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Where R2P Goes From Here

An interview with Jennifer Welsh, who was recently appointed Special Adviser to the United Nations Secretary-General on the Responsibility to Protect, on the future of norm.

By: /
21 August, 2013
By: Jennifer Welsh
Professor in International Relations at the University of Oxford and a Fellow of Somerville College

Professor Jennifer Welsh was recently appointed Special Adviser to the United Nations Secretary-General on the Responsibility to Protect. To mark this achievement, we asked Jennifer to share her thoughts on the opportunities and challenges to furthering the development of R2P.

What responsibilities will you be taking on as Special Adviser to the United Nations Secretary-General on the Responsibility to Protect? 

The role of the Special Adviser is to provide advice and guidance on both the conceptual development of R2P, and its concrete implementation. In more specific terms, this involves: an annual report to the General Assembly on an aspect of R2P’s implementation; a strategy for embedding R2P within the UN system; ongoing assistance to states, governmental, and non-governmental organizations in their efforts to implement R2P; and responses to particular, ongoing crises involving either the threat or commission of mass atrocities.

Will your past and current research on conflict, intervention, and prevention inform your approach to your new role?

My primary interest over the past two years has been in the preventive dimension of R2P. Within this theme, I have sought to specify what precise acts and behaviours we are seeking to prevent, to outline the structural and operational strategies that can be used in prevention, and to identify concrete preventive tools, such as mediation, sanctions, fact-finding missions, new technologies, military forces. I’ve also sought to learn lessons from past atrocity situations regarding the conditions under which preventative tools can be effective.


More generally, I have sought to understand the motivations and principles underlying the criticisms of R2P. I have argued that R2P can appear threatening to states if framed solely in terms of coercive action ‘from the outside’. In reality, it is a multi-faceted principle which involves elements of prevention and response, and which employs a wide variety of actions (coercive and non-coercive). R2P should be implemented in ways that bolster rather than undermine sovereign states. In that regard, I want to draw on my past work to argue that R2P must develop in ways compatible with an older but foundational principle at the heart of the UN: sovereign equality. This principle endows states with both rights and responsibilities, and positions them as peers in the making of international rules and institutions.

What do you believe are the biggest misconceptions about the theory and practice of the R2P norm?

As I have suggested, too often R2P is made synonymous with military intervention. This is the greatest misconception. We cannot and should not judge R2P’s success in terms of whether a military intervention occurs to protect populations. R2P is not prescriptive in that sense; instead, it creates what I like to call a ‘duty of conduct’. It demands that mass atrocity situations be identified, and that action be taken. It does not specify precisely what kind of action is appropriate. The decision to use military force, for example, involves a whole host of other, principled considerations – for example, about whether more harm than good will result, whether force is truly a last resort, etc. Therefore, if military intervention does not occur, that does not mean that R2P hasn’t ‘worked’. Norms like R2P create zones of possible action; they cannot dictate it.

The other frequent misconception is that R2P creates new, demanding duties for states that they cannot hope to fulfill. No new legal obligations were created when R2P was endorsed in 2005. Instead, the 2005 Summit Outcome Document paragraphs on R2P represented an authoritative interpretation of the UN Charter, and other existing legal obligations to protect populations from mass atrocity crimes. The statement was important, nonetheless, because it signaled a political commitment on the part of states to act on their responsibilities with respect to mass atrocity crimes.

Finally, it is often suggested that R2P is an invention of the ‘West’, designed to further interventionist policies aimed at the ‘Global South’. Aside from having problems with these labels, it is crucial to remember that R2P was unanimously endorsed in 2005, and that a number of non-Western states have been active in supporting the evolution of the norm. In addition, as the recent practice of the Security Council has shown, non-Western countries (like Brazil) have played an important role in interpreting R2P’s meaning and in trying to build consensus around its implementation.

Do you agree that international support for R2P as it was originally conceived has weakened? What impact do you believe non-intervention in Syria has had on the level of support for R2P within the international community? 

In the first 4-5 years of R2P’s life, from 2001 to 2006, support waxed and waned. There is no question that the Iraq War – and efforts to justify, post hoc, the intervention as ‘humanitarian’ – raised suspicions about R2P. But the fact that consistent and reasonable questions have been put forward about the scope of R2P and when it should be ‘activated’ do not necessarily mean it has been weakened. Over time, its scope has been more clearly defined (in terms of specific crimes) and the role of the UN – and Security Council – has been reaffirmed. But it is still a relatively new principle, with some detractors. That is to be expected. Nonetheless, it has become a very significant part of the world’s diplomatic language and normative landscape. Non-intervention in Syria gives rise to charges that R2P has no impact, but this critique focuses on only one form of possible action (military force). In some cases, states and organizations have acted on their responsibility to protect with respect to Syria, through a variety of measures  including public statements, sanctions, humanitarian assistance, diplomatic efforts.

Is “responsibility while protecting” a step in the right direction for R2P? What lessons can we draw from the emergence of RWP in terms of norm development? 

In my view, RWP was an important addition to the debate, and came from a significant actor in the contemporary international system. RWP reminded states of the importance of force as a last resort, and the need to ensure that whenever military force is authorized by the UN, those to whom authority is delegated are fully accountable. RWP seeks to enhance the accountability of both the Security Council and the military actors that fulfill the Council’s mandate. In addition, it seeks to improve upon the international community’s capacity to assess emerging crises and act preventively (and non-coercively). These are all positive contributions to R2P’s evolution.

Could Canada be doing more to contribute to the development of R2P?

Canada was of course at the forefront of R2P’s development, with its sponsorship of the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (in 2001). In 2005, both Paul Martin (then Prime Minister) and Allan Rock (then Canada’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations) worked tirelessly to embed the principle in the Summit Outcome Document. Now that R2P is part of the landscape of international affairs, the task of all states, including Canada, is to ensure that they are fulfilling their responsibilities to protect their populations and building the capacity to assist other states in doing so. This partly involves the creation of formal mechanisms within government and investment in capacities to prevent and respond. But more importantly, it requires the will to identify situations of concern and to collaborate with other actors in both preventing and responding to mass atrocity situations. I would welcome an active role from Canada in this next phase of R2P’s evolution, particularly within regional organisations in the Western Hemisphere. The future implementation of R2P depends upon a spirit of partnership, which is of course rooted in national efforts, but which also involves the work of regional and international organisations and civil society.

Dr. Welsh will be stepping back from the Roundtable for the duration of her posting. We wish her all the best in her new role.

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