The international ‘responsibility to protect’ (R2P) is triggered when a state and its government is either unable, or unwilling to fulfil its own prior responsibility to protect its domestic population from suffering one or more of the four mass atrocity crimes of genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity, or ethnic cleansing. R2P gives precedence to prevention before protection, and to peaceful measures – diplomatic, political, legal and economic – before the use of force.  In one of the first instances of the new norm being cited publicly, Kofi Annan is argued by some, to have used a warning about R2P in his efforts to broker an end to post-election violence in Kenya in 2008, although critics and sceptics pointed out that there still were 1,500 or more deaths and over 600,000 persons displaced as a result of the unrest, while UN officials avoided making any reference to R2P in their own peace discussions with the various parties. More recently, in 2011 the UN Security Council-mandated missions in Cote d’Ivoire and Libya both took place with an explicit R2P reference to the protection of civilians from mass atrocities. Those more recent missions also garnered considerable controversy. In the first case, UN attack helicopters were used against the forces of ousted President Gbagbo, and in the latter, NATO aircraft were drawn in to bombing missions that critics (including Russia and China on the Security Council) argued far exceeded the mandate, namely the enforcement of the No Fly Zone and the protection of civilian populations,  originally authorized by the UN Security Council.

The proponents and advocates of the relatively new international norm rightly have emphasised that neither the founding document in 2001, nor the phrasing of its subsequent UN General Assembly adoption in 2005, made any link between the protection of civilians under R2P and international support for the prospect of enforced regime/government change in the particular state in which, or against which, a R2P action might be conducted. Linking R2P and externally-supported regime change would have stopped the emerging norm at the very start, with former colonial countries – and others – seeing it as no more than a fig leaf for the territorial and political ambitions of the larger (and primarily, Western) powers. Once more, the protective wall of sovereignty would have been drawn tightly around innocent populations suffering from mass atrocity crimes being committed – or permitted – against them. Murderous and abusive dictatorships, and their great power allies, would have claimed that such abuses were “domestic matters” and not threats to international peace and security. Thankfully, the new norm of R2P avoided that fate and has gained some traction. The problem, of course, as illustrated in the two recent examples of R2P-related missions in Cote d’Ivoire and in Libya, is the high probability that R2P as a doctrine will include a requirement in practice to pursue regime change.  To argue this, is simply to work through the logic of R2P.

Actions taken under R2P relate to governments and states that are either unable or unwilling to protect their citizens. Presumably, a government that is willing but not able to protect its citizens would be one that is willing to cooperate with the UN or a regional security body in order to find an agreed solution: hence there would be no need for the external imposition of sanctions or an external military mission. So, R2P really only would be triggered when the government proved unwilling to protect its civilian population – most often that is, when the government constitutes the source of the mass atrocity threat, either directly with its own forces or via its support of proxy agents. In such a case, an R2P action could – as in Cote d’Ivoire – initially involve referring the situation to the International Criminal Court (ICC) for investigation and possible indictment. It is hard to imagine a scenario in which such an indictment, requiring the arrest of the particular accused state leaders and their transfer to the ICC in The Hague, would not also require a change in the regime when the top leadership of that regime (who often, in dictatorships, literally embody the regime itself in their persons) are in detention for a substantial period of time and face criminal trial. Although not undertaken as a R2P action, the ICC indictment of General Bashir of Sudan surely would have led to a change in regime there if the Sudanese leader could have been detained; that he has not been, is testament to the unwillingness of the “international community” to exercise force in this particular case.

If economic sanctions and an ICC referral proved insufficient measures to deter or halt the committing of mass atrocity crimes by such a government, then a UN Security Council-authorized operation citing R2P would be the next stage in enforcing the new norm. This was the case both in Cote d’Ivoire and in Libya (click here for an interesting blog on R2P and the missions). In such a situation, presumably an international military mission would be established to halt the ongoing actions. It would be reasonable then to assume, that the leadership in question would have to be defeated and ousted by that international military mission. Regime change per se would not be the objective of the mission – protecting civilian populations from harm would be the R2P objective – but in order to fulfil the objective, regime defeat and change would be a highly probable outcome. Even if the regime leadership then chose at that stage to seek negotiation with, rather than to resist, the external military intervention, they would by definition as a R2P mission also already have been conducting mass atrocity crimes and thus be subject to ICC or national criminal trial. Regime change, once again, would be the outcome in practice, even though it was not the R2P intention.

The Responsibility to Protect is an important, timely and much-needed recognition that “we” can no longer simply stand by and watch ruthless leaders and their regimes commit genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing against their own populations.  This is an advance in our common humanity that should be welcomed. At the same time, we must be careful not to candy-coat what the conduct of R2P missions is likely to mean. It cannot, and must not, become a new norm that the major Powers or the former colonial Powers can utilize to try and justify actions that they want to take for other narrow foreign policy purposes, such as eliminating state leaders (even ruthless ones such as Saddam Hussein) who have fallen out of favour with their previous major Power supporters. If that is the future, then R2P rapidly will lose any credibility. But when it is undertaken for the genuine purpose of the protection of civilians from imminent or actual mass atrocity crimes, we should not be surprised that an R2P mission also will result in – indeed, almost inevitably will require – a change in and of the regime that has been conducting those crimes.

Alistair Edgar is an Associate Professor in the Department of Political Science at Wilfrid Laurier University, the Executive Director of the Academic Council on the United Nations System (ACUNS), and Co-Director of the Laurier Centre for Military Strategic and Disarmament Studies.