Brazil as a Norm Entrepreneur: The Responsibility While Protecting

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Paper No. 8: Brazil as a Norm Entrepreneur: The Responsibility While Protecting (Oliver Stuenkel) in: "Implementing the Responsibility to Protect: New Directions for International Peace and Security?" by Eduarda P. Hamann and Robert Muggah, Igarapé Institute, Brasília (2013)


The broader context

Brazil’s decision to introduce the concept of Responsibility while Protecting (RwP) marks, irrespective of its ultimate success or failure, a milestone in the process of multipolarization. Emerging powers no longer merely seek to obtain a seat at the table, but they attempt to turn into agenda setters of the global debate. This process is bound to cause friction, for developing new terms or concepts is a sign of independence and unpredictability - thus disappointing those in the West who had hoped that rising powers would turn into ‘responsible (and docile) stakeholders’, graciously filling the space established powers had reserved for them.

Despite their recent relative decline, established powers still firmly control the agenda of the international debate - we still live in a world clearly divided between rule makers and rule takers. In the eyes of the traditional rule makers, rule takers can either immediately embrace existing norms, or they can reject them - the latter which causes them to be seen as dangerous revisionist powers with subversive intentions (Stephens, 2010). What ‘revisionist’ means is subject to change. For example, while emerging powers used to be fully in line with the mainstream in the global debate about sovereignty, their - largely unchanged stance - is today seen as revisionist by the global rule makers who have successfully turned the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) into a global norm.

The West is inviting emerging powers to assume global responsibility and engage internationally, but the fact that Beijing, Delhi and Brasilia prefer to engage on their own terms has caught many in the United States and Europe by surprise. Brazil’s initiative was seen by many as an attempt to obstruct the debate rather than a genuine attempt to enrich the conceptual discussion about humanitarian intervention. It is the first time Brazil projected itself internationally as a creator of global norms, seeking to adopt global ‘thought leadership’.

All the arguments and proposals that appear in the RwP concept developed by Brazil have been made, in one way or the other, in the past - the novelty was much more Brazil’s decision to bring them together under the RwP header and support them explicitly in their entirety. Still, there was a strong surprise element in Brazil’s initiative, considering that the country’s reaction to R2P had been, initially, quite negative. Then foreign minister Celso Amorim described it as just another pretext emerging powers would readily use to pursue their economic interests with military force (Spektor, 2012).

The specific context

The origin of the concept of RwP must be seen in the context of the year 2011 – the year in which R2P was for the first time applied, first in Côte d’Ivoire, then in Libya. The UN Security Council (UNSC) did so in a historic composition of having all the BRICS present (Brazil, India and South Africa as non-permanent members, China and Russia as permanent ones). None of the BRICS voted against Resolution 1973 (Brazil, China, India, Russia and Germany abstained). Despite their decision to abstain, the result was seen at the time as a subtle signal of general support for humanitarian intervention in Libya. Yet this support among emerging powers quickly turned into rejection when it became clear that NATO was using its mandate to protect civilians as a mandate for regime change, thus clearly misinterpreting the spirit of the resolution (Gowan 2011). In addition, NATO disobeyed the arms embargo by supplying Libyan rebels with arms and de fact acting as the rebels’ air force in the conflict (Gowan 2011). The bombing in Libya stopped not as soon as the rebels took control of Tripoli, but only when Muammar Gaddafi was killed. It was during this time when Brazil’s moderately supportive rhetoric changed and adopted a highly critical tone, falling in line with Russia’s assertions that the intervention in Libya was just another chapter of Western imperialism. The way NATO intervened had led to a hardening of positions. In the West, it was seen as a great success, in the Global South as a step back. The result, in the words of Michael Ignatieff, was a return to the 1990s, when the world could decide between inactivity in the face of mass killings (as seen in Rwanda) and humanitarian intervention outside of international law (as seen in Yugoslavia) (Ignatieff 2012).

RwP can thus be seen as an attempt to bridge the widening gap that had emerged in the aftermath of the Libya intervention.

Reception in Western capitals

The initial reception in the West was marked by skepticism. This was, first of all, due to accusation that the concept note lacked detail which opened too much space for speculation. Its opponents quickly called it a plot to delay meaningful action against the mass atrocities in Syria. How, they asked, could such a short and generally worded concept paper be of any use, now that the world needed to take swift action against the Assad regime?

This narrative was strengthened by Brazil’s previous decision to abstain, on October 4, 2011, from the European UNSC resolution condemning Syria. Given that the RwP concept paper was so vague, it was natural for analysts around the world to look back and measure it by Brazil’s recent behavior in matters related to humanitarian intervention (Luck 2012). The European proposal contained only symbolic threats and explicitly excluded the use of military force, so Brazil’s stance was seen as a sign that it stood closer to Russia and China on the matter than to the West.

The second reason for the rejection in Western capitals was the fear that RwP would make intervening quickly – if the circumstances required it so – too difficult, as satisfying the long list of demands was too cumbersome. The rigid sequencing was particularly strongly criticized during early debates in New York (Brazil distanced itself from it later on). In addition, article 11 h and I of the Brazilian concept paper states: “Enhanced Security Council procedures are needed to monitor and assess the manner in which resolutions are interpreted and implemented to ensure responsibility while protecting; The Security Council must ensure the accountability of those to whom authority is granted to resort to force.” This led to worries among NATO countries that the UNSC would have a say in ongoing R2P operations – something almost impossible to find support in the West. It is worth remembering that the United States finds it even difficult to coordinate military action with NATO, so giving all UNSC members a say is seen as a non-starter.

The third reason for skepticism was that, among Western policy makers, Brazil was acting irrationally and driven by the anger of being relegated to the sidelines during the intervention in Libya. Brazil’s and India’s requests for information had been arrogantly brushed aside by NATO with the implicit argument that Brazil and India had no business in the rather serious business of war (Benner 2012).

This points to the fourth reason for skepticism. With Brazil insignificant hard power and inexperience in armed international conflict, Western powers feel that Brazil has no business in assuming a leadership role in important global security questions. What do Brazilian diplomats know, they ask, about what it means to send fighter jets into combat? Few Western commentators realized the great potential RwP had serious potential to bridge the gap between Global North and Global South. Quite to the contrary, Western analysts have argued that RwP could even increase the wedge between the West and the rest.

Reception in the Global South

The reaction in the Global South to RwP has been far more muted than in the West. Dilma Rousseff mentioned the concept during the 2011 IBSA Summit, yet it did not find its way into the final declaration of the meeting, indicating South Africa’s and India’s skepticism. Rejection in China and Russia was even stronger, and Brazil failed to introduce RwP into the final declaration of the 4th BRICS Summit in Delhi in March 2012. Brazil had thus successfully created an idea both the West and the emerging powers rejected, albeit for the opposite reasons. RwP was seen in the West as tactic to obstruct action. In the Global South, by contrast, policy makers were reluctant to accept any idea that seemed to limit the concept of sovereignty. Rejection in China and Russia seemed vindicated when Brazil supported resolution 66/253 B against Syria on August 3rd, 2012, strengthening those in Moscow and Beijing who thought of RwP as a Western plot to trick emerging powers into accepting Western imperialist intervention.

Lost momentum

More than a year after the launch of the concept, the time to follow-up and flesh out the concept is generally thought to have passed. The Brazilian government decided not to turn RwP into the foreign policy signature issue of Dilma Rousseff’s first term. This became clear when the Brazilian President declined to explain the issue better during her opening speech of the UN General Assembly in September 2012. In a debate on the sidelines of the UNGA about RwP, Brazil was markedly absent.

Looking back, it seems clear that upon launching the concept, there was a window of opportunity during which Brazil should have elaborated a more specific proposal to create momentum. Brazil would have had to develop a diplomatic campaign to garner support for the idea. For example, South Africa and India could have been potential candidates to support the concept. Rather than being “Brazil’s concept”, it could have become “IBSA’s concept”. Yet Brazil declined to assume leadership in the matter, and RwP never achieved what R2P did – to turn into a household name of the public international relations debate. In theory, a country other than Brazil could have taken up this role – yet given the lack of a more specific description of what RwP entails and how it applies to the Syria crisis, no other country took the chance. It is unlikely that RwP stands a serious chance of being the subject of a global debate, now that it has lost the Brazilian government as its sponsor.


Stephens, Philip (2010). Rising Powers do not want to play by the west’s rules. Financial Times, May 20, 2010

Wright, Thomas (2012). Brazil hosts workshop on the ‘Responsibility While Protecting’, Foreign Policy, August 29, 2012

Spektor, Matias (2012) Humanitarian Interventionism Brazilian Style? America’s Quarterly, Summer 2012

Gowan, Richard, Emily O’Brien, Andrew Sinclair. The Lybian War. A diplomatic history – February – August 2011, p.7 Center for International Cooperation, NYU. August 2011

Michel Ignatieff, How Syria divided the world. New York Review of Books, July 11, 2012

Luck, Edward. Opening Statement by Dr. Edward C. Luck, Special Adviser to the United Nations Secretary-General on the Responsibility to Protect during informal discussion on ›Responsibility While Protecting‹ Hosted by the Permanent Mission of Brazil, New York, 21 February 2012

Benner, Thorsten (2012) Brasilien als Normunternehmer. Die "Responsibility While Protecting", Vereinte Nationen 6/2012, pp. 251-256

Continue reading here (page 60).

Read also:

The BRICS and R2P: Was Syria an exception?

Book review: “Responsibility to Protect: Cultural Perspectives in the Global South” by Rama Mani and Thomas G. Weiss (eds.)

Book review: “Global Politics and the Responsibility to Protect” by Alex J. Bellamy