Responsible Protection: Chinese norm entrepreneurship?

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Liu Jieyi
Liu Jieyi, Permanent Representative of the People’s Republic of China to the UN

Review: Garwood-Gowers, Andrew (2014) China’s "Responsible Protection" concept : re-interpreting the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) and military intervention for humanitarian purposes. Asian Journal of International Law.

The global discussion about the prevention of mass atrocities and the responsibility to protect (R2P) is often wrongly understood in the context of a West vs. Rest dynamic. The US and Europe, according to this view, tend to be quick to adopt resolutions criticizing governments of countries where atrocities occur, and often recommend military intervention, while the BRICS, led by Russia and China, are categorically opposed to both critical resolutions or intervention. The situation in Syria, according to this narrative, shows that we are witnessing 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 and action outlawed by the U.N. Charter.

Yet that view fails to take into account that the BRICS have officially endorsed R2P ten years ago, and since then emerging powers have played an important part in the process of turning R2P into a global norm. Both Russia and China, often seen as the most irresponsible stakeholders, have voted in favor of resolutions including R2P in the vast majority of cases. As tragic as Russia's and China's vetoing against Syria-related resolutions is (which, it must be noted, did not include the use of military force), it would be wrong to argue that the deadlock over Syria symbolizes the "new normal". Even after NATO's  controversial interpretation of resolution 1973 regarding Libya, Russia and China routinely support resolutions that mention the responsibility to protect of governments all over the world (even though mostly pillar I and II). It is also often forgotten that Beijing has supported several UNSC resolutions on Syria, including those mandating the UN Observer Mission, the destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons, and most recently a humanitarian aid access plan.

A recent semiofficial Chinese initiative - called Responsible Protection (RP) - powerfully shows that the discussion in China about the prevention of mass atrocities is far more sophisticated and advanced than is often thought. As an interesting journal article by Andrew Garwood-Gowers about RP explains, the concept originally appeared in a 2012 newspaper opinion piece by Ruan Zongze, the vice-president of the China Institute for International Studies (CIIS), which is the official think-tank of China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. An expanded account of the idea – explicitly framed as an example of China contributing “its public goods to the international community” - was published later that year. Since then, the author contends, RP has gained more prominence among Chinese decision-makers.

The similarities to Brazil's concept of the "responsibility while protecting" (RwP) are striking. Similarly to RwP, RP indicates that China does recognize, in principle, the need for non-consensual military intervention under R2P's third pillar, albeit under a more restrictive set of conditions than Western powers tend to follow. In that sense, both RwP and RP are contributions which advance and complement R2P’s third pillar, rather than attempting to replace the current version of R2P.

Garwood-Gowers writes that "RP continues RwP’s push towards “fleshing out” the normative content of what is currently a largely indeterminate third pillar." Indeed, in the September 2013 UNGA informal interactive dialogue on R2P, China indicated that it “supports discussions at the United Nations to discuss RwP by Brazil." The author's analysis includes a useful table in which he compares RwP to RP, looking at key principles such as just cause, right intention, last resort and monitoring mechanisms, among others.

Just like the RwP proposal, developed by Antonio Patriota in 2011, which states that “[e]nhanced Security Council procedures are needed to monitor and assess the manner in which resolutions are interpreted and implemented to ensure responsibility while protecting”, the Chinese proposal calls for the establishment of "mechanisms of supervision, outcome evaluation and post factum accountability”. Even though China's proposal is less specific about how such a supervision should look like, its inclusion is remarkable considering that China is a member of the P-5, and capable of undertaking military interventions in the future.

Responsible Protection, albeit not yet launched officially by the Chinese government, shows that the concerns raised in Brazil's RwP concept are set to play an important role in the global discussion about the prevention of mass atrocities in the coming years. The issues China's concept raises are highly complex and unlikely to find much initial support among NATO countries. Yet given that both Brazil’s RwP and China’s RP have made guidelines a central part of their proposals for advancing the discussion about R2P’s third pillar, the issue of criteria must be taken seriously by Western powers. Garwood-Gowers is right to argue that a recent RP conference in Beijing was a positive first step in this direction which suggests that China is genuinely interested in engaging constructively in the debate over R2P’s third pillar.

Brazilian policy makers may ask why China did not support Brazil more openly when it went out on a limb by launching its RwP idea, thus seeking to advance the global debate. One possible answer is that the idea may not have matured enough in the internal Chinese discussion. As Brazil realized in 2011, officially endorsing a new concept carries the risk of initially being criticized from all sides. Unlike France, which currently spends considerable time and energy to promote the idea of the Responsibility not to Veto (RN2V) in case of mass atrocities, China may not regard norm entrepreneurship in this field as a foreign policy priority at this point.

Still, policy makers from around the world should recognize RP as an important and welcome contribution by China, and as an opportunity to engage with an actor that will inevitably play a key role in mass atrocity prevention in the coming decades. The deployment of the first Chinese infantry battalion to take part in a UN peacekeeping mission in South Sudan and China's offer to help the Iraqi government in its fight against the Islamic State underline a trend of China's more systematic international engagement.

The author's suggestion that Beijing could introduce RP at the 7th BRICS Summit in Russia is excellent, and its inclusion in the final declaration would mark an important step in advancing the discussion. In the process, Brazil's experience with initially promoting RwP could be of great usefulness to policymakers in Beijing.

Read also:

What does China think about R2P?

The BRICS and the Future of R2P: Was Syria or Libya the Exception?

Is R2P a Western idea?

BRICS and the ‘Responsibility while Protecting’ concept (The Hindu)

Photo credit: CCTV