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Open Access Publications from the University of California

With the Best of Intentions: Normative Dilemmas of the Responsibility to Protect

  • Author(s): Williams, Tiffany
  • Advisor(s): Olson, Kevin
  • et al.

The Responsibility to Protect (R2P) is widely heralded as a new norm in international relations and has become a primary ethical language in international politics. That R2P represents a normative advance is widely assumed, and the overwhelming focus for R2P supporters is how to improve its implementation. Whether R2P should be implemented is rarely asked. In contrast, I argue that R2P suffers from severe normative and theoretical flaws that undermine its desirability as an international political project. To bring these flaws to light, this dissertation analyzes the discourse of humanitarian intervention/R2P by identifying its underlying concepts and categories and demonstrating how this field of knowledge has been constituted by relations of power, specifically structures of global inequality.

First, I demonstrate that R2P and humanitarian intervention use two historical narratives to justify their legitimacy and necessity. These stories, which involve the historical emergence of international law, including the principles of sovereignty and non-intervention, and the emergence of the norm of humanitarian intervention, largely exclude the historical experiences of those in the global South, rendering both narratives theoretically and empirically flawed. Second, R2P relies on the idea of community, as evidenced by its calls for an international community imbued with responsibility and claims that this community has accepted R2P. In contrast, I show that the existence and character of the ‘international community’ itself is problematic and that by marginalizing perspectives from the South, the R2P discourse actually undermines the formation of such a community. Third, I argue that R2P’s invocation of responsibility again works against its intention of instantiating global responsibility. By grammatically linking sovereignty and responsibility, human rights become relevant within a state and not in international practices, making Western states responsible for protection but not for their own harms. Moreover, this problematization reduces all events to an intervention/non-intervention binary frame, which lends support to harmful military interventions and marginalizes other humanitarian options. In response to these severe limitations, I offer an alternative to R2P, which I term international responsiveness, that retains a concern for the well-being of those beyond our borders but challenges rather than reinforces structures of global inequality.

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