Responsibility to Protect (R2P) & Diplomatic Capital

Kritika Kaushik, MA, Centre for Political Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

Emerging in the context of atrocities in Balkans, Rwanda etc., R2P commonly refers to the protection of populations from mass atrocities such as genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing. It further states that the international community has a responsibility to assist States in fulfilling this responsibility, including the collective use of force through the UN Security Council.

To understand this doctrine further, we need to navigate into the various dimensions of the same.

The concept of the responsibility to protect drew inspiration of Francis Deng’s idea of “State sovereignty as a responsibility” which widened the scope of state sovereignty as including positive responsibilities for the state population’s welfare. This is quite different from how state sovereignty was imagined by the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648. Here state sovereignty is not just an entitlement that states have as part of international comity of nations but also as a duty towards its subjects.

The official text on this concept indicates that this must be implemented on a “case to case” basis. This can be understood as a major limitation on the doctrine itself which is necessary to a great extent so as to prevent external actors like foreign states to over assume the responsibility of becoming the guardian angel of another state, which rather becomes a form of external interference and external determination of domestic affairs of a state. It implies that universal appeal to ideas of just war can be subjective.

But why are we discussing this old idea which came into being in 2005? The UN Principle of Responsibility to Protect has become relevant in the present times and the following events in international relations bear witness to the fact that this idea of responsibility to protect needs to be revised to prevent a “geopolitical depression” in the international arena.

China’s rejection of the Hague Tribunal’s verdict regarding South China Sea.
Iran-US complications at the Strait of Hormuz
USA’s trade war with China
Et al

Why we need to revise the R2P today is because big powers have themselves become a source of potential harm to international peace as we saw from the above-mentioned examples. During the Cold War days, the logic of deterrence had prevented conflict to escalate into hot wars. The US and the former Soviet Union did mediate in various conflicts (whether to the benefit or to the detriment of the state concerned is a different debate).

There was an overall status quo in the international arena to the extent that there was a bipolarity, i.e., only 2 superpowers existed. The present times have become dangerous because we are living in a state of flux, where we do not know which power is going to dominate more and this constant pursuit for unipolarity and hegemony threatens the world.

So, this is where we need to revise R2P. Should R2P be limited to the onus that it puts on big powers? One can think that diplomatic intervention by even smaller states can help maintain equilibrium in the world.  Such an argument holds weight because in today’s times it is the relevant ‘diplomatic capital’ (drawing from Robert Putnam’s social capital), that is going to determine the international balance of power and not just the military capability of a state. For example, US President Donald Trump had declared Jerusalem to be Israel’s capital but the UNGA passed a resolution to nullify the same. Therefore, what we need now is a channel of emerging, relatively smaller states and different UN agencies to take up peacebuilding efforts. Peacebuilding here doesn’t limit to post-war reconstruction but the very idea of preventing conflicts in the first place.

This initiative will open the doors for various measures that seem idealistic at best in the present times. For example, reform of international institutions for a start. How the diplomatic capital of smaller states can become effective can be seen from the real-life example of the power of the European Union which exerts great influence in the international arena as a homogenous entity.

Therefore, it is now time that smaller states take their strength of diplomatic capital seriously to make a post-hegemonic world reality where negotiations rather than sabre-rattling from the international headlines.

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