Assessing Responsibility to Protect: Does institutionalization solves contestation?, by Mikelli Marzzini L. A. Ribeiro

International interventions for humanitarian reasons are not new. For centuries, States have been using force to protect populations in another territories. European powers frequently intervened in the Ottoman Empire to save Christians from oppression during the ninetheenth centruy (FINNEMORE, 2001). In the twentieth century, the idea of use of force for right human wrongs expanded to non-Christians and non-whites – this evolution and the changing beliefs are described in Martha Finnemore’s (2001) seminal work The Purpose of Intervention.

After the end of the Cold War, the idea of using force for protecting human rights has entered into the United Nations. Interventions in Somalia, Rwanda, Bosnia and Haiti are clear examples (WHEELER, 2000). In a constructivist approach, it can be said that there is a norm of humanitarian intervention since at least two hundred years. This norm has changed during time, but it can be seen in international society (FINNEMORE,2001). Of course, arguing that there is a norm does not mean that whenever a violation occurs it will be an intervention. As Finnemore and Sikkink (1998, p. 891) argue, norms just sets an “appropriate behavior for actors with a given identity”. Moreover, even though there was an emerging norm at the UN it is difficult to say that this norm was institutionalized until the end of 1990s. The turning point occured with the Responsibility to Protect (R2P).

In 2001, trying to respond the question posed by Kofi Annan “when the international community must intervene for humanitarian purpose?”, the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty presented the doctrine of Responsibility to Protect ( This concept seeks to establish a new attribute of sovereignty. According to the document, sovereignty does not mean just a right, but it implies also a responsibility (ICISS, 2001). The adoption of the concept of responsibility to protect instead of humanitarian intervention was important because the states of the South think that the former is just another name for neocolonialism.

The ICISS Report was brought rapidly to discussion at the UN. Kofi Annan acted as a real norm-entrepreneur. In 2004, the former Secretary General established a panel to discuss how the international society could work to solve humanitarian crises. At the end of the Panel, December 2004, it was released an important report: A More Secure World: Our Share Responsibility. The institutionalization came at the following year: in 2005, the heads of State of UN governments agree unanimously with the World Summit Outcome, which stated in paragraphs 138-139 that:

“[…]each individual state has the primary responsibility to protect its populations from genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing. And it is also a responsibility for prevention of these crimes

That the international community should encourage or assist states to exercise this responsibility.

The international community has the responsibility to use appropriate diplomatic, humanitarian and other peaceful means to help protect populations threatened by these crimes. When a state manifestly fails in its protection responsibilities, and peaceful means are inadequate, the international community must take stronger measures, including collective use of force authorized by the Security Council under Chapter VII.” (ONU, 2005, p. 31)

According to Jennifer Welsh (2015, p. 129), after the institutionalization, “R2P is now grounded in a political commitment expressed by states in the SOD [Summit Outcome Document] rather than a new legal obligation”.

The institutionalization process has developed thanks to the role of the current Secretary General (SG), Ban Kim Moon. In 2009, he created an important document called Implementing the Responsibility to Protect, determining a three-pillar approach. The first pillar emphasizes that States have the primary responsibility to protect their own people from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crime against humanity. The second one stresses the commitment of the international society to assist State building capacity to protect their populations from those four crimes and to adopt preventive measures. Pillar Three deals with the polemic question of timely and decisive action to prevent and halt the four crimes when a State is manifestly failing to protect its civilians. No hierarchy between the three-pillar was determined (WELSH, 2015). The SG continues to engage by annual reports – since the first one in 2009. The last report was released in 2014: Fulfilling our collective responsibility: international assistance and the Responsibility to Protect (A/68/947).

Institutionalizing does not mean ending contestation. Norms are created in a environment that already has many other norms and some of them could be very important to States. New norms “emerge in a highly contested normative space where they must compete with other norms and perceptions of interest” (SIKKINK; FINNEMORE, 1998, p. 897). Despite the ongoing relativization of Sovereignty, non-intervention (a corollary of sovereignty) is still one of the most important norms in international society (BULL, 2002) and the idea brought by the R2P is defying it.

Moreover, regarding international norms, “meanings are often left intentionally vague” (WEINER, 2004, p. 199). When States agreed with a short version of the R2P in the World Summit they created a vague norm with no details about how it should be implemented. “The ‘structure of meaning in use’ hypothesis, in turn, would assume that the meaning of a norm is contested, unless and until a mutually satisfactory interpretation is established through discursive intervention which may or may not be conflictive” (WEINER, 2004, p. 202). Thus, social practices has an important role on changes in the normative structure of world politics (WEINER, 2004). In the case of R2P, criticism has substantially increased after actions in Cote d’Ivoire and Libya – the first cases where interventions were determined by the Security Council based on R2P. The result was Russia’s and China’s vetoes regarding Syrian crisis (SMALL, 2014)

The problems posed by the interventions and vetoes has shown clearly that there is still a lot debate necessary to deals with the R2P constetation. Debates to solve interpretative problems are being held in two main forums: the General Interactive Dialogue on R2P and the debates about the protection of civilians.  Until now, no solution has been found. However, affirming that non-Western countries are just norm-rejecters is not correct. In assessing debates at UN and another forums, it is possible to notice a new attitude coming from the emerging powers. Instead of just reject the idea of R2P they start to be more constructives and are collaborating to shape the norm. It is quite clear regarding China and its new version: Responsible Protection ( A recent example of a non-reject attitude toward the idea of intervention to protect civilians was the draft-resolution approved by the Security Council which threats to use force if chemical weapons are used in attacks in the future in Syria – even Russia and China have favored the draft ( These positions reveal a different kind of contestation: more proactive than reactive.


  • BULL, Hedley. Sociedade Anárquica: um estudo da ordem na política mundial. Trad. Sérgio Bath. Brasília: Editora Universidade de Brasília, 2002.
  • FINNEMORE, Martha. The purpose of intervention: Changing beliefs about the use of force. New York: Cornell University Press, 2003.
  • __________; SIKKINK, Kathryn. International Norm Dynamics and Political Change. International Organization. vol. 52, n. 4. 1998, pp. 887-917.
  • ICISS. The responsibility to protect. Canada: International Development Research Centre, 2001.
  • ONU. A more secure world: our shared responsibility. Report of the Secretary General’s high-level panel on threats, challenges and change. 2004. A/65/565.
  • ______, World Summit Outcome. 2005. A/60/ L.1.
  • SMALL, Michael. An Analysis of the Responsibility to Protect Program in Light of the Conflict in Syria. Global Studies Law Review. Vol 13, n. 2, 2014, pp. 179-200.
  • WELSH, Jennifer. Implementing the “Responsibility to Protect”: Catalayzing Debate and Building Capacity. In: BETTS, Alexander; ORCHARD, Phil (eds.). Implementation and World Politics: How International Norms Change Practice. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014, pp. 124-143.
  • WHEELER, Nicholas J. Saving Strangers: Humanitarian Intervention in International Society. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.
  • WIENER, Antje. Contested Compliance: Interventions on the Normative Structure of World Politics. European Journal of International Relations. Vol. 10, n. 2, 1998, pp. 189-234.

Mikelli Marzzini L. A. Ribeiro é professor de Direito na Universidade do Estado da Bahia – UNEB e professor de Relações Internacionais na Faculdade Asces  – Pernanbuco (

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