Is R2P a Western idea?

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Resolution 1973 on Libya, passed on March 17, 2011, was the first time the UN Security Council approved the use of force against a functioning state in support of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P). R2P thus turned from an abstract idea into a concrete foreign policy instrument. Since then, it is one of the most controversial issues of our time. This controversy is mostly seen in the context of a pro-interventionist Global North and a pro-sovereignty Global South. As Michael Ignatieff points out earlier this year, "the ‘responsibility to protect’ doctrine was crafted after Kosovo to bridge the gap between the global North and the global South on intervention." Considering the debates after Libya and the stalemate about Syria, he observes that "these North-South bridges are still not built."

While this is true, the BRICS' attitude towards R2P is far more complex and nuanced than many Western analysts believe. China, Russia, Brazil and India all supported the concept of R2P at the UN World Summit in 2005 and several times since then. As Simon Adams, Executive Director of the Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect, pointed out to me during a recent workshop in Brasília, China has supported several UNSC resolutions referring to R2P after the controversy about Libya. In fact, Alex Bellamy suggests in a recently published book chapter (reviewed here) that R2P has never been as alive and kicking as today. Thus, the heated debates around R2P is not about whether genocide, ethnic cleansing, war crimes or crimes against humanity should be prevented, but rather how they should be prevented.

R2P is therefore clearly not a Western idea that rich countries seek to impose on the Global South, but rather a global one. After all, soon after the invention of the idea in 2001, South Africa, Rwanda and Kenya were among its early supporters.

But despite some significant non-Western support, it is still common to hear critics describe R2P as an imperialist plot by the Global North. In fact, Brazil's former Foreign Minister and current Minister of Defense Celso Amorim has been among the most vocal opponents of the idea after 2005, frequently applying the North-South framework.

Why is that so, given that even Russia, which many see as R2P's greatest nemesis, frequently refers to R2P? For example, Sergey Lavrov’s decision to refer explicitly to R2P in justifying an intervention in Georgia in August 2008 (thereby clearly misinterpreting the concept) shows that Russia in principle agrees with the notion that violating another country’s sovereignty may be justified if that country commits mass atrocities against its own citizens. This is irrespective of the fact that Russia's argument of the risk of an imminent genocide in Georgia was rejected by virtually all governments and experts - if Moscow regarded R2P as fundamentally wrong, it would not have used the term.

Most likely, R2P continues to be seen by many as a Western concept because of the unequal distribution of enforcement capacity of the concept's pillar III - namely, the responsibility to intervene if a government fails to protect its citizens.

In The Libyan War: A Diplomatic History, O'Brian and Sinclair argue that, "in the final analysis, the West still calls the shots." Yet non-Western actors played an important role in the months prior to the intervention in Libya - such as the League of Arab States and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). Alex Bellamy, an expert on international peace and security at Griffith University, points out in a recent article that without the Arab League's, Organization of the Islamic Conference's and GCC's initiative, the United States would not have supported the imposition of a no-fly zone. Also, had Brazil and South Africa voted against Resolution 1973, intervention would not have been possible given that a nine votes in favor are necessary to pass a resolution (Res 1973 got 10 votes in favor and five abstentions).

But one cannot deny that non-Western actors provided little military support (except for a few Qatari jets). If diplomatic means have failed to take effect, and a large-scale intervention is deemed necessary, Western support is thus not sufficient (non-Western regional organizations need to provide support as well), but it is still indispensable.

When reading O'Brian's and Sinclair's analysis, it becomes obvious that United States' military role was far more important than the Obama administration sought to project. This shows that the US is de facto the only country that is capable of organizing large-scale interventions in the name of R2P (the fact that ECOWAS engages in several R2P missions in Africa to protect civilians is often forgotten).

This situation will change only once actors such as China and India are capable of not only assuming leadership in preventive efforts that are part of R2P (peacekeeping, development, etc.), but also in the use of force to protect civilians (a small but highy visible element of the Responsibility to Protect) - as seen in Libya. Until then, using force in the name of R2P against the will of a functioning state will be seen largely as a Western endeavor.

Read also:

Who will make the rules in tomorrow’s world?

Neither BRICS nor IBSA united on Syria question

Emerging Powers and the Responsibility to Protect

Photo credit: Jason Decrow/AP