Emerging Powers and the Responsibility to Protect



As new powers like Brazil, India and China rise to the top of the international order", Michael Ignatieff wrote recently, "their resistance to intervention will become increasingly influential. 'Responsibility to protect' will continue to frame the terms of debate, but it has a long way to go before it becomes customary international law." Yet emerging powers are far from certain about their traditional stance on non-interference and rejection of R2P. As their national interests begin to change in function of their economic and geopolitical rise, the debate about what role sovereignty should play is gaining momentum in Brasília, Delhi and Beijing.

This does not mean that emerging powers can be expected to soon adhere to the Western discourse about intervention; far from it. Yet Western governments and analysts would also be wrong to dismiss rising powers' leaders as hopeless Westphalian ideologues. Consensus-builders are now needed more than ever to keep us from returning to the days of Rwanda and Kosovo, in which we faced the stark choice between inaction in the face of large-scale killings (Rwanda) and intervention outlawed by the U.N. Charter (Kosovo).

As an article in The Economist pointed out late last year, China was beginning "to knock against the limits of its hallowed non-interference”. Perhaps worried that its economic interests in Libya would be threatened if it were to be singled out as Gaddafi's staunchest ally, China decided not to veto the resolution to employ "all necessary measures to protect civilians" in Libya. Even more surprising, Chinese diplomats met the Libyan rebels in Qatar and Benghazi, possibly reflecting the European Council of Foreign Relations' argument that "a posture of non-interference was increasingly at odds with [China's] global economic presence”. Such talk, however, cannot conceal that because of China's domestic political situation, the government is likely to continue condemning any revolution abroad for fear of encouraging an uprising at home. 

India has traditionally been one of the most stalwart defenders of the principle of sovereignty, but it has recently shown some flexibility as well. While RWP is likely to be seen by the West as a tactic to delay intervention, India's support for it implies that it is ready to support intervention in some specific instances. Rather than siding with Moscow and Beijing, India also voted in favor of the defeated resolution condemning the Syrian government. 

Brazil is no different. As Matias Spektor recently wrote in a column in Folha de São Paulo, Brazil's stance on intervention is "in flux". He argued that while the traditional thinking was still strong, "many in Brasília already regard as legitimate the suspension of the sovereign rights of governments that are unwilling or unable to care for their own citizens." He further comments that "this situation was unthinkable only few years ago." In the same way, Kai Kenkel argues in a recent article that "Brazil is no longer a vocal detractor of R2P". Yet, rather than fully adopting Washington's view, Spektor expects Brazil to continue straddling both worlds, thus seeking to become an active voice in the global debate about the future of intervention.

This makes Brazil's role among the emerging powers unique, potentially turning the country into a crucial mediator between the West and the rest. The concept of the 'Responsibility While Protecting' aimed at reflecting just that. At the 4th BRICS Summit, however, 'RWP' failed to do its magic: Regarding Syria, Russia imposed its view on the other BRICS countries, making any mention of RWP impossible.

As Ignatieff points out "the ‘responsibility to protect’ doctrine was crafted after Kosovo to bridge the gap between the global North and the global South on intervention." He is right to observe that Libya and its aftermath show that "these North-South bridges are still not built."

Building that bridge is a daunting challenge that may take years to complete, and it will require difficult concessions from both sides. The intervention in Libya may have complicated the debate even further, but as long as the topic is high on the agenda of both Western and non-Western actors, there is hope that meaningful progress can be made. Unprecedented debates about R2P such as those in Brazil and India certainly show not everybody's views are set in stone. 

Photo Credit: AP / Sebastien Dupont

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