School of Politics and International Studies

Responsibility to Protect Student Journal

Challenging the Establishment: A discussion regarding the normative status of the Responsibility to Protect

Nikita Sinclair, University of Leeds, UK

Nikita Sinclair graduated with a BA in Politics and Parliamentary Studies from the University of Leeds in 2016.


Focusing on norms as “an aspiration for a new reality” (Ralph and Souter 2015, p. 68), the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) appears established, as the “normative aspiration” it represents is almost universally accepted (Ralph and Souter 2015, p. 68). Characterised as “a disarmingly simple idea”, R2P aims to embed the notion that “sovereign states have a responsibility to protect their own populations” from the four atrocity crimes of genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing, and crimes against humanity, advocating that this responsibility must be upheld by the international community if a state can or will not fulfil this duty (Bellamy, 2015, p. 2). With widespread support for the 2005 World Summit Outcome Document (WSOD) and continued commitment demonstrated through annual UN General Assembly debates, the suggestion that R2P is an “established ideal” seems robust (Evans, 2016). However, when considering R2P as a norm indicating “an existing social reality” (Ralph and Souter, 2015, p.68), there is far more contestation. Like much of the academic literature (Badescu and Weiss, 2010; Knight, 2011; Negrón-Gonzales and Contarino, 2014; Shawki, 2011), this essay focuses on this second concept. According to Finnemore and Sikkink’s (1998, p. 904) influential Norm Life Cycle theory, an established norm would exhibit third stage internalisation, demonstrated by the habitual adherence of actors. Dominant debates within the literature characterise R2P as an emerging norm between stage one (emergence) and two (cascade) of the Norm Life Cycle, hence suggesting R2P has not yet reached the status of established norm; automatic conformity appears a distant aspiration.

However, this assessment appears impacted by the high expectations placed on R2P, creating an “expectation gap” between idealised prospects and capabilities (Gallagher 2015, pp. 5-6). The tendency to view “applications in practice and examples of compliant behaviour” (Badescu and Weiss 2010, p. 357) as evidence of norm establishment means consistent intervention is seen as testimony for R2P’s consolidation. As suggested by Luck (2010), assessment is dependent on whether we view the spirit of R2P to be “state’s commitment to prevention and protection” or “legitimation of a military response to mass atrocity crimes” (p. 118). If we agree with Luck’s (2010) first statement and suggest “the true essence of R2P is the understanding that sovereignty denotes responsibility rather than licence” (Morris 2015, p. 1283), this may enable us to manage expectations surrounding the concept. Rather than focusing on intervention, it is more appropriate to view R2P as the “responsibility to consider a real or imminent crisis involving mass atrocity crimes” (Welsh 2013, p. 368). Henceforth, this essay will highlight four factors which constitute unrealistic demands, restricting our ability to perceive R2P as an established norm. These include the expectation of linear development, emphasis on consistent application, lacking appreciation of competing international norms, and overconcentration on pillar three. These aspects limit our nuanced consideration, feeding into the unrealistic expectation level. This must be managed to enhance standing, focusing on the potential of Welsh’s (2013) notion of the responsibility to debate action.


Expectation of linear norm development

If we base our assessment on Finnemore and Sikkink’s Norm Life Cycle theory, it seems R2P has not yet reached the third stage of internalisation where norms “achieve a “taken-for-granted” quality that makes conformance with the norm almost automatic” (1998, p.904). This linear model presents norm development as a process where entrepreneurs shape and promote the norm, which is gradually adopted by recipient states (pp.900-901). R2P has engendered a variation of responses; including acceptance, misapplication, localisation and feedback (Negrón-Gonzales and Contarino, 2014, p.259). Following the linear model, this suggests R2P has not yet reached cascade stage, as there is significant contestation indicating the norm is still being shaped (Badescu and Weiss, 2010; Knight, 2011; Shawki, 2011). However, although influential, Finnemore and Sikkink’s (1998) model has since been challenged, as it promotes a “moral cosmopolitanism view of norm diffusion” which fails to explore the crucial role of local actors (Acharya, 2004, p.242). The Norm Life Cycle model appears too simplistic, suggesting dispute signifies a norm must be stuck in stage one. This ignores the notion that “norms are not objective truths, but rather inter-subjectively held beliefs” which continue to be debated and transformed through practice and according to context (Welsh, 2013, p.380). Acharya’s (2013, p.469) “norm circulation” theory provides a more complex explanation, highlighting a “two-way process” of diffusion where global norms are shaped through their localisation and feedback. Norms are not passively adopted by norm-takers, but tailored to fit local needs and contexts (Acharya, 2013, p.467). Hence, assessment based on the Norm Life Cycle model produces an unrealistic expectation for R2P’s development, suggesting it should diffuse in a clear linear fashion until it appears established as an automatic impulse. By adopting this concept, the agency of states is portrayed as evidence that the norm is still developing. Instead, the input of states should be seen as part of a continual process of norm circulation, rather than a boundary to consolidation. Feedback, such as Brazil’s proposal of ‘Responsibility while Protecting’, should not be framed as exemplifying that the norm is still emerging; rather this illustrates Brazil is embracing the core normative value of protecting populations (Negrón-Gonzales and Contarino, 2014, pp.267-268).


Emphasis on consistency

Many within the literature highlight the inconsistent application of R2P as evidence the norm is not internalised (Capie, 2012; Hehir, 2013); it is still reliant on strategic calculations based on national interest and political will. Negrón-Gonzales and Contarino’s (2014, p.262) study demonstrates that for salient states who are likely to be impacted by R2P events, support is primarily influenced by national interest calculations. This can lead to inconsistencies in state responses, with countries such as India displaying a “normative ambivalence”, reflected in its voting record in relation to Libya and Syria (Negrón-Gonzales and Contarino, 2014, pp.264-266). India has held a shifting position on these two cases, initially voting in favour of Resolution 1970 which highlighted Libya’s own responsibility, but abstaining on Resolution 1973 which proposed military intervention (p. 266). Moreover, in response to Syria, India abstained on numerous resolutions before supporting sanctions in July 2012 (p.267). This incongruity could suggest R2P is not yet established, as its application is still impacted by political vested interests.  Furthermore, UN Security Council (UNSC) discussions on invoking R2P obligations can be presented as fuelled by political will, rather than an internalised normative dedication to the concept. For Hehir (2013, p.137), UNSC action in Libya and inertia in Syria demonstrates that R2P does not impact state behaviour; in actuality the UNSC is just continuing with its “record of inconsistency”. Libya exemplifies this, and is “best understood as an instance where humanitarian necessities converged with political will” (Loiselle, 2013, p.341). The support of regional institutions, such as the League of Arab States, was viewed as integral to securing abstaining votes from China and Russia; demonstrating how the political context was a key factor in enabling the passage of Resolution 1973 (Hehir, 2013, p.149). For Hehir (2013, p.137) this is characteristic of the UNSC, with Libya representing a rare instance “of resolve and timely action” which should be accredited to political will, rather than the normative strength of R2P. These inconsistencies promote the argument that compliance has not become automatic, hence R2P cannot be deemed fully established.

However, this evaluation of inconsistency is once again influenced by the great expectations placed on R2P which shroud comprehensive understanding (Gallagher, 2015). In relation to a Pillar III case of military intervention, paragraph 139 of the 2005 WSOD specifically calls for consideration “on a case-by-case basis” and “in a timely and decisive manner, through the Security Council” (United Nations General Assembly, 2005, p.30). This highlights how inconsistency is in-built into R2P; the policy enshrines a commitment to consider all cases on an individual basis, encouraging a cost-benefit analysis to ascertain whether intervention is an appropriate route (Gallagher, 2015, p.13). Therefore, the assertion that R2P is limited by its varying application must be refuted; this only fuels an irrational expectation that a Pillar III response should be invoked immediately when a state fails to prevent one of the four crimes (Gallagher, 2015, p.8). Hence, as inconsistency is embedded in R2P, it should not be seen as measurement for norm consolidation. Irregularity in application should not be problematic, so long as the UNSC demonstrates a coherent approach (Gallagher, 2015, p.13). Arguments made by the likes of Capie (2012, p.83) exemplify this demanding expectation, viewing Vietnam’s position on R2P as highly selective with support for pillar 3 “much more cautious, calling only for the UNSC to review such incidents on a case by case basis”. Vietnam’s position clearly matches the ‘case-by-case’ requirement outlined in the WSOD, yet Capie (2012) characterises this as an example of limited support. This illustrates how a lack of understanding about R2P places high demands on this normative concept, which in fact contradict one of its key components, the case-by-case consideration. If we tackle this misconception, inconsistency may come to signify that R2P is alive; actively influencing UNSC discussion on individual cases, rather than inciting claims of the norm’s demise.


Lacking appreciation of competing international norms

Moreover, the requirement of consistent application fails to appreciate that R2P does not operate in a vacuum, it exists amongst other normative and non-normative considerations which also have a valid impact on states’ behaviour (Welsh, 2013, p.388). It is unreasonable to suggest R2P should be the core motivating factor as it is not the only norm at the table. Morris (2015, p.400) highlights the UNSC’s “special dual responsibility” comprising the “original obligation to preserve international peace and security” with the R2P norm. This has engendered an “acute normative tension” as the Council must weigh up these two duties which are often found in contradiction (Morris, 2015, p.421). UNSC deliberations regarding R2P should be understood in light of this dual tension; rather than exemplifying the lacking normative clout of R2P or inciting claims that the UNSC is merely fuelled by duplicitous political motives (Morris, 2015; Welsh, 2013). Furthermore, since 2005 the debate has not focused on whether the UNSC has the right or responsibility to protect, but rather how to respond; the existence of a responsibility is not disputed (Marlier and Crawford, 2013, p.409; Morris, 2015, p.209). In this sense, the grounding element of R2P appears uncontested in the UNSC; the norm appears established as it continues to engender debate over how to fulfil our responsibility to protect. Still, decisions over how to respond are influenced by a range of factors, from capability to the protection of international order. Promoting an appreciation of this fact may help to temper the unrealistic demands placed on R2P, enabling us to view the consideration of the R2P norm amongst others as evidence of established practice.


Overconcentration on Pillar III

Finally, as Pillar III is deemed most controversial, it has received greatest attention with the aspect of military intervention at the forefront of discussions. This overconcentration on pillar three places intervention at the focal point of assessment, encouraging a reductive analysis of the norm’s development (Shawki, 2011, pp.180-186). This phenomenon is demonstrated by academic discussion of Libya and its impact on Syria which has focused on the current reluctance to support intervention by force, suggesting R2P is “woefully short of forward momentum” post-Libya (Morris, 2013, p.1277). However, the primacy of pillar three was never intended, illustrated by Ban Ki-Moon’s (2009, p.2) assertion that R2P “relies on the equal size, strength and viability of each of its supporting pillars”. Therefore, Pillar III should not be deemed as a more important measure for norm consolidation; greater focus should be placed on the non-coercive pillars to foster more manageable expectations (Shawki, 2011, p.189). It should be clear that “R2P should not be seen narrowly; it is not only about the use of military force and is not a synonym for ‘‘humanitarian intervention”” (Badescu and Weiss, 2010, p.367). What is truly at the root of R2P is a requirement to debate how the norm should be realised in practice (Welsh, 2013, p.387). With a wide range of responses available in the R2P toolbox, it is inappropriate to base our assessment of the norm’s trajectory upon what course of action is followed (Welsh, 2013, p.387). By framing the essence of R2P as a “duty of conduct” (p.387) to identify cases involving the four crimes and consider the range of possible responses, Welsh (2013) may provide a useful antidote for the illogical focus on intervention. By this assertion, R2P could be seen as established so long as the UNSC upholds this “responsibility to consider a real or imminent crisis involving mass atrocity crimes” (Welsh, 2013, p.368). This represents a far more realistic expectation for the norm, rather than promoting ambitious assertions such as Luck’s (2010, p.123) claim that “neither an encouraging debate, a consensus resolution, nor even a summit-level declaration constitutes a consolidated norm”. With extensive R2P measures available, it is irrational to focus on the one tenant of military intervention by force; this restricts our understanding of R2P’s broader implications. As the debate and discussion of implementing R2P is an aspect which is relevant for all R2P-defined cases, this is a sensible indicator to assess its robust nature. Therefore, by focusing on R2P as a “duty of conduct” rather than a norm of intervention, we may reach the assessment of ‘established norm’ (Welsh, 2013, p.387).



The idealist aspirations underpinning R2P may appear as universal and established. However, when assessing R2P as “an existing social reality” (Ralph and Souter, 2015, p.68), there is a larger debate to unpack. Following Finnemore and Sikkink’s (1998) Norm Life Cycle model, R2P would most likely be classified between emergence and cascade, disputing the claim it is established. However, this assessment seems impacted by the tendency to “demand too much” from the R2P concept, with a slightly hyperbolic “birth/death narrative” used to mark the norm’s perceived rise or demise (Gallagher, 2015, pp.255-256). Hence, this essay has explored four key areas where unrealistic expectations of R2P must be managed, in order to uphold its position as a consolidated norm. Firstly, the Norm Life Cycle model promotes an unachievable expectance for linear norm diffusion, which does not show an appreciation for more contemporary models of norm circulation (Acharya, 2004; 2013). Secondly, the tendency to discredit R2P based on inconsistency is tackled, demonstrating how inconsistency is in fact a requirement and hence should not be used as criticism. Moreover, this condition for consistency fails to appreciate how other global norms conflict with R2P; it does not operate in a vacuum and so constant application may not be possible. Finally, the preoccupation with pillar three is cited as another damaging expectation; R2P includes an extensive list of possible actions and assessment should not be based on the most controversial of these. By engaging with these four arguments, this essay attempts to reign in the overwhelming standards placed on R2P, potentially enabling the norm to be viewed as established. Ultimately, to uphold this perception, we must adopt a more rational and appropriate assessment such as that proposed by Welsh (2013), which suggests debate and discussion on R2P should be seen as indication that the norm is intrinsically shaping behaviour.



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