Why the BRICS should embrace the ‘Responsibility while Protecting’



The concept of “the responsibility while protecting” is an interesting example of how Brazil is attempting to play the role as a mediator between the United States and Europe (which tend to be quick to recommend military intervention) on the one hand, and reluctant BRICS members, such as Russia and China, on the other hand.

During her first address to the UN General Assembly, Brazil’s President Dilma Rousseff acknowledged the concept of the ‘responsibility to protect’, according to which it is legitimate to intervene in another country that is unable or unwilling to preserve the lives of its citizens. At the same time, she conditioned her support by suggesting a complementary norm which she called “the responsibility while protecting”, which involves establishing basic criteria to assure that interventions by force always do the smallest damage possible. This provides an important framework for emerging powers who seek to strike a balance between protecting threatened populations while reducing the negative implications of military intervention. The concept of “responsibility while protecting” was part of the last IBSA summit declaration, and there is potential to approach this important topic during this year’s BRIC summit in India.

The crisis in Syria is a good example that shows why the concept of ‘Responsibility to Protect’ is in crisis. There seemed to have been consensus in the case of Libya in February and March 2011. Yet already during the war, the BRICS have rightly argued that NATO forces exceeded the UN mandate given to them. Resolution 1973 was “to protect civilians and civilian populated areas under threat of attack”, yet NATO regarded it as a permission to bring upon regime change. In addition, European powers and the United States supplied weapons to the rebels, thereby violating the arms embargo. As a consequence, the BRICS are now suspicious of any resolution regarding Syria, fearing that it could once more be used as an excuse to force regime change in another Middle Eastern country.

The concept of “Responsibility while Protecting” (RWP) may facilitate the way towards a compromise. It proposes a set of criteria (including last resort, proportionality, and balance of consequences) to be taken into account before the UN Security Council mandates any use of military force. In addition, a monitoring-and-review mechanism to ensure that such mandates’ implementation is seriously debated.

There is likely to be resistance from both established powers and the BRICS. Europe and the United States will regard it as yet another tactic to delay resolutions that allow the use of force. India and South Africa are supportive of the concept – having agreed to its inclusion into the last IBSA declaration – yet Russia and China are certain to be skeptical. But there is a growing consensus that the alternative to Security Council cooperation is a return to the days of Rwanda and Kosovo, in which there is a stark choice between inaction in the face of large-scale killings (Rwanda) and action outlawed by the UN Charter (Kosovo).

As the BRICS’ economic and geopolitical weight increases, they have strong incentives to avoid such a scenario. While it may have been feasible to prize sovereignty over intervention at all times before, emerging powers’ interests are too important and complex to hold on to such a radical position. A protracted political crisis in the Middle East, for example, strongly affects all BRICS members’ national interests, and if they were able to articulate a common strategy in specific moments, they’d be able to offer a serious alternative to the established powers' narrative.

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Photo credit: Reuters