The Drivers of R2P Rejectionism

Whose Responsibility To Protect? War and Peace

According to Gareth Evans, President Emeritus of International Crisis Group, the three broad challenges currently hindering “Responsibility to Protect” (R2P) principles are conceptual, institutional, and political.1

Whether constructive or disparaging, most writings on R2P either focus on conceptual and legal questions, or discuss the need for and specifics of the nascent norm’s institutionalization and operationalization. Common proposals to resolve R2P’s political challenges include improving coordination among the “Friends of R2P,” or mobilizing indifferent countries that have so far refrained from vocal activism within United Nations forums. Although key to advance the R2P-agenda, few scholars have assessed the drivers of R2P opposition, displaying a defeatist attitude towards obstructionist countries. Among R2P skeptics, concerns about the erosion of national sovereignty and the potential for Western abuses are common. Yet, in general, those fragile states most likely to end up on the receiving end of R2P-inspired military operations seem very supportive of R2P. By analyzing official country statements in R2P-related debates within various UN forums, I aim to instigate a debate about the factors driving the skepticism and explicit opposition towards this effort to protect populations from mass atrocities. Such a debate could result in a strategy aimed at expanding the pro-R2P constituency at the General Assembly (GA) to include not only the indifferent GA middle section, but also core opposition members.

R2P has encountered serious obstacles on its road towards operationalization. An important impediment is the fear of rejectionist countries that, by legitimizing non-consensual military operations, even if only in narrowly defined circumstances, R2P could further erode a weak country’s internal sovereignty and improve the power establishment’s capacity to interfere in others’ domestic affairs. In his concept note preceding the July 2009 GA-debate on R2P, current GA-President Miguel D’Escoto from Nicaragua stated: “The legacy of colonialism gave developing countries strong reasons to fear that laudable motives can end up being misused […] to justify arbitrary and selective intervention against the weakest states.”2 During an informal discussion prior to the 2005 High-Plenary meeting at the GA, Cuba’s delegate had similarly warned: “R2P will only facilitate interference, pressure, and intervention in the domestic affairs of our states.”3 Another illustrative statement came from India’s Ambassador to the UN, who stated in 2005 that R2P should not be used “as a cover for conferring any legitimacy on the so-called right of intervention.”4

Given the increased risk of conflict in fragile states, and given the fact that genocide and other R2P-crimes almost always occur in the context of violent conflict, one would expect that concerns about the potential sovereignty-eroding effects of R2P would, in the first place, be expressed by those states often labeled as weak, failing, fragile, or failed.5 Not only are R2P-related crimes most likely to occur within weak states, but the international community also faces less opposition when “reacting in a timely or decisive manner” to intervene where weak authorities are not capable of providing protection for its citizens, such as in Guinea Bissau or Haiti. There would be a far higher level of opposition to international intervention in areas such as Tibet, Chechnya, and other high-alert areas within institutionally strong states.6 Positions within the R2P debate could thus be expected to correspond with the geographic divide between the global North and the global South, or the categorical divide between strong and weak states. Yet, of the top twenty countries on the 2008 State Fragility Index, developed by Monty Marshall and Jack Goldstone of the Center for Global Policy, only Sudan explicitly opposes R2P. Eight of these twenty most fragile states consistently embrace R2P as an important instrument to prevent mass atrocities.7 Apart from traditional advocates, like Rwanda, this group of fragile supporters somewhat surprisingly includes Myanmar, whose representative made a positive statement during the July 2009 GA debate: “While prevention is at the heart of the concept of R2P, states may invoke R2P rationale for intervention of international community when prevention fails.”8 Most spoilers are relatively well institutionalized and at low-risk of being confronted with an R2P-related intervention (see Box 1). State fragility does not seem to be a significant indicator of R2P rejectionism.


R2P tools, whether diplomatic, economic, legal—or if the aforementioned proved ineffective—military, are targeted at states that prove unable or unwilling to protect their citizens from mass atrocity crimes.9 However, it is the states that are unwilling to fulfill their part of the social contract that are most likely to reject R2P. Those unable to do so generally express support, or at least tentative indifference towards R2P. The countries listed in Box 1 vary in the extent to which they oppose, or consistently criticize R2P. For example, whereas Cuba, Egypt, and Venezuela actively and consistently oppose it, China and Russia have refrained from openly rejecting R2P while displaying their deep distrust of the concept. The moderately negative declaratory position of Russia and China, countries with otherwise weak human rights records, can partly be explained by their ability to block any resolution within the Security Council as a permanent member.10 The question is, what does this obstructionist camp have in common apart from the apparent fear of this “Trojan horse for Western attempts to legitimize a right of humanitarian interventionism.”11 A country’s position towards R2P is likely to be driven by a complex mix of factors: its historical experiences with mass atrocities (whether as a victim or perpetrator); its genuine attitude towards human rights issues; its awareness of its shared interest in the prevention of mass atrocities from a strategic, moral and financial point of view; a country’s perceived opportunity to benefit from what UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon referred to as R2P’s second Pillar, that is, international assistance and capacity-building; its sensitivity about any loss of sovereignty as interpreted in its traditional sense, etcetera.

Yet, apart from these surface-level drivers, opposition may also be determined by a country’s political nature and position within the international system. The listed countries often display a mix of democratic and autocratic features, ambiguity regarding their willingness to engage with the global community, and an urge to act as balancers within the international system in terms of norms, ideology, or power. Some of these vocal opponents may try to seize on the R2P debate as an opportunity to strengthen their profile as spokesperson for their region, the Non-Aligned Movement, the G-77, the developing world as a whole, or an alternative movement against the current global power establishment.12 Given some of these countries’ disproportionate impact on the R2P discourse, advocates should thoroughly analyze the drivers of R2P rejectionism so they can be manipulated where malleable.

Within the first phase of any broad effort to expand the global pro-R2P constituency, some of the major advocating countries could channel their diplomatic energies and privately engage these opponents of R2P, exploring their needs, and trying to secure supportive commitments or positive attitudes through package deals involving related or unrelated areas. Successes in softening the rhetoric of a former dissenter exist, as in the case of Vietnam, a country that despite its initial intransigence recently welcomed some of R2P’s key tenets.13 Secondly, external support for local civil society within obstructionist states, wherever they exist and seem receptive, could increase the bottom-up pressure on national elites. Thirdly, moving R2P onto the agenda of regional bodies and other multilateral forums that include “opponents of R2P” can further increase the pressure.14 Finally, in case cooperative initiatives do not bear any fruit, core advocates can experiment with coercive diplomatic approaches (for example through naming and shaming) aimed at dividing and isolating the opponents, while increasing the costs of their continued opposition.

Gareth Evans made clear that increased awareness about the nature of those countries adamantly opposing R2P could convince those countries sitting on the fence to do the opposite, not only on a moral basis, but also based on practical national interest grounds: “States that can’t or won’t stop internal atrocity crimes are the kind of rogue, or failed states or failing states, that can’t or won’t stop terrorism, weapons proliferation, the spread of health pandemics … and other global risks.”15


October 7, 2009

1. Gareth Evans. The Responsibility to Protect: Ending Mass Atrocity Crimes Once and For All (Washington DC: Brookings Press, 2008): 54.


2. Miguel D’Escoto. Statement at the 97th Meeting of the Sixty-Third General Assembly, New York (July 23, 2009).

3. World Federalist Movement. “State-by-State Positions on the Responsibility to Protect,” Report (undated).

4. Nirupam Sen, Permanent Representative of India to the UN. “In Larger Freedom,” Statement at the informal thematic consultations of the General Assembly on the Report of the Secretary-General, New York (April 20, 2005).

5. Marshall, G. Monty and Benjamin R. Cole. “Global Report on Conflict, Governance and State Fragility 2008,” Foreign Policy Bulletin (2008): 17; Joseph J. Hewitt, Jonathan Wilkenfeld and Ted Robert Gurr. Peace and Conflict 2008 (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2008): 67; Madeleine K. Albright and William S. Cohen. “Preventing Genocide: A Blueprint for U.S. Policymakers,” Task Force Report (Washington DC: USIP Press, December 2008): 38.

6. United Nations General Assemby. “Implementing the Responsibility to Protect: Report of the Secretary-General.” A/63/677 (January 12, 2009):10, 15.

7. Monty G. Marshall, and Benjamin R. Cole. “Global Report on Conflict, Governance and State Fragility 2009,” State Fragility Index and Matrix 2008. The Democratic Republic of Congo, Myanmar, Nigeria, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, the Central African Republic, Iraq, and Zambia consistently supported R2P in official statements. The remaining top-20 countries have no clear position on R2P.

8. U Kyaw Zwar Minn, Deputy Permanent Representative of the Union of Myanmar to the UN. “Follow-up to the outcome of the millennium Summit: report of the Secretary-General,” Statement on Agenda Item 44 and 107, Sixty-Third General Assembly, New York (July 23, 2009).

9. Evans, p. 4.

10. Claire Applegarth and Andrew Block. “Acting Against Atrocities: A Strategy for Supporters of the Responsibility to Protect,” Discussion Paper #09-03 (Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs: Cambridge, MA, March 2009): 26.

11. Paul D. Williams. “The ‘Responsibility to Protect:’ Norm Localization, and African International Society,” Global Responsibility to Protect 1 No. 3 (June 2009): 414.

12. Ibid, p. 28.

13. Ibid.

14. Ibid, p. 50.

15. Gareth Evans. “Responsibility to Protect in 2007: Five Thoughts for Policy Makers,” International Crisis Group (2007).