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Barriers to Implementing the Responsibility to Protect Effectively: Searching for Accountability Closer to Home

Fresh Perspectives

Chloë Gilgan argues that we need to give greater attention to how supposed human rights champions fuel contestation and stall progress on mass atrocity prevention and response.



Recently, The Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect (GCR2P) and the Asia-Pacific Centre for the Responsibility to Protect (APCR2P) launched ‘A Framework for Action for the Responsibility to Protect: A Resource for States’, to consolidate knowledge and expertise around the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) and to address the ongoing critical, practical challenges around implementation. Australian Ambassador Fiona Webster began with a sobering fact that ‘2022 was the deadliest year since the Rwandan genocide.’ At the same time, Research Fellow of APCR2P, Rebecca Barber, stated that the commitment to R2P by states remains strong given the consistent re-endorsement at the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA), which is at odds with the fact that mass atrocities have continued at a ‘horrible’ rate, evidencing how prevention and response have both failed.

In fact, identity-based violence has surged, and widespread violation of international law and norms have become the new normal, even across liberal democratic states who are presumed to automatically engineer, endorse and uphold human rights norms. The Framework for Action offers concrete steps for states to take, however, what is missing is the underlying problem of the inequality of the international system and the effect this issue has on the willingness of those in power to cooperate. Until we address accountability across all states, including the wealthy and liberal, accountability and action will remain limited. We continue to demonstrate a limited view of accountability.


Feeding R2P Resistance

The R2P literature mostly focuses on the resistance and obstruction of R2P by Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa (BRICS) but does not explore contestation thoroughly in the context of the Permanent Three (P3: United Kingdom, USA, France), though there is growing literature on western localisation of R2P (Ralph and Gifkins, Staunton, Docherty et al., Gilgan). Those aspects of a norm that are resisted give critical information on how a state has localised and how it will then operationalise a norm. However, the effects of how the P3 localise R2P is underexplored, not surprising because critical constructivism explains how states understand norms but does not tend to explain the effects; perhaps because localisation theory is predominantly applied to less powerful states and thus the international impact is weaker.

While Acharya argues norm modifications that feedback to the international level may result in norm strengthening (2013, 469), it is not clear under what conditions this happens. Logically, uptake of a state’s particular norm localisation, whether it mirrors or inspires further support and implementation across the global community, suggests a strengthening trajectory for the norm. For example, Brazil’s ‘Responsibility While Protecting’ and China’s ‘Responsible Protection’ were conceptual contributions to R2P that would have added additional checks to the use of force, given some states’ perceptions of western misuse in less powerful states (Stefan 2017; Garwood-Gowers 2012; Ralph and Gallagher 2015). If states had accepted either of these modifications, R2P could have been strengthened by restricting its most controversial aspects across the international community. However, these initiatives involving additional checks to military intervention were not well supported by the UK and went no further (Ralph 2014, 26). Thus, localisation and modification of R2P by these emerging powers has had little resonance with powerful states. Had these minimal modifications been embraced, R2P may have been strengthened in terms of its normative support by the BRICS at little cost to the P3.

It is less clear whether there is potential for the norm to weaken, rather than strengthen, as an effect of norm localisation that feeds back to the international realm, although this is identified as a possible scenario following the subsidiarity process according to Staunton (2018, 372). In the context of the most powerful, those states that are permanent members of the UN Security Council, the tendency to mostly focus on the impact of China and Russia’s localisation of R2P is a critical problem as the P3 also wield significant power. The impact of how the P3 localise R2P includes affecting other states’ continued acceptance or contestation of R2P, the norm’s potential degeneration, and ultimately the extent to which there is any effective atrocity prevention and response on the ground.

Examining the effects of the P3’s localisation of R2P may help bring the international community closer to consensus over effective prevention and response to atrocities. Applications of localisation alone simply explain and justify how states give meaning to norms. This is an important step, but such exclusive focus has resulted in a gap between theory and practice on the ground. Therefore, my recent article in Cambridge Review of International Affairs examines the UK’s localisation of R2P and considers the consequences of its implementation. The article reveals how the UK’s constructed meaning of R2P as solely intervention is not welcome internationally given the initiatives to eschew R2P’s military intervention aspect by less powerful states.

The research involved an empirical case study of the UK’s responses to Syria during 2014 through 2016, to reveal how the UK has contested the applicability of R2P to its peaceful responses to Syria and the wider implications that result. In particular, the UK has not used humanitarian aid (DFID) or resettlement (Home Office), as revealed in the discourse and confirmed by the interviews, as a method for discharging its responsibility to protect Syrians from mass atrocities. The UK’s selective neglect in linking R2P to its peaceful responses in Syria and its resistance to initiatives that restrict the use of military intervention reinforces other states’ claims that R2P is predominantly understood as military humanitarian intervention. This is counterproductive for building international consensus for atrocity prevention and response.


The Effects of Feeding R2P Resistance

The UK’s localisation of R2P as military humanitarian intervention exacerbated by its resistance to linking its peaceful measures to R2P impacts the norm’s core objective of protecting populations. First, in the context of R2P’s prevention agenda, there has been a consistent delinking of the connection between human rights and atrocity prevention by the BRICS and other states whose discourse has reversed the established progression of a human security approach back to a state-centric view (Jarvis 2022, 15). Jarvis notes that the states pushing for the link between responding to human rights violations and atrocity prevention are largely the UK, US and France; those states responsible for exceeding the mandate in the Libya intervention (2022). It is highly likely that the P3 prevention agenda in linking human rights violations to potential mass atrocities under R2P remains suspect to other states because it would leave room for intervention to prevent mass atrocities when states violate human rights violations that have not yet risen to mass atrocities, which is further underscored by the UK’s localisation of R2P as primarily coercive intervention. This would be a revolutionary response to every day human rights violations in terms of existing international law and international human rights law. It is easy to see why states that have a ‘sense of exclusion or a perception of big power hypocrisy, or perception of dominance, neglect, violations, or abuse’ (Acharya 2011, 97-99) would reject this R2P prevention agenda.

Second, the UK’s failure to link its peaceful responses to R2P not only stymies consensus on action but provides a smokescreen for the P2 to continue narrowly focusing on R2P’s first pillar while contesting the second and third pillars (Hehir 2016). The UK’s localisation of R2P provides a further barrier for these states to hide behind despite their own appalling domestic human rights records (Jacob 2018, 397, citing Sotomayor 2016). The UK needs to modify its primary understanding of R2P to include relevant peaceful responses in order to de-escalate norm contestation and support ‘norm robustness’ (Arcudi 2019, 174). There is little chance of international uptake of the UK’s particular modification of R2P’s meaning. This is exacerbated by the UK’s lack of support for the RWP and RP, which are constructive proposals reflecting states’ fears around intervention. (Ralph 2014, 26). This has arguably made effective delivery of R2P’s agenda impossible.



There is a lack of attention paid to the distrust, fears and hypocrisy that have resulted from how powerful states understand and implement R2P, particularly those states that see interference as the predominant aspect of R2P. We need to explore the apparent presumption that those states exceeding the mandate in Libya (along with a history of interference) have learned the necessary lessons. All is not forgotten just because Libya is over. Lessons are learned when those that have taken advantage and violated trust rebuild it by acting responsibly. The UK’s current interpretation of R2P will continue to engender less powerful states’ contestation around mass atrocity prevention and response because actions matter. The responsible thing for the UK to do is to elevate and make peaceful responses on par with military intervention when responding to mass atrocities.

Chloë is a Senior Lecturer in international human rights law at the University of Lincoln. She completed an ESRC-funded post-doctoral Fellowship at the University of York Law School where she completed her ESRC-funded PhD in 2019 at the Centre for Applied Human Rights. She holds a JD from New York Law School and is a member of the New York State Bar and she holds a BA from Barnard College, Columbia University. Orcid #0000-0002-9972-872.


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