IT IS INDISPUTABLE THAT PREVENTING AND HALTING ATROCITY CRIMES IS AN Especially urgent imperative in our times. Whether we consider the catastrophic civil war in Syria or the ongoing conflicts in Central Africa, even the most cursory glance at the news headlines reveals that concerted action is needed to entrench an intolerance of atrocity crimes. Progress has been made over the past few years in making national and international policy instruments fit for purpose when it comes to preventing genocide and other mass atrocities against civilians. More fundamentally, no longer are heinous crimes against civilians dismissed as the inevitable, if tragic, consequences of conflict. In this brief essay, I explain why the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) is significant, argue that it highlights the dynamic relationship between normative and institutional change, and enumerate the main obstacles to a consensus on the operationalization of R2P. Although there have been major setbacks since 2005, R2P's overall impact has been positive and claims that "R2P is dead" are premature.
The Significance of the Responsibility to Protect
At the 2005 World Summit, all UN member states unanimously accepted their Responsibility to Protect their own populations from four types of mass atrocity crimes: genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing, and crimes against humanity. They also expressed their readiness to take collective action, in a timely and decisive manner, through the Security Council, when peaceful means are inadequate and national authorities manifestly fail to protect their own populations. (1) State sovereignty was no longer viewed as an absolute value. There was a recognition that sovereignty implies responsibilities as well as powers, and that the purpose of state sovereignty is to protect citizens and therefore it cannot be accepted as a pretext for denying them protection.
R2P provided a political response to the political impasse of the 1990s, highlighted by the ideological divide between the Global North and Global South on whether and how to respond collectively to mass atrocities. The Canadian-sponsored International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS) developed the concept of R2P in 2001, and introduced a framework with three responsibilities that follow the main stages of the conflict curve: the responsibility to prevent deadly conflict and other forms of man-made catastrophes; the responsibility to react to situations of compelling need of human protection; and the responsibility to rebuild durable peace. (2) R2P reflected the "Annan doctrine": that state sovereignty cannot be used as an excuse to shield atrocity crimes. (3)
In the decade since its adoption by the UN General Assembly, considerable progress has been made in the conceptualization and implementation of R2P. (4) R2P has had some successes in halting atrocity crimes, notably in Kenya in 2007 and in Cote d'Ivoire in 2011 following the violence in the wake of the countries' disputed presidential elections. But there have also been abject failures such as in Sri Lanka in 2009, Syria since 2011, and Yemen since 2014.
Institutional Impact of the R2P Norm
The issue of institutional change is at the center of important debates on the role of institutions in global politics. A discussion of institutional change presumes an understanding of what institutions are and how they shape outcomes. Yet there is considerable variance in perspectives between scholars on the nature of institutions and why they matter in world politics. There are several theoretical traditions in the academic literature on the role of institutions and how they change over time, including rational choice institutionalism, sociological institutionalism, historical institutionalism, constructivist institutionalism, and network institutionalism. (5) The "new institutionalists" emphasize the role of ideas in understanding institutional evolution. (6) International institutions play important roles in international relations, including as autonomous global actors, dispensers of collective legitimacy, modifiers of states' behavior, and instruments of national policy.
Norms are in some ways like histories, in that it is through constant contestation that they are formed, are challenged, and endure. When we talk of norms, we employ both sociological and ethical frameworks: sociological in the sense of a reflection of an established pattern of behavior; ethical as the ideal standard of appropriate behavior. Depending on the extent to which they either set a lodestar for practice, or already reflect it, they exist on a spectrum from aspirational to effective. Aspirational norms set a goal to which the international community should aspire. In the words of Alex Bellamy, they are "the guide to institutional reform and behavioral change." (7) Effective norms are established practices of acceptable behavior or standards to which states are widely expected to adhere. (8)
We often talk of norms as if they emerge organically...