever being peace.

    • Graham Askey says:

      That is well overdue already and I have sadly come to the conclusion that the international justice system and commentators such as this have no interest in persuing western criminals whose crimes often far exceed those who are indicted. I am no idealist that expects any rapid change but when ” experts ” can’t even bring themselves to recognise these crimes they serve only to justify them.

  2. Graham Askey says:

    It is quite tragic to hear from a so called professional such a woefully ill informed account of the war in Libya. Whilst it was understandable at the time to have been taken in by the narrative set out by the mainstream media there is no excuse all this time later. There is a stench of hypocrisy to evoke notions of r2p over events in Libya. The so called threat to Benghazi was a complete fabrication by western warmongers and the Islamic extremists we chose as allies. Instead, with our vicious allies we turned places like Sirte into rubble and decimated infrastructure causing untold civilian deaths. Did we, or you for that matter invoke r2p for the hundreds of black Africans murdered by our racist friends that we armed and funded? Why instead do you not discuss how the r2p was abused to carry out an illegal regime change? Do you honestly believe that the chaos in the country was just one of those unfortunate, unforeseen side effects of the war, as happened in all the other country’s we bombed to oblivion and forgot to make a plan for? You may as well be discussing parking fines for all the disconnect you have with the crimes committed by the international community in the name of justice.

  3. Dear Mark,
    thank you for this fresh view on the Libya / Syria issue. I would differ with you on one aspet though. I think R2P played a role in Libya. While there may not have been direct references in these negotiations, I think the existence of R2P played a role in opening discoursive spaces in which a debate about what to do in Libya became possible in the first place. People where not afraid to refer to war crimes. If you compare this with the discourse in the 1990s on Rwanda for example, the change in language becomes clear. From a constructivist perspective then this becomes highly relevant, because it allows for the construction of a social reality in which the debate is not anymore one about violations of sovereignty, but about how and which actions to take. And I think therin lies the advancement R2P constitutes.

  4. Mike says:

    R2p is very much alive but it has 2 important rules you cant have one without the other. First rule is you “break it you own it”. Second rule is you need “boots on the ground”. You cant outsource boots to 3rd parties. With hindsight gained for the 2nd Iraq war, Afganistan and Libya the concept of the no fly zone after the 1st gulf war is the most pragmatic application of R2p.

  5. Pingback: #R2P10: R2P might be faltering, but it is not yet fallen | ICRtoP Blog

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