Another False Success: The Responsibility to Protect and the Invasion of Ukraine

Aidan Hehir responds to Adrian Gallagher’s recent blog post for ECR2P, arguing that RtoP provides no added value for delegitimising Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Adrian Gallagher’s article makes the case that the international response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine proves that RtoP is ‘important and is needed’. Drawing on Doyle’s argument, Gallagher claims that RtoP serves not just as a license to act but also as a ‘leash’ that can ‘delegitimise the wrong type of action taken under the name of mass atrocity prevention’. Because Putin ‘has not been able to manipulate the idea of genocide prevention’ he has faced an international backlash and ‘has lost all sense of legitimacy’. Thus, Gallagher concludes, ‘Rather than shun and/or mock the RtoP norm, academics and policymakers should consider its potential for constraining forcible interventions in international society’.

Much of what Gallagher says is true; Putin has failed to win international support; he has lied repeatedly; he has not sought to pursue his claims through the established legal channels (because he knows he is lying); established laws/norms enable us to determine what is legal/acceptable behaviour. But the idea that RtoP’s efficacy has been demonstrated by the response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine is not credible.  Below I take issue with Gallagher’s two main claims; first that RtoP has enabled observers to understand that the invasion was illegal/immoral, second that RtoP serves as a “leash”.

RtoP: No Added Value

Throughout the article Gallagher rightly argues that we can utilise international law to expose Putin’s bogus claims and condemn his actions. But it is perfectly possible to make this argument without ever mentioning RtoP. For example, Gallagher claims, ‘one may say we all know that Putin is lying but the RtoP and the Genocide Convention help us understand and evidence this’. Remove the reference to RtoP and the sentence still makes sense. So, we must ask: in what way did RtoP help anyone better understand that Russia’s actions were illegal and immoral?

As Gallagher well knows, RtoP has not in any way changed international law; the laws proscribing aggression and genocide pre-date RtoP as do the processes by which we determine whether either has occurred. Because these laws exist, Russia’s actions are obviously illegal and immoral. RtoP cannot take any credit for enabling people to come to this conclusion as the framework for determining the legitimacy of such actions was in place long before RtoP. Indeed, beyond the insular, self-referential mini industry that has sprung up around the concept, few have mentioned RtoP in connection with this case; the pre-existing legal framework has been the referent point for those condemning Russia. Indicatively, there is not a single reference to RtoP in any of the statements made at the General Assembly debate on the invasion of Ukraine, and the UN Secretary General didn’t mention it either.

A Leash?

Gallagher also claims that RtoP is a “norm” that acts as a “leash” which stops states from engaging in actions that cannot be justified under RtoP. But, if states feared the international opprobrium they would incur for violating RtoP so much that they dared not do so, then we would live in a very different world. Unfortunately, since RtoP was created, atrocity crimes and human rights violations have increased. In reality, RtoP serves as neither a leash nor a licence because it is lifeless.

RtoP was not designed to reform international law or redress the politicised nature of international law enforcement; instead, its proponents have claimed that it is “norm” that constrains state behaviour through its “shaming power” and the process of “rhetorical entrapment”. The only evidence that can be mustered to defend the view that RtoP is an established norm is its regular invocation, which some loudly cheer. Constructivism does show that the routine invocation of a norm is potentially evidence of its increasing efficacy, but the routine invocation of a norm can also be evidence that it has been “co-opted” to the extent that it no longer has the impact its original proponents desired. This is the fate that has befallen RtoP; it has been consciously invoked in a circumscribed way to the extent that it has been rendered essentially meaningless.

The “rhetorical entrapment” claim is clearly false; all the states that have engaged in atrocity crimes over the past 17 years cheerfully signed up to RtoP in 2005 and have affirmed it repeatedly since. As I have argued elsewhere, there are times when governments deem it of existential importance to commit mass atrocity crimes and that the cost associated with committing these crimes – international condemnation – is worth paying. In recent years many states, including Syria, Myanmar, Saudi Arabia, Israel, and Ethiopia, have openly engaged in egregious violence against civilians despite the international condemnation that has followed. So long as these states have powerful allies amongst the P5 – which they do – they are protected from serious censure: they don’t actually care what “The Group of Friends of RtoP” think.

Perpetuating the RtoP Myth

As ever, in this case RtoP has played no significant role. Invading Ukraine became – through some deluded reasoning – a matter of existential importance to Putin and he calculated that enduring widespread international condemnation was a price worth paying. The costs associated with violating international law so overtly did not dissuade Putin from his plans; I don’t believe he worried for a second about the costs associated with violating RtoP. Likewise, those who have condemned Putin’s actions have done so without needing to engage with RtoP.

Noting that RtoP has not actually influenced the international response to Russia’s actions is not a semantic matter; those who continue to claim that RtoP has an influence have regularly sought to shoehorn it into cases where it had no discernible influence. In their desperation to maintain the myth that RtoP matters, they have sought to give RtoP credit for outcomes it had no influence upon. The perpetuation of this myth continues to obscure the efficacy of norms and the true nature of the international system.

Dr Aidan Hehir is a Reader in International Relations at the University of Westminster, UK. He is widely published on RtoP and related themes. His most recent book is ‘Hollow Norms and the Responsibility to Protect’.


Image credit: Vladimir Putin addresses the United Nations General Assembly.


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