The Responsibility to Protect and the Memory of Empire / by Simmon Li

[Ed. This is in a way an extension of my R2P paper from one of my classes, and in some ways, a project all to its own. Heavily related though.] The responsibility to protect has received much attention in contemporary discussions of international affairs as the world witnessed the Arab Spring, and in particular, the involvement of the international community in Libya. The responsibility to protect (henceforth R2P) has a short history, and in fact the year 2011 was the 10th anniversary of the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty’s report titled The Responsibility to Protect. From the introduction in 2001 amid the catastrophic events of 9/11, R2P has come a long way. The concept of R2P, however, remains unclear in operation, and this was painfully evident in the Libyan intervention. While R2P contributed significantly to the normative debate regarding intervention, there remains relatively little discussion on the practical implementation of R2P.

I would like to consider the theoretical operationalization of R2P using two different frameworks. On one hand, R2P as adopted at the 2005 World Summit was a step forward, while also representing a step back. In particular, when viewing R2P from a post-colonial perspective, it becomes evident that the whole model of sovereignty espoused in R2P seems, in fact, to further undermine the states that lack power. Here, we can see the first theoretical framework where R2P could be operationalized. As narrowly reconceived in the 2009 document Implementing the Responsibility to Protect by the Special Adviser on R2P, the framework that emerges seems to stem from the political logic of emergency. In a sense, the narrow conception of R2P seems to become a de facto justification for a kind of “enforcement action,” with the whole interplay between aggressor and enforcer while lacking the transparent and accountable institutions of the domestic analogy. In other words, R2P becomes police action targeted at states that have violated some moral or normative standard of behaviour. There is nothing wrong with this end goal, in fact it seems quite worthy. After all, we are talking about saving lives. However, we must be aware of the dynamics at play in this framework of operationalization. It seems that such a conceptual framework serves those states whose sovereignty is substantive. While this narrow conception of R2P has limited utility in that its applicability is specifically enumerated, the opportunity for enacting intervention is arguably much more compelling. However, as we have witnessed, the “Never again” mantra, as morally desirable as it is, does not guarantee action. In a sense, R2P as narrowly conceived, seems simply to be a re-statement of the “never again” mantra. Further, I would put forward that such a conception of R2P serves the concept of negative peace exclusively. On balance, I believe that such a conception of R2P becomes almost useless.

Expanding the concept of R2P beyond the narrow view still causes grave concern. In essence, R2P  seems to privilege parties with the realpolitikadvantage. It has the potential to serve imperial goals, and I think this is something that we ought to take more seriously. I propose, however, a second framework for approaching R2P that is more fully aware of these dangers. First, let me suggest something radical. I posit that R2P is much more effective if it is thought of as a totalized way in which to approach intervention. Setting aside the narrow reconception of 2009, R2P’s original structure included 3 modes of responsibility: that of prevention, reaction and rebuilding. The maximal conception of R2P has its conceptual roots in this statement or vision of R2P and engages with all three modalities of responsibility. I would like to suggest that a maximal conception of R2P represents a radical (and perhaps controversial) way of approaching interventions. That is, R2P becomes a general framework of intervention. Further, and perhaps even more controversially, I would like to suggest that the modalities of responsibility (prevention, reaction and rebuilding) encompass the larger agenda of positive peace. The maximal conception of R2P, I would like to suggest , collapses into itself some notions from development and crisis management. Again, we see the same issues with imperialism, the power politics of sovereignty, and selectivity; however, I would like to put forward that such a conception of R2P deals with the politically difficult problems head on. The minimal conception of R2P, I believe, mismatches solutions and problems, and in fact buries much of the politically difficult issues

In the larger view, we still must deal with the issue of where R2P emerges, that is to say, we must remove R2P from utilizing strictly the logic of emergency and risk management. I think this is possible, especially if we take seriously the prevention modality. If R2P is viewed as a larger, coherent framework for intervention, it may be possible to build an accountable institution in which the problem of politics, capacity and will may be addressed directly. We have to remember that R2P was conceived of as a novel political solution to the substantial problem of addressing high intensity violence, and I believe that such a larger conception of R2P in operation needs to be seriously considered both if the images of empire and colony are to be dispelled and if the international community wants to address these problems. As is often said, conflict happens in a social and political context. The narrow conception of R2P seems to forget the wisdom of accounting for context.