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'Responsibility while protecting': are we asking the wrong questions?

The Brazilian-proposed concept of 'responsibility while protecting' (RWP) has polarized opinion on how the international community should respond when civilian populations are targeted. RWP's supporters claim it would make civilian protection interventions, especially military ones, more accountable and proportionate and rein in perceived misuse of the internationally accepted 'responsibility to protect' (R2P). Some of RWP's opponents see it as a deliberate ploy by states aligned with China and Russia to impede intervention. In reality, this debate is a distraction from less comfortable truths about R2P.

Brazil’s United Nations delegation presented a concept note proposing RWP to the UN Security Council in November 2011, days after the end of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) operation in Libya and the killing of Libya’s former president, Muammar Gaddafi. The Brazilians argued that the Libya mission demonstrated a need for clarity over R2P. For the Brazilians, the mission had gone far beyond its R2P-based Security Council mandate and was in fact more about ousting the Gaddafi regime than protecting civilians—a view also voiced by several other emerging powers, notably India and South Africa. NATO, in contrast, saw the Libya mission as a success—a quick, decisive intervention that eliminated a major threat to civilians, well within the parameters of R2P.

R2P, adopted by the UN General Assembly in 2005, redefines the scope of national and international responsibility towards civilians, dividing responsibility for protection of populations from genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity, and ethnic cleansing (mass atrocity crimes) into three ‘pillars’. The first is a state’s primary responsibility for protecting its population against such crimes. The second is the international community’s responsibility to assist the state in doing so. The third is the responsibility of the international community to use ‘appropriate diplomatic, humanitarian, and other peaceful means’ to help protect the population if the state fails to do so (or, indeed, if it actually perpetrates the atrocity), with collective use of force under UN Security Council mandate as a last resort. At the heart of R2P is the notion that a state’s sovereignty is conditional on its behaviour towards its population.


From the ‘responsibility to protect’ to ‘responsibility while protecting’

One of the most contentious aspects of the original RWP note is the idea that the three pillars of R2P ‘must follow a strict line of political subordination and chronological sequencing’. Before military action is taken, all possible diplomatic solutions must be pursued and exhausted and a ‘comprehensive and judicious analysis of the possible consequences’ carried out. Where R2P allows flexibility, these requirements of RWP would inevitably delay action—incompatible with the idea of stopping an imminent or ongoing mass atrocity.

While R2P emphasizes the limits of state sovereignty, RWP reimposes limits on the international community’s ability to override sovereignty in order to protect populations. RWP even back-pedals on R2P’s fundamental principle of a collective responsibility to protect populations by any means necessary, stipulating that situations must be ‘characterized as a threat to international peace and security’ before any coercive measures can be used.

The RWP concept also further limits the conditions for and likelihood of military action, stating that ‘The use of force must produce as little violence and instability as possible and under no circumstance can it generate more harm than it was authorized to prevent.’ While this is laudable in principle, it would be nearly impossible to guarantee in a situation like the Syrian uprising that began in 2011, in which both the state and the fragmented opposition stand accused of mass atrocities. The Syrian conflict also affects multiple internal and external actors including Iran, Israel, Lebanon and Turkey, adding regional escalation to the inherent risks of intervention. Given the emphasis on accountability that guides RWP, the interveners would be held accountable for negative outcomes.

More generally, Syria has highlighted the paralysis that can grip the UN Security Council. RWP’s emphasis on the role of the Security Council in debating and authorizing every step of an intervention could be a major obstacle to collective action. Furthermore, RWP calls for continuous coordination with the Security Council during ongoing operations. Risking troops’ lives in a foreign mission is politically sensitive enough without the possibility that the Security Council could overrule the military commanders of intervention forces on the ground. 


The ‘responsibility while protecting’ debate: missing the point?

Syria is a useful test case for RWP in an even more important sense. Arguments about whether RWP would help or hinder R2P action in Syria—some commentators even suggest that RWP is helping to justify a lack of intervention in that country—are beside the point. Behind the rhetoric blaming China and Russia for blocking action, the main obstacle to intervention in Syria is that no one wants to do it. Harsh lessons from Afghanistan, compounded by economic difficulties, have made the United States and other Western countries wary of costly long-term commitments, especially those without fairly assured and significant benefits.

Inaction in the Syrian conflict is symptomatic of a growing divide between the principled, normative international debate on R2P—which assumes that we will always intervene when it is needed to protect civilians—and the reality that intervention remains a matter of choice. While it is politically incorrect to say so, intervention is often guided by a calculation of economic, political, and human costs to the intervener. Neither R2P nor RWP realistically address these costs of intervention and how they influence the decision to intervene. So long as the international community segregates normative discussions about intervention from these cost calculations, protecting civilians from mass atrocity crimes will continue to pose major challenges.


A sign of the times


While RWP does little to resolve the dilemmas of R2P intervention, it does tell us something about the positions of emerging actors regarding the changing global order. First, the debate between RWP and R2P demonstrates that the concept of conditional sovereignty has been adopted by emerging actors. However, it also points to the growing difficulty of defining clear international parameters for intervention amid the competing interests of an increasingly multipolar world. Conceptually, RWP sits in the middle ground between modern humanitarian principles and strict state sovereignty. The emerging actors that champion RWP know that their roles and relationships in international affairs are in flux. As long as the future international order remains in transition, these actors can be expected to counsel caution as they weigh the costs and benefits of intervention.



Xenia Avezov is a Researcher with the SIPRI Peace Operations and Conflict Management Programme.