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The Responsibility to Protect doctrine is faltering. Here’s why.

- December 8, 2015
Residents inspect damage from what activists said was an airstrike by forces loyal to Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad on the town of Douma, eastern Ghouta, in Damascus on Oct. 2. (Bassam Khabieh/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 to “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, as academic 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, professor of politics at the University of Manchester, 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.


Mark Kersten is a researcher based at the Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto and is the creator of the blog Justice in Conflict.