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Is it Time to Abandon the Responsibility to Protect?

Fresh Perspectives

Dr Richard Illingworth examines the current state of the Responsibility to Protect, rejecting calls for the doctrine to be abandoned while outlining his new book, ‘Strengthening the Responsibility to Protect’.


The state of things

Mass atrocities remain a pervasive aspect of the international landscape despite the adoption of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) – a commitment to curb genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity, and ethnic cleansing – by United Nations (UN) member states in 2005. Indeed, at no point since then has the world been atrocity free. Read any commentary from the last couple of decades or so and you will have seen moral outrage and a lambasting of failures to prevent and respond to the latest atrocity of the time, whether in Darfur, Sri Lanka, Syria, Yemen, Myanmar, Ethiopia, and beyond.

At the time of writing (early October 2023), there is another wave of atrocity, failures, and outcry. In Sudan, 5.4 million people have been displaced since fighting broke out between the Sudanese armed forces and rival Rapid Support Forces as they struggle for control of the country’s capital, Khartoum. However, this conflict – propelled by the two egos of General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan (Sudanese armed forces) and Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo (Rapid Support Forces) – is only part of the story, as there has been a re-awakening of ethnic communal violence between Sudanese Arab and non-Arab populations, with Arab militias targeting civilians on the basis of their ethnic identity in what may amount to ethnic cleansing and genocide.

Elsewhere, the Nagorno-Karabakh enclave, an area located within the borders of Azerbaijan but which has been de-facto administered by Armenian authorities since 1991, has seen an Azerbaijani military and economic blockade force the flight of 100,000 ethnic Armenians in a remarkable and devastatingly effective campaign of ethnic cleansing. In response, the Armenian parliament voted to ratify the Rome Statute and accept the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court; a move which has angered Russia but follows the failure of Russian peacekeeping (an oxymoron?) to prevent the ethnic cleansing. The West’s attempts at mediation and soft response clearly also have failed to prevent the commission of atrocity.

Meanwhile, the UN Human Rights Council, as a result of no member state meeting the 4 October deadline to sponsor a resolution, elected to not renew the mandate of the Independent Commission of Human Rights Experts on Ethiopia (ICHREE), a decision which belies calls for justice for victims of the civil war – a war that claimed some 600,000 lives through battle, atrocity, starvation, and lack of healthcare – and signals that any future atrocities will similarly not be met with any robust attempts at accountability.


R2P: Time to die?

The cursory overview above speaks to just three contemporary cases of atrocity violence. A glance over the Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect’s ‘Populations at Risk’ page reflects the fact that there are many other cases of ongoing atrocity, or where this is serious risk of it (re)occurring.

Against this backdrop, Mike Brand, in a post for The Conversation, wrote that ‘[o]ver the past two decades, the international community has failed to protect civilians in Syria, South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Yemen, Myanmar and Ethiopia. The responsibility to protect does not have a great track record.’ The solution to this poor track record is, for him, that ‘[p]erhaps… it is time to retire the responsibility to protect’. Brand wishes to take us back to the year 2000 and find a new way of responding to Kofi Annan’s question of how to balance the (often competing) prerogatives of state sovereignty and human protection.

This call is not an entirely isolated one. Other academics have similarly suggested that it might be time to ‘move on’ from R2P. In an article last year, Christopher Hobson even went as far to say that R2P has created institutional incentives for its self-perpetuation; ‘[w]ith organisations, journals, research grants, and careers built around R2P, there would be consequences and costs if the doctrine ends up in the ideational dust bin of history’. This particularly cynical readings suggests that academic and other proponents of R2P prop up the pro-R2P narrative for their own gain, keeping the doctrine on life support while they continue to extract career profits from its motionless husk.


Reform before abandonment

I am of the view that rather than conceding defeat to the forces obstructing R2P’s goal, our collective energy would be better spent on seeking ways to improve on the doctrine’s implementation. I agree with those such as Pattison, Šimonović, and Ralph that there is not a plausible rival candidate to step in should we choose to abandon R2P as our main discursive framing of mass atrocity prevention and response efforts. Not only would adopting an alternative likely be unfeasible, but pursuing this would be to discard the more than two decades of effort so far put into building a normative architecture around the language of R2P; an architecture which has become entrenched at UN and state level.

In my forthcoming book, Strengthening the Responsibility to Protect, I try to go beyond critiquing R2P and condemning failures to instead identify some ways through which the doctrine can be strengthened. The book tries to think through mechanisms for reform with the use of cosmopolitanism as a guiding lens. It develops and applies a framework of ‘transitional cosmopolitanism’ as a conceptualisation of how to pursue demanding normative change at the international level when faced with the reality of competing and altruism-limited sovereign actors.

While there are many possible channels for R2P reform, the book focuses most of its efforts on the UN, proposing the creation of new, or reform to existing, institutional structures that can better hold states accountable, while aiding them in acting on their R2P obligations. In particular, three areas for reform are explored: the UN Security Council P5’s power of veto, to prevent the veto obstructing timely and decisive R2P response action; the powers of the UN General Assembly as an alternative means for responding to mass atrocity situations; and the establishment of an ‘R2P Commission’ to hold states accountable for their R2P commitments.

In the book I set something of an impossible task: trying to reconcile calls for a more effective implementation of the R2P while satisfying concerns about the feasibility of achieving reform efforts in an increasingly politically divided world. The outcomes and proposals from this probably won’t satisfy many, but I think the book begins to chart an important normative conversation about how to go about the issue of R2P reform, and subsequently how to better the prevention of and response to mass atrocities.


Atrocities will continue and that’s why we need R2P

Mass atrocities will likely continue to remain a reality of the human condition. In a forthcoming article with colleagues from the European Centre for the Responsibility to Protect, we argue that a range of overlapping and serious problems continue to inhibit mass atrocity prevention and response efforts. But rather than concluding that this makes such efforts and the R2P worthless, we prefer a more pragmatic outlook that calls for reining in expectations while remaining committed to the reduction of mass atrocities as a normative goal.

In this vein, I argue in my book that, rather than retiring the Responsibility to Protect, we would be better framing ourselves as ‘critical friends’ to R2P; denouncing any kind of jovial outlook that considers the status quo acceptable, but simultaneously rejecting the kind of fatalism that accompanies calls to give up on R2P as a concept.

Mass atrocities will continue to occur, and R2P, as an idea dependent on implementation by morally imperfect actors, will not magically solve this. The point though is that R2P sets a goal to work towards; it is down to proponents of human protection to find ways to reform, better enact, and practice that goal. To be sure, this is an immensely difficult challenge in a world of increasing great power tensions and weakened multilateralism. The alternative, however, is to give up, and that is something that we should not abide.


Dr Richard Illingworth is a Lecturer in International Relations at the University of Glasgow. He completed his PhD work at the European Centre for the Responsibility to Protect, University of Leeds (UK) in 2021. His book, Strengthening the Responsibility to Protect, is available for pre-order ahead of its release on 2 November 2023.