responsibility while protecting: r2p in the global south

This Friday, I gofered for the Georgetown Center for Peace and Security Studies’ all-day conference on Asian security challenges, U.S. strategy in the Asia-Pacific, and the way forward for strategic dialogue between the United States, its Asian partners, and its regional rivals. The conference, titled “Clashing Values, Merging Strategic and Intelligence Interests: Cultural Dialogue in East Asian Security,” was a typical Georgetown event: during the first session, which focused on the strategic imperative for U.S. engagement in Asia, the conversation quickly shifted from a discussion of complex strategic risks to one of diplomatic commonalities, cross-cultural dialogue, and normative frameworks. (As I tweeted during the event, if you put two hydraulic engineers on the same Georgetown panel, you’d come out with a report on cross-cultural dialogue and water infrastructure.)

As the first session’s conversation shifted towards diplomatic conflict and coordination on human rights in East and Southeast Asia, one of the presenters* commented on the broad chasm between Asian and Western democracy and human rights perspectives. In a sense, the conversation focused more on divergent priorities, rather than irreconcilable standards–by most definitions, Western liberal democracy makes few accommodations for social and economic rights, whereas China’s development-based, neo-authoritarian rights regime dismisses the predominant importance of civil liberties. Where earlier presenters criticized American exceptionalism’s presumptuous universalization of liberal-democratic principles as a barrier to effective dialogue, the first session presenter attempted to construct common ground between Western and Asian governance values. Citing the historical evolution of Western thought, basic demographic data, and geopolitical shifts, the presenter emphasized that, in spite of the presumed timelessness of Western governance principles, democracy and human rights’ future normative salience in the 21st century will depend on the accommodation of Asian definitions. Static Western liberal democracy just won’t cut it, not least because of its distance from the perceived political inertia of the global South.

I agreed with much of the presenter’s conclusions, although he underplayed the substantial synthesis between the West’s left-oriented intellectual legacy and contemporary notions of good governance and rights in the South. In general, the presenter was spot-on: the process of securing human rights–from the right to assemble, to the right to health, all the way up through the right to life–will, in large part, depend on the acquiescence, cooperation, and, further along the road, proactive leadership of the global South’s emerging authorities. In his much-discussed analysis of the global-historical decline of violence in human society (currently reading), Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker identifies the emergence of the coercive state and the normative “civilization” of human behavior as the driving forces behind peace’s relative rise. However, as Elizabeth Kolbert’s excellent New Yorker review notes, Pinker’s analysis is minimally concerned with the relative evolution of violence in Asia, sub-Saharan Africa, and Latin America. Still, there’s a lesson to be learned from Pinker’s West-centrism: if the international community wants to see a similar decline of violence throughout the global South (and I’d hope it does), both the state and behavioral norms–that is, politics and morality–will play an integral role. In effective rights-oriented policies, Western governments cannot afford to dismiss either the politics of violence, or the normative underpinnings of state authority in the global South.

The discussion of human rights norms and U.S.-Asia dialogues of course raises the challenge of the “responsibility to protect” doctrine, perhaps the post-World War II era’s most sweeping discursive shift in international human rights. From a normative perspective, R2P can hardly be characterized as a “Western construct”–former Sudanese Minister of Foreign Affairs (and the UN Secretary-General’s current Special Adviser for the Prevention of Genocide) Francis Deng’s Brookings research on internal displacement, human rights, and political responsibility formed the intellectual foundation for the doctrine’s evolution, and six out of the twelve members of the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (which authored the R2P’s framing report) hailed from non-American/Western European countries. While the ICISS report established an ethical framework for the use of military force for civilian protection, subsequent incarnations of the R2P doctrine quickly rejected the norm’s military operationalization–for example, the 2005 World Summit document, approved unanimously by the Summit’s general body, endorsed “the responsibility to use appropriate diplomatic, humanitarian and other peaceful means” to protect civilians, with no mention of military force.

NATO’s Libya intervention–and UNOCI/FAF’s Cote d’Ivoire operation changed all that–in the years between the ICISS report’s release and the Libya intervention, the international community neglected to conduct kinetic civilian protection operations (excluding Chapter VII multilateral peacekeeping operations, like MONUC/MONUSCO in the DRC). It’s tempting to see Libya as an anomaly in R2P’s normative evolution, and to differentiate between the doctrine’s operational and normative characteristics. However, the Libya intervention revealed R2P’s potential military operationalization, weakening the doctrine’s normative credibility among politically cautious emerging powers. Brazil, one such power, recently proposed an operational modification, attempting to reign in R2P’s perceived excesses. USIP’s latest Prevention Newsletter featured a summary of Brazil’s efforts at the UN Security Council:

During her opening speech at the UN General Assembly in September 2011, Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff tried to reignite the conceptual discussion by emphasizing the international community’s “responsibility while protecting.” In order to shape the debate on the use of “humanitarian force” post-Libya, Brazil repackaged the “do no harm” principle, urging for strict limitations on the use of military force and mechanisms to avoid the misuse of R2P.

Brazil’s “responsibility while protecting” principle is hardly a seismic shift; if one were to categorize the RwP edit, it might classify under “3A,” as an addendum to doctrine’s third, internationally-oriented pillar. However, given the perceived overlap between operational implementation and normative development, Brazil likely perceives RwP as a necessary precondition for R2P’s continued salience. Brazil’s November concept paper, which further extrapolates on RwP’s operational characteristics, places a heavy emphasis on preventive diplomacy, limited and proportional force, and rigorous, preparatory impact assessment procedures. An emergent focus on preventive diplomacy may serve the Secretary General well in his second term, particularly as the UN makes further strides to unify the relatively hand-tied UN Joint Office of the Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide and R2P (maybe, if the name were shorter, effective policy execution would be a tad easier).

At the same time, NATO et al. have offered little indication of any willingness to accommodate Brazil’s RwP addendum. The diplomatic debacle surrounding reports of NATO-caused civilian casualties during the Libya intervention–a scuffle which culminated in the South African UN ambassador’s call for a UN Security Council investigation into NATO crimes–didn’t help much. From the perspective of emerging-power clout, last year’s Security Council was likely the strongest in recent memory, with Colombia, Brazil, India, South Africa, and Nigeria each playing a critical role in Council affairs. Beyond China and Russia’s obvious political sway, the model of emerging-power leadership will likely continue into 2012–India and South Africa remain on the Council, and the IBSA partnership lends continued weight to Brazil’s leadership. With the Security Council facing a significant credibility deficit, support from emerging powers will likely be more critical than ever.

Ultimately, the multilateral balance of political authority goes both ways–if emerging powers want to play a greater role in Security Council and international affairs, they’ll need to show a bit more leadership on conflict prevention, civilian protection, and regional stability than they have in the past. At the same time, however, R2P’s political salience is far from certain. In securing a future for the doctrine–and, more generally, for the operational concepts of civilian protection and mass atrocities prevention–Western governments cannot afford to dismiss either the politics or the normative underpinnings of R2P in the global South.

* Unfortunately, the event was under the Chatham House Rule, so I can’t divulge his identity or institutional affiliation.

Related Reading: Oliver Steunkel, an IR professor at Sao Paulo’s Getulio Vargas Foundation, wrote a great post last November on the evolution of Brazil’s RwP doctrine, entitled, “Brazil and the responsibility while protecting.”

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