catching up with r2p: the global south and the doctrine’s second pillar

Last month, while critiquing Anne-Marie Slaughter’s rosy perspective on the intersection between international stability and the “responsibility to protect” doctrine, Dan Trombly identified the schism between Western human rights norms and emerging-power intransigence as a challenge to interstate peace, international order, and, of less concern, the credibility of human rights doctrine. Trombly identifies the ideological rejection of R2P as a common thread between nascent Central European democracies and the BRICS countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa), underlining multilateral antagonism towards human rights promotion. Trombly, as well as many fellow (IR-)realist critics of the R2P doctrine, characterize the human rights norm as a dispensable threat to great-power security, perceived as the most secure, reliable characteristic of an evolving international order. If Anne-Marie Slaughter is correct, and R2P is, in fact, a reinterpretation of state sovereignty’s structural foundations, “the United States should drop even lip service to the Responsibility to Protect.”

As in international relations theory, writ large, a variety of normative assumptions underscore the realist critique of R2P’s international-systemic impact, the most prominent of which is an unwavering faith in the security, moral rectitude, and preferability of state sovereignty and the status quo of power politics. On the one hand, such conclusions are empirically sound: as Trombly observes in his most recent post, non-transformative, state-level behavior has, by and large, perpetuated a “transient” stability, chipping away at the persistent anarchy of international politics. The international system is a messy, tumultuous beast, and the maintenance of consolidated political authority has rationalized and stabilized a post-Westphalia structure.

Generally speaking, with less nuance than the theory deserves, empirical positivity is the core myth of theoretical realism: under this myth, sovereignty and self-interest are generalizable facts of system-level political behavior. A full spectrum of sub-state, bureaucratic, and historical conclusions, however, undermine this widespread characterization of sovereignty and its relationship to state interests. As Hayes Brown has rightly noted, state institutions are far from monolithic, and bureaucratic behavior–mistakes, individual preferences, and groupthink tendencies–frequently interfere with the uniform, static nature of state governance. In categorizing and criticizing liberal foreign policies, realists tend to condemn human rights ideologies as self-defeating, hypocritical, and, in the worst case scenario, dangerous. To be fair, human rights advocates have a similar tendency, perceiving moral absolutism through a monothic, non-developmental lens.

As is the case with human rights, it’s easy to characterize realists’ perspectives on sovereignty and state behavior as ideological, implying a rigid system, theory, or framework for understanding international interactions. Ideology, however, is a misplaced pejorative, which obscures the dynamic evolution of sovereignty throughout modern history, both in terms of its political application (within institutions, policy processes, and systems of authority) and normative value. If, as Adam Elkus suggests, policy is a learned behavior, determined by power, resources, and control, then policy, its processes, and its formation determine sovereignty’s normative character. The policy process–a tangible, non-abstract institution–frames sovereignty’s implementation, the quality of its control, and the breadth of its power. Ideational, then, may be a better descriptor of the sovereignty regime, reflecting the inherent instability of the state’s administrative bureaucracy, the role of individual and collective ideas in shaping political behavior, and the subsequent uncertainty of institutional actions. Where an ideological regime functions as a Weberian ideal type, an ideational system–applied to both realist sovereignty and liberal rights–reflects its actual application.

If we view R2P as part and parcel of the lexicon of sovereignty’s evolution, as the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty’s report proposed, we see a different role for the doctrine in the maintenance, sustainability, and evolution of international order. R2P’s intellectual origins, as well as its general operationalization, bely the notion of R2P/sovereignty antagonism, both at the policymaking and normative levels. When Francis Deng articulated his path-breaking concept of “sovereignty as responsibility,” he attempted to preserve sovereignty’s normative strength. (Indeed, the first sentence of Sovereignty as Responsibility reads, “[a]s the twentieth century nears its end, sovereignty is increasingly under attack.”) Amidst the flux of post-Cold War intrastate warfare, which created transient borders, displaced populations, and weakened political institutions, “sovereignty as responsibility” buttressed the state’s role in the resolution of international, sovereignty-obscuring crises. For R2P’s intellectual forebears, Rwanda’s lesson was two-fold: first, that in spite of recent multilateral progress on peacekeeping and conflict resolution, international preventive capacity remained insufficient (Dallaire’s February cable, and not the April spark, were the relevant behavioral failures); second, that the normative commitment to post-conflict humanitarian assistance was well-intentioned, but inadequate to the challenge of state-building and institutional capacity.

The narrow discursive focus on “humanitarian interventionism” has challenged R2P’s credibility. As I’ve discussed in previous blog posts, the cognitive feedback loop of military adventurism perpetuates the predominance of humanitarian intervention discourse: rather than outlining the case for preventive action, non-coercive intervention, and aggressive diplomacy, human rights advocates are quick to call for military force; in turn, R2P’s critics perceive humanitarian intervention as the be-all-end-all of R2P doctrine, without due consideration of its non-coercive, institutional, and multilateral implementation. Accordingly, when the R2P debate pops up in the international sphere, the political and moral qualms of military intervention figure prominently, and R2P’s full-spectrum operationalization is marginalized–consider, for example, the summer 2009 General Assembly debate on R2P and the future of humanitarian intervention, or the emerging post-Libya focus on Brazil’s “responsibility while protecting” principle. The debates are worth having, given the underrated importance of discretion and prudence to international human rights discourse. At the same time, however, rather than viewing Libya as Gareth Evans’ “textbook case” for R2P implementation, it may be more useful to reflect on NATO’s mobilization as a cataclysmic failure–successful, yes, in preventing an immediate massacre in Benghazi, but lacking the preventive foresight witnessed during Kenya’s post-2007 election crisis, or during South Sudan’s 2011 independence referendum. Given R2P’s initial, historical respect for sovereignty, the latter case studies reflect a more comprehensive, nuanced understanding of R2P’s role in strengthening the quality of state authority and security.

With an overdue focus on R2P’s interventionist possibilities, the monolithic, ever-present BRICS opposition to the doctrine’s implementation would be understandable. However, as I discussed, R2P is consistent with emerging, dynamic sovereignty norms; the question, then, is straightforward: for those ideational regimes who find Western human rights frameworks problematic, how can we conceptualize R2P’s cultural application? As an addendum, how can international actors amplify the human-security role of indigenous institutions to facilitate R2P’s effective implementation? My writing on R2P and the global South over the past two months has focused almost exclusively on Brazil’s RwP concept, which I’ve depicted as a proverbial gateway to North/South diplomatic engagement on the doctrine’s operationalization. However, during that period, the academic literature on R2P operationalization and capacity-building in the global South has expanded dramatically. I’ll post a full set of ungated links at the end of this blog post, but here are a couple of common themes, which will continue to underline R2P’s non-Western evolution:

Norm Diffusion: Consistent with general trends in constructivist international relations research, recent R2P studies have centered on the diffusion of “protection” norms within localized political institutions. Looking to expand the international donor community’s understanding of norm diffusion, the Overseas Development Institute sponsored a study of local “protection” approaches, covering conflicts in South Sudan (see below), Zimbabwe, Sudan’s South Kordofan, and Burma. As Benjamin Valentino has proposed, the international policy community’s current restriction of “civilian protection” to “mass atrocities,” rather than its second- and third-order political, human rights, and humanitarian consequences, remains myopic. In reality, on-the-ground protection priorities range widely, often operating outside of ill-defined human security concerns. In Jonglei, where South Sudan’s SPLA is currently conducting a broad, if incomplete civilian disarmament campaign, national conflict resolution efforts have proven hopelessly insufficient. Grazing rights and water access, rather than anti-state insurgencies, are the primary causes of civilian displacement, dislocation, and atrocities. Jonglei civilians, particularly from the Lou Nuer and Murle communities, use a variety of traditional resolution and protection mechanisms to restrict atrocities perpetration, including localized mediation, civilian defense, and “traditional” justice proceedings. The ODI studies have concluded that, in many circumstances, the problem is less “too much state,” but “too little, and too irregular.” “Protection,” generally speaking, exists as a norm of local political interaction, but state governments, focused too urgently on “national security,” have under-prioritized local responsiveness, institutional development, and good governance.

National and Regional Security Cultures: Since the 1990s, a selective trend towards human security has emerged within global-Southern security institutions. Domestic politics, however, have limited the maneuverability of human security norms, as political officials maintain differing perspectives on the intersection of R2P, human security doctrines, and global South priorities. Jun Honna outlines four components to the Japanese national R2P debate: first, Japanese foreign policy conservatives, who view humanitarian intervention as the doctrine’s unavoidable, problematic consequence; second, the “revisionist” faction, which views R2P as an appropriate mechanism for Japanese global leadership on peacebuilding and preventive diplomacy; third, the liberal constituency, which, despite uncertainty surrounding R2P’s international legal status, views mass atrocities prevention as a valuable foreign policy priority; and, lastly, the peacenik community, which echoes the conservative opposition to R2P’s interventionist prospects. These political divisions are widespread throughout the global South, particularly within democratizing regimes. The R2P schisms indicate a more active, evolutionary attempt to improve sovereignty, rather than maintain its static, intransigent character.

In Japan, as well as throughout Southeast Asia and, to a more limited extent, sub-Saharan Africa, R2P-minded political actors have looked to regional institutions as platforms for broader, more humanitarian security cultures, functioning outside the restrictive bureaucracy of domestic politics. Over the next decade, the human security components of regional organizations will likely be the primary vessels for second-pillar operationalization. The AU, for example, has persistently argued for the cultural importance of “African solutions to African problems,” perceiving the challenge of civilian protection from a continental lens. However, interstate divisions underline variations in the effectiveness of regional security institutions–given the ubiquity of repressive regimes within the AU, mobilizing the will, resources, and capacity for second-pillar policy intervention is less surmountable than OAS’ process, for example. In addition to formal institutions, networks, and policymaking structures, regional bodies provide a valuable mechanism for South-South cooperation on conflict resolution and human security. As I discussed in the “norm diffusion” section, a variety of localized political initiatives support national- and international-level “protection” efforts. Regional bodies, emerging-power summits (including the IBSA and BRICS constituencies), and transnational civil society platforms might take valuable lessons-learned from South-South development efforts, applying the knowledge-sharing framework to enhanced interactions between national state-building and local protection.

Related Reading

Pacific Review‘s latest issue features a full spread on R2P’s normative diffusion and institutional operationalization in Asia. In the interest of curating information, I restricted my in-post linkage to the most directly-relevant articles. However, in the interest of information sharing, here’s the full article set: The issue begins with a country case-study analysis of R2P’s normative diffusion, including its application in Japanese, Indonesian, Thai, and Chinese contexts. Additionally, the issue addresses the question of R2P’s regional operationalization, with a particular interest in ASEAN’s human rights bodiespolitical/security institutions, and human security culture. David Capie, from the University of Queensland, offers a compelling dissent on the “myth of R2P localization,” noting the ideational variation between R2P’s Western and Southeast Asian applications.

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