Contesting and Shaping the Norms of Protection: The Evolution of a Responsibility to Protect

A special issue of Global Society.
Guest Editor: Philipp Rotmann

November 2015

The Evolution of Norms of Protection: Major Powers
Debate the Responsibility to Protect


Gerrit Kurtz, Philipp Rotmann

Global Public Policy Institute, Berlin


Global expectations for protecting populations from mass atrocities have significantly expanded. This special issue analyses the debates about a “responsibility to protect” (R2P) that resulted from this normative change. At specific events throughout the past decade (the 2005 World Summit and the 2011 proposal for “responsibility while protecting” as well as crises in Darfur, Kenya, Myanmar, Georgia, Sri Lanka and Libya), the norms of protection have been contested and (re-)shaped. This introduction outlines the ideational origins of R2P, presents conceptual commonalities and summarizes the cases’ contributions to a non-linear process of norm evolution. We find that despite expectations that the increased weight of “non-Western” powers would lead to the demise of humanitarian norms, the concern for atrocity prevention has become universal. However, that consensus is tied to a supportive relationship with sovereignty and thus privileges action against non-state actors, not repressive regimes. Effective and responsible means of implementation remain contested.

To Intervene in Darfur, or Not: Re-examining the R2P Debate and Its Impact


Harry Verhoeven, Ricardo Soares de Oliveira, J. Madhan Mohan

University of Oxford, Oxford

Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi


The outrage over genocidal violence in Sudan provided impetus to “legalize” the concept of humanitarian intervention into a “responsibility to protect” (R2P). However, a decade on, the literature treats Darfur and R2P as coterminous with failure: continued inaction underscored its limitations in delivering protection to civilians. This article argues that this is an impoverished reading, which leaves out important dynamics. The legacy of Darfur is more usefully understood as a formative experience for further intervention, rather than as a benchmark of (non-)compliance with the specificities of an evolving R2P norm. We analyze an intensifying functional convergence between Western actors, the Chinese Communist Party and the African Union around the practice of intervention, with a view to creating political order and not to foster regime change, on the continent. Darfur, in this reading, was an indicator of the increasing tendency towards approaching Africa through an interventionist lens of stabilization, more so than the premature abortion of a nascent norm.

International Responsibility as Solidarity: The Impact of the
World Summit Negotiations on the R2P Trajectory


C.S.R. Murthy, Gerrit Kurtz
Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi

Global Public Policy Institute, Berlin


The 2005 World Summit's endorsement of a responsibility to protect people from atrocity crimes, widely hailed as a landmark agreement, became possible through a discursive shift in the negotiations leading up to the summit, where a normative approach of international solidarity started to replace bitter debates about the legitimacy of military intervention. This approach identified the lack of sufficient state capacities to adequately deal with atrocity crimes as a core problem, with capacity building and international assistance as solutions. Consequently, the outcome document was most influential in these areas, enabling policy entrepreneurs to further institutionalize early warning in the UN Secretariat, frame international disputes in more sovereignty-friendly and thus relatively constructive terms, and fit with a broader trend towards ever more robust peace operations with the priority mandate to protect civilians. This means R2P remains largely tied to non-state violence, however, leaving unresolved the perennial question of international actions concerning repressive states.

Bringing the Non-Coercive Dimensions of R2P to the Fore: The Case of Kenya


Julian Junk

Peace Research Institute, Frankfurt


The ethnic violence following the 2007 presidential elections in Kenya led to a wide array of regional and international mediation efforts and diplomatic initiatives, which resulted in a power-sharing agreement and a constitutional process. That these events in Kenya have been called by some the first test case for the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) is not without irony: over the course of these international efforts, R2P was only marginally invoked. It was rather post-hoc framing of this case that brought the non-coercive elements of R2P into the limelight and turned Kenya into an R2P case. This, however, impacted the further development of R2P in two ways. First, references to the experiences in Kenya proved to be an effective frame for actors highlighting, in the run-up to the 2009 United Nations General Assembly debate, the value of preventive and diplomatic initiatives. Second, experiences in Kenya facilitated the inclusion of the procedures of the International Criminal Court in the toolbox of the wider norms of protection, though they remain controversial for some actors.

Parody as Norm Contestation: Russian Normative Justifications in
Georgia and Ukraine and Their Implications for Global Norms


Erna Burai

Central European University, Budapest


Western observers often perceive Russian normative justifications in Georgia and Ukraine as a parody of Western normative discourse. This article argues that describing the relationship of Russian normative arguments to the Western originals as parody not only means that it is a contemptible copy which fails to cover strategic motivations, but also indicates a more complex interaction between the two in altering how the scope and content of civilian protection and secession are understood. Two factors prompt an analysis of this interaction. First, Russian normative discourse systematically references the Western one; second, it does so in relation to norms where the relevant standards of behavior are profoundly contested. The article asks how the Russian recycling of Western normative language alters interpretive dispositions towards these norms, and conceptualizes parody as a heuristic device to shed light on its potential normative impact. It argues that the core of the parodic effect is to disclose the original normative discourse as just one possible “reality-making script.” Reconstructing the Russian replications of Western normative argumentation deployed in Kosovo, the article argues that parodic appropriation of normative language has a destabilizing impact, and thus plays a role in the contested evolution of global norms.

Testing Boundaries: Cyclone Nargis in Myanmar and the Scope of R2P

Julian Junk
Peace Research Institute, Frankfurt


On 3 May 2008, Cyclone Nargis hit the shores of Myanmar. The government of Myanmar refused to grant international humanitarian relief efforts access to the devastated regions. This triggered an impactful debate on whether aid should be delivered coercively, and whether this was a case in which the principle of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) applied. This article traces the evolution of these disputes, as well as their impact on the testing and delineation of the boundaries of R2P. The main impact of the Myanmar debate was a return of R2P to its roots by re-centring the emerging norm on the original four core crimes, excluding the consequences of natural disasters and the delivery of humanitarian aid. Furthermore, in the Myanmar debate, the effectiveness of the R2P frame in international coalition building was brought to its limits, with some actors highlighting the potentially incendiary nature of using this frame. Hence, this article argues that Myanmar proved to be the first test case for demarcating the core of R2P.

Protection in Peril: Counterterrorism Discourse and International
Engagement in Sri Lanka in 2009


Gerrit Kurtz, J. Madhan Mohan

Global Public Policy Institute, Berlin
Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Dehli


There is often tension between counterterrorism and human rights compliance. This particularly applies to international engagement aimed at the protection of fundamental human rights in armed conflicts. This article traces international diplomacy and disputed issues regarding norms of protection in Sri Lanka in 2009. It shows how the Sri Lankan government’s three-pronged discourse of counterterrorism, humanitarian protection and non-alignment undercut most international efforts to rein in the government’s indiscriminate shelling of densely populated areas. Sri Lanka’s strategy benefited from broad-based support among most United Nations member states for the government’s framing of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) as a terrorist movement. After signalling approval for a military approach to the war, international actors failed to follow up with clear standards for compliance with international humanitarian law. Subsequently, a few other countries fighting insurgencies expressed their readiness to emulate Sri Lanka’s strategy of “defeating terrorism.” In this way, international and domestic counterterrorism discourses continue to undermine international protection efforts.

The Impact of the Libya Intervention Debates on Norms of Protection


Sarah Brockmeier, Oliver Stuenkel, Marcos Tourinho

Global Public Policy Institute, Berlin
Fundação Getulio Varga, São Paolo


Resolution 1973, which authorized military intervention in Libya, marked the first time that the United Nations Security Council explicitly mandated the use of force against a functioning state to prevent imminent atrocity crimes. While some hailed the resolution and the subsequent intervention in Libya as a victory for the concept of the international community’s “responsibility to protect” (R2P), others predicted its early death. This article argues for a more nuanced view on the impact of the Libya intervention on the debates on R2P. As we will show, the intervention in Libya demonstrated new areas of agreement and at the same time revealed persisting and new disagreements within the international community on the role of the use of force to protect populations.

“Responsibility while Protecting”: Reforming R2P Implementation


Marcos Tourinho, Oliver Stuenkel, Sarah Brockmeier
Fundação Getulio Varga, São Paolo

Global Public Policy Institute, Berlin


This article explores the political impact of the Brazilian proposal “Responsibility while Protecting” (RwP) on the normative evolution of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P). For much of the last two decades, public and policy debates about humanitarian intervention have been dominated by the question of whether and in what circumstances these measures were legitimate or acceptable in international society. The 2011 intervention in Libya sparked a different policy debate: a debate on how protection should actually be conducted. This article analyses debates on the “how” of the implementation of R2P by examining the substance and political impacts of the Brazilian proposal. RwP articulated the need for responsible means of protection, particularly when military force is used in the name of collective security and humanitarianism. This article argues that the proposal was able to raise important normative issues and contribute to change the terms of the humanitarian intervention debate. Yet, while RwP was extensively debated, it was never sufficiently developed to materialize into specific proposals that could address the problems of collective security and human protection in practice. As debates about the practical implementation of R2P gain renewed strength, the ideas articulated in the Brazilian proposal provide a useful starting point for advancing reform.