About the Project

Joining the United States, Europe and Russia as major powers, countries like Brazil, China, India and South Africa are demanding greater influence on the global order. As a result, global norms such as sovereignty and non-intervention are evolving in an increasingly contested way. The debate about a responsibility to protect civilians from mass atrocities is a prime example of this dynamic. To examine this process of norm evolution, researchers at seven academic institutions in Europe, Brazil, China and India are collaborating in a two and a half year project called Global Norm Evolution and the Responsibility to Protect.


The Global Public Policy Institute (GPPi) is the lead institution for the project, which is generously funded by the Volkswagen Foundation in cooperation with Compagnia di San Paolo and the Riksbankens Jubileumsfond. The project launched in November 2012 and lasts until mid-2015. The research consortium includes partners from Oxford University, the Peace Research Institute Frankfurt (PRIF), Peking University, Fundação Getulio Vargas in Sao Paolo and Rio de Janeiro, Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi and Central European University in Budapest.


Learn more about the project team.

Project background

The global order is changing as “rising” or “emerging powers” such as China, India and Brazil claim a larger role in shaping sovereignty, non-intervention and other fundamental global norms. As a result, these fundamental global norms are evolving in a contested way. Managing the shift to a new normative system is a crucial task. In the past, major shifts at the global level have often been associated with war and major conflicts. Gaining a deeper understanding for the evolution of norms at the global level may thus contribute to ensuring a peaceful transition.

Shifting coalitions and interpretations

By focusing on “norm evolution,” we highlight the potential for changes in norm interpretation over time as well as the convergence and divergence between alternative interpretations of norms supported by different constituencies. In contrast to the simplistic image of “the West against the Rest,” we observe shifting positions and coalitions both within the West and among other groups, for example the BRICS, the African Union and IBSA (India, Brazil and South Africa). Their different views and changing coalitions produce complex patterns of state practice in supporting, opposing or ignoring particular interpretations of the norm (“normative conflict”).

The responsibility to protect

This research project focuses on the evolution of a responsibility to protect civilians from mass atrocities. This incipient norm challenges the traditional understandings of sovereignty and non-interference in domestic affairs and thereby the foundations of the global order. It has sparked intense debate since all UN member states first agreed to endorse a particular formulation of the responsibility to protect in the 2005 world summit outcome document, which is not legally binding. Since then, mass atrocities in Darfur, Kenya, Libya, Syria and elsewhere have raised questions about the rights and obligations of states and the international community to protect civilians from mass atrocities. These exposed diverse interpretations, attitudes and practices toward the evolving norm of a responsibility to protect.

Norm evolution: non-linear and open-ended

Common theoretical approaches on global norms have been largely western-centric, linear and teleological, holding that norms ultimately emerge from the West and become universally accepted. In this scholarship, non-western actors are marginalized. Their inputs and influences do not receive sufficient attention.


The project employs the concept “norm evolution” to underscore the open-ended, non-linear aspects of this process. The responsibility to protect is a prime example of an evolving global norm whose fate is uncertain. We reject the widespread notion that one particular interpretation of it is on a path toward legal codification. To the contrary, it remains to be seen how different interpretations of a responsibility to protect will evolve, if any particular interpretation will gain traction as a universal legal principle at all, and how it will change during this process.


Gaining a better understanding of this dynamic is instructive because we find the open-ended and contested evolution of norms becoming increasingly common in other fields as well, with recent examples including climate change, the global trade order and the nuclear non-proliferation regime.

Research design

For the period from 2005 to 2014, the project asks two basic research questions:

  • How and why did the interpretations, attitudes and practices of major powers with regard to a responsibility to protect change?
  • How did the interaction between major powers (“normative conflict”) shape the evolution of the global norm?


We are undertaking two sets of case studies based on these two questions, distinguishing between major powers as individual actors in global norm evolution and how their interactions shape the evolution of the norm. In the first set, we will examine Brazil, China, India, Russia, South Africa as well as the EU and the United States. For the interaction case studies, we examine nine “critical junctures” that sparked debate about either the substance of the norm or its applicability and implications in a particular international crisis. The nine critical junctures are: the 2005 World Summit and the 2009 General Assembly debate on R2P and the crises in Darfur (since 2003), Kenya (2007-2008), Georgia (2008), Myanmar (Cyclone Nargis, 2008), Sri Lanka (2009), Côte d’Ivoire (2010-11), Libya (2011) and the Brazilian initiative for Responsibility while Protecting (RwP).


The project was started in November 2012 and will run for two and a half years. An international consortium of seven project partners from Brazil, China, Germany (Frankfurt and Berlin), Hungary, India and the United Kingdom, coordinated by the Global Public Policy Institute in Berlin, brings together western and non-western researchers on the different case studies. Our first set of case studies was published in the fall of 2014 as a special issue of Conflict, Security and Development (read published versions of the papers via open access). In November 2015, we published a second special issue with nine articles in Global Society (accessible via open access).


The project has recently released a policy paper on its findings and policy options for effective and responsible protection from atrocity crimes.


Global Public Policy Institute
Reinhardtstraße 7
10117 Berlin, Germany
Phone +49 30 275 959 75-0
Fax +49 30 275 959 75-99
Email: mail@globalnorms.net


Post-Western World

Oliver Stuenkel  •  Blog

sicherheitspolitik blog

Frankfurt University  •  Blog

Global Governance Futures

GPPi  •  Fellowship Program