#R2P10: The Responsibility to Protect and Counter-terrorism: A Response

In a recent post on this website, Kyle Matthews argued RtoP faced a conceptual problem.  There is, he suggests, a lack of consensus among those working on RtoP ‘on whether countering violent extremism and implementing certain counter terrorism measures are in fact a state obligation under RtoP’.  This is despite the fact that, as he puts it, ‘acts of terrorism and mass atrocity crimes are easily comparable and sometimes overlap’.  He urges the human rights community, national governments and the UN to fulfil ‘a duty to come together and discuss the convergence of mass atrocity and terrorism prevention’. Such discussion would ‘further develop RtoP conceptually’.  Without it the RtoP community could be accused of ‘burying our heads in the sand’.  The meaning – and normative demands – of RtoP should constantly be open for discussion, and in raising the matter Matthews does the RtoP community a great service.  Yet I would argue there are dangers contained within this exercise and the RtoP community needs to be aware of them before embarking on the exercise Matthews calls for.

General Assembly Reviews UN Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy (UN Photo/Devra Berkowitz)

General Assembly Reviews UN Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy (UN Photo/Devra Berkowitz)

First, I am not sure why the RtoP community is uncertain about on how states should respond to acts that are labelled ‘terrorism’.  The World Summit Outcome Document for instance is clear.  A state has ‘a responsibility to protect its populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity’; and when a state ‘manifestly fails’ to do this ‘the international community has the responsibility to use appropriate diplomatic, humanitarian and other peaceful means, in accordance with Chapters VI and VIII of the UN Charter, to help protect populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity’. Should these means prove inadequate then states have a collective responsibility to stop genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity by taking ‘timely and decisive action’ acting though the Security Council in accordance with Chapter VII.

The repetition of the four crimes in the same paragraph might be suspect stylistically but it is done to make the basic point: RtoP is about protecting populations from specific acts that are now defined in law, the meaning of which is reinforced by the growing jurisprudence of national and international courts.  It does not matter whether these acts are described as acts of terrorism.  To the extent the acts labelled ‘terrorism’ do meet the criteria specified by these four crimes then RtoP insists states have a collective responsibility to protect populations from those acts.  But states also have a collective responsibility to protect populations from these crimes when the label is not applied.  Where is the confusion or lack of consensus?

The problem with saying RtoP has to develop conceptually to somehow recognise a convergence of ends is that ‘terrorism’ has no such clarity.  Indeed, proposals to include ‘terrorism’ as a core crime punishable at the International Criminal Court were dropped for this very reason.  ‘Terrorism’, moreover, is often used to describe acts that fall outside RtoP’s scope – as defined by the World Summit Outcome Document.  A move to codify the overlap between RtoP and counter-terrorism thus risks needless confusion.  More to the point, the label ‘terrorism’ is politicized in ways that RtoP (arguably) is not. Clearly there is sometimes a convergence of ends across the counter-terrorism and humanitarian discourse but to accept that without critical analysis would risk the international consensus on RtoP.

Second, the counter-terrorism discourse is certainly useful in mobilising political will but usually that is because it speaks to the concept of ‘national’ or ‘homeland’ security rather than the protection of ‘foreign’ populations.  In this respect, counter-terrorism and RtoP can work against, rather than complement, each another.

UntitledThis was apparent in my research for the United Nations Association on the UK’s Building Stability Overseas Strategy (BSOS).  In many ways this is an admirable policy.  It has put in place cross-government practices designed to prevent conflict by supporting institutions that promote stability in conflict-prone countries.  Given that core crimes often (although not always) take place in conflict, one can accept (with some qualification) that the UK is ‘doing’ RtoP through BSOS.  Certainly the emphasis on ‘upstream prevention’ echoes conceptual developments in the RtoP area.

And yet a close examination of BSOS implementation illustrates the way counter-terrorism can work against RtoP.  We are told, for instance, that the UK government will ensure that BSOS ‘is aligned with related strategies, notably the CONTEST Counter-Terrorism strategy’. As I noted in my report, this raises the potentially problematic question of how scarce resources are being allocated.  Would the UK be willing to support upstream prevention measures in a country where there was a threat of mass atrocity but no terrorist threat to national security? The fact that RtoP is not mentioned as a ‘related strategy’ but CONTEST is suggests it would not.

Indeed, the fact that the Central African Republic did not appear on the Stabilisation Unit’s list of funding priorities prior to the recent crisis, despite appearing on many genocide watch lists, suggests that the UK is not necessarily ‘doing’ RtoP through its BSOS or counter-terrorism strategies.  Of course, this is not unexpected.  States do act in their interests.  But the very idea of R2P is that it aims to reconstitute those interests in ways that prevent mass atrocity crimes.  To collapse the distinction between RtoP and counter-terrorism would make that harder.  It would potentially reinforce a way of thinking that prioritises national security at the expense of even the most obvious RtoP responses.

There is a third reason why the RtoP community should be cautious about embracing a counter-terrorism narrative.  This relates to the way counter-terrorism, especially the so-called ‘war’ on terrorism, reinforces a nationalist or ‘realist’ ethic that is often at odds with the cosmopolitan ethic underpinning RtoP.  The reason humanitarian and human rights groups are, as Matthews acknowledges, ‘ambivalent’ about the supposed RtoP/counter-terrorism convergence is because, from their perspective, international law has (at best) been manipulated by those waging the war on terrorism.  The protection of populations from the core crimes is a just cause, but RtoP will lack legitimacy if, like the ‘war’ on terror, it is used to exempt some states from the moral and legal standards they apply to others.

Finally, I have argued elsewhere that the rise of ISIS and the situation in Syria and Iraq should indeed prompt reflection on the meaning of RtoP.  A military response has not protected the vulnerable populations of these states; and it is by no means certain that an escalated military response will be effective.  But states can fulfil their collective responsibility to protect by offering asylum to those fleeing the violence.  Yet again, the hyper-realist ethic that informs the war on terror can lead states to close borders (and even remove citizens) when RtoP demands that they open those borders (see Huysmans and Buonofino 2008 for further discussion).  In its aim to eradicate risk, the national security state tends to forget the humanity and generosity it is otherwise capable of showing.

Matthews is right.  Acts labelled as ‘terrorism’ can constitute RtoP crimes, regardless of whether those acts are being committed by state or non-state actors; and when ‘terrorists’ are engaged in such acts then the RtoP norm insists that the international community should protect populations.  I think that is clear within the meaning of RtoP and for that reason I’m not certain that what Matthews articulates is in fact a problem for the RtoP community.  What would be problematic is if – as a result of the reconceptualisation Matthews asks for – states were allowed to argue that they were fulfilling their responsibility to protect by taking action that is designed primarily to respond to national security concerns.  There is evidence that states who otherwise claim to be leaders on RtoP see things this way, and I would be concerned if, by recognising the so called convergence of RtoP and counter-terrorism, the RtoP community lost its ability to criticise such approaches.

Jason Ralph is Professor of International Relations at the University of Leeds and Honorary Professor at the University of Queensland. He is currently a Marie Curie International Outgoing Fellow.  His recent work includes America’s War on Terror.  The State of the 9/11 Exception from Bush to Obama (Oxford University Press, 2103).

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