By Blake Lawrinson
Blake Lawrinson is a PhD researcher in the School of Politics and International Studies at the University of Leeds. His thesis examines the changes and continuities in the UK’s commitment to human protection from mass violence and atrocity crimes (1997-2020). His research is funded by a Leeds Doctoral Scholarship (2017-2020).
Book Review: “Responsibility to Protect and the Failures of the United Nations Security Council” by Patrick M. Butchard. Oxford: Hart. 2020. 308pp. ISBN: 9781509930814.
In the event of UN Security Council deadlock and paralysis, should we simply give up on implementing the responsibility to protect (R2P) populations from atrocity crimes? The UN Security Council’s response to the crisis in Syria (2011-) encapsulates this dilemma having failed to establish common ground on action after almost a decade of conflict. In Responsibility to Protect and the Failures of the United Nations Security Council, Patrick Butchard argues that R2P implementation does not end with such UN Security Council failure, but rather that this legal responsibility can transfer to other actors through a ‘tertiary responsibility to protect’ (pp.3-4).
This argument is constructed through a comprehensive analysis of the legality of alternative forms of forcible and non-forcible coercive measures beyond the UN Security Council. This is achieved by first, addressing the historical context and establishing the legal framework for the tertiary R2P (chapters 1-3); and second, examining the legality of forcible and non-forcible coercive measures and their implementation by other actors (chapters 4-6). According to the author, Article 2(4) of the UN Charter on the prohibition of the threat or use of force and Article 2(7) on non-intervention in the domestic affairs of a state are fundamental to locating the existing legal debates on intervention through the UN Security Council. Pre-R2P, debates focused on the legality of unilateral humanitarian intervention, which was witnessed more notably during the 1999 NATO-led action in Kosovo. The author is quick to debunk this ‘myth of humanitarian intervention’ (p.7), given the lack of support in both state practice and opinion juris (p.28). With unilateral humanitarian intervention failing to provide a credible legal avenue for protecting populations from atrocity crimes, focus then shifted to a reconfiguration of sovereignty as a responsibility through the R2P.
The author suggests that R2P has two core responsibilities contained in paragraphs 138 and 139 of the 2005 World Summit Outcome Document. The first relates to a state’s primary responsibility to protect its population from the four crimes of genocide: war crimes, crimes against humanity, and ethnic cleansing, and the international community’s responsibility to assist a state in preventing these crimes (pillars I and, respectively, pillar II). The second concerns the responsibility to take ‘timely decisive action’ through the UN Security Council to protect populations from these four crimes (pillar III) (p.3). But what happens when the UN Security Council fails to take such timely and decisive action? Does R2P simply end with UN Security Council inaction? According to the author, just because the UN Security Council fails this does not necessarily rule out legal R2P action from other actors as ‘there is no reason why it should not continue’ (p.4, emphasis in original). Such action beyond the UN Security Council thus constitutes a third responsibility in the form of the tertiary R2P.
Given that legal responsibility for the implementation of forcible and coercive measures under the R2P lies first and foremost with the UN Security Council, the first step in acting beyond this requires a connection between R2P and maintaining international peace and security (p.55). This is essential given that the R2P is not a legal doctrine, whilst maintaining international peace and security ‘is enshrined in international law – in the UN Charter – and brings with it the force of a duty, and not just an aspiration, to do something’ (p.266). Crucially, the author argues that the UN Security Council ‘does have a legal obligation to maintain international peace and security and, by extension, to protect populations from atrocity crimes covered by the R2P framework’ (p.84, emphasis added). This is a particularly convincing argument, since it establishes a potential legal avenue for actors to implement the R2P when the UN Security Council has failed (p.55). The only potential drawback in this instance is that this legal action would require actors to make a connection between R2P and maintaining international peace and security.
By establishing that there is a legal opportunity for the implementation of a tertiary R2P when (1) respecting the territorial integrity and political independence of a state; and (2) ‘it is consistent with the purposes of the United Nations’ under Article 2(4) (p.124), the author shifts the focus to considering the legal implementation of non-forcible coercive measures. This centres largely on the ‘doctrine of countermeasures’ when the state in question has committed atrocity crimes (p.125). Legal countermeasures may include economic sanctions as witnessed in the case of Russia following the annexation of Crimea in 2014, and in Myanmar in 2017 following the outbreak of mass atrocities (pp.172-178). An obvious limitation here, and one rightly acknowledged by the author, is that such legal countermeasures are only available after a state commits such acts. Moreover, since such actions do not involve direct forcible action, it is difficult to envisage whether this would help to directly prevent mass atrocities in the same way as timely and decisive action through the UN Security Council.
The real crux of the argument is addressed in the final chapter on the those responsible for implementing forcible and non-forcible coercive measures through the tertiary R2P. Two actors in particular are identified as having both the legal competence and capability for implementation. The first is the General Assembly, which has the power to implement the tertiary R2P through recommending the use of force. Such powers of recommendation are captured by the Uniting for Peace Resolution (1950), the use of which has been widely debated (Carswell, 2013; Kenny, 2016; Melling and Dennett, 2018; Nahlawi, 2019). However, there are three important qualifications on this power. First, this has to remain consistent with the principles outlined in Article 2(4) of the UN Charter; second, the General Assembly can only implement the R2P through establishing its relationship with the maintenance of international peace and security; third, any such recommendation requires a two-thirds majority in the General Assembly (p.230). Whilst acknowledging that the General Assembly ‘provides the best institutional legitimacy for such action’ (p.264), commanding the necessary political will and consensus are significant barriers to the implementation of the tertiary R2P through the General Assembly.
That said, the General Assembly does have the potential to implement non-forcible coercive measures, such as sanctions, by drawing on the doctrine of countermeasures. This again, however, is guided and limited by existing international law. Regional organisations, recognised in Chapter VIII of the UN Charter, are the second actor with the legal competence to implement the tertiary R2P. Whilst legal forcible measures without prior UN approval would be illegal, the author finds room through the doctrine of countermeasures, which ‘provides a further legal basis for collective action’ (p.240). Again, however, the use of such measures requires consensus and political will from regional organisations to bypass the UN Security Council. This in turn has the potential to act as a major impediment to implementing the tertiary R2P.
The author openly acknowledges that the book ‘has not sought to offer simple solutions to complex problems’ (p.265). The author convincingly argues that there is in fact legal space to implement a tertiary R2P amid UN Security Council deadlock and paralysis. This is by no means an easy task, and to the author’s credit, they do not shy away from this. Rather, they provide an original contribution to contemporary debates on the implementation of the R2P in the context of UN Security Council politics. The real strength of the argument is how it does not simply cover the same ground as existing debates, such as the wealth of literature on the responsibility not to veto (Gifkins, 2012; Webb, 2014; Essawy, 2020), but attempts to set out a new trajectory for R2P implementation in the face of the same deadlock and paralysis witnessed more recently on Syria. Notably, the author recognises from the outset the importance of legality and draws on a wealth of knowledge of international law and the R2P to provide a comprehensive, and convincing, account on the alternatives to R2P action beyond the UN Security Council.
The real appeal of the book is how the author is able to summarise and apply detailed legal debates to practice on R2P. Whilst the author acknowledges their ‘disappointment’ that such a book is required given that ‘the body tasked with maintaining international peace and security too often fails to uphold its responsibilities’ (p.265), they do justice to the topic through providing a foundation for considering the legality of R2P action beyond the UN Security Council. This is an original account of such an important issue in the field and should be key reading for students, academics, and practitioners across the spectrum hoping to continue an exploration of legal alternatives for R2P implementation in the face of UN Security Council failure.
Carswell, A.J. (2013) ‘Unblocking the UN Security Council: The Uniting for Peace Resolution’, Journal of Conflict and Security Law, 18(3), pp.453-480.
Essawy, R.M. (2020) ‘The Responsibility Not to Veto Revisited under the Theory of ‘Consequential Jus Cogens’, Global Responsibility to Protect, Advanced Access.
Gifkins, J. (2012) ‘The UN Security Council Divided: Syria in Crisis’, Global Responsibility to Protect, 4(3), pp.377-393.
Kenny, C. (2016) ‘Responsibility to recommend: the role of the UN General Assembly in the maintenance of international peace and security’, Journal on the Use of Force and International Law, 3(1), pp.3-36.
Melling, G. and Dennett, A. (2018) ‘The Security Council veto and Syria: responding to mass atrocities through the “Uniting for Peace” resolution’, Indian Journal of International Law. 57(3-4), pp.285-307.
Nahlawi, Y. (2019) ‘Overcoming Russian and Chinese Vetoes on Syria through Uniting for Peace’, Journal of Conflict and Security Law, 24(1), pp.111-143.
Webb, P. (2014) ‘Deadlock or Restraint? The Security Council Veto and the Use of Force in Syria’, Journal of Conflict and Security Law, 19(3), pp.471-488.