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Norm Contestation and the Responsibility to Protect

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Drawing on international relations theory, this article seeks to both account for and analyze the contestation that continues to surround the norm of R2P. It begins in Section I by arguing that while the 2005 Summit Outcome Document – as an example of ‘institutionalization’ – provided greater precision about the source, scope, and bearer of the responsibility to protect, there is continuing debate about when the international community’s remedial role in protection can and should be activated. In order to understand this reality – which is a challenge to positivist and linear accounts of normative change – we must embrace the intuitions of post-positivist constructivist scholars about the intersubjective nature of norms, and their emphasis on analyzing norms’ ‘meaning in use’. Section II demonstrates in more detail the two kinds of contestation surrounding R2P: procedural contestation concerning who (which body) should ‘own’ its development as a norm; and substantive contestation about its content. R2P is particularly susceptible to contestation, given its inherently indeterminate nature, and the erroneous tendency to measure its impact in terms of whether or not military intervention occurs in particular cases. To respond to these issues, it is argued that the norm of R2P is best conceived as a responsibility to consider a real or imminent crisis involving mass atrocity crimes - what in legal literature is sometimes called a ‘duty of conduct’. Whether or not international action actually occurs - particularly action involving military force - depends on a series of other factors. The final section addresses the challenge to constructivist scholars to be more transparent about the normative commitments that underpin their empirical studies of normative change. It argues that the contestation surrounding R2P can be better understood by giving greater attention to the normative underpinnings of contemporary critiques of the principle – most prominently those which stress the importance of sovereignty equality.

Affiliations: 1: University of Oxford,


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