Is the responsibility to protect doctrine hot air?

In 2005 when the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) doctrine was ratified by world leaders at the World Summit...

In 2005 when the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) doctrine was ratified by world leaders at the World Summit, it was a welcome development to prevent future Rwandas and Kosovos and, essentially a paradigm shift from state centrism to individuals. According to the former Australian Prime minister, the emergence of the R2P doctrine brought us much closer to “ending mass atrocity crimes once and for all.”[i] Though a few countries like Cuba and Venezuela were skeptical that the doctrine will be used as an imperialistic tool of the West against the South, the doctrine was hailed in several quarters as progress. Has this been the case, however? Many scholars seem to challenge the notion that the R2P doctrine has lived up to the idea behind its emergence. This is because, in the articulation of the doctrine, states interests preside over atrocity crimes unfortunately. 

 Michael Barnett in his article, The UN Security Council, Indifference, and Genocide in Rwanda (1997) gives us an idea of how interventions are weighed over a cost benefit approach such that, national interest is the unit of analysis. As such, debates at the UN Security Council show tension between first state interests and obligations to the international community. [ii] Therefore, intervention in Rwanda was not beneficial to the major powers that they did not deem it fit to intervene. Barnett [iii] went on to state that the relevant state interest required to sacrifice or deploy troops was not present in the Rwanda case. State interest in terms of intervention trumps international obligations and Rwanda was one of obligation and not state interest. [iv]

 While it is easy to argue that this was prior to the emergence of R2P and with R2P, there is a shift and commitment to make the world safer, an analysis of post Rwandan conflicts and R2P reveal that R2P has not necessarily made the world safer. In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the R2P doctrine though applied, did not prevent mass atrocities because it failed to tackle the root causes of the conflict despite the intervention being heavily funded. [v] And, one of the main drivers of conflict identified in the Great Lakes Region is the exploitation of natural resources, [vi] in which Western actors are complicit reinforcing the argument that R2P is a Western learning tool for “primitive”and “backward”people. Major countries like China and Russia have been complicit in atrocity crimes with little regards for human rights. The US is complicit in Saudi reign of terror in Yemen with little consequences. Considering these incidents, the R2P doctrine just like the human rights and justice cascade is a Western imperialistic learning concept for “backward”peoples[vii] to save them from themselves [viii].

 While the emergence of the doctrine was ambitious, it has not done much to save imperiled people. It is unfortunately tinted by political considerations and a cost benefit approach. For instance, Myanmar’s treatment of its Rohingya population has triggered an international humanitarian crisis and is well documented but, because of strategic interests of China and Russia in Myanmar, there has not been an intervention. National interests trump intervention. A sad reality in the era of R2P. 



 [i] Reiff, David. 2018. “The End of Human Rights? Learning from the Failure of the Responsibility to Protect and the International Criminal Court.” Foreign Policy.

   [ii]Barnett, Michael. 1997.“The UN Security Council, Indifference, and Genocide in Rwanda.” Cultural Anthropology 12(4) 571

   [iii] ibid

   [iv] Ibid,572

   [v]  Autesserre, Severeine. 2016. “The responsibility to protect in congo: the failure of grassroots prevention.” International Peacekeeping 23(1),29-51

  [vi] Capicotto, Samantha and  Rob Scharf. 2018. “National Mechanisms for the Prevention of Atrocity Crimes,” Genocide Studies and Prevention 11(3)6-19

   [vii]Donnelly, Jack and  Daniel J. Whelan. 2018. “International Human Rights,”5th Ed. New York: West View Press

     [viii] Mutua, Makau. 2001.”Savages, Victims, and Saviors: The Metaphor of Human Rights,” Harvard International Law Journal 42(1) 201-246