Responsibility to Protect: The Global Effort to End Mass Atrocities

May 21, 2009

The political concept of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) addresses the complex issue of a state's responsibility to protect its citizens from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity. The assumption of this responsibility by the international community in the event of a state's failure is a controversial and passionately debated aspect of this political project and a main area of concern of Alex Bellamy's Responsibility to Protect: The Global Effort to End Mass Atrocities.

The R2P was conceived as a report by the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS). The document attempted to distance itself from the problematic notion of "humanitarian intervention" and instead focused on proposing a three-stage agenda for reaction to genocide and mass atrocity: the responsibility to prevent, respond and rebuild. The commission discussed each of the report's components and suggested reforms to facilitate their implementation. In 2005, the R2P was approved as a political principle at the United Nations World Summit.

The R2P has met with a wide range of reactions, from hopeful optimism at awakening political will to scepticism at the UN's ability to respond effectively to genocide and human suffering.

Bellamy eloquently engages with all sides of the debate, while carefully analysing the policy's actual propositions, which are often overlooked in the ideological skirmishes between those who see "humanitarian intervention" as a moral duty and those who label it an imperial project.

Owing to a lack of political consensus and a significant amount of diplomatic bargaining, the document adopted at the 2005 World Summit was diluted in tone and content, and failed to include many of the ICISS' crucial recommendations. This has led to accusations that the shape of the espoused principle could at best be described as "R2P lite". Bellamy shares this criticism: "With its adoption by governments, the R2P has been altered in important ways." But he also acknowledges that its adoption has "thrown open the potential for transforming rhetoric into reality".

This thoughtful approach is characteristic of the entire book. Bellamy points out the shortcomings of the initial document, as well as that endorsed at the World Summit. But simultaneously, he investigates the more general implications of the R2P's proposals. His discussion of sovereignty is compelling. He emphasises the importance of the shift from understanding state sovereignty in terms of a (often absolutist) right, to perceiving it as a responsibility. This immediately raises questions regarding the state's accountability to its population and the international community.

While Bellamy acknowledges that the R2P's focus on the prevention of genocide and the rebuilding of affected states can be interpreted as a distraction from the heavily charged and contested terminology of "humanitarian intervention", he also shows how these two aspects of the principle can be developed in line with the UN's previous activity. The book goes beyond simple criticism of the consensus and makes informed suggestions as to its potential development.

Bellamy's Responsibility to Protect is a useful text for students, scholars and policymakers alike. Its clear and accessible style, as well as its meticulous discussion of the R2P's historical and political context, is well integrated into an analysis of the practical side of genocide prevention and peacekeeping. The examination of Rwanda, Bosnia and the ongoing crisis in Darfur provides a link between theory and practice. However, no matter how encouraging and forward-looking Bellamy's assessment of the R2P as a potential basis for reforms in the field of genocide prevention may be, he remains constantly and rightly aware that "a principle can be used and abused by skilled diplomats to satisfy almost any political agenda".

Responsibility to Protect: The Global Effort to End Mass Atrocities

By Alex J. Bellamy. Polity Press 268pp, £55.00 and £16.99. ISBN 9780745643472 and 43489. Published 5 December 2008.

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