International politics and the Responsibility to Protect

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The Responsibility to Protect

The Responsibility to Protect (R2P) is a commitment made by the Member States of the United Nations to uphold basic human rights and protect populations from “genocide, crimes against humanity, ethnic cleansing and war crimes”. Maintaining a commitment to these core principles means that member states work through both diplomatic and militaristic means to protect vulnerable populations.

Over the last decade, discussion on the Responsibility to Protect has increased tremendously – it’s a controversial topic and is one that delegates will eventually bump into during their Model UN experiences.

 Navigating an R2P situation requires that a delegate answers a number of challenging questions and deals with various topics. This includes ideas of Human Rights, Interventionism, and most importantly – Sovereignty.

A delegate should also understand a bit about the two primary viewpoints on the topic.

There are 2 divergent opinions when it comes to R2P:

Advocates of R2P will argue that it is a revolutionary new concept that will bring about a new normal on the international stage – organizations such as NATO can be used to protect vulnerable populations stuck in dictatorial regimes.

Critics will argue that R2P poses as a vehicle to impose western hegemony and threaten international stability – it is a trojan horse that lets foreign regimes violate the sovereignty of other nations and once states have pulled out, they frequently leave states in a situation that is far worse than before.

While the term has held many different meanings for many different people, today, we want to look at some of the contexts that have led up to modern usage of the responsibility to protect.


Sovereignty can be thought of as the key grounds for statehood – states having the monopoly of power within their borders means that a government or political organization can govern as they see fit and impose the rule of law.

In the context of this discussion, it is useful to remember that any violation by an outside actor of a state’s border without their explicit consent constitutes a violation of state sovereignty.

With the development of the United Nations, many smaller states were concerned that such a large and broad-reaching organization would serve as a means for larger countries to violate state sovereignty. For this reason, many of the core tenets of the UN have been implemented in order to allay these fears and the UN has always been an organization with the aim of upholding Sovereignty

The reason R2P is so controversial in many cases is that each time it is brought up, it reopens this discussion on the limits of state sovereignty and the role of organizations such as the UN and NATO.

History of R2P

In 1993 Francis Deng was appointed the UN Special Representative on Internally Displaced People, one of his core arguments was that states had an inherent responsibility to look out for their neediest citizens. If they were unable to provide this assistance, they should be amenable to accepting international assistance (Cite: Sovereignty as Responsibility). Over time the notion of a Responsibility to protect continued to grow.

Since 2005, the ‘UN World Summit outcome document’ has given rise to the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) and now, world powers frequently see it as their job to step up when necessary to lend a helping hand.

The Case Studies

Today we’ll look at a few examples – more specifically the conflicts in Cambodia, Kosovo, Darfur, and Libya that have led up to the place we find ourselves today.

1. Cambodia 1978-79 – Globally denounced intervention


The Khmer Rouge (Communist Party of Kampuchea (CPK)) was the political organization led by Pol Pot from 1975 to 1979 who ran a totalitarian regime in Cambodia and perpetrated numerous genocides and atrocities within the state. Their regime caused a great deal of instability in the region with Cambodian citizens fleeing to other neighboring regions.

Despite attempts by the Khmer Rouge to isolate the state from the outside world, numerous reports of atrocities started to emerge in 1978. This created pressure for the UNHRC to investigate these claims. Before this body could react, Vietnam invaded and forcibly removed Pol Pot.  

The Response

The invasion received international condemnation; instead of a general commendation of Vietnam – the state was heavily sanctioned for violations of state sovereignty, non-use of force, and non-intervention.

The international community recognized that there had been terrible suffering of the Khmer people under the rule of Pol Pot, but they affirmed at this time that the principle of human rights violations could not possibly justify the unilateral use of force.

Key Takeaway

At this point in time, upholding state sovereignty and principles of non-intervention was more important than protecting human rights in foreign states.

2. Rwanda 1994 – An unimpeded genocide


The Rwandan Genocide was an ethnic cleansing that took place between two of the primary ethnic factions in Rwanda. The antipathy between these two groups could be dated back to ethnic identity cards that were introduced by Belgian colonists in 1933 – making ethnic identity an embedded part of the political and cultural system in the country.

This division led to smaller conflicts including a rebellion against the Belgian-backed Tutsi administration in 1959 that killed over 20,000 people. In 1961, the Belgians left Rwanda and the Tutsi regime was overthrown. A referendum was held in 1961 and a Hutu-led regime came to power and stayed under UN supervision until 1962 when Rwanda formally became independent.

On 6 April 1994, a plane carrying the Rwandan and Burundi Presidents was shot down and the leaders were killed. Tutsis were blamed for the attack and killings began within hours. Death toll estimates for 100 days of genocide range from 500,000 to 1,000,000.

The Response

The UN and the Western states were generally unresponsive with regard to this conflict, and this reaction still harms the reputations of these states.

On the 7th of April 1994, the UN Secretary-General outlined 3 options for the security council:

1 – Deploy thousands of troops under a Chapter VII mandate in order to force a ceasefire and stop the violence.

2 – Scale down the number of Response troops in Rwanda to roughly 270 soldiers and engage in negotiations whilst helping with humanitarian relief operations.

3 – Complete withdrawal of Response troops in Rwanda.

States elected option #3 and withdrew their troops from the conflict zone – this proposal was based on the perception of the conflict as a ‘tribal war’, labeling the conflict as a civil conflict rather than a Genocide helped Western states to legitimize their decision to not intervene.

Early on during the crisis, certain world leaders rejected the idea that the international community was obligated to halt these types of conflicts.

President Clinton stated that ‘US troops could not be sent to every troubled spot where Americans were offended by human misery’. French President Francois Mitterand stated that the ‘international community could not act as a global peace force and send peacekeepers to all the places where people fight’. Of course, as more Rwandans died, these public statements grew less and less frequent.

In this scenario, there was no international humanitarian intervention that ended the conflict. Ultimately, the genocide ended when the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) – a Tutsi-led movement that overthrew the Hutu government and seized power.

Key Takeaway

This situation proved that there was a point when intervention from the international community can be productive, leaving the conflict to resolve itself can lead to deleterious consequences for the parties involved.

This crisis created a change in perception from states around the world. It became evident that there was are times when foreign states may create an overall benefit by getting involved in international conflicts. This led to the rights afforded to sovereign states in times of humanitarian crisis to be questioned.

3. Kosovo 1999 – Illegal but legitimate


The Kosovo Conflict was a war between ethnic Serbians and Ethnic Albanians who opposed the establishment of new regional governments. It started in 1989, Slobodan Milosevic – President of Serbia, repealed Kosovo’s autonomy within the country. Previously, Kosovo was an autonomous state that had significant independence.

In response to these actions, the majority of the members of the Kosovo assembly declared independence for the region, prompting the Serbian government to implement discriminatory laws between 1989 and 1991 that served as the flashpoint of the conflict that ensued.  

The situation degenerated relatively slowly for the next 5 years, with fringe groups including the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) growing slowly and engaging in asymmetrical warfare against the Serbian state. By 1998, the KLA could be classified as a substantial armed uprising, leading to the Yugoslav armed forces attempting to reassert control, leading to widespread atrocities being committed and waves of refugees fleeing the area.

The Response

The Kosovo crisis marks the beginning of a paradigm shift in the international system regarding R2P and the actions by the UN security council and NATO.

NATO intervened in Kosovo with the organization by carrying out an ‘illegal but legitimate’ bombing of Yugoslavian forces starting in 1999 called Operation Allied Force. These bombings continued until an agreement was reached that led to the withdrawal of the Yugoslav armed forces from Kosovo and the establishment of a UN peacekeeping mission that continues today.

Part of the reason for the intervention was due to the diminishing credibility of NATO as the more allowed the conflict to escalate without resolution, the more the Milosevic regime believed that nothing would ever happen.

While NATO was never given approval for the invasion, the primary rationale was argued was that the moral imperative to aid the Kosovar Albanians trumped everything else.

Key Takeaway

While the intervention was still seen as controversial and did not gain UN approval. The bombings marked a key paradigm shift in the international system wherein Western states were willing to violate state sovereignty in order to stop a humanitarian crisis and invoke a Responsibility to Protect.

Despite this, the new interest in humanitarian intervention that was created by this conflict has not led to a new framework to guide guiding international humanitarian interventions.

4. Libya 2011 – A coordinated effort


The uprising in Libya follows the timeline of the Arab Spring (provide link) a time when protests against existing governments dominated the Arab world. Following these protests, discussions surrounding humanitarian intervention also became prominent in international politics.

For almost 3 decades, Moamar Qaddafi was the leader of Libya, dominating the political scene and controlling state assets as a whole. During this time, Libya and the West had frequently come to conflict ever since the 1980s, with Qaddafi indirectly attacking the west on a number of occasions.

During the Arab Spring, protests turned against the Qaddafi regime, in response he began to fight fiercely in order to protect his regime. Working to eliminate any political opponent who came against him.  

The Response

As the violence continued to escalate – UN bodies began to issue a number of condemnatory statements. The UN Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide and the Special Adviser on the Responsibility to Protect issued a joint statement that condemned ‘systemic attacks against civilian populations by military forces, mercenaries, and aircraft’.

Following these statements, the UN Security Council passed Resolution 1970 in February 2011 – This invoked Chapter VII protocols. The resolution also imposed an arms embargo, travel bans, and asset freeze against Libyan authorities.

Despite this coordinated approach by the UN, continued condemnation from UN bodies, and the ICC officially launching an investigation, violence in the region continued to escalate.

The UN adopted Resolution 1973 on the 17th of March 2011 and was an agreement that demanded an immediate ceasefire and authorized the formation of a no-fly zone over Libya. The agreement also formed the legal basis for military intervention through Operation Unified protector – the Military action against Libya began on March 19th and was initially individually coordinated by the US France and the UK. On the 24th, NATO officially agreed to lead the operation.

The mission had 3 objectives – police the arms embargo, patrol the no-fly zone and reduce civilian casualties.

Over time, NATO stretched the terms of Resolution 1973 significantly – eventually leading to Qaddafi being killed and a Transitional National Council taking power after 222 days of operations.

Key Takeaway

This intervention was seen as a case study of the effect that a cohesive protocol for humanitarian interventions can have on foreign conflicts. Responsibility to Protect has long since been heralded as a method of improving the international community’s response to intra-state crises. This particular intervention has been described as a ‘textbook case of the R2P norm working exactly as it was supposed to’.

How far have we come?

In closing, it’s clear that R2P has slowly evolved over the last 5 decades and the global opinion vis-a-vis international involvement in global conflicts has changed drastically. But there is still much change to be expected.

And Syria – mention Syria NATO’s intervention in Libya was remarkable for the support it was afforded within the Security Council, across the Middle East, and the rest of the world. Few could have predicted such unanimity behind Western military action in the wake of the acrimonious invasion of Iraq. This led to wildly optimistic assessments of the future which were quickly dispelled as the situation in Syria deteriorated and the Security Council dithered.

Even in situations like Libya – it is important to note that the Security Council has always had the powers (as mandated under Chapter VII of the Charter) required to undertake the actions that were taken. It can be therefore argued that the principle of R2P.

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