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Seminar on Misrepresenting Norms and RtoP: An Alternative Cascade?

Date: Monday, 12 April 2010
Time: 10.30am – 12pm
Venue: S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies

Click play to listen to the audio recording of the seminar.

Speaker: Thomas G. Weiss, Presidential Professor of Political Science, The City University of New York (CUNY) Graduate Center; and Director of the Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies.
Chairperson: Mely Caballero-Anthony, Head, RSIS Centre for Non-Traditional Security (NTS) Studies.


As we enter the fifth year since the passing of the 2005 World Outcome Document, it is timely to take stock and evaluate the use and abuse of the Responsibility to Protect (RtoP). This seminar inspected the development of RtoP and determined its relevance in international affairs. It investigated three cases of states’ misuse of RtoP to justify actual or potential military intervention. These cases occurred even though most in the international community questioned its invocation — except for the state citing it. The cases examined were the US and UK invasion of Iraq, the Russian invasion of South Ossetia in Georgia, and the French invocation of RtoP in Myanmar in the wake of Cyclone Nargis. This seminar contended that these cases suggest that norm misuse can assist in clarifying the concept of RtoP. Its use in these cases was contested and prompted debate, denial, and tactical concessions on RtoP. This seminar drew on the early stages of two theoretical models: the ‘spiral’ of human rights change and the ‘cascade’ of norm development, to further explain the development of RtoP.


RtoP: A Brief History

In December 2001, the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS) released a report titled The Responsibility to Protect: Report of the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty. Building on the idea that sovereignty is a responsibility, the report outlined that states have the responsibility to prevent avoidable catastrophe, and when they are unable or unwilling to do so, the international community bears responsibility and responds with economic, political, social, and as a last resort, military measures.

There are three critical facets to RtoP. Firstly, RtoP focuses on a state’s duty to protect its citizens; secondly, RtoP acknowledges that international assistance is only invoked if the state is unable or unwilling to fulfil its responsibilities; and thirdly, RtoP is fundamentally a preventive mechanism that assists states to build capacity to ensure the potential for avoidable catastrophe is minimised. It directs the attention of states to the benefits and results of action over inaction, and provides conceptual, normative and operational linkages between assistance, intervention and reconstruction.

The concept of RtoP represents a significant normative development. While some considered it ‘redecorated colonialism’, the majority of countries accepted it as a norm. However, through negotiations at the 2005 United Nations World Summit, world leaders unanimously agreed to a more restrictive definition of the RtoP; that states have a responsibility to protect populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity. The norm, set out in paragraphs 138 and 139 of the World Summit Outcome Document, makes a number of stipulations. First, states have an obligation to protect their populations from genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing. Second, the international community should assist them in upholding this responsibility, should the state be unable or unwilling to do so. And third, the international community has a responsibility to use appropriate diplomatic, humanitarian and peaceful means to protect populations, and as a last resort, military intervention to prevent these four crimes.

As a result of these developments, RtoP has moved from the periphery to the mainstream. What is required now is agenda setting i.e. institutionalisation. To this end, the United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon appointed Edward C. Luck as Special Adviser at the Assistant Secretary-General level in 2008.  Mr Luck’s primary role is conceptual development and consensus building and to assist the General Assembly to continue consideration of this crucial issue.  The Secretary-General has also requested Mr Luck to help develop RtoP proposals, through a broad consultative process, to be considered by the United Nations membership.

Three cases of RtoP misuse


Iraq in 2003 was not an RtoP situation, because although major human rights violations occurred and had continued to occur, and although mass atrocity crimes had clearly occurred in the past (against the Kurds in the late 1980s and the southern Shiites in the early 1990s), such crimes did not actually occur when the coalition invaded the country in early 2003.

Cyclone Nargis

Following Cyclone Nargis and the resulting humanitarian emergency in 2008, French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner invoked the RtoP principle calling upon the United Nations Security Council to authorise the delivery of aid and impose the delivery of aid on the Burmese government even if they refuse to accept aid. Following this proposal, debates over which situations would require the invocation of RtoP and which situations would not took centrestage. The proposal, even if approved, would have had a very slim chance of success because it was backed only by the US and France.  Clearly, Cyclone Nargis in and of itself did not justify the invocation of the RtoP principle. RtoP is about protecting vulnerable populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity.

South Ossetia

The Russian government has argued that its military operations in Georgia in August 2008 were conducted for humanitarian purposes and that Georgia’s actions against populations in South Ossetia amounted to genocide. While one purpose of the Russian military intervention may have been to protect South Ossetian civilians under attack, it is highly questionable whether that was the primary motive. Other motives appear to have been to establish full Russian control over both South Ossetia and Abkhazia (in the latter of which there was not a single claim or threat of mass atrocity crimes), to dismantle Georgia’s entire military capability, to scuttle its NATO ambitions, and to send a clear signal to other former parts of the Soviet Union as to what would and would not be tolerated by Moscow. Russia’s response to Georgia was disproportionate and went well beyond the necessary minimum when its claims of genocide in Georgia were unfounded. 

Ironically, the three misuses of RtoP discussed above suggest that the norm is firmly planted. For example, the invocation of RtoP by senior Russian officials – not only as a principle enshrined in the Russian Constitution but also the term as it is understood in the context of the United Nations – reflects the moral force of RtoP as a new normative framework to address global concerns. Misuse of RtoP norms is therefore important in advancing the debate surrounding the concept and also clarifies the conditions under which the RtoP principle should be invoked.


The legal aspect of RtoP is often not discussed even though it contributes significantly towards promoting RtoP. For example, the International Criminal Court's (ICC) issuance of an arrest warrant for President Omar al-Bashir of Sudan on charges of crimes against humanity and war crimes for his role in orchestrating Sudan's abusive counter-insurgency campaign in Darfur sent strong signals that even those at the top may be held to account for mass murder, rape and torture. It was acknowledged that overriding the consent of the state through such mechanisms as the ICC has increased. The trial of Slobodan Milosevic is a case in point. Notwithstanding constraints such as that of major countries not being signatory to the key conventions relating to the ICC, setting precedents for the future is a good sign that will help advance RtoP as a norm.

Despite instances of misuses of RtoP, there are also successful examples such as Kenya in 2008 where RtoP played an important role in defusing a potential civil war in the aftermath of a disputed presidential election without the actual use of the RtoP term. The African Union (AU) for example reacted very quickly to diffuse the tension. Kosovo in 1999 is also one of the earliest examples of the successful implementation of RtoP because there was clear evidence of ethnic cleansing and genocide. The international community therefore invoked the RtoP principle and help put a lid on mass atrocities.


Thomas G. Weiss is Presidential Professor of Political Science at The CUNY Graduate Center and Director of the Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies, where he is Co-Director of the UN Intellectual History Project. He is President (2009-2010) of the International Studies Association and served as Chair (2007-2009) of the Academic Council on the UN System (ACUNS). As Research Professor at Brown University’s Watson Institute for International Studies (1990-1998), he also held university administrative posts (Associate Dean of the Faculty, Director of the Global Security Program, Associate Director), was the Executive Director of ACUNS, and co-directed the Humanitarianism and War Project. Earlier, he was the Executive Director of the International Peace Academy (1985-1989); a Senior Economic Affairs Officer at the UN Conference on Trade and Development in Geneva (1975-1985); and held professional posts in the Office of the UN Commissioner for Namibia, the University Programme at the Institute for World Order, the United Nations Institute for Training and Research, and the International Labour Organization. He has been a consultant for foundations and numerous inter-governmental and non-governmental organisations and was Editor of Global Governance (2000-2005) and Research Director of the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (2000-2002).

Thomas G. Weiss graduated with his PhD and MA from Princeton University and obtained his BA from Harvard University. He pursued advanced graduate studies at the Institut Universitaire de Hautes Études Internationales, University of Geneva, and has an honourary MA from Brown University. He has written extensively on international organisations, conflict management, peacekeeping, humanitarian action, North-South relations and US foreign policy. He has recently written and published a book titled The UN and Global Governance: An Unfinished Journey, UN Ideas That Changed the World, and Humanitarianism Revisited; and is currently editing The United Nations and Nuclear Orders. He is the author or editor of over 30 books. A member of the Council on Foreign Relations, International Institute for Strategic Studies, ACUNS, and International Studies Association, he is currently the editor of two book series, Global Institutions (Routledge) and UN Intellectual History (Indiana) and serves on ten editorial boards.

Posted on: 12/4/2010 10:30:00 AM  |  Topic: Internal and Cross-Border Conflict

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