Responsibility While Protecting (RWP): New acronym, same old debate?

“To go, or not to go: that is the question.”

Well, that isn’t exactly the question, at least not according to Hamlet. But as Ferry de Kerchkove—Canada’s former High Commissioner to Pakistan and Ambassador to Indonesia and Egypt—jested at a recent conference on lessons learned on Afghanistan, it is the perennial preoccupation of the international community.

If the heap of security-related analytical frameworks—Responsibility to Protect (R2P), Will to Intervene (W2I), and now Responsibility While Protecting (RWP)—tells us anything, it’s that the question of when (and how) nations intervene in the affairs of other nations, particularly when citizens are at risk, continues to be a hot topic on the international stage.

Responsibility to Protect—otherwise known as R2P—commits states to taking action to prevent genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity, and ethnic cleansing. Endorsed at the 2005 World Summit, R2P’s three-pillared implementation strategy outlines the state’s responsibility to protect its own people; the international community’s responsibility to help states fulfill this obligation; and the international community’s duty to take timely and decisive response through peaceful, and failing that, forceful means.

While advocates argue that R2P is an idea whose time has come, both cheerleaders and critics alike agree that its implementation track record has, thus far, been less than stellar.

Much has been said about the ways in which the 2011 mission in Libya—which, when mandated, adhered quite closely to R2P’s precautionary principles but, when operationalized, suffered from unauthorized mission creep—may have fatally weakened the legitimacy of R2P. Now, with the UN Security Council in a deadlock over Syria, R2P’s reputation is once again at risk.

Does this spell R.I.P. for R2P?

Well, now we can add one more acronym to the pile of security-related theory and practice: RWP.

RWP, or Responsibility While Protecting, aims to spark renewed debate around R2P’s parameters of military intervention. First proposed by Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff in her opening address to the UN General Assembly last September, and expanded by Brazil’s Permanent Representative in a November 2011 concept note to the Security Council, RWP is not intended as a separate norm but a clarification of the third pillar.

In a nutshell—a relatively little one, as it’s still in its infancy—RWP features two key proposals: 1) that any consideration of military intervention follow a specific set of criteria (including last resort, proportionality, and balance of consequences); and b) that a monitoring-and-review mechanism be established to ensure that the implementation of Security Council mandates are rigorously debated and interpreted.

At this stage, it’s difficult to anticipate the ins-and-outs of what RWP might mean—if anything—in practice.

For people within the pacifist tradition such frameworks are, of course, cause for a healthy dose of skepticism. While RWP reaffirms that prevention is always better, its talk of “last resort,” “proportionality,” and “balance of consequences” smacks of old just war concepts dressed up in trendier clothing.

But since RWP is intended to clarify the military intervention component of R2P, I don’t fault it for this. Given that military intervention can intensify conflict and even birth new cycles of violence, the third pillar could well be served from some clarity around how and when states intervene with force, and—if Libya taught us anything—how to interpret, monitor, and assess Security Council resolutions.

Now, whether such a tool will actually break the kind of political stalemates we see on the Security Council is anyone’s guess. Would RWP have helped turn Chinese and Russian vetoes into abstentions? Would it help deepen consensus on when, and more importantly how, to intervene? Don’t R2P’s precautionary principles already serve this purpose?

No new framework—no matter how catchy the acronym—will ever make such decisions completely immune from the mixed motives of geopolitics.

Nevertheless, setting standards for what might constitute a “responsible response” seems a step in the right direction. So, if RWP is used as a complementary tool for developing more robust guidelines for interpreting the third pillar, particularly around the monitoring of UN Security Council resolutions, it could (“could” being the operative word here) have positive impacts on the normative development of R2P.

A huge caveat: Will putting more energy towards clarifying the military intervention component only serve to dilute the normative development of R2P as a whole?

One risk to all of this is that the other two preventive pillars—pillars that us folks from the pacifist tradition typically have an easier time getting behind—will ultimately continue to play second fiddle. Whatever the standards used to determine “ethical” intervention, in the end any use of coercive force prior to exhausting robust preventive measures will always be morally suspect. Rightly so.

R2P is, after all, supposed to be a doctrine of prevention. Yet since its adoption, academic and policy debate around R2P’s legal and normative content seem to continually neglect its preventive dimension.

Beyond the Security Council, UN emergency response is unreliable, poorly-resourced, and sadly lacking in core capacities. And the development of preventive policy tools requires political will that goes beyond the motivating nature of shame—shame that comes from sitting on our hands while mass atrocities unfold in real time.

Prevention is the best form of protection.

I know…an obvious statement, and much, much easier said than done. But “to go or not to go?” should not be our only question.

It would be nice to shift the terms of the debate once in a while…

By Jenn Wiebe, Ottawa Office Policy Analyst

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