R2P RIP? Painful reflections on a decade of ‘Responsibility to Protect’

Ed Cairns, Oxfam’s senior policy adviser on humanitarian advocacy, bares his soul on whether R2P has a future, or is best consigned to the dustbin of Ed Cairnshistory

Nine years ago this month, the UN World Summit endorsed the Responsibility to Protect. But this summer’s bloodshed in Gaza was only the latest conflict to provoke a heated debate on whether the concept still has a future. In one corner, the journalist David Rieff argued that R2P wasn’t a useful framework for Gaza – or anywhere else. While the head of the Global Center on R2P stressed the opposite, that ‘both the Israeli government and Hamas have a responsibility to protect [the] civilians’, but have failed to do so. Ban Ki-moon’s own Special Adviser on R2P, the Oxford academic Jennifer Welsh, challenged both sides for their ‘violation[s] of international humanitarian law and international human rights law… [that] could constitute atrocity crimes’.

This is not another Gaza blog. This is an R2P blog from someone who grew up working on the terrible humanitarian crises of the ‘90s (the Rwandan genocide perhaps the most terrible of all), and was an evangelical advocate when Oxfam campaigned for governments to adopt R2P in 2005. But for most of the years since then, R2P has been a rare three-letter acronym in Oxfam’s campaigning.

Again and again, we’ve argued that every civilian must be protected from what seems like the rising tide of atrocities in conflicts from Syria to South Sudan. Sometimes governments respond. Sometimes they don’t. But we have seldom, if ever, found R2P an argument that persuades them to act when they otherwise wouldn’t.

UN blue helmetPerhaps it seems that nothing can compel governments or the international community to protect civilians as much as they should. But sometimes, at least, active citizens – as this blog regularly reminds us – can persuade governments to act differently. Where millions of people have campaigned to control the arms trade, enormous changes have been made. Public opposition to fuelling Syria’s conflict with more arms has had a practical impact on at least some governments’ policies.

Yet those millions who raise their voices seem motivated by images and stories of human suffering, rather than an abstract global concept such as R2P. Or at the very least, we haven’t found a way to make that work.

R2P is ‘down but not out’, as one of its founders, Gareth Evans, has said, because of ‘the breakdown of trust’ that occurred once the US, UK and France were seen by other governments to have used R2P to justify not only protecting civilians, but removing a regime in Libya in 2011. As Evans says, that trust may one day be rebuilt.  But three years on, there is little sign of it. And until that happens, it is difficult to see how to prevent R2P from being misapplied – by any government – for reasons that go beyond the prevention of atrocities.

All this leaves Oxfam increasingly cautious about invoking R2P in any current case – despite our support for the principle and enthusiastic campaigning r2p dove + rocketsfor its adoption nine years ago. I’ve just written up our evolving approach in the journal Global Responsibility to Protect in a special issue on R2P and humanitarian action (gated, but the enlightened publishers are happy for me to upload this draft: Edmund Cairns R2P).

More importantly, where does this leave R2P? First of all, let’s be clear on one thing. Its principle is absolutely right. Governments and the world do have a responsibility to protect people from genocide and other mass atrocities. Ban Ki-moon’s latest report on R2P, released in August, offers a long list of sensible recommendations for how the international community should help governments do that – not least addressing the inequalities and exclusion that can help create a climate in which atrocities are more likely. It reaffirmed that all the so-called R2P ‘pillars’ were important, including the need sometimes to use force against those governments who choose to kill rather than protect their own citizens. And yet when the UN’s High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, gave her valedictory report to the Security Council in late August, she mourned the ‘hundreds of thousands of lives’ that have been lost because the Council has failed to take ‘firm and principled’ action to stop atrocities. If R2P was meant to change anything, was it not meant to change that?

too glib?
too glib?

It would be too glib to say that R2P is dead. If we gave up on every international agreement that wasn’t instantly successful, we would live in an even more dangerous world. Much of today’s violence – and the world’s inaction in the face of it – rides roughshod over R2P. But it also rides roughshod over international humanitarian and human rights law. Yet taken as a whole, such international rules have had an effect. They have helped prevent human rights abuses and violence being even worse, and given citizens around the world something against which they can at least try to hold their governments to account. This is absolutely not the time to give up on R2P or the international law on which it is based.

And yet as someone once so enthused by R2P, I’m left with this uncomfortable question. Can I think of real lives in a real crisis that have been saved because the words ‘responsibility to protect’ have been invoked? Some would argue that Libya and Cote d’Ivoire in 2011 qualify. Perhaps, but even if that was true, that is several years ago. What of the atrocities happening today and facing thousands of civilians tomorrow? I’d love to hear from others of how useful they have found R2P in their work in real crises.

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10 Responses to “R2P RIP? Painful reflections on a decade of ‘Responsibility to Protect’”
  1. Pablo Yanguas

    Following up on a twitter exchange with Duncan, I wonder what the standard for comparison should be when determining R2P’s failure or success. First, there is a relatively limited number of core principles in international humanitarian/human rights law, and many of them are often honored in the breach: for instance, common Article 3 of the Geneva conventions, the norms of proportionality and discrimination, or even sovereignty itself (as we see in Ukraine these days). Second, it took time for these principles to become institutionalized in legal frameworks, and to be legitimated through state action. This begs some questions: Is 9 years enough for a new principle – moreover, one the goes against state sovereignty – to become jus cogens? What are the “success stories” on which these 9 years can be evaluated?

    Take international criminal responsibility, widely accepted since Nuremberg and Tokyo, and still the ICC finds itself constantly under fire. Or the crime of genocide, subject of a convention over 60 years old, but still seldom invoked by state parties for fear of an obligation to intervene. I have read arguments that international norms remain legitimate even when violated, as long as eveyone agrees that a norm is being violated: Perhaps that is the most that R2P can aspire to in the short-medium term?

    • Edmund Cairns

      Hi Pablo: yes, I think 9 years would be far too soon to make any final judgement. In that sense, the cynics are dead wrong. I remember a senior Canadian diplomat saying to me in 2005 that it would take 25 years to tell whether R2P would really transform things. Like a lot of people in Oxfam, I’m a long-term optimist, not a short-term one. But that long-term perspective doesn’t remove the judgement NGOs and others have to make right now – of how much invoking R2P makes it easier or more difficult to win arguments to get better action to prevent atrocities. That’s the judgement that we can’t wait 25 years to make. But I absolutely accept that we might make a different judgement in the future if the international trust around R2P changes.
      Just on another point: you mention sovereignty. There are different views you know on how revolutionary R2P really was on state sovereignty. But perhaps that’s a debate for another post…

  2. Ian Toal

    I’m an enthusiastic believer in the Responsibility to Protect, but also am very practical. I see a couple of fundamental flaws in the R2P concept. The first is that it depends on independent states to provide the military power to protect civilians. Before getting involved, that state must decide whether the cost associated – lives of its citizens and money – is worth saving the lives of the people. Unsurprisingly, this equation usually favours non-involvement. I wonder how things might be different if the UN itself had an armed force, recruited from volunteers who are willing to put their lives on the line for the principle. The logistics of this idea are complicated (where does the money and equipment come from, where will the operation be based, etc.), but it may be the only way in which the concept can actually work.

    The second flaw that I see is the idea of R2P assumes, at some level, clearly defined threats to civilians. Many of the recent conflicts affecting non-combatants are messy affairs, with blurred lines between combatants and non-combatants. Setting up safe havens (a rather odious term after the Balkans) seems the best way to offer refuge, but these would need to be policed strictly, and again, the logistics of supplying a ‘fortress’ under siege (so to speak)haven’t been solved after several thousand years worth of experimentation.

    These are some thoughts that come to mind after reading the blog and comments. I’m by no means an expert on the subject, but as stated, believe strongly in the principle.

  3. Simon Adams

    I feel compelled to comment since I am quoted in this piece. Seems like you are definitely holding R2P to a higher standard than any other norm or principle. I note, for example, that Oxfam’s vision is to create a just world without poverty. That’s been the mission since at least 1995, and of course the organization (whom I have supported over many years) goes back to the 1940s. And yet we still have world poverty and injustice despite decades of commitments, hope and hard work. But I don’t think this should lead us to conclude that Oxfam has failed because people still go hungry. Nor should we conclude that human rights and international justice are empty ideas and that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was meaningless. History and international politics obviously develop a little more unevenly than that. R2P is not a grand panacea and there have definitely been setbacks and mistakes over the last 10 years. But I think progress has been made. And in that sense I think there is a huge mistake in assuming that R2P is primarily about interventionist response rather than mass atrocity prevention. For example, my organization (which Oxfam helped to set up by the way) works closely with the governments of Liberia and Cote d’ Ivoire, both of whom who are emerging from conflict and who use R2P as a lens to inform their work strengthening domestic human rights and helping to prevent a recurrence of mass atrocities. David Reiff is unlikely to write an oped praising or condemning this work but that makes it no less important. Both states are also part of the Global Network of R2P Focal Points, a group of 42 states who are committed to helping each other strengthen human rights and prevent mass atrocities. And for the record, R2P has been referenced in 22 UN Security Council resolutions since 2011, including those that set up peacekeeping missions to prevent or halt atrocities in Central African Republic and South Sudan. It was also part of the first UN Security Council resolution passed about small arms and light weapons (I know the ATT is close to Oxfam’s heart). Not perfect, but not nothing either. Its a shame that you couldn’t be more supportive of those of us who continue to battle to advance R2P, strengthen the norm, and work for consistency in application. Retreating from using the language helps no one, and certainly does not help us build a more just world. We would much rather have Oxfam with us in this battle of ideas. I still think we can help prevent and protect people from mass atrocities. We might even eradicate poverty one day too.

  4. Edmund Cairns

    Hi Ian, you’re making me feel old, as perhaps the whole blog did. Your idea about a UN force was something we talked about, I remember, quite a lot in the ’90s – not least in response to the failure to protect the ‘safe areas’ in Bosnia. So perhaps your two points have a link?
    It was one of many visionary ideas aired when the UN was a mere 50 years old in 1995. Sadly we don’t seem any nearer turning it into reality.
    Something that might be more achievable would be campaigning to get rich countries, including the UK, to contribute more people and equipment to the UN’s overstretched peacekeeping missions. Many of us in Oxfam feel it’s shameful how little support, in those terms, most of the richest countries in the world give. Without more support for UN peacekeeping, all the talk about preventing atrocities is a bit thin.

  5. Gareth Price-Jones

    The innovation of protecting vulnerable civilians in South Sudan UN bases might have some longer term impact – particularly around supporting instant decisions by commanders on the ground that the international community can’t later ‘wimp out’ on – for all the massive challenges we’re seeing in some pretty dire circumstances, it’s surely better than previous precedents of watching helplessly as people are killed. Perhaps the practical implications around contingency base design etc (ensuring water tanks and sewerage are over-specced during initial construction for example) are a reasonably non-contentious and practical way forward that would save lives and drive international policy in the longer term.

  6. Ed Cairns

    Hi Simon, actually I agree with so much of what you say – up until your point about ‘retreating from the language’. You’re certainly dead right that we’re all in very long-term struggles against poverty, inequality, atrocities and I’m afraid much besides. It’s your last few sentences that I don’t entirely buy. The long-term ‘battle of ideas’ is important – but saving lives in real crises right now is even more so. And that imperative, which you might call a humanitarian imperative, is what forces us to judge what is most likely to persuade governments and others to take practical action. Hence my caution not at all about R2P as an idea, but about its added value in our advocacy on most specific crises right now. And right now too, I’m not convinced that applying the language of R2P to every crisis that it could apply to necessarily helps us win the ‘battle of ideas’ for the long-term. We all know that some governments invoking the language unwisely has helped to lose, not win, that battle. That’s a key thing you seem to be forgetting. Let me end in agreement: I utterly agree that we can help prevent and protect people from mass atrocities. In doing so, we must be driven by evidence of what works at different times, and probably by different actors. As another commentator said, we’ve only had 9 years of evidence. Will R2P be seen in another 9 or 19 years to have profoundly helped to prevent atrocities? I honestly don’t know. But like you, I truly hope so.

  7. Sam Gardner

    Dear Ed, Pablo,

    Thank you very much for your thoughts. Responsibility to Protect is a principle that only exists because it is not applied. Otherwise we would never campaign for it, integrate it in international texts, etc.

    How long did it took before we thought the suffragettes got their way? Suddenly a dam has broken on Gay marriage, only 15 years ago, essentially nothing had moved.

    Most human rights principles win in the end. e.g. 100 years after the civil war in the US….

    We are very impatient, and that is good for putting pressure, but as I know Embassadors, if there is no full scale victory during a posting (3-4-years) there is pressure to declare defeat (1). The principle exists only 9 years, and we feel already guilty when we cannot comply.

    (1) prime example corruption: we all know it takes 20 -30 years to move, and listen to the voices of diplomacy on corruption if the world did not change overnight.

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