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Beijing’s Official Perspectives on R2P: It’s the State That Needs Supporting

Fresh Perspectives

Professor Rosemary Foot (University of Oxford) writes on China’s state-centric vision for the Responsibility to Protect.


It has long been recognized that the study of an evolving, composite, global norm like the “Responsibility to Protect” (R2P) provides a useful case study of the pathways states can tread to strengthen or weaken a new norm that has come onto the international agenda. In particular, the China case is illustrative of a state’s coping mechanisms when faced with a norm that its government has determined it cannot block entirely, but wishes to transform into something that it regards as far less threatening. Over time, it has become more obvious that Beijing’s aim is to use R2P to bolster rather than challenge a traditional state sovereigntist position.

China has been wary of the idea of responsible sovereignty from the start of its introduction. In the early stages of debate it argued that states had to be recognized as the “front line actors in dealing with all the threats we face”. This wariness increased markedly after the evocation of the norm during the United-Nations (UN) sanctioned intervention in Libya in 2011. Beijing abstained – a stance it later bitterly regretted – on the crucial Resolution 1973 that imposed a no-fly zone in the country’s air space. That resolution authorized member states to “take all necessary measures to protect civilians under threat of attack,” even as the resolution was meant to rule out a foreign occupation force of any form.

The subsequent overthrow of Colonel Gaddafi confirmed for China that R2P was something to be transformed and constrained. Thus, Beijing has settled into a position where it continues to advocate, against a majority UN General Assembly view, that debate on R2P should remain an informal part of the UN General Assembly’s agenda, rather than receiving further legitimation through a formal annual dialogue. It has used its position as a Permanent Member of the UN Security Council to reframe what it regards as inappropriate references to R2P in Security Council resolutions, and it has exploited R2P’s three-pillar implementation structure to shift it ineluctably towards the main contesting norm of the legal sovereign equality of states and non-interference in internal affairs.

Indeed, that three-pillar structure has proven particularly useful to China as it seeks to elaborate its position on R2P, and has allowed it to place the primary focus on pillars one and two when it comes to R2P's application. With respect to pillar one, China emphasizes that it is the government in power that bears the primary responsibility for protecting its citizens from mass atrocity crimes, weakening the emphasis on the norm of responsible sovereignty.

With respect to pillar two, which promotes international assistance and capacity building as a preventive measure, China argues for a demand-led conception in the augmentation of a preventive state capacity. In Beijing’s view, states should decide on the levels and types of international assistance that they require in relation to a pillar two mandate.  As China’s representative put in in 2015, the UN needed to “follow the principle of national ownership and leadership, respect the judicial traditions and national reality of countries in distress and avoid producing negative impact on the domestic situation in countries concerned.” At a 2018 UN General Assembly debate on R2P, the Chinese representative noted with gratitude the UN Secretary-General’s focus on prevention, but added that it was up to the countries concerned, to “strengthen prevention by identifying their own weaknesses and try to tackle the root causes of the conflict so as to address both the symptoms and the root causes of the problem.” Overall, China’s approach is to put less focus on a government unwilling to act to prevent mass atrocities, and more on a government without the capacity to prevent atrocities.

R2P’s pillar three, which invites the international community, via the UN Security Council, to consider action beyond longer-term capacity building to address a situation of manifest state failure to prevent mass atrocities, receives little detailed Chinese attention. China has linked pillar three strongly with the idea of non-consensual military intervention, and has not given much attention to the other tools that are available to give effect to a timely and decisive international response in the face of evidence of mass atrocity crimes. Instead, Beijing has managed to introduce the idea of state consent, or supported regional organizational consent, to any action the Security Council may propose in response to mass civilian harm.

This has made R2P, in China’s depiction, closer to the norm of the protection of civilians (POC) in armed conflict. And in this instance, we can see a similar set of beliefs at work: China interprets UN peace operations mandates that include a POC element – and most do – as operations that require host state consent. It reiterates that it is the state hosting UN forces that bears the primary responsibility for the protection of civilians, and in discussions of the root causes of conflict that generate a UN peace operation it emphasizes that it is under-development that is the primary cause of violence and civilian harm.

Underlying its positions with respect to R2P-type situations is a stated belief that the best way to relieve and reduce the incidence of large-scale human rights violations is to change the relationship between the government in power and the wider society through a focus on state-led economic development. On repeated occasions, Chinese diplomats state that stabilization of the government in power, strongly linked to economic development, are the main routes to preventing mass atrocities over the longer term.

This is a structural, long-term perspective on R2P-type situations, and neglects consideration of how to react in an effective and timely manner to the unfolding of a humanitarian crisis of the kind that occurred in Rwanda in 1994, and that is occurring in Myanmar in 2021. It also puts governments firmly in control, thereby reducing the focus on the security and protection of those individuals and groups that find themselves in peril.

Professor Rosemary Foot is a Senior Research Fellow in International Relations, and Emeritus Fellow, at St Antony's College, University of Oxford. Her latest book is China, the UN, and Human Protection: Beliefs, Power, Image (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2020).


Title image is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0


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