Beyond Libya: time to revive the Responsibility to Protect doctrine


A decade after it was adopted at the World Summit and the United Nations (UN) General Assembly in 2005, the ‘Responsibility to Protect’ (R2P) doctrine is almost universally acknowledged as a fundamental norm of international behaviour. But it’s effectively been paralysed in practice. 

Gareth Evans, former Australian foreign minister, examined the causes and possible resolutions of that contradiction in a talk titled ‘The responsibility to protect: 10 years on’, which took place at the South African Institute of International Affairs (SAIIA) in Johannesburg this week.

Evans co-chaired the 2001 International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty, which conceived the R2P principle. The commission was a response to the international community’s failure to act effectively, or at all, or with the legal authority of the UN Security Council when it did so, in the 1990s ‘horror cases’ of Rwanda and the Balkans, Evans said.

Evans said his commission had laid the ground for a new consensus by changing the language of the debate from ‘the right to intervene’ to ‘the responsibility to protect’. It had also changed the exclusive focus on coercive military intervention to a range of preventive, reactive and rebuilding strategies.

R2P's role as an institutional catalyst has been reasonably encouraging

R2P comprises three separate responsibilities; the responsibility of a state to its own people to neither commit such mass atrocity crimes, nor allow them to occur; the responsibility of other states to assist those lacking the capacity to so protect; and the responsibility of the international community to respond – if necessary with coercive military force when authorised by the Security Council – if a state failed to protect its own people.

Evans said the aim of R2P had not been to create new legal rules but ‘to generate a reflex international response that … sovereignty could never be a licence to kill.’

Looking back at the past decade – and particularly at the present catastrophe in Syria, ‘where R2P gained no traction at all, and the horrible aftermath of the initially successful R2P-based military intervention in Libya’ – critics might regard the whole R2P enterprise as a complete failure.

But Evans – perhaps not surprisingly given his role as an R2P architect – said the doctrine had in fact made considerable progress in its four basic goals, to be a normative force; a catalyst for institutional change; a framework for preventive action; and a framework for effective reactive action when prevention has failed. On the first, Evans said, referring to the frequency with which the principle was now being invoked at the UN, that ‘R2P can certainly now be described, in moral and political terms, as a new international norm.’

But that was not helpful if it did not lead to action, he said. And there, the record was more mixed. R2P’s role as an institutional catalyst has been ‘reasonably encouraging’, he said. He cited, for example, the growing number of ‘focal points’ that were being created within key national governments and intergovernmental organisations to constantly monitor mass-atrocity risk situations and to prepare responses.  

In the key area of establishing standby military forces ready to intervene, however, some preparation had been done – but not nearly enough, in Africa or elsewhere.  

R2P had also been fairly successful as a preventative framework, Evans said – especially of post-crisis intervention to prevent recurrences, notably in Kenya after 2008, Guinea after 2010 and Côte d’Ivoire after 2011. He also said R2P had recorded some successes as a framework for intervention – not necessarily military – such as Kofi Annan’s diplomatic peacemaking in Kenya in 2008 as a successful example; and the SADC Force Intervention Brigade’s insertion into the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) in 2013 to neutralise militias.

The ultimate test of R2P is military intervention against the will of the state concerned

But this was done by agreement with the DRC government. The ultimate test of R2P is, of course, military intervention against the will of the government of the state concerned.

Evans said this had only happened twice so far, in Côte d’Ivoire and Libya in 2011. He assessed both as successful – though Libya only initially so, until it had stopped the threatened massacre at Benghazi and before it ‘went off the rails’.

This derailing of the Libyan intervention led directly to the most troubling and costly failure of R2P, not mounting an effective response to the Syrian crisis. The critical lapse, he said, was in mid-2011. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was killing essentially unarmed domestic political dissidents, but the Security Council failed even to condemn the regime – let alone apply sanctions, an arms embargo or the threat of ICC prosecution – all of which it had done quickly in its first reaction to the Libyan crisis (with Resolution 1970).

The result was that Assad ‘undoubtedly felt off the leash as the situation deteriorated quickly into full-scale civil war.’ The main reason the Security Council did not act against Assad was because the majority of its members (including South Africa) believed that the P3 members – the United States, United Kingdom and France – had exceeded the coercive military mandate of UN Security Council Resolution 1973. They had used it to topple Muammar Gaddafi, rather than just protecting Libyan civilians against him.

Ironically, it was in the same SAIIA hall where Evans was speaking this week that Ebrahim Ebrahim, then the deputy minister of international relations and cooperation, had declared in mid-2011 that South Africa would support no Security Council resolution critical of Assad, no matter how mild, ‘because we don’t want to be taken for a ride again.’ As Evans said, South Africa was particularly upset because it had – through the African Union (AU) – wanted to explore with Gaddafi the possibility of a ceasefire and a peaceful political transition.

Evans said the AU peace plan ‘almost certainly’ would have failed because of Gaddafi’s intransigence. Nevertheless, the P3 should have given South Africa and the AU a chance to try it out. Likewise, it was also possible that removing Gaddafi from power might have been necessary to protect Libyan civilians. But the P3 should then have made this case to the other members of the Security Council.

In both instances, the P3 had instead arrogantly ignored the views and feelings of everyone else and had ploughed ahead with regime change. The result was the current paralysis in the international community in dealing with mass atrocities.

‘A solution simply has to be found to the current post-Libya stand-off if R2P is to have a future… if we are not, in the face of extreme mass atrocity situations, to go back to the bad old days of indefensible inaction, as with Cambodia, or Rwanda or Bosnia, or of otherwise defensible action taken in defiance of the UN Charter, as in Kosovo,’ Evans said.

He pinned his hopes for that solution on some variant of the ‘Responsibility While Protecting’ (RWP) idea, originally proposed to the UN by Brazil. That would require closer attention by the Security Council to agreed prudential criteria like last resort and proportionality, before granting any mandate to intervene militarily in atrocity crimes. It would also require close monitoring and regular review by the Council of the implementation of such a mandate during its lifetime.

A solution simply has to be found to the current post-Libya stand-off if R2P is to have a future

Evans said that Russia, China, India and others had shown considerable interest in RWP while the P3 were dragging their feet, ‘always reluctant, particularly the United States, to acknowledge any restraint on complete ad hocery on peace and security issues.’ But the P3 were gradually coming to realise that without such concessions, it would be impossible not only to avoid a veto on any future intervention mandate, but even to command a basic majority on the Council.

Gustavo de Carvalho, a senior researcher in the Conflict Management and Peacebuilding Division of the Institute for Security Studies in Pretoria, agreed that ‘it is critical that there is a serious discussion to revive R2P as a tool to protect civilians.’ However, he also expressed concerned that Brazil may have lost interest in RWP because it had faced reluctance from so many UN members.

‘Developing countries need to go beyond just being norms and principle pushers,’ he said. ‘RWP shows that in order for these norms to be accepted, there are costs involved, which developing countries also have to pay. RWP as a principle brings many important angles to interventions, but it cannot just be a conceptual discussion.’

He also noted – as did Evans – that the tough negotiations in the UN to get R2P accepted in the first place had been given considerable momentum by the AU’s historic prior adoption of the principle of ‘non-indifference’, which accepted the need for military intervention in extreme cases.

And Evans added that South Africa’s support in particular had been critical in the adoption of R2P and that ‘we should be hearing a bit more from South Africa in support of this, [RWP] as a possibly helpful way out of this dilemma, rather than just taking the bat home and saying “we don’t want to have any more part of this stuff.” That’s not a responsible position. That’s not part of South Africa’s tradition, after all. This is the great beneficiary of international focus on internal human rights violations.’

Indeed. It’s clearly time for not only Pretoria, but everyone else, to get over their ‘neuralgia’, as Evans put it, about Libya and move on; for the sake of keeping alive R2P – and the countless victims of future genocides it was designed to prevent.

Peter Fabricius, ISS Consultant

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