R2P: cover for unilateralism or entrenchment of multilateralism?

Does the responsibility to protect doctrine (R2P) provide cover for unilateralist and imperialist adventures by major powers in pursuit of their
own interests?  A new conference report[i] argues the opposite – that R2P’s strict requirement for UN-authorized collective intervention actually represents the reinforcement of multilateralism over unilateralism.

The report out of the International Peace Institute Vienna Seminar situates the responsibility to protect doctrine within well-established UN principles and practices, highlights the daunting challenges of implementation, and warns of the dangers of persistent failures to fulfill its promise.

It recalls the three familiar and “mutually reinforcing” pillars on which R2P is built – the responsibility of each individual state to prevent atrocities, the responsibility of the international community to support the efforts of individual states to meet their protection obligations, and the responsibility of the international community to act collectively in
accordance with the UN Charter to support prevention and to protect populations
where prevention fails.

There is in the report a welcome emphasis on prevention and on addressing the root causes of mass atrocities.: “…factors that have frequently played a key role in the descent of a society into mass violence…include poverty, youth unemployment, environmental pressures, poor governance, ethnic or religious discrimination, inequitable distribution of
scarce resources, absence of rule of law, and weak state institutions.”

A primary challenge is putting the theory and right intention of R2P into consistent practice. Edward Luck, the special adviser to the UN Secretary General on R2P matters, highlighted the importance of implementation: “Do we really know how to do effective prevention?” While the international community is acquiring some “reasonably well-developed notions about factors that are or are not helpful,” he says, it lacks “a nuanced understanding of what works where, when, and why.” It is the failure to clearly grasp and
develop a confident approach to prevention, he says, that makes “it is just too easy – and to engrained – to think of [responsibility to protect] as all about military intervention.”

The 2010 Vienna conference that produced the report focused on the role of the Security Council in implementing R2P. The report offers a broad and instructive look at the current status of the R2P doctrine and its implementation. Two important points, among many other, bear emphasizing – namely, that the R2P doctrine constrains rather than promotes unilateralist imperial ventures, and that the international community should resist pressures to invoke the doctrine in situations other than actual or threatened mass

It has become a common refrain that R2P invites unilateralist imperial adventures that can then be rationalized or politically sold as humanitarian interventions. A background paper by Christoph Mikulaschek of the International Peace Institute and included in the report, acknowledges that many in the international community still fear that “R2P could be used by the powerful states as justification for interventions that serve their
political interests.”

But as participants argued, the R2P doctrine actually reinforces the UN Charter’s prohibition on unilateral military action beyond self-defence. The more the international community acts in timely and effective responses to threatened mass atrocities, the fewer the excuses for unilateral action. Put another way, the more the international community fails to act decisively and effectively on behalf of the vulnerable in the face of mass
atrocities, the more likely it is that there will be unilateralist responses – responses that might in the circumstances make a credible case for unauthorized unilateral intervention in the face of Security Council inaction, but then compromise the intervention through the pursuit of narrow and self-serving national interests.

In other words, because the responsibility to protect is placed within a multilateral framework it further delegitimizes unilateral intervention and raises the political costs of unilateral military action, even when the claimed objective is humanitarian.

The public demand for intervention, including prevention and non-military efforts to safeguard vulnerable civilians, will not go away. And as Edward Luck put it, if the international community cannot summon the wherewithal for constructive intervention on behalf of the vulnerable, “then there will be no alternative to unilateral action.” The threat of unilateral action reinforces the importance of situating R2P “in the framework of the UN Charter, which bars unilateral action except in self-defense.”

R2P thus reinforces the Charter’s prohibitions on unilateral military action, but it can do so only if it works. Says Edward Luck: “The only way to discourage unilateral abuse of R2P principles is to develop credible and sustainable multilateral alternatives.”

Restraint on unilateral interventions is further emphasized by another theme of the conference report, namely the importance of keeping R2P focused on mass atrocity crimes. While human rights and humanitarian access concerns are broad and require a broad range of multilateral responses, R2P is best confined, as was always intended, to four categories of actual or imminently threatened mass atrocities – genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing, and crimes against humanity.

Mikulaschek put it this way: “There is broad agreement that R2P only applies to genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing, and crimes against humanity, and their incitement. Advocates should resist the temptation to stretch the concept to include other instances
of human rights violations or other sources of human suffering, such as climate change or natural disasters. Turning the responsibility to protect into a broad defense of human rights or human security would dilute its conceptual clarity, make it more difficult to operationalize, and jeopardize political support by many UN member states.”

The point, he says, is that the four mass atrocity crimes covered by R2P represent extraordinarily egregious violations of international norms and conduct, and an effective response to them requires consensus and coordinated action from civil society, as well as national, regional, and international leaders.

Anyone interested in the evolution of thinking and practise related to the responsibility to protect, this is a report well worth reading.



[i] The UN Security Council and the Responsibility to Protect: Policy, Process, and Practice. 39th International Peace Institute Vienna Seminar, The Favorita Papers (01/2010) of the Diplomatic Academy of Vienna, http://www.ipinst.org/publication/policy- papers/detail/312-the-un-security-council-and-the-responsibility-to-protect-policy-process-and-practice.html.

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