School of Politics and International Studies

Responsibility to Protect Student Journal

A Norm-in-Formation? An Analysis of Brazil and China’s Normative Engagement with the Responsibility to Protect

Joseph Jegat, University of Leeds, United Kingdom

Joseph graduated from the University of Leeds in 2016.

The question of whether the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) is an established norm in international relations has been the subject of much academic debate in recent years. This paper will argue that R2P is best described not as a fully established norm, but as a ‘norm-in-formation’ (Negron-Gonzalez and Contarino, 2014). It reaches this conclusion based on three assessments of R2P. First, R2P is a complex norm with a contested nature, which prevents it from being fully internalised by states. Second, contestation surrounding R2P’s Pillar III can actually help to consolidate and further establish the norm rather than weaken it. Third, Brazil and China are engaging with R2P in a way that contributes to its normative formation and establishment in international relations.

This article will be split into three sections. The first section will analyse the complex nature of the R2P norm and will show that contestation is both a normal and beneficial part of R2P’s global diffusion. The second section will assess the ways in which Brazil and China have contributed to the continued normative formation of R2P through their respective concepts of ‘Responsibility while Protecting’ and ‘Responsible Protection’. The third section will offer conclusive remarks.

R2P: A Complex and Contested Norm

Norms in the discipline of International Relations can describe two things. First, they can describe existing social realities, or how the world is. Second, they can describe an aspiration, providing a framework for how the world ought to be (Ralph and Souter, 2015, p.68). As a normative aspiration, R2P is clear. There exists shared expectation that states have a responsibility to protect their populations, and that if they fail to do so, then the international community should help to protect these populations. This basic premise of R2P was unanimously adopted in 2005 and outlined in paragraphs 138 – 140 of the World Summit Outcome Document (UNGA, 2005). Whether R2P is an existing social reality, however, is less clear, and will be the focus of this essay.

R2P is best described as a ‘complex norm’ (Welsh, 2013), as it contains at least two norms, concerning both the responsibility of individual states and of the international community (Bellamy, 2014, p.22). The responsibility of states to protect their populations from genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing (Pillar I) is now a universally accepted norm embedded in international law. Pillar I has a high degree of what Jeffrey Legro (1997) terms ‘specificity’, meaning that it is clear and unambiguous, increasing the ‘compliance-pull’ of the norm (Franck, 1990, in Bellamy, 2014, p.7). The higher the specificity of a norm, the less open it is to contestation, which goes some way to explaining why Pillar I can be considered a fully consolidated norm in the discipline of International Relations. Pillar III (international intervention) on the other hand, and to a lesser extent Pillar II (international assistance), is much less universally accepted, partly because it lacks specificity, leaving it open to subjective interpretation.

The complex and sometimes ambiguous nature of R2P makes it especially vulnerable to criticism (Deitelhoff and Zimmermann, 2013; Garwood-Gowers, 2015). Pillar III in particular lacks conceptual clarity – highlighted, for example, by the lack of a threshold criteria for when international intervention becomes necessary and legitimate. For sceptics such as Aidan Hehir, the lack of clarity regarding intervention ‘influences the extent to which R2P can be deemed to constitute a “norm”’ (2013, p.151). Furthermore, Hehir (2013) argues that R2P had little, if any, influence over the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) decision to militarily intervene in Libya in 2011. Hehir’s criticisms highlight the fact that Pillar III remains highly contested, which prevents R2P as a whole from being considered fully established in International Relations.

Focusing solely on Pillar III, however, ignores the normative consolidation of both Pillars I and II. Although the 2011 Libyan intervention has somewhat stalled Pillar III progression, Pillar II has enjoyed widespread – although not absolute – support from states and has been the primary focus of the United Nations (UN) Special Adviser on the Responsibility to Protect since 2013 (Gallagher, 2015, p.1259). R2P has much more to it than just international military intervention. Perhaps paradoxically though, Pillar III contestation may help to further consolidate R2P in the long term.

Early Constructivist research on norms assumed that the ‘norm life cycle’ was a linear process, whereby norms emerge, cascade and become internalised in a progressive manner (Finnemore and Sikkink, 1998), with a general assumption that once norms had become internalised they were set in stone. More recent work has shown, however, that norms remain contested even after states have internalised them. Norms are of an ‘inherently contested quality’ (Wiener and Puetter, 2009, p.7) better understood as dynamic ‘processes’ subject to ongoing dispute rather than ‘things’ as such (Krook and True, 2010). Norm contestation is, in fact, a regular feature of a norm’s life, which is not necessarily synonymous with normative regression (Hofmann, 2015; Garwood-Gowers, 2015).

If anything, contestation can actually help to clarify and reinforce a ‘norm-in-formation’. Cristina Badescu and Thomas Weiss (2010) find that misapplication of R2P has helped to consolidate the norm by clarifying the boundaries of the concept. For example, former French Foreign Minister Bernard Koucher’s attempts to invoke R2P after 2008 Cyclone Nargis in Burma helped clarify that R2P was applicable only to the four crimes (genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing) and not for humanitarian assistance following natural disasters (Badescu and Weiss, 2010, p.362).

Following this logic, the fallout over NATO’s perceived misuse of R2P during the 2011 Libya intervention may help to clarify the boundaries of Pillar III military intervention. UN Resolution 1973 explicitly stated that authorisation had been granted for NATO to ‘take all necessary measures…to protect civilians and civilian populated areas under threat of attack’ (emphasis added, UNSC, 2011, p.3). It did not authorise regime change, which led to widespread criticism that NATO had overstepped its mandate and used R2P to mask a Western led liberal intervention with the ultimate goal of democratisation. Although NATO’s military actions have led to significant backlash against Pillar III (Garwood-Gowers, 2015, p.320) – as is all too visible in the UNSC stalemate over Syria – in the long term, the lessons learnt from the misuse of Pillar III in Libya may help to clarify the boundaries of Pillar III military action which will help make the norm more legitimate and applicable in the future (Acharya, 2013).

Post-2011 Pillar III contestation has been of what Nicole Deitelhoff and Lisbeth Zimmermann (2013) define as ‘applicatory contestation’. Critics of the NATO intervention have taken issue with the way in which R2P’s Pillar III was interpreted and applied in Libya. They have not directed their criticism towards the more fundamental idea that the international community has a responsibility to protect populations when states are incapable or unwilling to do so. According to Deitelhoff and Zimmermann, this type of contestation usually strengthens a norm’s validity by helping to clarify the boundaries of its usage (2013, p.14). The second type of norm contestation is ‘justificatory’, which challenges core values and may lead to normative regression. Although there is some evidence that post-Libya contestation has been of a more challenging ‘justificatory’ nature (Garwood-Gowers, 2015), in general, states accept that international involvement is necessary is certain crises where mass atrocities have been committed (Bellamy, 2014; Evans, 2016). This suggests that the normative values of R2P may be more internalised than many critics assume.

Constructive engagement: Brazil and China

The first part of this essay has argued that R2P is a complex norm, comprising multiple tenets that have been internalised to varying degrees. It has also shown that ‘applicatory contestation’ surrounding Pillar III can assist with conceptual clarification, helping the norm to become further established in the long term. The remainder of this essay will focus on the normative contributions made by Brazil and China, as these illustrate the continued formation of the R2P norm. These states have been selected as both have developed important concepts that aim to shape the trajectory of R2P’s advancement. Firstly, however, it is necessary to briefly explore the theoretical ways in which states can influence the development of a norm.

Norm diffusion describes the process by which global norms come to be accepted at the local level. This dynamic and active process is characterised by argumentation at the domestic and international level, which can both advance and restrain normative development (Kenkel and De Rosa, 2015). States engage with this process in a bid to act as ‘norm makers’ rather than ‘norm takers’. Emerging powers such as Brazil and China are particularly keen to be viewed as norm makers – and especially do not want to be viewed as norm takers – as it may help them attain the status of global powers (Kenkel and De Rosa, 2015; Prantl and Nakano, 2011). How states engage with norm diffusion, however, depends, for example, on factors such as compatibility of the global norm with pre-existing local norms (Brosig and Zahringer, 2015, p.352).

For Amitav Acharya, norm creation and diffusion is a two way process best defined as ‘norm circulation’, which combines Acharya’s earlier work on ‘localization’ and ‘subsidiarity’.

[G]lobal norms offered by transnational moral actors are contested and localized to fit the cognitive priors of local actors (localization), while this local feedback is repatriated back to the wider global context along with other locally constructed norms and help to modify and possibly defend and strengthen the global norm in question (subsidiarity) (2013, p.469).

Similarly, Jochen Prantl and Ryoko Nakano (2011) argue that norm diffusion is best described not as a top down linear process but as a ‘feedback loop’, whereby states attempt to alter the properties of a norm to fit their own strategic interests. The concepts of norm circulation and norm feedback highlight the dynamic nature of norm diffusion, and show that states can play important roles in shaping the trajectory of a ‘norm-in-formation’.

Brazilian and Chinese engagement with R2P fits within this theoretical framework. These emerging powers have simultaneously embraced and contested different parts of the norm according to pre-existing local norms, and have then attempted to modify R2P in order to accommodate this feedback. Their clearest attempts at shaping the norm have been in the form of Brazil’s Responsibility while Protecting (RwP) and China’s Responsible Protection concepts. Although both states embrace the central principles of R2P, they have taken issue with the way Pillar III was implemented by NATO in Libya (Kenkel and De Rosa, 2015; Negron-Gonzalez and Contarino, 2014). In China especially, there has been great difficulty in reconciling Pillar III intervention with local norms such as a longstanding and deeply rooted commitment to non-interference and the inviolability of sovereignty (Prantl and Nakano, 2011).

Although Brazil is also bound to the idea of non-interference, South American states’ experiences of military dictatorships have led to a strong normative commitment to human rights (Welsh et al, 2013). RwP, therefore, is aimed at improving the implementation of Pillar III action. It does not undermine the principles of R2P. Brazil’s RwP concept argues for the need to have more specific criteria for authorising military intervention, as existing provisions in the 2005 World Summit Outcome Document are too vague (Tourihno et al, 2016). Similarly, China’s Responsible Protection builds on the ideas of RwP and the original International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty report ‘The Responsibility to Protect’ (2001), and outlines a stricter criteria for Pillar III military intervention. Responsible Protection stresses that any intervention must not negatively affect regional peace and stability, must not be interpreted to equate to regime change, and must not cause greater harm than already exists (Garwood-Gowers, 2016, p.103).

Brazil’s capacity to follow up RwP with concrete proposals for moving forward has been very limited (Welsh et al, 2013), and China’s Responsible Protection is not even official government policy (Garwood-Gowers, 2016). Despite these setbacks, Brazilian and Chinese engagement with R2P is of the utmost importance for the further development of R2P as a norm. These concepts have helped open up the debate on Pillar III intervention (Tourihno et al, 2016), and have highlighted the importance of getting non-Western emerging powers on board with R2P. RwP and Responsible Protection are forms of feedback which shape ‘norm circulation’ (Acharya, 2013), and hold great potential for progressing R2P in the aftermath of Libya. If states perceive themselves as ‘norm shapers’, they are much more likely to embrace and internalise said norm.

As Ramesh Thakur (2016) has argued, there should be a focus on improving the implementation of R2P to safeguard the norm from abuse and failure. This is exactly what RwP and Responsible Protection set out to do, by contesting Pillar III in an ‘applicatory’ manner which could help to clarify the boundaries of the norm, potentially bringing UNSC permanent 5 members Russia and China back on board (Evans, 2016). The willingness of emerging powers to engage with norm entrepreneurship is a positive sign, as the legitimacy of R2P is dependent upon acceptance by non-Western states (Garwood-Gowers, 2016). Long term consolidation of R2P requires a certain degree of consensus over Pillar III actions (Negron-Gonzalez and Contarino, 2014, p.270), and at present, the concepts offered by Brazil and China offer the most promising way forward.


This article has argued that R2P is best described not as a fully established norm, but as a ‘norm-in-formation’ (Negron-Gonzalez and Contarino, 2014). That is because R2P is a complex norm, combining multiple tenets that receive varying degrees of international support. Pillar I has become universally established and is enshrined in international law. Pillar III, on the other hand, is subjective and ambiguous, leaving it vulnerable to interpretation and contestation. Contestation, paradoxically, can aid with conceptual clarification, which will make the norm less vulnerable in the long term. In this way, post-Libya contestation may help to consolidate and further establish Pillar III, increasing the likelihood of state internalisation the R2P norm fully.

Furthermore, this article showed that through a process of feedback and circulation, Brazil and China have made valuable contributions to the continued normative formation of R2P. The RwP and RP concepts have raised important questions that must be addressed if R2P is to continue developing into its second decade. Assessing the point at which R2P can be considered an established norm poses difficulties by itself. Norms do not have a clear endpoint. They continue to evolve for as long as the norm is referred to and acted upon (Brosig and Zahringer, 2015, p.354). It is not within the scope of this essay to assess the theoretical point at which R2P may be considered fully established, but a step in that direction requires widespread consensus and internalisation of Pillar III. At present, this requires constructive engagement with non-Western concepts such as Brazil’s RwP and China’s Responsible Protection.



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