Is the Responsibility to Protect too Far for Peacekeepers?



Responsibility to protect, also referred to as RP2, was endorsed at the 2005 World Summit by all United Nations (UN) member states as a global political commitment to prevent crimes against humanity, genocide, ethnic cleaning and war crimes (Orford 2011, p. 24). Peacekeeping, on the other hand, is defined by the UN as the joint activities designed to create conditions that are conducive for enduring peace. It follows, therefore, that peacekeeper are mainly vested with the responsibility of observing and monitoring peace initiatives in post-conflict areas. On one hand, the UN provides its own peacekeepers for such purposes and they typically comprise not only uniformed personnel (police officers and soldiers) but also civilian personnel (Gallagher 2014, p. 334). On the other hand, there are also non-UN peacekeepers although they typically require UN authorisation for their operations and they include the Multinational Force and Observers on the Sinai Peninsula and the NATO mission in Kosovo. However, there are debates on the relationship between, and effectiveness of, R2P and the protection of civilians especially with regards to how the relationship perceived in the context of UN peacekeeping operations (Williams 2016, p. 9). This paper will analyse the question whether RP2 is too far for peacekeepers and whether it is compatible with traditional peacekeeping. This will be achieved by providing arguments for and against the effectiveness of the responsibility.

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Contextualising Traditional Peacekeeping

Peacekeeping missions and the manner in which they are conducted are largely a function of the mandates that sanction them (Williams 2016, p. 69). For the purposes of this discussion, traditional peacekeeping will be approached from the larger categories of interposition force, transition assistance and observation. Interposition forces, under the Chapter VI of the Unite Nations Charter, are a type of larger, consent-based peacekeeping missions that are lightly armed (Thakur 2016, p. 49). Their key role is to act as a buffer between confrontational factions in the aftermath of conflict. An Observation Mission is essentially the most basic of the officially defined peacekeeping operations, the fundamental purpose of which is observing and reporting on the compliance of the belligerent factions in the context of established parameters within the ceasefire agreement (Orford 2011, p. 53). The size of an Observation Mission may range from as few 20 to several hundred personnel.

Transition Assistance peacekeeping missions are deployed to offer support in the transitioning of a country from conflict to peaceful conditions. They also assist in transitioning to political structures that are acceptable following struggles for independence or after civil conflict. The activities of a Transition Assistance mission entail effecting an end to violence and fostering an environment that supports the return to peace and normalcy by the population. They typically require a large base of human resources and continuous coordination by bodies such as the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) (UNOGPRP 2017, p. 1). Generally, though, traditional peacekeeping missions were deployed to prevent a return to interstate warfare and support negotiated. However, a key characteristic of consent-based missions is that the belligerent factions must give consent otherwise peacekeepers cannot intervene. Further, the peacekeepers will also be forced to withdraw at whatever point they lose the consent (Abubakar 2017, p. 94).

Contextualising Responsibility to Protect

The implementation of R2P is based on a three-pillar strategy. The first pillar addresses the state’s responsibility to protect its population while the second addresses the duty of the international community to help states discharge their responsibility to protect and prevent. The third pillar addresses the responsibility of the international community to timely and decisively responds via peaceful means (Evans 2016, p. 90). However, should peaceful means fail, there are provisions to to use forceful means but consistent with international law. R2P is premised on the principle that sovereignty entails the responsibility to offer protection to every individual from violations of human rights and crimes of mass atrocity. According to the United Nations Office on Genocide Prevention and the Responsibility to Protect (UNOGPRP 2017, p. 1), the responsibility to protect embodies political commitments to rein in on persecution and the worst forms of violence. R2P seeks to bridge the gap between the pre-existing obligations of Member States under international human rights and humanitarian law and the reality that the populations at risk of crimes against humanity, genocide, ethnic cleansing and war crimes face. R2P as a concept drew inspiration from the idea of “State as a responsibility”, and acknowledged the view that sovereignty is more than protecting a state from external interference (UNOGPRP 2017, p. 1).

Sovereignty must vest states with positive responsibility for the welfare of their populations and to offer assistance to each other, the implication of which is that each state has the primary responsibility to protect its population (Mana et al 2016, p. 74). However, it is also imperative to note the implication that there is a residual responsibility that is vested in the wider community of states. This residual responsibility and may be triggered when a particular state explicitly demonstrates unwillingness or inability to discharge its responsibility to protect its population. It may also be triggered in the event that the state itself is the actual perpetrator of conflict. However, it is also imperative to note that it has become a major change to depoliticize R2P and the protection of civilians or make the two concepts completely uncontroversial, the result of which is that the relationship has effectively become counter-productive.

Arguments for Responsibility to Protect

R2P has been described by proponents as the most significant and effective shift in the modern world’s conception of sovereignty since the 1648 Treaty of Westphalia, whereby it is considered as the most imaginative policy that has emerged on the international scene (Evans 2016, p. 91). A former UN Special Advisor on the Prevention of Genocide, Francis Deng, described R2P as not only a powerful but promising approach towards empowering states to protect their populations from atrocity. These arguments can be supported by the observed changes in manner in which the international community responds to political unrests and mass killings such as recently seen in the Arab world especially North Africa, Nigeria and Syria (Thakur 2016, p. 112). Ideally, R2P considerations have had significant impacts on behaviour. A critical analysis of the criticism against R2P can be linked to perceptions of its insufficiency in a relatively limited subset of events such as in Syria, Darfur and Libya, which are not strongly indicative of significant trends.

Proponents of R2P argue that the premise of international humanitarian law is to protect people (Orford 2011, p. 104). The UN was essentially designed both to create and implement international law, which it has done with considerable success. For instance, cases of armed conflict were not only frequent after WWII but also grew until the early 1990s. On one hand, since inter-state wars are abolished by international law except in self defence, the cases have significantly declined and especially after the endorsement of R2P in 2005. On the other hand, there appears to be an increase in intra-state conflicts whereby statehood has become weak or governments abuse sovereignty and civilians end up as the largest group of casualties (Gallagher 2014, p. 356). However, the primary mandate of the UN and R2P of maintaining international security has ensured that civilians are protected. While the conventional notion of sovereignty only perceives states as custodians of duties and rights irrespective of how they treat their populations, global doctrines against atrocity empower the international community to intervene on behalf of civilians (Williams 2016, p. 36). Essentially, this is a very strong aspect of R2P.

Arguments against Responsibility to Protect

Critics of R2P, however, argue that the concept effectively creates and supports a new form of militarism (UNOGPRP 2017, p. 1). The Rwanda genocide is noted as a case in point where the usefulness of the military is typically over-estimated. For instance, peacekeepers were present in Rwanda but turned out to be inadequate to avert the genocide. On the contrary, the tragedy was compounded further by their presence as they provided a false sense of security, which can also be said of the case in Srebrenica (Abubakar 2017, p. 76). It is argued that R2P contributed to the peacekeepers using force illegitimately. While the first pillar of R2P provides that states have the responsibility to protect populations from atrocities, the second pillar places responsibility on the international community. On one hand, proponents of R2P argue that the international community can only intervene when states show unwillingness or inability to discharge their responsibility. On the other hand, however, critics argue that the second pillar empower the international community to intervene without the consent of the belligerents, which they describe as new-era militarism and illegitimate use of force (Mana et al 2016, p. 92). In the view of the critics, this translates into infringing on national sovereignty. They give a practical example of Libya in 2011. It is further claimed that there are double standards in the implementation of R2P. For example, R2P proponents did not advocate for military intervention in Gaza or for the protection of Palestinians from Israeli attacks. Further, there were backings for protecting civilians in Egypt from the allegedly US-backed dictatorship.

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Is the Responsibility to Protect too Far for Peacekeepers?

It is concluded that despite the positive arguments presented by proponents of R2P, the shortcomings outweigh the benefits transmitted to civilians. The issue of the use of force on behalf of civilians and the international community has not attained normative consensus by the same international community that peacekeepers act for (Abubakar 2017, p. 116). On one hand, the political biases on which R2P interventions are based are clearly stipulated at the onset. On the other hand, cases such as Libya prove that such political interventions are rarely achieved and whether the outcomes are any better that the situation that needed correction. Thus, geopolitical interests often manipulate the application of R2P and, consequently, humanitarian ideals with the goal of protecting civilians are rarely achieved (Thakur 2016, p. 44). 

This conclusion is not to imply that conventional peacekeeping does not make sense; rather, if R2P is designed to prevent disaster by force and geopolitical affiliations, it will counter its own objectives. R2P is ideally not compatible with traditional peacekeeping because the discourse of R2P promotes the notion of war for a good cause. Ultimately, R2P drives the concept that there are “good” justifications for war. An underlying negative aspect of R2P is that it undermines national sovereignty. Thus, it may not exactly be viewed as a principle but rather an aspiration whose high-sounding goals are yet to be realized. R2P may have had noble goals but it has over time steadily sunk into contradictions and practical problems that render it too serious a problem to achieve universal consensus. Until geopolitical interests and biases are fully addressed, R2P will continue being a new form of militarism and remain incompatible with traditional peacekeeping.

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  1. Abubakar, D., 2017. Responsibility to Protect. International Security and Peacebuilding: Africa, the Middle East, and Europe.
  2. Evans, G., 2016. THE RESPONSIBILITY TO PROTECT. In The APPSMO Advantage: Strategic Opportunities: Evolving Defence Diplomacy with the Asia Pacific Programme for Senior Military Officers (pp. 89-99).
  3. Gallagher, A. 2014. A Clash of Responsibilities: Engaging with Realist Critiques of the R2P. Global Responsibility to Protect, 4(3), pp. 334-357.
  4. Mana, F., Stephenson Jr, M. and Zanotti, L., 2016. United Nations Invocations of the ‘Responsibility to Protect,’State Sovereignty and State Actions. ACUNS Quarterly Newsletter.
  5. Orford, A. 2011. International Authority and Authority to Protect. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  6. Thakur, R., 2016. The United Nations, peace and security: from collective security to the responsibility to protect. Cambridge University Press.
  7. United Nations Office on Genocide Prevention and the Responsibility to Protect (UNOGPRP). 2017. Responsibility to Protect.
  8. Williams, P. 2016. The R2P, Protection of Civilians, and UN Peacekeeping Operations. The Oxford Handbook of Responsibility to Protect. DOI: 10.1093/oxfordhb/9780198753841.013.28
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