The Responsibility to Protect (RtoP) is an interdisciplinary normative framework that reconceptualises state sovereignty as a responsibility rather than a right. It obliges states to protect their people from humanitarian catastrophe, and in the event of state failure or unwillingness to heed this responsibility, requires of the broader international community to assume the residual duty to protect. When the principles of RtoP were endorsed by world leaders at the United Nations’ 2005 World Summit, it seemed as though the normative regime was gaining currency in international relations. However, the operationalization of RtoP continued to be dogged by controversy and conceptual ambiguity. This prompted UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon in January 2009 to appeal to the international community to strengthen the “doctrinal, policy and institutional life” of the norm.
This study responds to Ban’s call and seeks to complement efforts of scholars across the world to refine the conceptual parameters of RtoP. Two African case studies of humanitarian crisis during the first decade of the 21st Century, respectively Darfur and Zimbabwe, are analysed. In both cases there is ample evidence that the governments in question defaulted on their sovereign responsibilities, thus necessitating RtoP-guided action by the international community. Based on an inventory of responses to the two crises by non-state, individual state and broader intergovernmental entities, the study finds that the behaviour of these actors complied at different times and to varying extents with the triadic RtoP sub-responsibilities of prevention, response and rebuilding. A specific analytical instrument – the RtoP ‘Tool Box’ developed by Gareth Evans in 2008 (and expanded on in 2013 by the International Coalition of the Responsibility to Protect) – is applied to derive at summative conclusions about the appropriateness of specific responses in each of the three RtoP sub-responsibilities.
A salient finding is the extent to which politicization of RtoP undermines its operationalization. From lack of political will to implement decisions or to respond to early warning of looming catastrophe; to real or perceived agendas that mask the agendas of intervening entities, the RtoP debate is continuously subject to a political narrative. This is evidenced by the fact that neither Darfur nor Zimbabwe has seen timeous or effective responses to humanitarian crises that were induced by their own governments.
As has become evident in the decade since the World Summit endorsed RtoP, there is no global consensus yet on the norm. This is glaringly evident in terms of its implementation (or lack thereof). However, based on analysis of the two cases studies the study highlights the extent to which the norm has guided responses by a wide spectrum of actors. RtoP principles have become an indelible part of the discourse on humanitarian intervention, both when the norm is invoked explicitly (the case of Darfur) and when major actors downplay its invocation (the case of Zimbabwe). The impact of the norm is thus diminished by the international community’s piecemeal, ad hoc, and uncoordinated application thereof.