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The Responsibility to Protect after Libya – dead, dying or thriving?

Maggie Powers
24 June 2014

The UN Security Council has once again failed to protect the people of Syria from mass atrocities with Russia and China wielding another double veto on May 22 (to block a resolution that would have referred the situation in Syria to the International Criminal Court). But does this mean the doctrine of Responsibility to Protect (R2P), intended as a political and policy tool to halt mass atrocities, has also failed?

Intense backlash against R2P emerged in the wake of the 2011 NATO intervention in Libya and the failure of the international community to respond adequately to the horrors in Syria. But how significant is that backlash? An analysis of Security Council records reveals that, far from dying with Libya or Syria as some would have expected, R2P policies continue to be invoked and implemented by the Council.

Empirical text analysis of all Security Council resolutions, presidential statements, and open meeting records from September 14, 2005 through February 28, 2014 reveals four trends in the frequency of R2P use, and all point to the norm’s continued utilization and entrenchment.

The analysis tracks the frequency of explicit references to the “responsibility to protect” (and equivalent phrases, e.g. “responsibility of government X to protect”) and categorizes those references as affirmative, negative, neutral or other, as well as by pillar of R2P referenced. These three pillars being: (i) the primary duty of the state concerned to prevent or halt atrocities; (ii) the responsibility of other states and the international community to assist in this effort; and (iii) where a state fails to prevent or halt mass atrocities, the responsibility of other states and the international community to act collectively, including with force if necessary.

The results reveal that the debate surrounding R2P has shifted. It is no longer a question of whether the international community has a responsibility in the face of atrocities; it is a question of what the best, most impactful solutions are to address a situation. Each of the four trends will be discussed in turn.

First, references to R2P in Security Council documents have significantly increased since the adoption of Resolution 1973 authorizing NATO intervention in Libya. From 2005 to Resolution 1973 (adopted March 17, 2011), there were only six Security Council resolutions that referenced R2P. From March 18, 2011 through February 2014, R2P was referenced in 15 resolutions and 11 presidential statements – more than four times the number of pre-Libya references. Since Libya, R2P has been invoked by the Council to address the situations in Cote d’Ivoire, Sudan, South Sudan, Yemen, Libya (again), the Lord’s Resistance Army affected areas of Central Africa, Mali, Somalia, Syria, and the Central African Republic.

Contrary to the popular conception that the Security Council avoids R2P because of its perceived toxicity, the empirical record reveals a strong and growing acceptance of R2P language.

Second, affirmations of R2P by states in the Security Council have increased while the number of states rejecting R2P has decreased. Since Libya, only five states have made explicitly negative remarks about R2P to the Council: Nicaragua, Sudan, Syria, Russia, and Venezuela. Two of the heads of state in that group stand personally accused of war crimes and crimes against humanity, and only Russia holds significant geo-political power. In contrast, 79 states have made a combined 248 affirmative references to R2P since Libya. These references range from uncontroversially affirming pillar one, that a state has the primary responsibility to protect its population from mass atrocities, to specifically confronting another state for its failure to prevent or address a situation of mass atrocities. The number and voracity of negative statements on R2P has not increased despite the Libya backlash and the failure to overcome Russian intransigence on the issue of Syria. States have instead focused discussion on implementation and what policies are best to actively prevent and halt mass atrocities. 

Third, and unsurprisingly, the primary responsibility to protect is now widely accepted by member states. Pillar one is so widely accepted that no states question the principle. Even staunch R2P rejectionists, including Syria and Sudan, are now co-opting pillar one R2P language to legitimize their own policies and actions. While this is a misuse of R2P, it reveals the strong currency and legitimacy the doctrine now holds.

Fourth, and perhaps most telling, R2P continues to move from words to deeds even in the most troubling of cases. In the Central African Republic (CAR) the Security Council has authorized African Union, French, and now UN forces to use all means necessary to protect civilians from mass atrocities and assist the state in meeting its responsibility to protect. Those forces are still struggling to address the situation, but the international community is actively working to uphold its responsibility and help the authorities in CAR to prevent further killings and violence.  In Mali the Security Council utilized pillar two R2P language and authorized UN peacekeepers to support the Malian authorities in meeting their primary responsibility. In Syria, and in spite of the obstructionism of Russia, the Council has still utilized R2P language even though it has been unable to adopt more robust policies. Finally, in the September 2013 resolution on small arms the Security Council reaffirmed the entire R2P framework outlined in paragraphs 138 and 139 of the 2005 World Summit Document – which includes the possibility of coercive use of military force against a state – for the first time since Libya.

The international community may not yet meet its obligation to ‘never again’ stand idly by in the face of mass atrocities, but states are actively invoking and strengthening their response mechanisms and, hopefully, paving the way for improved, rapid, and appropriate prevention and reaction in the future.

R2P is not dead. If anything, the debates and concern following the intervention in Libya and the shock to our common humanity from the ongoing crisis in Syria have deepened and expanded the normative internalization of the doctrine. What remains is moving that rhetorical commitment from words to deeds and using the moral and political legitimacy of R2P to implement smart, effective policies to prevent and put a stop to mass atrocities.  

For a copy of the full paper detailing this research contact mmp2185@columbia.edu

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