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The Life Cycle of the Responsibility to Protect

The Ongoing Emergence of R2P as a Norm in the
International Community
Maxine Dehavenon
Brown University
Fabienne Tarrant
Tathyana Mello Amaral
Harry Xie
Fall 2019




The “life cycle of a norm,” as presented by Martha Finnemore and Kathryn Sikkink, holds that for a norm to become fully accepted and internalized as the rational action in a certain situation, it must travel through three phases of existence: norm emergence, norm cascade, and norm internalization. At this point in time, there is a norm of a responsibility to protect, referred to as R2P, manifesting itself in the international community. However, it is currently stuck in the second phase of its evolution. While the actions taken by the Security Council in Bosnia represent R2P’s emergence as a norm championed by “entrepreneurs,” and the US-led NATO intervention in Libya, as well as the passing of Resolution 1764 in 2005 prove R2P’s successful passage beyond the “tipping point” into the stage of “norm cascade,” the current inaction on the part of the international community in the case of the Syrian genocide reflects the fact that the responsibility to protect has not yet become a fully realized norm to the point where it is universally recognized as the appropriate response to all human rights violations. This is due in part simply to the precedent set by the “failure” in the eyes of the international community of past invocations of R2P – a fact which is not a shortcoming of the strength of the norm, but rather of its application - but also to the structural challenges associated with allowing the application and trial of a norm to be dictated by a body as politicized as the Security Council. As reflected in the case of Syria, the veto power accorded to the P5 on the Security Council provides outliers to the acceptance of R2P, such as Russia, to hijack its trial process and stagnate its chance to become fully internalized. This paper begins with a discussion of the theoretical process by which a norm comes into being as described by Finnemore and Sikkink, followed by an application of such a process to the emerging norm of responsibility to protect through the framework provided by the cases of Bosnia, Libya and Syria. It then tackles the question of why the norm has yet to be fully internalized in the international sphere, presenting an argument for the fact that this is due to the undue power over its application given to the permanent members of the Security Council, and finally in the conclusion, it goes on to make an argument for how to overcome the incommensurate, politicized sway of the Security Council over R2P’s evolution as a norm. 

Theoretical Framework

A norm in international relations is most commonly defined by Martha Finnemore and Kathryn Sikkink in their article “International Norm Dynamics and Political Change” as a “standard of appropriate behavior for actors with a given identity.” Such a definition provides a succinct, yet comprehensive inclusion of the major characteristics of norms, namely, their status as an ideational standard of conduct given a particular circumstance, and the universality of acceptance on the part of a certain group with respect said conduct’s legitimacy and necessity. It is also important to note, that for a standard to be considered a fully formed norm, it can’t only be acted upon physically or rhetorically by states, it must essentially be a “foregone conclusion” in the eyes of those party to it as the appropriate behavior. This distinction, though subtle, is crucial, in that it separates an emerging norm from a fully formed one; while an emerging norm is represented as such by conspicuous, conscious efforts to fulfill a standard set forward by norm entrepreneurs, an absolute norm is such because “[it is] internalized by actors and achieve[s] a “taken for granted” quality that makes conformance with the norm almost automatic.” This distinction is what separates a norm from something like a law, or a resolution; states do not just comply with it because of a positive duty to a legally or politically binding force, they comply with it as part of a negative duty to follow a principle so embedded in code of behavior as correct, that no thought goes into its action whatsoever. 


Finnemore and Sikkink outline in their article what has come to be known as the “life cycle” of the emergence of such a norm, or the evolution of a standard of behavior must follow in order to become a fully formed norm within the international community. This cycle has three phases. Phase one, titled “norm emergence,” is characterized by the promotion of a certain standard by what Sikkink and Finnemore call “norm entrepreneurs,” or those within the international community who could be considered “thought leaders” with respect to normative formation, through “organizational platforms” such as international institutions, NGO’s or transnational advocacy networks. The goal of such entrepreneurs during this stage is to persuade the most powerful states within the international community to accept and promote the norms they set forth, a process that is characterized by their calling attention to issues “using language that names, interprets, and dramatizes them.” The second stage in this process is characterized as the “norm cascade,” and is catalyzed by a “tipping point” when “norm entrepreneurs have persuaded a critical mass of states to become norm leaders and adopt new norms.” After this point, all other states will follow in the footsteps of those that set precedents within the international community, and a norm’s legitimacy and reputation as a standard of behavior is strengthened through socialization, institutionalization and demonstration. As mentioned above, while this stage may appear to produce fully formed norms, the limiting factor of the complete integration of norms is the fact that many countries accept or act upon it not because they feel they must from an internalized need, but rather as a way to either extend their own legitimacy, or please the great powers. The full internalization of a norm is what distinguishes stage three, or the idea that at this point, a norm has acquired a “taken-for-granted quality, and [is] no longer a matter of broad public debate.” This phase is somewhat paradoxical, in that if a norm has reached this point, it has been so intrinsically embedded in the rational behavior of a state, that in many cases, it is not even considered a point of discussion when states engage in decision-making; it has been so imbued in the framework of the international community, that its employment is no longer even up for debate. 


Such a theory has elements of both constructivist and realist strains of thought. The idea that international norms dictate the proper (in both moral and legitimate terms) behavior of states is one rooted in constructivist ideology – namely that states act based on the “logic of appropriateness” rather than the “logic of consequences.” Such a difference holds that norms represent an international system of social construction in which states make choices based on how appropriately their actions will fit within the framework of legitimacy of the international system. This paradigm supports the concept of the “life cycle of the norm” through the idea that a norm is created not by one individual state or organization which imposes it on others, but rather by an engaged process through which all states (and independent actors) have at least some level of agency. However, the notion that in phase two of the process, much of the universal acceptance of a norm (the “tipping point”) is based on its acceptance by the most powerful state actors holds some of its roots in realist theory, predominantly in the idea that the most powerful states hold sway over the actions of other states given their belief that it is rational to cooperate with the global powers. In this sense, the constructivist paradigm of norms as presented by Fennimore and Sikkink exists atop a realist foundation, still based on the whims of the hegemon. 


The Norm of R2P in Action – Its Life Cycle Through Cases

The emergence of the norm of the responsibility of the international community to protect the human rights of all citizens holds its origins in the program of transitional justice implemented following the horrors of the Holocaust and the Second World War. This feeling has evolved over time from one based in the allocation of aid and peacekeeping forces to civilians in conflict zones to the legitimation of military intervention as a method of quelling human rights violations, through the manifestation of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) in 2005. This document - signed into action unanimously by all member states - outlined a radical program of duty on the part of the international community to place human rights at the utmost level of importance and gave them the rhetorical allowance to supersede the Westphalian tradition of state sovereignty in cases of mass atrocities. However, while this represented a theoretical acceptance on the part of the international community – a sort of “tipping point” - with regards to the potential for military intervention in defense of human rights, it can merely be regarded as a singular step in R2P’s process to become a fully formed norm, a process which is recognized to have been in phase one during the Bosnian War, phase two during the Libyan intervention, and is currently showing its inability to pass into phase three as evidenced in its lack of invocation with regards to the current human rights crisis in Syria. Through these three cases, R2P can clearly be seen to be in the midst of Sikkink and Fennimore’s norm life cycle. 

The case of UN intervention in the war in Yugoslavia represents R2P’s status as a norm in the first stage of internalization. Widely considered to be “too little too late,” the actions of the United Nations through the UNPROFOR did not adequately serve their purpose as a force defending the human rights of all citizens; rather, their lack of decisive action – especially in the case of the Srebrenica massacre – highlights how an international standard of responsibility to protect had not yet fully emerged on the global stage; its proponents were weak, and its application half-hearted and timid. It is true that peacekeeping forces were allocated by the United Nations protect Bosniak civilians, however, their inaction speaks to the fact that the United Nations, and the states controlling it, were not under the impression that the responsibility to protect civilians extended all the way to military intervention to the point that they felt obligated to break the norm of state sovereignty and engage directly with the Bosniak Serbs. As stated by Sikkink and Fennimore, norms “never enter a normative vacuum but instead emerge in a highly contested normative space where they must compete with other norms and perceptions of interest;” in this case, the norm in competition was state sovereignty. There were motions on the part of individuals who could be seen as “norm entrepreneurs,” like Shashi Tharoore, who is the US-based leader for peacekeeping operations in Yugoslavia. These motions called for more expanded intervention, “even if such actions entailed calling in NATO airstrikes.” However, the majority of those with the capabilities to pressure the UNSC to engage more directly in the conflict on behalf of the citizens being slaughtered had not yet been convinced that R2P should override the sovereignty of Bosnia. As stated by David Rieff in his article damning the inaction of the UN, the “firm and long-standing United Nations tradition of peacekeeping rooted in international law, impartiality and procedural objectivity,” turned out to be a tradition of peacekeeping so apolitical, it failed to uphold the key tenets of the UN Charter. 


Luckily, this disaster proved to hold some positive implications for the promotion of the norm of R2P. As part of the post-conflict reconciliation process, the UN itself released a report questioning if it could not have done more to protect the innocent civilians killed in Bosnia. They state “it is true that UNPROFOR troops in Srebrenica never fired at the attacking Serbs. Had they engaged the attacking Serbs directly it is possible that the events would have unfolded differently.” Here, an example of a shift in the position of a leading influence such as the UN with regards to a specific norm can be seen. The cries of outrage on the part of many in the international community serve to show how norm entrepreneurs were able to effectively re-characterize the UN’s action as an “inappropriate” response to the issue at hand and sow the seeds for a more comprehensive acceptance of the suppression of state sovereignty in the name of peacekeeping operations. This report, written in 1999, can be seen as something of a “first draft” of the “Responsibility to Protect” doctrine, signed unanimously by all UN member states in 2005. As stated by Sikkink and Fennimore, “in most cases, for an emergent norm to reach a threshold and move toward the second stage, it must become institutionalized in specific sets of rules and organizations,” and the R2P doctrine was just that. The fact that this document, in which state sovereignty was challenged for the first time as a conditional privilege, was signed unanimously proves it to be the symbolic, as well as rhetorical “tipping point” for the norm of R2P into its second phase: norm cascade.


The first case that truly represented an attempt to implement the norm of responsibility to protect, as laid out in the 2005 doctrine, and was universally supported (at least at first) by much of the legitimized international community, was the case of Libya in 2011. As stated by Roland Paris, this effort to intervene “provided the first major test of R2P’s most coercive policy instrument: large-scale military intervention, against the wishes of the target state, in order to protect civilians from the threat of mass atrocities.” In March of 2011, after months of less invasive measures were attempted, the UN Security Council adopted Resolution 1793, calling for airstrikes to be carried out by NATO under the justification provided by R2P. Finally, the norm of R2P had reached the second phase of its life cycle: it’s application as supported by all members of the international community as a way to test out, legitimize, and institutionalize its status as a norm. However, as the mission quickly expanded into one more clearly resembling “regime-change” than humanitarian intervention, many important countries, namely China and Russia who had both abstained to vote on the Resolution, pulled their support, condemning NATO’s actions as “overreach.” 


While this mission may have been something of a failure on the part of the international community to successfully invoke R2P, it is not so much a failure of the inherent characteristics of the norm of R2P, but rather of its application. As stated above, a norm in phase two of its life cycle is still recognized for its potential to account legitimacy in the eyes of the global powers; at this time, “state leaders conform to norms in order to avoid the disapproval aroused by norm violation and thus enhance national self-esteem.” As it has not quite been internalized as a standard that must be followed in all circumstances – it is still a tool for states to mold and apply selectively as they see fit. Once its application no longer fits with their own interests (as was the case here), states still feel as though they are able to pull their support for it without receiving backlash from the international community for directly violating the norm themselves. Had R2P been in stage three of its normative life cycle, the states who withdrew support, regardless of whether that withdrawal was reasonable or not, would have been ostracized, maybe even punished, for going against what all states thought to be an inherent, morally incorruptible norm. Secondly, as stated above, in order to become a fully formed norm, R2P must supersede the other theories in its way. The fact that R2P must overcome the strength of the norm of state sovereignty – one that has existed for almost 500 years – posits a great challenge towards its success, and while states may have signed a doctrine labeling its status superior, in the same way that such a doctrine does not immediately represent the creation of a fully formed norm of R2P, it does not immediately confirm the collapse of the norm of sovereignty. According to Sikkink and Fennimore, “to challenge existing logics of appropriateness, activists may need to be explicitly “inappropriate.” While perhaps unethical, and extremely damaging, the drastic measures accorded by NATO in the case of Libya could be seen from one (albeit controversial) perspective, as simply a form of such “inappropriateness,” requisite to prove the extent of sacrifice made on the part of those involved to uphold the norm of R2P. In this way, although the Libya intervention is seen mostly as a failure, this is due for the most part to the fact that those critiquing it are not analyzing R2P as a norm still in its second phase, but rather as a fully formed one. 


That being said, the responsibility to protect does currently face a great obstacle with regards to its complete evolution into an internalized norm that again comes from the structural weaknesses that surround the norm of R2P, rather than from a failure of the norm itself. The fact that the implementation of R2P can decisively be enacted – or blocked – by the UN Security Council leaves its application up to an inherently politicized body. The veto power accorded to the permanent five (P5) members of the SC, Russia, China, UK, US and France, allows these five states an undue amount of influence over R2P’s future as a normative standard; they can choose when and where it can be executed, and have the power to block its use in cases where it does not fit with their goals. Fennimore and Sikkink define in their article what they call a critical state; “What constitutes a ‘critical state’ will vary from issue to issue, but one criterion is that critical states are those without which the achievement of the substantive norm is compromised.” In this case, the entire structure of R2P is in danger of being corrupted by the fact that all five states accorded the power to limit R2P’s applicability are critical states, and if even just one of them does not approve – for political as well as moral reasons – R2P is limited in its ability to prove itself as a norm worth internalizing to the international community. In order to cross over into the final phase of its life cycle, R2P must be free to be accepted as such by all, a process which rests on proof of its success, and any measure that puts roadblocks on such a process in the name of personal and political interests’ damages R2P’s chances of being fully accepted. 


Such a problem is currently being exhibited in the United Nation’s inability to invoke R2P in Syria. Although there is very clear evidence that a major violation of human rights is being executed by Bashar Al-Assad on his own citizens, the international community has yet to take any decisive action in the name of intervention, holding severe consequences not just morally in the name of the civilians being murdered, but also in R2P’s evolution towards its final phase. Since 2011, 8 draft resolutions calling for the SC to act in Syria have been vetoed; Russia and China voted no them all. Such a blatant display of politicized promotion of self-interests over the expansion of the norm of R2P underscores the problem with allowing the norm’s development to be controlled by a body that accords some states increasingly greater rights than others. Akbarzadeh and Sabah highlight how John Bellamy considers Russia’s invocation of the veto to stem from “Russia’s significant economic and strategic interests in Syria,” and that it is “these Syria-specific factors that underlie the Security Council’s paralysis over Syria, rather than more generalized concerns about R2P and the experience in Libya.” This argument supports the claim that it the Security Council, and not any structural problem with the norm of R2P itself that is preventing its invocation in Syria; Russia would block any measure putting its own interests in the region at risk, whether that is relating to R2P, or a nuclear proliferation resolution, or a trade agreement. However, while this theory takes the pressure off of R2P in terms of what is to blame, it also highlights the fact that R2P will not be able to enter its final stage until it is no longer reliant on a body such as the SC who is so greatly influenced by individual interests. While a norm is still in the norm cascade phase, critical states still have the ability to influence global perception of said norm, meaning that Russia’s continuous blockage of R2P’s use in Syria is slowly but surely convincing other states not to support it as well. In this sense, the case of Syria highlights the fact that in order for R2P to fully complete its evolution into a norm in international relations, it must separate its implementation from the politicized Security Council.


Conclusion: Looking Forward


Such a process of separation will be extremely difficult to complete: at this point in time, the Security Council is the only body accorded under international law with the ability to legitimately invoke the use of force, and is thus the only body in the position to spur military intervention in the name of R2P. A better solution would be not to remove R2P from the SC’s mandate altogether, but rather to nullify the P5’s veto power – at least when it comes to the responsibility to protect. While this is a drastic proposal, it is supported by the fact that if R2P were truly to become a completely internalized norm, theoretically, states would be willing to renounce their veto power in order to implement it, due to the fact that it would become such a “no-brainer” to support measures of R2P, that either they would not feel the need to have the veto power in the case of R2P, or political pressure from other countries existing within the normative framework of R2P to relinquish it would be so strong, they would have to. This would allow R2P to be invoked only in cases necessary; states would still be able to vote on it, and if it was decided R2P was unnecessary or inappropriate it would not be used, but if one state only did not support it for political reasons, they would not be able to hijack the entire process. Unfortunately, until the barrier imposed by the veto power on the Security Council is abolished, R2P will not be able to extend to its last phase of becoming a fully formed norm. As seen in the case of Syria, the power of critical states such as Russia through the veto power to hijack the ability of R2P to be implemented – and thus prove to the international community its worth as a norm – is the last major obstacle the responsibility to protect must overcome in order to complete its life cycle. 

Works Cited

Akbarzadeh, Shahram, and Arif Saba. “UN Paralysis Over Syria: The Responsibility to Protect or Regime Change?” International Politics. 2018.

Press, Associated. “Deaths of Venezuelan Protesters Appear to Be Targeted Killings, Rights Groups Say.” NBC News. February 20, 2019. 

Finnemore, Martha, and Kathryn Sikkink. “International Norm Dynamics and Political Change.” International Organization vol. 52, no. 4, 1998, pp. 887-917.

“Nearly 900 Killed’ in DR Congo Clashes.” BBC World News, sec. Africa. December 7, 2019.

Paris, Roland. “The ‘Responsibility to Protect’ and the Structural Problems of Preventive Humanitarian Intervention.” International Peacekeeping, vol. 21, no. 5, 2014, pp. 569-603.

Rieff, David. “The Institution That Saw No Evil.” The New Republic. 1996.

UN General Assembly. “Report of the Secretary-General Pursuant to General Assembly Resolution 53/35 - The Fall of Srebrenica.” United Nations: United Nations General Assembly, 1999.

“UN: Recent Myanmar Army Attack May Have Killed Dozens of Rohingya.” Al Jazeera. April 9, 2019.

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