Responsibility to Protect (R2P) has Failed – Conservative Article
Responsibility to Protect (R2P) has failed. Not only as an international norm and concept but when it has been invoked it has failed to fulfil the objectives which it sets out. I will show how it has failed in Libya. The repeated human violations by other, more powerful states also point us to the fact that no matter how well-intentioned you are, power is the determinant of whether or not it is worth getting involved.
So, what is R2P? According to the UN, it is a commitment to end the worst forms of violence, persecution and ending widespread violations of human rights. It was adopted in 2005 by the UN. After criticism of the failure to prevent the atrocities in the Balkans and Rwanda, and the controversial NATO intervention in Kosovo.
The principle also asserts that national sovereignty comes with responsibilities to protect the citizens within the state. And, if the responsibility is not adhered to then other states should take action to reinforce human rights. There are three pillars to R2P, that war must be a last resort (following the just war theory), that its aims are to stop the violation of human rights. Finally that after the injustice has stopped the nation is rebuilt.
However, whilst a commendable and worthwhile endeavour, it has failed those that need it.
The idea of sovereignty as responsibility is controversial. It implies that there is a universal concept agreed by everyone of what this responsibility is. The declaration of human rights is not universal. The idea of sovereignty put forward by the R2P thesis makes it more than political control, however, sovereignty is having the power to legally enforce rules on a defined territory.
International bodies are no more than areas for states to push for their own national interest. When states’ interests and an international body’s interests don’t align, the state will simply ignore the international body. Another area where sovereignty becomes contentious is that the UN doesn’t have an armed force or a unilateral way to impose its will on states that R2P suggest intervening. It has to rely on the agreement of member states which means it will be a decision based on political factors, not just human rights.
The UN doesn’t have its own armed force either. It has to rely on the armed forces of other states. It would be difficult to sell the idea to an electorate that lives are worth risking to ‘correct’ another states behaviour. While the UN does have a peacekeeping force, they are limited in their capabilities and they rely on a decision by member states to authorise its use.
Another factor is that of power. Politics is about power, both on the domestic level and the international level. Both China and Russia commit widespread human rights offences, but no one is suggesting military intervention. These countries are too powerful for that, it would not succeed. Sanctions have had very little effect against either country. It is debatable to what extent these are implemented to stop human rights violations. Especially in the US context with its ongoing trade war with China. A war that is not about human rights, but about waning American power and Chinese power rising.
Looking at R2P in Libya, it is clear that it failed. The UN and NATO selectively applied which pillars it wanted to, specifically only about protecting human rights. While other options were tried in the UN, the recognition of the National Transition Council as the legitimate government in Libya meant that the removal of Gaddafi was the only option for peace to emerge. It is also clear that NATO’s invention in Libya wasn’t motived by human rights. The UK and France were instead motivated by energy interests and migration fears. The humanitarian line was a convenient cover for the true intentions of the invasion. What highlights this more is that Libya now is less stable than it was then.
When NATO fulfilled its role of removing Gaddafi, it quickly left. It did not stay to stabilise the country, showing that the intervention was driven by domestic political factors. Tribal allegiances have flared up, and military groups have not put down their weapons. In 2014 there was a split between the East and West, a civil war which still continues. This shows the complete failure to protect Libyans, the very objective of R2P.
Whilst the notion of R2P is noble, it is hard to enforce. The example of Libya shows that those that claim to intervene under R2P, have other motives. R2P is only enforceable upon weaker states. More powerful ones like China and Russia are able to get away with human rights violations without other states invoking R2P. Those states that have tried with sanctions, however, it is not very effective. R2P has failed.
Written by Senior Conservative Writer, Kieran Burt
Point of Information
The failure is state-building, not R2P – A Liberal Response
I fear that whilst looking through a realist lens is always a healthy move when debating international relations, Kieran has applied the blinkers here. My Conservative colleague is overly pessimistic and has failed to take R2P with the pinch of liberal optimism that one has to apply with it.
The fatal flaw in Kieran’s article is his argument that the idea of sovereignty as responsibility is controversial. I struggle to see what about the Universal Declaration of Human Rights ‘is not universal’. The Declaration enshrines the rights and freedoms of all humans. And is the most translated document in history – it doesn’t get much more universal. It isn’t legally binding, but it is so accepted that it has been consistently invoked by countries since it was adopted in 1948. It is one of, if not the most, fundamental norm in modern international politics.
Those who disagreed were countries like Yemen, Saudi Arabia, and the Soviet Union – hardly the flagships of human rights and quality of life. Moreover, the R2P commitment was unanimously approved in 2005 at the World Summit – the largest gathering of heads of state and government in the history of the UN. Those who disagree with R2P are usually those who violate human rights; if a country wants sovereignty, it is internationally accepted that with that comes obligations.
Kieran says that ‘sovereignty is having the power to legally enforce rules on a defined territory’. This just isn’t the case in the international system – sovereignty is much more than power. A state’s right to self-determination and self-governance is conditional on it upholding the human rights of its citizens. R2P cannot challenge state (external) sovereignty as it is applied when a country’s internal sovereignty (i.e. its authority’s ability to protect its citizens and keep the peace) is no longer there.
In most cases of human rights abuses, it is the state authority itself that has committed the abuse and therefore violated this internal sovereignty. A state’s sovereignty is contingent upon its ability to protect the right of human security. If a state does not shield its population from mass atrocity crimes and human rights violations, it loses sovereignty. As former French Prime Minister, Pierre Mendes-France, says, ‘To govern is to choose’. For a government to govern as the sovereign authority, it chooses to be responsible for managing conflict and keeping the peace within its borders.
Kieran also criticises the UN’s reliance on its’ member states for authority. He argues that as the UN doesn’t have its own military, it cannot impose its will. What would he rather suggest, a blue-helmeted world army? The United Nations is exactly what its’ name suggests – an international group made up of different states that have come together with good political intentions.
Naturally, therefore, UN forces are comprised of soldiers from those member states, and the UN peacekeeping force has to be authorised by member states. They are not an autonomous military power. And there could never be an international force in the way that Kieran seems to suggest the UN would need to intervene under R2P. His argument that UN member states will base their decision on political factors also falls short. Of course, politics is involved, because the UN is, after all, a political organisation. Not all politics is bad, as Kieran would have you believe. Any decision made on the world stage will be inherently based on political factors, why would this be any different? Human rights are political. Yes, states will act in their own interest. But that doesn’t mean they can’t also protect human rights and ultimately human lives.
What baffles me, even more, is Kieran’s claim that ‘It would be difficult to sell the idea to an electorate that lives are worth risking to ‘correct’ another state’s behaviour’. What is difficult to explain about using military force to safeguard groups in danger and prevent mass atrocities, genocide and human rights violations? Whilst the incumbent President of the United States may have taken a more isolationist approach, for the last few decades the US has prided itself on being the flag-bearer of liberalism and, in a way, the world’s police force. Any other western democracy or well-principled state would also agree that protecting human rights and saving lives is something they should try their utmost to do. ‘Correcting’ another state’s behaviour means ensuring that universal human rights are protected.
Moving onto Libya, I will concede that intervention in the long-run has caused problems. But what Kieran seems to gloss over is that Muammar Gaddafi was a brutal dictator. He led an authoritarian regime that violated human rights and financed global terrorism operations. The police state that Gaddafi created frequently and horribly violated human rights. Kieran says that NATO’s intervention was politically motivated, but as I said before these things will always be so. The important thing is that Gaddafi was stopped and his regime brought down. In this sense, R2P succeeded.
The problems that Kieran associates with R2P are a part of state-building, not protecting human rights. Libya was the first time the UN had cited and enacted R2P to authorise military intervention, so it was bound to have issues that needed to be worked out. Libya is, as Kieran states, less stable now than it was then. The UN and NATO should have done much more to stabilise the country and bring about democracy and liberalisation. But, it is no longer suffering from Gaddafi’s dictatorship.
The failure here was, as I mentioned, state-building not R2P. As the UN states, ‘Libya proved that protective interventions must be informed by the understanding that with deeper engagement comes greater responsibility’. This was learnt the hard way in Libya, but it was a lesson learnt well. Looking to the future, preventing dictatorships like Gaddafi’s from ever being in a position to violate human rights in the first place is the goal. This being said, there will never be a world free from intervention.
Written by Senior Liberal Writer, Fergus Harris
Power games or a human rights issue? – A Labour Response
I would have to agree with Kieran to an extent – Responsibility to Protect has not always been successful. Then again, international involvement more broadly rarely improves crises.
The assertion that power is a political game is one that I would agree with also. You would be looking for a long time if you wanted to find a political act that is inherently selfless. And it is the lack of a global government that contributes to making this power game very difficult to referee.
Now the debate around global governance is extremely complex so, for simplicity’s sake, I am not arguing either way here. However, I will acknowledge that the lack of such is one reason why states can get away with pushing their own national interests, as Kieran says. Ultimately, this ‘every state for themselves’ play makes it particularly onerous for R2P and international involvement to succeed.
So there are obvious problems here and Kieran does well to acknowledge these – most of which I agree upon. However, my agreeance stops when it comes to his human rights arguments. I can agree that there is no universally agreed list of moral or right actions because humans could never wholly agree. But human rights themselves are ultimately universal, or at least they should be. Regardless of faith, class, nationality, etc, they are fundamental rights that should exist just because someone is a human being. What is not universal about that?
Power games aside then, I am optimistic that there is almost always an intention to protect human rights in these nations. It is when this ceases to exist and all that remains is the power game that this becomes a major problem. Then, R2P has failed.
Written by Co-Chief Labour Writer, Abi Clargo
I’m Abi! I am a liberal, political enthusiast from the Welsh valleys. Since I was young, I have been captivated by politics. I used to spend so much time watching the morning news before school, and have paid close attention to political campaigns for as long as I can remember. It was a lot later that I decided I wanted to pursue politics academically. Now, I have just finished my second year studying Politics and International Relations at the University of Exeter.
I am a second year student reading History and International Relations at the University of Exeter. After my degree, I am hoping to do a Journalism MA.
Hello, my name is Kieran Burt and I am going into second year at Nottingham Trent University studying Politics and International Relations. I first developed an interest in politics through reading the Dictator’s Handbook by Alastair Smith and Bruce Bueno de Mesquita, when I was 16, and have furthered my interest by studying politics at A level and now at university.