Great Powers Manipulating Norms: US, Chinese and Russian Approaches to the Responsibility to Protect

My name is Lauryn Parent and I am a member of the class of 2021 double majoring in International Relations and Political Science and minoring in Legal Studies. This year, I have been working on an Honors Thesis titled “Great Powers Manipulating Norms: US, Chinese and Russian Approaches to the Responsibility to Protect” with the guidance of Professor Jonathan Chow. My research examines the Responsibility to Protect (R2P), a set of principles that commit countries to protect civilian populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing, and crimes against humanity, including through prevention and intervention by the United Nations Security Council. I explore the extent to which powerful states’ narrow political and economic interests override the call to protect civilian populations by looking at how three permanent members of the Security Council – the United States, China, and Russia – have responded to various crises where the R2P could be invoked. I ultimately conclude that these three countries invoke the R2P only when it concurs with their narrow security or economic interests, rather than on the basis of a threat to civilian populations.

I was inspired to begin this research when taking a class on International Humanitarian Law (IHL) while studying abroad in Denmark during the Spring 2020 semester. In this course, we focused on the legality of specific state actions during armed conflicts, and how civilians, in particular, must be protected. I became extremely interested in state behaviors because a majority of what we discussed in class was how states were not following their legal obligations to protect civilians. I quickly understood that the power struggle in international politics translates over to armed conflict; powerful states such as the US, China, and Russia are seen as the enforcers of laws, but will also be the first to break them to satisfy their own self-interest. Wanting to further explore this dynamic, I then turned to analyze the Responsibility to Protect because it is not a legal document, but rather a norm that the United Nations has collectively agreed upon to dictate rules of intervention. Because of the ambiguity surrounding the enforcement of the R2P, I suspected that it was a principle that would seldom be used in international politics. My research ultimately confirms my suspicions, finding that the R2P is vetoed by states in the Security Council when it threatens their political and economic interests. 

My biggest takeaway from this project is how much room for improvement there is to prevent mass atrocities or stop those in progress in order to protect civilians around the globe. Although the R2P is invoked in some instances, there are far too many cases where intervention could save thousands of lives yet one state in the Security Council will veto the resolution to protect an economic trade deal or political alliance. The R2P is a great baseline to begin these efforts, but more must be done to ensure civilians everywhere have the opportunity to live a safe life.