The 'Responsibility to Protect' - Time to put things back into perspective

Essay, 2009

13 Pages, Grade: 8,5


The ‘Responsibility to Protect’ (R2P) – Time to put things back into perspective

“Changing the language to R2P from humanitarian intervention has not changed the underlying political dynamics. Military overstretch and the prioritization of strategic concerns to the virtual exclusion of humanitarian ones is the sad reality of a post-9/11 world.”[1]

The above citation of the distinguished scholar Thomas G. Weiss, who authored numerous articles and books on issues concerning Human rights, humanitarian intervention and recently also on the concept of a ‘Responsibility to Protect (R2P)’, shows that there remains at least a minimum sense for reality within current normative discussions among the ‘good samaritans’ of the world. At the turn of the 21st century, the world – meaning policymakers, scholars, and activists – seems to be divided between an increasingly influential group of normative activists who try to eleminate the evil of the world by implementing global norms and another group which abuses the current debate concerning norms and the global meaning of human rights as a cover for good old power politics and their own strategic concerns. Next to the former, many others misused the newly created normative terms and concepts substantially. Best examples for such a misuse are for example the United States’ official’s ‘humanitarian intervention + R2P’ rhetoric with regards to the U.S. intervention in Iraq or the the Russian claim that their military operations and temporarily occupation in Georgia last year were part of a ‘Responsibility to Protect’.[2] Within this paper, I will argue that one generally should be very careful with these fastly emerging normative concepts. They often do have, inherently, an overstretched agenda without clear-cut definitional boundaries which, as a result, paves the ground for conceptual misuse. Especially the latest achievement in the normative debate, the ‘Responsibility to Protect’-concept, is dubious and opens the door for abuse by ‘false friends’. After an impressing and fast-paving development/increase in meaning since its first introduction in 2001, this concept is widely seen as legitimate framework for current and future humanitarian engagement and as a replacement for the former concept of humanitarian intervention.[3] But, despite the good intentions behind that concept, many critical voices underscore conceptual weaknesses[4] or even inherent conceptual dangers of R2P.[5] Currently, as José E. Alvarez points out, R2P is at the turning point from political rhetoric to legal norm.[6] This paper aims on the examination of the value of R2P as recent object of normative debate and argues for more political realism among normative actors.

This paper proceeds as follows. First, I introduce the major features of the emerging normative agenda and their development during the 1990s. Second, I examine the conceptual basics and theoretical roots of the ‘Responsibility to protect’concept. Third, I explore the conceptual weaknesses and shortcomings of R2P. Fourth, I consider to what extend this concept might be, despite its limitations, useful for the political reality.

Normative developments towards R2P

“Normative developments and political reality are rarely in synch, however. Sometimes norm entrepreneurs scramble to keep up with events, and sometimes they are ahead of them.”[7]

With the end of the Cold War, a new mentality or even approach concerning global politics and humanitarian concerns has been formed. During the early 1990s, some scholars identified the ‘end of history’, meaning the end of political competition and new era of peace and democracy.[8] Others underscored, in context to violent disintegrations and mass atrocities at that time, the moral need and even the duty to prevend/end large-scale human rights violations around the world through the international community. New concepts and political approaches emerged. The traditional notion of security, focused on military issues on a state-level, has been perceived as to narrow and outdated:

“The concept of security has for too long been interpreted narrowly: as security of territory from external aggression, or as protection of national interests in foreign policy or as global security from the threat of nuclear holocaust…Forgotten were the legitimate concerns of ordinary people who sought security in their daily lives.”[9]

Therefore, actors and activists of/for a Global Civil Society and multilateralism attempted to replace this narrow notion by introducing a much broader definition of security as such. A milestone toward such an approach, the so-called ‘Human Security’ concept, was coined within UNDP’s 1994 definition of human security:

“Human security can be said to have two main aspects. It means, first, safety from such chronic threats as hunger, disease and repression. And second, it means protection from sudden and hurtful disruptions in the patterns of daily life – whether in homes, in jobs or in communities.”[10]


[1] Thomas G. Weiss, R2P after 9/11 and the World Summit, 24 Wisconsin International Law Journal 3, at 758, para 3.

[2] See e. g. Mient Jan Faber, R2P, Humanitarian Intervention and Independence – The Proof of the Pudding is in the Eating, 1 Amsterdam Law Forum 2 (2009).

[3] See e. g. Gareth Evans, The Responsibility to Protect, Washington D.C.: Brookings Institiution Press 2008.

[4] See e. g. Ciaran J. Burke, Replacing the Responsibility to Protect: The euitable theory of humanitarian intervention, 1 Amsterdam Law Forum 2. Within his first Chapter under the headline ‘The Responsibility to Protect: A Frank Legal Assessment’, Burke offers an excellent analysis of the conceptual weaknesses of R2P.

[5] Concerning the dangers, see especially: José E. Alvarez, The Schizophrenias of R2P, Panel Presentation at the 2007 Hague Joint Conference on Contemporary Issues of International Law, The Hague/Netherlands, June 2007

[6] Ibid., p. 1

[7] Thomas G. Weiss, R2P after 9/11 and the World Summit, supra note 1, at 742, para 3. See generally on this topic, Martha Finnemore/Kathryn Sikkink, International Norm Dynamics and Political Change, 52 Int’l Org 887 (1998)

[8] See Francis Fukuyama, The End of History and the Last Man , Free Press (1992)

[9] United Nations Development Program, Human Development Report, 1994 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994), p. 22.

[10] Ibid., p. 23.

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The 'Responsibility to Protect' - Time to put things back into perspective
University of Amsterdam
Human Security & Foreign Intervention
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Responsibility, Protect, Time
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Philipp Schweers (Author), 2009, The 'Responsibility to Protect' - Time to put things back into perspective, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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