By Shayna Halliwell, an M.A. student in human rights

This article is Part Two of a two-part op-ed series exploring the different sides of the R2P debate.


“You don’t care about my country more than I care about my country!”

This sentence punctuated a statement made by a representative of the Syrian Arab Republic in the United Nations General Assembly debate in February 2016 on the Responsibility to Protect (R2P). A contentious emerging norm, R2P is meant to protect vulnerable populations from experiencing mass atrocities, in the event that their governments are unable to do so. However, this statement on behalf of the Syrian government can be seen as the very crux of why R2P has not made the difference it was intended to make at its inception over fifteen years ago, at the behest of previous Secretary-General Kofi Annan.

UN General Assembly
UN General Assembly

While R2P is noble in its goals—to protect a country’s population from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and/or crimes against humanity—it has proved to be little more than an aspirational principle when put into action. Even the “father” of R2P, Gareth Evans, acknowledged at the same debate in February that the application of R2P  has been a mixed bag of successes and failures, with Sri Lanka, Sudan and Libya among the most striking catastrophes named. The military response to the emerging crisis in Libya, for example, quickly spun out of control and soon became more about regime change than about quelling a humanitarian disaster. This resulted in a disproportionate use of force that was an obvious violation of the “Do No Harm” precept of R2P.

Even those countries that have been considered successes of R2P in practice disagree with being placed in the category of “wins” for this principle. Kyrgyzstan, for example, took the floor in February’s General Assembly debate to unequivocally denounce the assertion that the UN-led response to regional ethnic conflict in their country in 2010 had been a successful example of R2P’s implementation. If the very countries often used as examples of R2P’s success deny the application of R2P in the first place,what hope does this principle have of surviving or of being seen as effective?

It is difficult to refute the normative principle that vulnerable populations should be protected from mass atrocities, and that the international community’s primary responsibility is to support states in their efforts to prevent such tragedies. However, ten years into its existence, there remain far too many questions about the efficacy of operationalizing R2P. The four crimes outlined in the R2P principle are broadly defined, and the triggers for the international community’s intervention have never been clearly demarcated. Many governments are particularly sensitive to the idea of another country interfering within their borders, especially those who have only recently emerged from colonial rule.

Syria’s outburst at February’s General Assembly panel exemplifies the concerns of several Member States about selectivity and double standards in the invocation of R2P. Certain questions remain unanswered: How can the UN avoid having R2P applied in an interventionist manner? How can smaller and less powerful states be protected from the manipulation of R2P for external interests? Why are there no mechanisms in place to ensure that prejudices—both personal and ethical—don’t make their way into decisions on prevention and intervention?

In the end, however, whether or not R2P actually is a principle founded on selectivity, double standards and the violation of state sovereignty is not the main issue. If enough Member States think these are the founding principles of the norm, then the Responsibility to Protect has no future. The mechanisms for the operationalization of R2P must be widely agreed upon, and this agreement will depend on Member States’ confidence in the principle itself.

Shayna Halliwell is an M.A. candidate at the Institute for the Study of Human Rights at Columbia University. Her research is focused on the intersection between international security and Indigenous rights.

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