The nascent concept of the “Responsibility to Protect” (RtoP) is often described by its critics as a Western idea of how the international community should address genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity. Albeit not international law, the concept was increasingly accepted and was hoped to path the way to a world in which humanity unites to oppose atrocities that shock human conscience.
In the light of the NATO-led intervention in Libya and the ongoing conflict in Syria the debate about RtOP continues and welcomes a new influential actor on its stage – Brazil.
In her speech to the UN General Assembly in September 2011, Brazil’s President Dilma Rousseff confirmed her country’s support for the concept of RtoP, however, she also advanced the concept of “Responsibility while Protecting” (RwP). Considering the Brazilian Government’s increasing influence and potential role as a mediator on the world stage, it is advisable and indeed necessary to scrutinise RwP.
RwP can be summarised as follows: preventive diplomacy should be emphasised and proportionate military action, agreed upon by the UN Security Council, is the last resort after all peaceful means are exhausted. Subsequently, the first two pillars of RtoP which focus (a) on the responsibility of the state in question and (b) possible assistance by the international community have to have failed before the third pillar, which encompasses most likely military action, comes into force. Further, the Brazilian Government argues that humanitarian intervention shall not cost more lives as it saves and military action has to be conform with UN resolutions. Finally, the interpretation and implementation of the resolution shall be observed and states or group of states which are authorised to undertake the humanitarian intervention shall be held accountable. Basically, the Brazilian Government aims to ensure basic criteria are fulfilled before and during humanitarian interventions.
The Brazilian Government’s approach is welcomed by many, especially non-Western states, which consider RtoP merely as a further component of neo-liberal imperialism. This is not surprising considering that NATO states seemed to have interpreted UN Resolution 1973 on the situation in Libya rather differently to some other states who voted in favour of it. It might be argued that UN Resolution 1973 was a practical application of RtoP, however, several states, most notably the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa), claimed that the NATO led coalition misused the Resolution and indeed the concept of RtoP. The Resolution was merely aimed at establishing a no-fly zone and to protect civilians – regime change was not on its agenda. These concerns are legitimate and as much as some might welcome the regime change in Libya, it was not envisaged as part of UN Resolution 1973 or by the founders of RtoP. As a consequence, the BRICS and many other states, are rather suspicious when Syria and RtoP are mentioned in the same sentence. This raises the question if the UN Security Council would handle the conflict in Syria differently if the NATO led coalition had adhered to UN Resolution 1973. Some might argue that the price for a chance of peace and democracy in Libya is, to a certain extent, paid by the people of Syria.
In addition, claims by the UK and US that the Iraq War was also fought on humanitarian grounds – a misnomer used after evidence for the existence of WMD and links to Al Qaeda was simply nonexistent – severely damaged the perception of the concept of RtoP and its significance in the fight against genocide and other crimes against humanity.
While RtoP is a commendable concept, it becomes clear that it is viewed rather sceptically. However, taking a closer look at Brazil’s concept paper presented at an informal UN discussion in February 2012 one struggles to find significant differences between RwP and RtoP, especially as the threshold for military intervention was already outlined in the RtoP document adopted by the UN General Assembly in 2005. Moreover, in some points it is rather doubtful how Brazil intends to apply RwP in a crisis.
Several Western states rightly pointed out that the strict chronological sequencing of the tree pillars might not always be possible as some crises develop with such a speed that there is only limited or no time at all for diplomacy. Rwanda’s civil war, which, at first, received little attention by the international community, turned into genocide in less than 24 hours. This example serves as stark reminder that a timely and decisive response is in some cases of utmost importance if lives are to be saved. Further, one wonders how the international community can know beforehand whether taking action cost more lives as inaction. Estimates are possible and are often made before military action is taken, but they are just that – estimates. In addition, the legitimacy of humanitarian intervention is based on international law and therefore RtoP does not attempt to establish new rules for the use of force, but provides a concept based on international law instead.
However, the guidelines for and the consequences of RtoP seem to be nebulous and a clarification is imperative if RtoP is to establish itself as a truly universal norm on which humanity can base their hope on for a world without – or at least less – human atrocities. This clarification can be developed if the issues raised in the concept of RwP are focused on.
It is evident that RwP – even with its limitations – might contribute to fostering the trust for RtoP amongst non-Western governments. Brazil’s approach does not represent a new concept, but rather underlines relevant principles that address the issue of legitimacy and implementation. RwP has the potential to serve as a bridge between states that are believed to interpret RtoP in rather loose terms to advance their own objectives and those states which consider the Westphalian System of sovereignty to be under threat.
The emergence of the BRICS states and their ever increasing weight in global politics is expected to have a profound impact on RtoP and its future scope and nature. In order to turn RtoP in a universally accepted and applied concept, the West has to accept norms being formulated and advanced by non-Western states. This will not only breathe fresh air into international relations, but it will also decrease the likelihood of stalemates in the UN Security Council as we currently witness on the conflict in Syria. Therefore, Brazil’s recommendation of RwP and its suggested conflation with RtoP deserves urgently needed attention and should be welcomed.