Book review: “The Responsibility to Protect – From Evasive to Reluctant Action?” by Malte Brosig (ed.)

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"The Responsibility to Protect - From Evasive to Reluctant Action? The Role of Global Middle Powers" 

2011 will be remembered as the year when the concept of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) turned from an abstract idea into an applied concept in international politics. Resolution 1973 on Libya, passed on March 17th 2011, marked the first time the UN Security Council authorized the use of force for human protection purposes against the desire of a functioning state. Resolution 1973 was also exceptional because it was passed when all the BRICS and Germany were present in the UN Security Council - thus possibly providing a glimpse into the future - Brazil, India, South Africa and Germany are all seen as serious contenders for a permanent seat if UNSC reform took place.

The intervention in Libya was hailed as a great success in the West. Ivo Daalder, the US ambassador to NATO, called it a "model intervention". Stewart Patrick argued that it "vindicated R2P". Alas, the emerging powers would have none of it. In a terse concept note submitted to the UN Secretary General in November 2011, Brazil argued that "there is a growing perception that the concept of the responsibility to protect might be misused for purposes other than protecting civilians, such as regime change." According to policy makers in Brasília, Pretoria and Delhi, NATO had abused emerging powers' good faith and turned Resolution 1973 into a mandate for removing Muammar Gaddafi from power.

In this context, this book offers a welcome contribution, for emerging powers such as Brazil, India and South Africa are set to significantly influence the debate about the future of R2P. In the subtitle, the term 'global middle powers' draws attention - seemingly merging the terms of 'global power' and 'middle power'. Since middle powers are often defined precisely by their lack of global reach, the term is likely to raise some important conceptual questions. This balancing act might be the result of including not only emerging powers (India, Brazil and South Africa), but also Germany in the analysis.

In the first chapter, Alex Bellamy makes clear that the failure to find international consensus on what to do about Syria is by no means the first time R2P was pronounced dead. Global inaction regarding the conflict in Darfur and post-election violence in Kenya led to similar conclusions in the past. Yet the UNSC has referred to R2P more often in the 12 months after Libya than in the five years prior to Resolution 1973 - the concept is thus very much alive and well. In addition, he addresses a common misconception that R2P is fundamentally about the use of force. Rather, he points out, prevention is at the heart of the concept.

Another crucial argument Bellamy makes is that even countries like China and Russia, skeptical of Resolution 1973 and 1975 (regarding Côte d'Ivoire) no longer question whether the international community has a responsibility to protect, but rather how it should be applied and how it should relate to the possibility of regime change.

Festus Aboagye summarizes South Africa's position vis-à-vis R2P and stresses the country's traditional opposition to the use of force - in 1999, for example, South Africa condemned, along with China and Russia, the NATO intervention in Yugoslavia. Analyzing South Africa's position regarding Resolution 1973, the author points to the complexities Libya's membership of the African Union (AU) and the League of Arab States (LAS) created, and he blames South Africa for failing to adopt a leadership role in the process. South Africa's vocal opposition to the way the NATO campaign was conducted, after having actively supported Resolution 1973, led to general confusion about South Africa's position. Similar contradictions occurred when violence broke out in Côte d'Ivoire, indicating that South Africa's position on the matter is not yet fully settled.

While Germany seems to have little in common with the IBSA nations, Lars Brozus' chapter is a useful contribution to the debate, largely because Germany shares a lot of the emerging powers' doubts and constraints vis-à-vis humanitarian intervention. The author contrasts Germany's support for the NATO mission in Kosovo with the decision to abstain from Resolution 1973 - suggesting that Germany may act according to regional preferences. Brozus also correctly observes that the best way to avoid diverging expectations and miscommunication about the implementation of future resolutions is to articulate them in a far more specific way - including sunset clauses (requiring renewal by the UNSC after a certain amount of days) and territorial limitations about where  force can be used. The reader is tempted to ask what Germany thinks about Brazil's 'Responsibility While Protecting' concept - and indeed, Brozus writes that, in principle, Berlin could act as a bridge builder. So far, however, the German response has been muted.

Eduarda Passarelli Hamann's chapter on Brazil is crucial because it was the Brazilian government's initiative to launch the RwP concept note that led to a wider debate about the potential role of emerging powers in the debate about humanitarian intervention. The author points out that the lack of material capacity significantly constrains Brazil's global strategy. For example, it allocates less than 2% of GDP to military expenditure (compared to around 5% in the US), less than 2% of Brazil's troops are deployed in international operations, and its financial contributions to the UN are mediocre.

This lack of commitment may undermine Brazil's claim for leadership, Passarelli Hamann warns. How much is resolute rhetoric worth if you do not have the troops to follow up on a stern warning? The author describes RwP as "old wine in new bottles" (although she admits the debate it sparked may have positive consequences) and argues that Brazil must strengthen its military capacity if it is to substantiate its claim to a more visible international role.

Dipankar Banerjee's chapter on India includes an initial description of India's military intervention in East Pakistan in 1971, which ended the mass killings there and which also led to the birth of the nation of Bangladesh. While realpolitik clearly played a role, the move is today seen by many Indians as an early form of R2P. Notably, global public opinion at the time was strictly against any type of intervention to deal with the human suffering in East Pakistan.

The author correctly points to India's massive human contributions to UN peacekeeping missions, including those under Chapter VII. UN approval is absolutely crucial for Delhi, and India strongly opposed the intervention in Kosovo. Still, of all the countries analyzed in this book, India has been the most reluctant to fully embrace R2P. India's ambassador to the UN, Singh Puri, was the leading critic once it became clear that NATO was seeking to oust the Gaddafi regime. Puri also criticized European nations for violating the arms embargo against Libya by supplying the rebels with military equipment.

Germany, India, Brazil and South Africa share a common desire to strengthen their international role in the coming years. They have all expressed the desire to turn into permanent members of the UN Security Council, and their joint presence and behavior in the UNSC in 2011 has provided observers with a lot of material to analyze. This book will certainly stimulate the debate among both policy makers and observers in Berlin, Delhi, Brasília, Pretoria and beyond about the role their countries should play in the context of future security challenges. 

Read also:

Dilma’s chance to promote RwP in the UN General Assembly

Emerging powers remain divided on R2P and RwP

Emerging Powers and the Responsibility to Protect