Despite the UN’s many member states that have attempted to redress R2P, the principle is still not included in the general assembly’s 2018 agenda and causes more controversy than benefit.
On September 6, 2017, the United Nations (UN) hosted an Interactive Dialogue on the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) as an attempt to reaffirm the principle’s efficacy. The 71stsession president, Peter Thomson, intimated that the guiding theme for the dialogue was the “accountability for prevention”, a phrase that that has a stronger call-to-action than the original provisions in R2P.
R2P’s failures and build-up to the accountability for prevention
The accountability for prevention was first introduced as a means to rebrand R2P after the backlash of the principle’s failed implementation in Libya by the international community. In the follow-up to the outcomes of the Millennium Summit, Secretary-General António Guterres introduced “accountability” as a tool to “[tie] authorities to their populations and individual States to the international community.”
Guterres explicated that a binding mechanism must exist for “legal accountability”, that ties commitments to prevent atrocious crimes, as stated under the doctrine of R2P.
Implementation of R2P, as a guiding normative framework for the internal prevention of atrocity crimes and for external powers to institute collective use of force within another state’s sovereign territory, has been controversial since its inception.
Despite the unanimous adoption of the 2005 World Summit Outcome document, skepticism and trepidation has existed regarding Western-centric rhetoric, particularly in regard to state reconstruction efforts. These concerns reached a tipping point following UNSCR 1973 in Libya, in which many non-Western powers viewed the assassination of Muammar Gaddafi as a pretext for regime change rather than an instrument for bringing peace for Libyan civilians.
These concerns are particularly salient in regard to conversations held during last year’s interactive dialogue, as Syria and other countries expressed grave concerns regarding the UN’s attempt to reaffirm the aforementioned obligations as legally-bound commitments to action.
The Syrian delegation recounted the history of R2P’s “selective application,” hinting that because of a lack of inclusivity on divergent perspectives of how R2P should operate that its central pillars do not have consensus among member parties and thereby does not function as an appropriate moral, political, or legal basis for action.
How is the accountability for prevention different?
Establishing an intervention norm around “accountability” comes as part of a greater effort originally proposed by Brazil to bury R2P and erect the nearly identical Responsibility While Protecting (RwP) principle. While RwP and R2P have similar foundations, RwP aims to appear more inclusive.
RwP differs from R2P in that it places a greater systematization of the assessment of a given situation, and states that if the use of force is to be employed, it “must produce as little violence and instability as possible.” If assessment leads to military intervention, then the accountability component of RwP requires that the use of force be exercised “in strict conformity with international law,” and that the Security Council will more closely monitor the situation.
While RwP’s efforts move to create a more equitable foundation for responsibility and intervention, RwP is still subject to the same lack of clarity in how assessment is to be conducted and how states are to be held accountable.
In that vein, the accountability for prevention calls for member states to “conduct periodic self-assessments” in regards to their upholding of R2P’s first pillar. The language of such a sentiment is important; the UN continually aims to place the impetus for what they frequently refer to as a legal obligation on moralistic and political grounds.
Presently, if a state were to disagree with the charges called for by R2P, the World Summit Outcome, the UN Charter, or any previous normative framework, it is unlikely that any “self-assessment” would be conducted in an effort to better suit the mission of any of these frameworks.
By attempting to impose international obligations from the top-down, especially in a way that is both ambiguous and does not include divergent opinions and expectations, the UN and Guterres are propagating a divisive culture surrounding prevention, protection, and peace-building.
Countries that are castigated due to their inability to protect are made to feel excluded from the international community. While member states that are unable to protect their civilians (and, sometimes, are instigating the violence against them) should not be welcomed with open arms, there are foreseeable possibilities in which the UN could foster a more inclusive and collaborative culture surrounding R2P, its implementation, and expectations.
How can we improve our norms?
If we, as an international community, are committed to the notion of employing R2P or RwP as instruments for spurring moral, political, and legal obligations, it is of paramount importance to create comprehensive action plans.
Although, it is impossible to concretize the abstract notion of responsibility, if assessment and accountability were also accompanied by an itemized action plan that was legally-bound and unanimously accepted by member states, then any deviations or infringements would more clearly lead to legal repercussions.
If such a system were in place, then legal obligations would hold more weight, as countries would be bound to stricter guidelines.
Even though this goal is not viable in practice, there are aspects of it which could yield significant dividends; if the United States was legally prohibited (with actual repercussions for infringement) to engage in unilateral military intervention, then the airstrike in Deir ez-Zor which missed its mark and killed 80 government troops would not have happened; if NATO had been held to a concrete plan, Libya would not be retroactively perceived as the possible death of R2P.
If all member states were bound to a methodical plan, there would be less fear in individualistic geopolitical and economic agendas regarding intervention and protection.
R2P, RwP, and international responsibility were founded on idealistic goals, but the inability to view responsibility through a true international lens has led to a divisive landscape which has fallen victim to the binarity divide of the West and non-West.
If we want to base international responsibility on a legal foundation, the legal foundation requires an actionable framework not an ambiguous system of judgment in which major actors can interpret what “manifestly failing” means. Until a system for international responsibility and intervention is actually systematized, the international community will continue to fail countries in need.
This article was originally published in Global Risk Insights on April 21, 2018. View the original article here.