The Problem with R2P

28 Jun

The Responsibility to Protect Doctrine (R2P) is arguably the watershed moment in the recent history of humanitarianism.  R2P cleared up the humanitarian intervention debate by providing the international community with a moral imperative to act, clear avenues for mitigation, and the weight of culpability when atrocities do occur.  R2P’s internationalization and institutionalization of civilian protection is, as Anne-Marie Slaughter writes, “…the most important shift in our conception of sovereignty since the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648.”

R2P though, as one might expect, is not without its troubles.  (The imperialism charge for me is not one of them, because R2P does not encourage the domination of small countries by large ones; it merely provides transparent rhetorical dressing for actions states would’ve undertaken anyways.)  R2P’s language frames civilian protection as occurring entirely between states and international institutions.  States themselves, of course, have the primary responsibility, but then the international community has the responsibility to aid states in protecting their civilians.

Therefore, R2P rests on two foundational assumptions.  The first is that states, with the occasional helping hand of the international community, have the capacity to adequately protect civilians.  This simply isn’t the case.  The UN suffers from severe bureaucratic, financial, and political difficulties in even predicting mass violence, let alone intervening to stop it.  While regional organizations are generally improving their ability to predict, mitigate, and respond to mass violence, their capability to push the same bureaucratic, financial, and political constraints is still hampered.  Most civilians will remain beyond the reach of international organizations and even well-meaning states when violence breaks out.

R2P’s second assumption is that even if there are barriers to current prediction, mitigation, and intervention by the international community, international institutions and states are theoretically best-placed to support civilian self protection.  However, this overlooks that the above problems are inherent in the international political system.  A few months ago, I wrote, “Despite early warning’s long history within the UN, it is still barely an institutionalized concept…As it stands, the existence of any system that combines an intelligence gathering mechanism, an early warning component, and results in capable prevention or mitigation strategies is a fiction and will be continue to be so for the foreseeable future.  The same institutional and psychological barriers that prevent successful atrocity early warning, prevention, and response will persevere.”

Unfortunately, R2P’s framing leaves no room for sub-state methods of civilian protection, and more specifically, the possibility of civilian self-protection.  Frédéric Mégret writes, “…formulations of R2P all stopped short of reorganizing that ‘victims’ (or intended victims) of atrocities might have a role in averting atrocities at the point when they are being committed.”  Mégret labels R2P as a component of a “salvation paradigm”, in which outsiders view themselves as the only ones capable of saving those at risk of mass violence.  The problem here is that most civilians who survive R2P crimes (genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity, and ethnic cleansing) do so without the help of outside actors.  The survival of this silent majority is mostly a result of small-scale social networks that take on protective roles in conflict.  Hillhorst estimates that less than 10% of civilians survive natural disasters because of outside aid, and due to the more advanced nature of disaster early warning systems and the relative lack of political complications caused by disaster aid, it’s a safe bet that this number is even lower for violent conflict.  R2P is the cornerstone of how to protect civilians, but yet it fails to engage with the avenue through which an enormous majority survive.

The distance between R2P’s vision of civilian protection and its reality is a problem that goes beyond the theoretical.  R2P’s wording ensures international strategies for civilian self-protection will continue to work through state and international institutional channels, where frankly there isn’t much improvement that can be made.  Even if  there is a shift toward collaborating with sub-state actors, R2P’s lack of recognition of these efforts means they will remain rare and continuously makeshift.  R2P is a potent mechanism for generating a global consensus that atrocities must not be ignored, but this does not translate into effective civilian protection.

Trying to understand why R2P does not recognize the most common forms of civilian self-protection during mass atrocities throws up two divergent currents that pulled the doctrine in opposing directions, and what can be generally described as the “top-down model” won out.    The first set of influences will likely be more familiar to the reader.  R2P emerged out of the “humanitarian intervention” debate of the 1990’s, itself spawned by the conflicts in Bosnia, Kosovo, Somalia, and Rwanda.  Especially in the latter two, humanitarians were frustrated by the international community’s inability to act effectively to stop violence.  This frustration translated into a constructed chain of causality that drew a direct  and almost monocausal link between international inaction and the occurrence of atrocities.  This ignored both the complex drivers and inhibitors of mass violence and the international community’s frequent inability to sufficiently protect civilians through military interventions.

Academics also contributed heavily to R2P’s top-down approach to civilian protection.  Scholars of violent conflict have tended to imbue armed actors with near-total agency in determining the course of conflict.  Norms might matter, but only rarely do scholars demonstrate how civilians can participate in the shaping of these norms.  Only recently have scholars like Stathis Kalyvas and Oliver Kaplan examined civilian agency during violent conflict.  Therefore, without a theoretical base to examine how unarmed non-elites may play a role in shaping conflict and aiding their own survival, it becomes difficult to imagine an international doctrine for responding to atrocities that has a role for these marginalized actors.

However, the more intriguing current that helped to shape R2P is the one that ultimately lost out.  Mégret notes the R2P was in fact out of step with thinking in related fields at the time, “Whereas neighboring branches of the international discourse (e.g. conflict mediation, development) are increasingly explicit about the need to forge direct relations with civil society actors even at the height of conflict, R2P seems marked by a reversal to the ‘high politics’ of international intervention in times of unfolding crisis.”  This positive influence was almost borne out, as the original draft of R2P created by the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty included a section highlighting the agency of victims and domestic civil societies in protecting themselves from conflict.  For reasons unbeknownst to me, this vein of thought pushing for a more grassroots approach to conflict prevention and mitigation lost the ideological struggle.  Perhaps a more in-depth study how this conflict manifested itself in R2P’s creation will reveal deeper truths about R2P’s creation and its subsequent effect on how we conceive civilian protection.

R2P may leave little room for pursuing sub-state-led civilian protection efforts during conflict, but its success as a norm means that civilian protection is largely defined through the doctrine.  Despite its restrictive wording, R2P’s elimination would do far more harm than good for international civilian protection.  The answer lies in reform, not revolution.  The language of the second pillar provides a possible entry point.  It reads, “The international community has a responsibility to encourage and assist States in fulfilling this responsibility…”  If the doctrine were amended to simply read, “…encourage and assist States and civilians…” the international community would, in two words, be able to recognize the ability of civilians and civil societies to protect themselves without undercutting the international responsibility to respond to R2P crimes.  There may be a normative mountain to climb to spark that change, but I for one am hopeful.


One Response to “The Problem with R2P”


  1. The Girls That Brought Themselves Back | The Widening Lens - July 9, 2014

    […] at pursuing civilian protection are also the likely victims of violence.  Aiding them to do what they are able to do most effectively, rather than working to save their lives from the outside and without their assistance, is usually […]

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