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Protecting Civilians from Mass Atrocities: Meeting the Challenge of R2P Rejectionism

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The three broad challenges that obstruct R2P’s implementation are conceptual, institutional, and political. Most scholarly work on R2P deals with the conceptual or institutional obstacles, paying insufficient attention to the political process. In this paper I analyse the motivations behind country opposition to the responsibility to protect and make recommendations to address the drivers of R2P rejectionism. A mix of underlying variables feeds this opposition, in particular experiences with state repression, mass atrocities and external interference, tactical maneuvers by UN delegations, and state revisionism. The political context for R2P implementation is not ‘a given’, but to some extent susceptible to external influence. In order to move R2P from an aspiration into an accepted norm, advocates with significant political leverage could undermine R2P opposition where possible. Neutralising rejectionism is key to obtain a stronger consensus resolution, move R2P into the normative mainstream, and increase the pressure to formulate rapid and robust responses to imminent or ongoing atrocities.

1. fn61* The views expressed here are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the views of the United States Institute of Peace, which does not advocate specific policy positions.
2. fn11 Ban Ki-moon, Implementing the responsibility to protect, A/63/677, 12 January 2009.
3. fn22 Gareth Evans, The Responsibility to Protect, Ending Mass Atrocity Crimes Once and For All (Washington DC: Brookings Press, 2008), p. 54.
4. fn33 For a fuller discussion about some of the conceptual and institutional challenges facing R2P, see Abiodun Williams and Jonas Claes ‘The Responsibility to Protect and Peacemaking’ in Susan Allen Nan, Zachariah Cherian Mampilly and Andrea Bartoli (eds), Peacemaking (Santa Barbara, California: Praeger, 2012).
5. fn44 Marc Saxer, ‘The Politics of Responsibility to Protect’, Friedrich Ebert Stiftung Briefing Paper, April 2008. Statement by Professor Noam Chomsky to the United Nations General Assembly Thematic Dialogue on the Responsibility to Protect, 23 July 2009,
6. fn55 Matteo Legrenzi, ‘R2P is a No-Go’, Ottawa Citizen, 14 April 2009. Statement from Miguel D’Escoto Brockmann at the 97th Meeting of the Sixty-Third General Assembly, 23 July 2009,
7. fn66 The 2009 GA debate on R2P resulted in a relatively weak resolution that merely took note of the Secretary-General’s Report and decided to continue its consideration of the responsibility to protect. A/RES/63/308, 7 October 2009. Following the example of the GA Resolution on Prevention of Armed Conflict (A/RES/57/337, 18 July 2003), a substantive resolution on R2P could remind member states of their existing obligations to protect populations from atrocities, call for the strengthening of existing UN capacity to protect populations and member states and regional organisations to implement R2P, encourage the Security Council, Secretary-General, and regional organizations to invoke R2P when appropriate and take action accordingly.
8. fn77 Although acknowledging the differing degrees of opposition, the terms obstructionist, opponent and rejectionist are used interchangeably to refer to those member states that try to block R2P’s implementation, attempt to renegotiate or deny the World Summit consensus, or consider R2P in violation with the UN Charter and contradictory or subordinate to national sovereignty or the non-intervention principle.
9. fn88 The categorization of member states results from a thorough content analysis of UN transcripts, resolutions, and statements applying the listed criteria, as well as relevant voting records and interviews with diplomats involved in negotiations and informal consultations on R2P.
10. fn99 Like environmental disasters or human rights violations more generally.
11. fn1010 Like gender equality, the issue of child soldiers, or the non-proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.
12. fn1111 Claire Applegarth and Andrew Block, ‘Acting Against Atrocities: A Strategy for the Supporters of the Responsibility to Protect’, Discussion Paper #09-03, Belfer Center Student Paper Series, Harvard Kennedy School, March 2009, p. 33.
13. fn1212 Statement by the chairman of the Coordinating Bureau [Malaysia] of the Non-Aligned Movement on behalf of the Non-Aligned Movement at the informal meeting of the plenary of the General Assembly concerning the draft Outcome Document of the high-level plenary meeting of the General Assembly; delivered by H.E. Ambassador Radzi Rahma, chargé d’affaires of the permanent Mission of Malaysia to the United Nations, New York, 21 June 2005.
14. fn1313 A/63/PV.101, 28 July 2009, p. 11; Statement delivered by Lam Akol Ajawin, Sudanese Foreign Minister at the UN General Assembly, New York, 28 July 2009.
15. fn1414 SC/10187/Rev.1, 26 February 2011.
16. fn1515 At the most recent General Assembly Interactive Dialogue on R2P on 12 July 2011, only about half a dozen rejectionists vocalized their negative stance on the principle.
17. fn1616 Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect, ‘Implementing the Responsibility to Protect, The 2009 General Assembly Debate: An Assessment’, August 2009,
18. fn1717 Kyaw Zwar Minn, ‘Follow-up to the outcome of the Millennium Summit: Report of the Secretary-General’, Sixty-Third Session of the UN General Assembly, 23 July 2009,
19. fn1818 Algeria, Bolivia, North Korea, Cuba, Ecuador, Iran, Laos, Libya, Mauritania, Myanmar, Nicaragua, Qatar, the Solomon Islands, Sudan, Syria, and Zimbabwe.
20. fn1919 GA/AB/3980, 23 December 2010.
21. fn2020 Statement by Ambassador Rodolfo Benítez Verson, Deputy Permanent Representative of Cuba and Charge D’Affaires a.i. at the General Assembly Interactive Dialogue on the Responsibility to Protect, 12 July 2011,
22. fn2121 Statement of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela: Ninth Open Debate on the Protection of Civilians in armed Conflict, 7 July 2010,
23. fn2222 Statement from D’Escoto at the 97th Meeting of the Sixty-Third General Assembly, 23 July 2009,
24. fn2323 During the 2011 GA Dialogue on the role of regional and sub-regional arrangements in implementing R2P, the representative from Pakistan argued that ‘before any concept is used by the UN mechanisms on ground, it must have the backing and full support of the Member States to avoid any pitfalls’. In the 2007 Security Council Open Debate on the Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict on 22 June 2007, China stated that the Council should ‘refrain from invoking the concept of the responsibility to protect’ due to ‘differing understandings and interpretations of this concept among Member States.’; S/PV/5703, 22 June 2007, p. 17.
25. fn2424 Noam Chomsky, Statement to the UN General Assembly Thematic Dialogue on the Responsibility to Protect, 23 July 2009,
26. fn2525 Monty G. Marshall, G. Monty, and Benjamin R. Cole, ‘Global Report on Conflict, Governance and State Fragility 2008’, Foreign Policy Bulletin, (2008), p. 17; Joseph J. Hewitt, Jonathan Wilkenfeld, and Ted Robert Gurr, Peace and Conflict 2008 (Boulder, CO: Paradigm publishers, 2008), p. 67; Madeleine K. Albright and William S. Cohen, Preventing Genocide, a Blueprint for U.S. Policymakers, (Washington DC: USIP Press, 2008), p. 38.
27. fn2626 Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Azerbaijan.
28. fn2727 Rated with a score of in between 0 up to 11 (out of 25) or coded with moderate, low, little or no fragility.
29. fn2828 The DRC, Iraq, Sierra Leone, the Central African Republic, Liberia, Nigeria, Rwanda, Guinea, and Zambia support R2P. The remaining top-20 countries are indifferent or undecided.
30. fn2929 Monty G. Marshall and Benjamin R. Cole, State Fragility Index and Matrix 2009, (Center for Systemic Peace, George Mason University, 2009).
31. fn3030 Barbara Harff and Ted Robert Gurr, ‘Assessing Country Risks of Genocide and Politicide in 2009’, April 2009,
32. fn3131 Participants were given the following instructions: ‘Based on your current knowledge, name up to ten states with the highest probability of genocide, crimes against humanity, ethnic cleansing, and/or massive and serious war crimes occurring over the next twelve months using a scale between 0.1 (highly unlikely) and 1.0 (certainty)’.
33. fn3232 Countries where humanitarian interventions are ongoing, effective or not, are evidently listed as plausible targets.
34. fn3333 Alex J. Bellamy and Paul D. Williams, ‘The New Politics of Protection? Côte D’Ivoire, Libya and the Responsibility to Protect’, International Affairs, 87/4 (2011), p. 825.
35. fn3434 Patrick M. Regan, Civil Wars and Foreign Powers: Outside Intervention in Intrastate Conflict (Michigan: The University of Michigan Press, 2000), p. 5.
36. fn3535 Based on the previously generated ‘list of lists’ (see box 2).
37. fn3636 A number of IR scholars and region experts were asked to code each of the top thirty countries at risk of R2P crimes for the four proposed determinants of a country’s likeliness to experience an R2P intervention. Individually they assessed whether the absence or presence of host nation consent, the country power, the region’s strategic value, and geopolitical dynamics would affect the likeliness of an intervention in each of the countries most at risk, and if so, in which direction. Afterwards two questions were asked in relation to each country: “Considering these factors, is R2P intervention likely in case mass atrocities occur?”; and “What was the decisive factor(s) determining your decision”. After this exercise the participants convened to discuss the discrepancies, as well as the appropriateness of the selected factors, and reach a consensus.
38. fn3737 There is certainly the risk of multicollinearity when comparing these variables’ ability to explain R2P opposition, since a history of mass atrocities is considered one of the best predictors of future atrocities. These findings result from an analysis of the factors that explain the opposition of individual rejectionists, as I do not attempt to find univariate explanations for opposition. The content analysis of country statements and interviews reveal that, for a number of opponents, the regime’s level of repression and its experience with external interference or ill-functioning interventions better explain rejectionism than a country’s likeliness to experience R2P crimes.
39. fn3838 Algeria, China, Egypt, Iran, Myanmar, North Korea, Pakistan, Russia, Sri Lanka, Sudan, Syria, Venezuela, and Zimbabwe.
40. fn3939 Mark Gibney, Linda Cornett, and Reed Wood, ‘Political Terror Scale 1976-2008’,
41. fn4040 Asia-Pacific Centre for the Responsibility to Protect, ‘The Responsibility to Protect in Southeast Asia’, 30 January 2009, p. 32,
42. fn4141 Political Instability Task Force, ‘Genocide and Politicide Problem Set 2008’,
43. fn4242 Alex J. Bellamy, Responsibility to Protect: The Global Effort to End Mass Atrocities (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2009), pp. 87-88.
44. fn4343 Ekkehard Strauss, The Emperor’s New Clothes. The United Nations and the Implementation of the Responsibility to Protect (Baden-Baden, Germany: Nomos, 2009), p. 12.
45. fn4444 Bellamy, Responsibility to Protect, 88.
46. fn4545 Randall L. Schweller, ‘Bandwagoning for Profit: Bringing the Revisionist State Back in’, International Security, 19/1: 72-107 (1994).
47. fn4646 According to Schweller, dissatisfied states are often attracted by expanding revisionist states and will bandwagon with them to bring about systemic change. This behavior is motivated both by opportunities for gain, as well as external danger. [46] Schweller, ‘Bandwagoning for Profit’, pp. 87-88.
48. fn4747 Schweller, ‘Bandwagoning’, p. 100.
49. fn4848 Strauss, The Emperor’s New Clothes, p. 45.
50. fn4949 Schweller, ‘Bandwagoning’, p. 93.
51. fn5050 Daniel Freifeld, ‘Tapped Out’, Foreign Policy, 18 March 2010; Tony Halpin and Alexi Mostrow, ‘Russia ratchets up US tensions with Arm Sales to Iran and Venezuela’, The Times, 19 September 2008; Loro Horta, ‘China on the March in Latin America’, The Asia Times, June 28 2007; ‘Venezuela’s Foreign Policy in the Hugo Chavez Era: Bolivarian Integration, Multipolarity’, Conference Paper Presented at annual meeting of the ISA’s 49th Annual Convention, Bridging Multiple Divides, Hilton San Fransisco, San Fransisco, California, USA, 26 March 2008.
52. fn5151 Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect, ‘An Assessment’.
53. fn5252 The United States had similar concerns prior to the 2005 World Summit, but became more supportive over the last five years as demonstrated by the 2010 U.S. National Security Strategy which endorses the principle.
54. fn5353 Applegarth and Block, ‘Acting Against Atrocities’, p. 28.
55. fn5454 Regan, ‘Civil Wars’, p. 42.
56. fn5555 Donald Steinberg, ‘Responsibility to Protect: Coming of Age’, Global Responsibility to Protect, 1: 432-441 (2010), p. 437.
57. fn5656 Applegarth and Block, ‘Acting Against Atrocities’, p. 30.
58. fn5757 Sarah Teitt, ‘Preventing Mass Atrocities: Asian Perspectives on R2P’, Report from Conference by Asia-Pacific Centre for the Responsibility to Protect in Bangkok, Thailand, 20 February 2008.
59. fn5858 Naomi Kikoler, ‘Responsibility to protect’, paper presented at the International Conference ‘Protecting People in Conflict and Crisis: Responding to the Challenges of the World’ in Oxford, 22-24 September 2009.
60. fn5959 Hitoshi Nasu, ‘Operationalizing the ‘Responsibility to Protect’ and Conflict Prevention: Dilemmas of Civilian Protection in Armed Conflict’, Journal of Conflict and Security Law, 1/0: 1-33 (2009), p. 30.
61. fn6060 Evans, ‘The Responsibility to Protect’, p. 229.

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