The Need for Post-R2P Humanitarianism

Aidan Hehir, Commentary, Robert Murray

Four years ago this month Security Council Resolution 1973 sanctioning action against Libya was effusively welcomed by many as conclusive proof of the Responsibility to Protect’s (R2P) efficacy. It was, former Australian Foreign Minister Gareth Evans rejoiced, “a textbook case of R2P working exactly as it was supposed to.”

A new era had ostensibly dawned; “By now it should be clear to all,” UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon declared, “that the responsibility to protect has arrived.”

These giddy sentiments now appear remarkably naïve. To put it mildly, events since have shown R2P to be peripheral to international affairs, despite the best efforts of its advocates to convince us otherwise. The hand-wringing and disunity which has characterised the Security Council’s response to Syria, coupled with the desultory and overtly geopolitically-inspired responses to crises in Bahrain, Gaza and elsewhere, have naturally led many to ask “where is R2P?” Additionally, Libya’s descent into violent chaos means it hardly constitutes a welcome exemplar of “R2P in action.” Russia’s actions in Ukraine suggest that R2P’s strategy of turning states into responsible, human-rights-orientated actors through the exercise of moral suasion is glaringly anachronistic; does anyone seriously think Vladimir Putin is receptive to the blandishments of humanitarian advocacy? Recent events also pose serious challenges to R2P advocates who vigorously argued that the passing of Resolution 1973 demonstrated that China and Russia, often portrayed as the Security Council’s enemies of R2P action, had begun to accept R2P as a constitutive norm of the international system.

Yet, some of R2P’s more zealous advocates have continued to claim that the concept has had, and will continue to have, a definite influence on the international response to looming or actual intra-state mass atrocities, even after the devolution of Libya and inaction in virtually every other humanitarian crisis since 2011.

Some critics of R2P simply dismiss these claims as absurd, declare the concept to be dead, and furthermore point to Libya as evidence that humanitarian intervention cannot work. The rise of the BRICS, the decline of the West, and the record of intervention, constitute, they argue the death of the humanitarian moment; that period from 1992 to 2011 when human rights champions and a coterie of Western political elites advanced an agenda for intervention that appeared limitless.

While we count ourselves as critics of R2P’s efficacy, we don’t believe the sorry fate of the concept, or the crises in Libya and Syria, should inure fatalism; intra-state crises are (sadly) not going to disappear, and while R2P has demonstrably failed, we must continue to work towards achieving improving the responsiveness of the international community to such situations and finding means of protecting vulnerable populations in an anarchic and power politics-dominated international system.

The question of why is obvious — these crises involve egregious human suffering; we surely cannot be content with a system which tolerates orchestrated mass violence against civilians. But beyond this moral imperative, it is short-sighted to believe that these crises do not have a deleterious effect on international peace and security. To argue that intra-state crises are “none of our concern” is both outdated and myopic. R2P’s failure, in both theory and practice, does not legitimise arguments in favour of sovereign inviolability.

The contagion effects of unaddressed intra-state mass atrocities — in the form of refugee flows, the legitimisation of state-sponsored violence and the promotion of armed resistance — by definition threaten order and stability. The rise of ISIL in Syria and Iraq is a compelling illustration, as of course is the displacement of civilians and armed groups throughout Africa in the wake of the crises in South Sudan, the Central African Republic, Rwanda, and Mali. To argue that it is sometimes warranted to intervene primarily to halt mass atrocities is not the preserve of the wide-eyed liberal idealist.

Determining how to improve the international community’s response to intra-state crises is, of course, fraught with difficulties, though difficulty does not lessen the moral imperative to do so. The existing system has certainly failed in its efforts to recognize and protect suffering populations. The ability to respond to humanitarian emergency is only going to be further constrained as the system evolves to a multipolar structure where non-western powers will have a much larger role in international affairs.

To declare “the system is immutable” is fatalistic, and indeed, ahistorical; while security and power in their most unrefined form may well have always been, and will likely continue to be, the dominant determinants on state behaviour, this need not preclude the possibility of legal evolution. Why should it? Robust legal systems are not necessarily the enemy of the powerful, but of course they cannot be a slave to power either. Is there a middle way? We feel there is, and suggest it is time to think about the contours of a new international legal architecture, one which accepts that states are not, and never have been, moral actors, but whose actions can be deterred, constrained or compelled via effective and pragmatic legal regimes.

The existing system has reached an untenable impasse; intra-state mass atrocities will continue to destabilise international order and the mass human suffering they spawn will obviously degrade perceptions of the system’s legitimacy. The alternative, moral suasion as advanced by R2P, has clearly failed, and thus it is surely time to think seriously about fundamental and far-reaching alternatives; to do so need not necessitate utopianism. Rather, what is required is a debate about the relationship between states and international law, and the extent to which the former can permit the latter to ensure a more consistent response to intra-state crises.

This op ed was originally published by OpenCanada on Tuesday, March 17, 2015: https://www.opencanada.org/features/the-need-for-post-r2p-humanitarianism/