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R2P: A Normative Paradox


In the ninth report of the United Nations Secretary-General on the Responsibility to Protect (R2P), António Guterres (2017: 1) stated, “[t]here is a gap between our stated commitment to the responsibility to protect and the daily reality confronted by populations exposed to the risk of genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity”. Thus, Guterres emphasized the gap between the theoretical support of R2P, and the practical implementation of the doctrine. In a later speech, Guterres (2018) stressed that "we must not abandon the responsibility to protect or leave it in a state of suspended animation" while affirming the rise in "scale and ferocity" of mass atrocities in previous years. Thus, Guterres recognized the paradox in implementing R2P within the international institutional order. Therefore, the essay's focus emphasizes that, within the legal structure of R2P, its interventionist normative force is inconceivable in an anarchic international system, where states apply a type of cost-benefit analysis when faced with international human rights law.

In this paper, I identify the three pillars of R2P and its legal credibility in international politics. I then present the main arguments for R2P via its legitimacy as an international norm. Accordingly, I refute R2P’s normative argument by affirming the importance of normative efficacy in relation to military intervention and the logic behind R2P’s failure to influence states’ behavior. Finally, I reiterate R2P’s insignificance in relation to military intervention by showing its failure in the wars in Libya and Syria.

The Legal Scope of R2P

In 2009, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon (2009) issued a report titled "Implementing the responsibility to protect", which focuses on paragraphs 138 and 139 of the 2005 World Summit Outcome. The report outlines a three-pillar strategy that manifests the Responsibility to Protect doctrine, which clarifies the responsibilities imposed by the resolution (Ki-moon, 2009: 2). Pillar one reiterates “the enduring responsibility of the State to protect its population” (Ki-moon, 2009: 8), and pillar two highlights “the commitment of the international community to assist States in meeting those obligations” (Ki-moon, 2009: 9). Therefore, pillars one and two emphasize the host state’s humanitarian responsibility to protect its population. Lastly, pillar three underlines “the responsibility of Member States to respond collectively in a timely and decisive manner when a State is manifestly failing to provide such protection” (Ki-moon, 2009: 9). Thus, pillar three is based on Chapter 7 of the United Nations (UN) Charter, where the international response can be in coercive measures such as military intervention, and the authority of such measures lay with the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) (Ki-moon, 2009: 9). Pillar three underlines the interventionist ethos of R2P and the international commitment to act against mass atrocities (Ki-moon, 2009: 1).

Accordingly, the two main objectives of R2P are to prevent mass atrocities and clarify the Security Council’s legitimacy on humanitarian intervention (Morris, 2016: 210). However, the problem with these objectives is the doctrine's failure in creating a legal structure that authorizes intervention, which compels the Security Council to take measures against mass atrocities (Hehir, 2013: 152; Hehir, 2019: loc 1033). Therefore, R2P did not invent a new law or principle; it just reaffirmed existing laws and confirmed the legitimacy of humanitarian military intervention through pillar three (Hehir, 2016: 172-173). Thus, in the words of Gareth Evans (2016: 259), who co-chaired the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS) in 2001, "[t]hose of us involved in the creation of the Responsibility to Protect concept were trying neither to create new international legal rules nor undermine old ones".

Moreover, the Secretary-General of Amnesty International (2015, 2) affirms the absence of action in facing mass atrocities, stating that "[g]overnments pay lip service to the importance of protecting civilians. And yet the world's politicians have miserably failed to protect those in greatest need". Thus, without an amendment in the international legal order or a mechanism of authorization and accountability, R2P is legally inadequate in preventing mass atrocities.  Therefore, the assumption holds that the Security Council will move forward with military intervention on a case-by-case basis, and only if its collective interests align with the intervention (Hehir, 2013: 152).

The Normative Dimension of R2P

Creators of R2P in (ICISS) understood the importance of the Permanent Five (P5) in the Security Council and the necessity for their support to R2P’s international recognition. Therefore, (ICISS) pursued a concept within the existing international legal order, in line with the interest of the (P5), particularly the United States, as its former Ambassador John Bolton insisted on no legal commitment would be imposed on the Security Council from R2P (Hehir, 2019: loc 3130, 4794). Nevertheless, proponents of the doctrine claim that R2P’s power stems from its normative dimension, as it became an international norm that influences states' behavior through fear of collective military intervention and “rhetorical entrapment” (Bellamy, 2015: 163, 179; Glanville, 2016: 184-186; Evans, 2016: 260). Therefore, I highlight R2P's normative deficiencies due to the fundamental role of norms in R2P, as according to Alex Bellamy (2015, cited in Hehir, 2019: loc 1585), norms are “the stuff of R2P”. Hence, if R2P's intervention power stems from its normative power, exposing its failure as a norm demonstrates its insignificance on military intervention. 

Firstly, I explore norms through Finnemore’s and Sikkink’s (1998: 891) eminent paper on the life cycle of norms, which define norms as "a standard of appropriate behaviour for actors with a given identity". Thus, norms shape proper conduct and action in international politics. Therefore, R2P's value stems from this definition of norms, as it tries to shape states’ behaviour through fear of collective military intervention and "rhetorical entrapment", where states and international society would be shamed for not adhering to R2P (Bellamy, 2015: 179; Evans, 2016: 260; Glanville, 2016: 184-186; Hehir, 2019: loc 1585). Thus, to elaborate, I recognize the influence of norms on states' behaviour and R2P's legitimacy as an international norm; however, in this essay, I question R2P’s normative efficacy in deploying military intervention (Legro, 1997; Hehir, 2019: loc 1679). Nevertheless, before diving into R2P’s efficacy, I demonstrate R2P's main normative arguments and legitimacy as an international norm.

For instance, Aidan Hehir (2019: loc 176), one of R2P's prominent critics, asserts R2P's proliferation in “international political discourse" and its significance in invoking more than 67 (UNSC) resolutions since 2005. Likewise, more than 150 heads of states adopted the 2005 World Summit Outcome (Glanville, 2016: 188). Therefore, according to Luke Glanville (2016: 188), since R2P's adoption in 2005, the norm has been "institutionalized in specific sets of international rules and organization", which contribute to its evolution as a norm and its cascade in the life cycle of norms (Finnemore and Sikkink, 1998: 900).  Furthermore, a study done by Jess Gifkins (2016: 149) illustrates the rise of R2P language in Security Council resolutions since the NATO-led intervention in Libya and R2P’s rhetoric significance in international political discourse. Therefore, R2P supporters claim that with the rise of R2P language in political debates and the international recognition of the norm, states are "rhetorically entrapped" and socially pressured to comply, consequently influencing states' behaviour (Bellamy, 2015: 179; Glanville, 2016: 185-186). Nevertheless, in the following part of the essay, I demonstrate that even though R2P is a norm, the efficacy of its normative scope determines its importance to military intervention; since its normative interventionist goals are inconceivable in an anarchic international order, where states apply a type of cost-benefit analysis when faced with a violation of international human rights law.

R2P’s Efficacy on Military Intervention

The argument that R2P is important for military intervention on the basis that norms matter is shortsighted due to different factors that makes norms vary in strength and importance (Legro, 1997: 33). Therefore, rather than submitting to R2P's interventionist significance through the proliferation of R2P in 'international political discourse', the efficacy is what matters in norms (Hehir, 2019: loc 176, 284). According to Hehir (2019: loc 1542), R2P is a “Hallow Norm”, as he states that R2P is “a norm which is inherently malleable, can be affirmed without cost, and is regulated by those it seeks to constrain, rather than either an impartial body or those it seeks to protect”.

Accordingly, Hehir (2019: loc 3217-3498) affirms that R2P is “inherently malleable [and] can be affirmed without a cost” through a quantitative study which demonstrates that even with the rise of R2P rhetoric in (UNSC) resolutions, the interventionist spirit of pillar three did not appear once in all resolutions. Therefore, according to Hehir (2019: loc 3237), "the Security Council employs R2P language overwhelmingly to emphasize the host states [responsibilities]" and not the international responsibility to protect, which is the ethos of military intervention in the doctrine. Hence the reason behind R2P’s popularity is the insignificant costs states affirm for recognizing their responsibility to protect their population (Hehir, 2019: loc 313). Therefore, In consequence of R2P's rhetoric exploitation by the Security Council, which explains Guterres's (2018) concern on the principle's "double standards", the normative power of R2P has diminished significantly. Thus, the symmetric rise of R2P rhetoric and humanitarian despair in the last decade stresses the premise of R2P's irrelevance in states’ behaviour (Guterres, 2018; Hehir, 2019: loc 1162-1272).

Furthermore, the underpinning logic behind R2P's failure stems from the anarchic nature of the international order, which leads states to apply a type of cost-benefit analysis when faced with a violation of international human rights law. Thus, the anarchic international system lacks an overarching authority, where there is no central power to enforce rules, in contrast to the domestic rule of law (Hehir, 2019: loc 3811). Therefore, R2P "lacks a feature deemed to be essential to any normative legal order, namely the separation between the judiciary and the executive" (Hehir, 2019: loc 3811). In reiteration, the legal structure that R2P works within confirms Hehir's (2019: loc 1542) "Hallow Norm" premise, where R2P "is regulated by those it seeks to constrain". Therefore, the nature of the international order compels actors to implement a type of cost-benefit analysis when faced with a violation of international human rights law, identified by Charles Glaser as "strategic choice theory" (Glaser 2010, cited in Hehir, 2019: loc 3865).

Glaser’s theory assumes three variables; states encounter "constraints and opportunities", the anarchic nature of the international order, and the assumption that states are rational actors (Glaser 2010, cited in Hehir, 2019: loc 3865). To explicate, the assumption that states are rational suggests that "states seek to maximize their interests in a context where their choices are not necessarily constrained by an overarching judicial authority" (Hehir, 2019: loc 3865). Nevertheless, this does not mean that states avoid costs at all times but instead balance the costs and benefits of every action (Hehir, 2019: loc 3865). Therefore, according to Hehir (2019: loc 3865), human rights law is directly influenced by Glaser’s “strategic choice theory” due to the "logic of reciprocity" in compliance with human rights law. Thus, the violation of domestic human rights law contrasts unevenly to the violation of inter-state laws; since states do not suffer direct costs when other states commit domestic mass atrocities (Hehir, 2019: loc 3865). Therefore, due to the high costs of military intervention, the normative strength of sovereignty, and the minimal financial incentives gained from humanitarian intervention, R2P dissolves within competing norms (Legro, 1997: 33).

Consequently, to claim that R2P's normative scope influences military intervention contradicts the reality of contemporary international politics. To reiterate, the exploitation of the interventionists pillar of R2P identifies the norm's worth within competing norms and verifies the premise that states apply "strategic choice theory" with international human rights law (Legro, 1997: 33; Glaser 2010, cited in Hehir, 2019: loc 3865). Therefore, R2P's intervention significance is obsolete through its normative dimension, which is emphasized in the following part of the essay by exposing R2P’s failure in the Arab Spring. 

R2P’s failure in the Arab Spring

The Arab Spring of 2011 demonstrates different cases of the exploitation of R2P and its insignificance to military intervention. Therefore, I highlight both the war in Libya and Syria, two critical case studies in relation to military intervention and R2P. The common denominator between the two cases is the (P5's) implementation of strategic choice theory and the normative scarcity of R2P. In reiteration, if the collective interest of the (P5) does not align with R2P, the chances of military intervention are obsolete through the doctrine.

To many supporters of R2P, Libya is considered the turning point of the norm and the most substantial model of its efficacy (Bellamy, 2015; Gifkins, 2016: 149; Evans, 2016: 260). Throughout the escalation of the conflict in 2011, the (UNSC) adopted resolutions 1970 and 1973, which “referred the situation in Libya to the International Criminal Court, created an arms embargo and targeted sanctions, authorized the use of force, and created a no-fly zone over Libya” (Gifkins, 2016: 148). Indeed, R2P was first employed through its Chapter 7 context in Libya. However, a study done by Justin Morris (2013: 1273) verifies that the (UNSC) referred "only to pillar one of the concept" in its resolutions concerning the intervention. Moreover, for the United Kingdom, a state that advocates for R2P, "the concept played little part in determining policy" over Libya (Morris, 2013: 1273). In reiteration, the interventionist pillar of the doctrine was disregarded on what supporters claim, "a textbook case of the R2P norm working exactly as it was supposed to", which expose its normative inadequacy (Evans 2011, cited in Hehir, 2016: 175).

Furthermore, I argue that Libya's intervention was a calculated strategic decision from the (UNSC) and did not relate to R2P. Thus, different strategic variables influenced the intervention; these include "Qaddafi's pariah status", the fragility of Libyan forces, its geostrategic position to Europe, Libya’s oil reserves, and the acceptance of the Arab League and African Union towards the intervention, which affirms Russia's and China's abstention from resolution 1973 (Murray, 2013: 69; Hehir, 2013: 153-156; Hehir, 2016: 175). Therefore, the combination of these factors determined the NATO-led intervention, and the negligence of pillar three affirms R2P's irrelevance over Libya.

Moreover, the non-intervention case in Syria exploits two interconnected problems in the doctrine; the legal structure within the (UNSC's) veto power and the national interests of the (P5). Ten years have passed since the eruption of the conflict between protestors and Assad's regime, which has escalated into a total civil war, with the death toll of more than half a million, 11 million in need of humanitarian assistance, and half of the population is displaced either within the country or abroad (Chughtai, 2021). Therefore, the situation in Syria was clearly in need of international humanitarian intervention, and supporters of R2P accuse Russia and China of vetoing coercive measures against Assad's regime. (Bellamy, 2015: 171; Glanville, 2016: 195).

However, with the lack of an authorization mechanism in R2P, the (P5) applied strategic choice theory regarding Syria's mass atrocities. First of all, accusing Russia's and China's Veto as causation to the non-intervention in Syria is misleading because the resolutions that were "vetoed did not call for anything approaching military intervention; rather, they sought only to impose economic and political sanctions" (Hehir, 2019: loc 4210). Therefore, the calculated variables that influenced the non-intervention include; Syria's military power, which is much stronger than Libya's, the chemical weapons the regime had, the instability of the Middle East compared to North Africa, and finally, Russia's support to Assad's regime (Murray, 2013: 69). Thus, Russia's rational calculations stems from its "only Mediterranean naval base [in] the Syrian port of Tartus”, the selling of weaponry to the regime, and “Russian oil company Soyuzneftegaz [which] has signed huge contracts with the Syrian Oil Ministry since the crisis began" (Hehir, 2016: 177). Therefore, R2P did not influence Assad's regime through fear of military intervention, as the cost of committing mass atrocities and destroying the country was lower than losing command. Similarly, both Russia and China were not rhetorically entrapped for supporting Assad's regime. Therefore, both cases of Libya and Syria demonstrate R2P's normative bankruptcy in concern to military intervention.  

To sum up, I do not disregard the efforts in crafting and advocating a solution to mass atrocities by (ICISS), the UN General Assembly, and global institutions of civil society. However, I believe that in critiquing the doctrine, I advocate for a solution. Therefore, I must disagree with António Guterres (2018) and advocate for the abandonment of R2P. Because, within the existing international system, the doctrine cannot influence states' behavior. Thus,” [w]ith more than 65 million people displaced by conflict, atrocities and persecution, as well as four countries at risk of famine”, the ferocity humanitarian despair is in need for something different (Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect, 2017: 3). And if the rise of mass atrocities, the absence of R2P in states’ decision process, and the rhetoric exploitation of R2P is not acceptable evidence of R2P’s failure, we may well ask, “what evidence would falsify R2P” (Hehir, 2019: loc 5064)?

Yaarub Al-Dhahab is a postgraduate student at the Queen Mary University of London, pursuing a Master of Arts in International Relations. His research interests focus on the Gulf Arab States in relation to global capitalism, nationalism, and authoritarianism. 



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