R2P: From Promise to Practice

Alex J. Bellamy & Edward C. Luck

Following more than a decade of decline, the incidence of atrocity crimes is again rising. The tide of forcibly displaced populations is at the highest level since the end of the Second World War.  We need to do far better at preventing such horrific crimes and at protecting vulnerable populations.  That is the purpose of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P), a set of rules and principles that has advanced far more rapidly in debating halls than in national and international policies and actions. This book is about how to turn the promise of R2P into practice.

As scholars and practitioners, however, we felt that something was missing, that the literature has been incomplete. While the scholarly and analytical work on R2P as a normative innovation and political enterprise has been truly impressive, there has been far less attention to what R2P looks like in practice. Following a decade of normative development and maturation, R2P principles have now been tested in practice for a decade as well.  The principles have reached a settled state, but their practice is still far down the learning curve. We believe, nevertheless, that there is now enough of a track record to begin to offer some rough assessments of what is or is not working. Here are some of our key points.

One. The development of R2P needs to be understood in its historical context.  In these trying times, all human rights and human protection norms are under siege from a volatile mix of cultural and geopolitical forces.  This is a compelling reason to dig deeper and do better, not to retreat into despair or defeatism in the face of adversity.

Two.  As norms are challenged and the ranks of the vulnerable grow, there is a renewed urgency to make R2P principles a living reality.

Three.  This transition to implementation demands a broader understanding of the core concept of responsibility, so that it encompasses individual and group responsibility as well as institutional, national, and international responsibility.  None of the latter will assume their responsibilities unless individuals—inside and outside—make them.

Four.  A decade of applying R2P to crisis situations has underscored that the key to curbing atrocities is making it a policy priority.  When it comes to atrocity prevention and response, trying to make a difference usually does make a difference.

Five.  Practice has also made it abundantly clear that R2P is not—and should not be—the only priority.  It must find its place at the table and in the mix of other legitimate concerns of public policy.

Six.  Though the toughest normative battles have been fought and won, R2P’s development as an international standard has not reached a fully mature stage.  Its acceptance could be both broader and deeper.

Seven.  The strategic and doctrinal development of R2P has been asymmetrical, with conceptual advances made within the United Nations unevenly reflected in national capitals and regional and sub-regional organizations.

Eight.  Experience has demonstrated that the most persistent obstacle to R2P implementation has come from concerns about decision-making sovereignty, not territorial sovereignty. Future debates should be more concerned with competing conceptions of national interest and international responsibilities both within countries under stress and within other countries with the capacity to do more to make a difference when it comes to prevention and protection.

History tells us that the journey from principle to practice is never quick or sure.  It demands persistence as much as intellect, learning from mistakes as well as from successes, and never forgetting where we are going or why we undertook the journey in the first place.   Stepping aside, giving up, looking for easier paths is not an option.  Curbing atrocities is as difficult as it is compelling.  But experience also shows that it can be done.  Those are the core lessons from R2P’s early years.  They offer the promise of stronger institutions, deeper commitments, and better policy in the years ahead.  R2P is just getting started.

For full book details please see here.

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