Sunday 19 Aug 2018 | 00:43 | SYDNEY
Sunday 19 Aug 2018 | 00:43 | SYDNEY

R2P caught in the crossfire?

2 August 2011 09:22

Tim Dunne is Director of Research, Asia-Pacific Centre for the Responsibility to Protect, the University of Queensland.

Rodger Shanahan makes a number of claims about the norm of Responsibility to Protect (R2P) that merit a response. Below I address each of his concerns: the 'hollowness of the concept', the 'narrowness of the applicability', and the problem of 'selectivity'. My aim is greater clarity about the grounds on which R2P is being targeted by its critics.

It is not clear to me what hollowness means in relation to a political concept. But if hollowness is meant to imply 'empty', then this is a meaningless description of R2P. Dr Shanahan would appear to agree that it is not empty as he notes 'one could hardly disagree with the concept of R2P'.

Putting this point another way, the consensus that has been established on the principle of R2P reflects a revolution in humanitarian thinking since 1945. Remember that at the time of the Holocaust, genocide was not an international crime — it became one when the anti-genocide convention was incorporated into the UN treaty system and given effect by being incorporated into domestic legal orders.

R2P is driven by a clear moral purpose which maintains that atrocity crimes — such as those committed in Germany in the 1930s, Cambodia in the 1970s, Rwanda and Bosnia in the 1990s — are preventable. Getting an agreement among the states and peoples of the world as to what atrocity crimes are and why they are uniquely abhorrent suggests the concept is far from empty.

As to its 'narrowness of applicability', again I find my views differ respectfully from Dr Shanahan. What is striking about R2P is the breadth of its applicability. As advocates make clear, including Kofi Annan, Francis Deng, and Gareth Evans, the core of R2P is that all sovereign states are bearers of the duty to prevent atrocity crimes from occurring.

The narrowing occurs when states fail to uphold this responsibility, as was the case when the Libyan state responded to political opposition by terrorising civilians. At this point, responsibility to end mass atrocities becomes shared by all states rather than delegated to each. The UN mandated action in Libya follows this scaling-up of responsibility in ways the architects of the doctrine had anticipated.

Yet Qadhafi is clearly not the only Arab head of state who has failed to live up to the principle that sovereignty should be understood as a duty of care rather than a licence to kill. The question why those countries who were beating the drum for R2P over Libya have not done the same in relation to Syria is an important one. 

Here are two brief thoughts in relation to the problem of selectivity. First, the 2005 agreement at the World Summit of the UN General Assembly (a follow-on to the 2000 Summit that agreed the MDGs) recognised that, while there was a need for 'timely and decisive action' to be taken by the international community, this would inevitably be considered on a case-by-case basis. 

In other words, where it is clear that military intervention will do more harm than good, no right-thinking R2P supporter will advocate such a course of action. But although implementing a no-fly zone is politically and operationally problematic, a referral to the International Criminal Court of Assad and his cronies might be achievable.

A second response to the issue of selectivity is to be clear about who and what is the real target: hitherto, condemnatory action in relation to Syria has been limited primarily because of backsliding by the League of Arab States, and by the familiar reluctance on the part of Russia and China. This is a reminder that while the preventive agenda of R2P commands assent as a principle, attempts by the international community to apply coercive measures in its name remain controversial.

Photo by Flickr user maxgiani.