Episode 551 Two Cheers for R2P

Alex Bellamy is a professor at the University of Queensland who heads an institute on Responsibility to Protect. James Simeon is a professor of Public Policy and Administration at York University, where he specializes in human rights and refugee law. We discuss several conflicts in which the so-called “R2P” doctrine has (sometimes successfully) saved lives, though it has often failed to be implemented as needed. At present the greatest help that can be given to persecuted people is to open the borders and admit them with open arms. For the video, audio podcast, transcript and comments, https://tosavetheworld.ca/episode-551-two-cheers-for-r2p.


Alex Bellamy

James C. Simeon


States, Myanmar, people, Syria, protect, atrocity crimes, government, James, civilians, responsibility, Rwanda, security council, Gaddafi, UN Security Council, intervene, problems, Alex, point, intervention, council


Alexander Bellamy, Metta Spencer, James C. Simeon


Metta Spencer hosted a discussion with Professor Alex Bellamy and Professor James C. Simeon about the Responsibility to Protect (R2P), a concept in international relations aiming to prevent mass atrocity crimes like genocide and ethnic cleansing. R2P’s origins lie in the Rwandan Genocide in 1994 and the Srebrenica massacre in 1995, both of which exposed systematic failures in the UN system. The international community grappled with how to ensure states acted to protect vulnerable populations while avoiding unilateral interventions that could lead to disorder.


In response to these issues, Kofi Annan challenged the UN General Assembly to find a solution, leading to the Canadian government commissioning an international commission to explore the concept of the Responsibility to Protect. The commission proposed that the focus should be on how to protect people from atrocity crimes and emphasized the importance of prevention.

In 2005, a consensus statement was agreed upon by all UN member states during a World Summit, stating three main points: states have a responsibility to protect their populations from mass atrocity crimes, states have a responsibility to help one another fulfill this responsibility, and the UN Security Council has a special responsibility to use necessary means, including force, to protect civilians when a state is manifestly failing to do so.

Although R2P doesn’t change international law, it serves as a political restatement of existing legal obligations. The controversial third pillar of R2P, which deals with Security Council intervention, doesn’t alter the Council’s existing authority but instead emphasizes its role as the primary decision-maker in matters of international peace and security.

Despite the consensus reached in 2005, R2P remains controversial in practice, as it raises questions about the effectiveness of UN intervention and the potential for abuse by powerful states. Nonetheless, the concept has played a significant role in shaping international discourse on the prevention of mass atrocities and the protection of vulnerable populations.

The international community has not been able to effectively implement R2P in various crises, such as Syria. The United Nations has not undergone any fundamental change in its operations, even though there is an agreement in principle that the world has a responsibility to protect against atrocity crimes. The Security Council’s legitimacy as the final authority is a major issue, especially considering the veto power of certain members.

Despite these concerns, there have been some underlying changes in the protection of civilians in peacekeeping. In the 1990s, UN peacekeeping missions in Rwanda and Srebrenica did not have mandates to protect civilians. Now, most large UN peace operations have specific mandates to protect civilians, with doctrine and training surrounding this. Academic evidence suggests that when peacekeepers have these mandates and adequate resources, civilian victimization decreases. Comparing UN action in Srebrenica and South Sudan reveals a changed mindset, with the UN now prioritizing the protection of civilians.

Examples like East Timor and Sierra Leone show that peacekeeping can work. However, recent pushback against UN human rights agenda, geopolitical problems, and states’ reluctance to commit troops to peacekeeping operations threaten this progress. R2P can be conceptualized as a continuum, with prevention and early warning measures on one end and the Security Council’s Chapter VII intervention on the other. R2P has been most effective in the former, with the latter being less effective and more unpredictable due to the complex decision-making processes involved in the use of force.

In cases like Libya, the intervention may be seen as a disaster, but analysis often overlooks the perspectives of the affected population. A year after the intervention, 75% of Libyans still supported it, and pro-US approval ratings were higher than in any other Middle Eastern country outside of Israel. These statistics highlight the importance of understanding the complexities and contingencies involved in decision-making on intervention and R2P’s effects.

Metta Spencer and Alexander Bellamy recalled the situation in Benghazi when Gaddafi’s forces were closing in on rebels and the UN Security Council authorized intervention. NATO’s involvement in Libya led to the fall of Gaddafi’s regime, but the lack of follow-up peacebuilding efforts resulted in a spiral of violence.

Bellamy explained that R2P is not something invoked to do things, but rather a responsibility that all states have at all times. Over 80 UN Security Council resolutions specifically refer to R2P, relating to situations in South Sudan, Congo, Mali, Central African Republic, Yemen, and Syria. The principle has been applied mainly in the context of peacekeeping operations, with missions mandated to protect civilians and support local authorities.

Despite the challenges and ongoing conflicts, Bellamy remains optimistic about R2P’s role in promoting human rights and protection of civilians. He highlighted the unprecedented authorization of humanitarian aid delivery into Syria without the consent of the government and the deal around chemical weapons as examples of progress.

James C. Simeon asked Bellamy about the norm-building aspect of R2P and its development into customary international law. Bellamy emphasized that R2P is aspirational, with the potential to grow into a more widely accepted and applied international norm over time. While it has only been 18 years since its introduction, the principle continues to evolve and find new applications in the pursuit of preventing mass atrocities and promoting global peace and security.

Alexander Bellamy noted that countries like Malaysia and Vietnam have grown to be more supportive of R2P and have used it to inform their decisions on various international matters.

Bellamy also discussed the challenges of dealing with the Myanmar crisis, particularly as there are no straightforward answers. He noted that economic coercion and other forms of pressure have not been effective, partly due to China’s ability to substitute for the West. Bellamy mentioned the International Criminal Court’s indictments of military officials as one way to exert pressure on the regime. Additionally, he referred to a strategy to make the lives of perpetrators less comfortable, while nudging other governments to reconsider committing similar atrocities.

James C. Simeon raised the question of the international community’s responsibility under R2P, particularly in the context of accepting refugees. Bellamy agreed with this idea and pointed to the influx of Ukrainian refugees as an example of the international community recognizing its responsibilities.

The speakers mention that one of the most straightforward ways for governments to protect people is by opening their borders and accepting refugees, as fleeing can sometimes be the best form of protection in the face of atrocity crimes. The speakers also discuss the plight of individuals who have fled from Russia due to their opposition to the war and the challenges they face in seeking asylum in other countries.

James C. Simeon highlights that these individuals could potentially claim refugee status on the basis of conscientious objection, as they are morally opposed to the war and would face punishment for not showing up when conscripted for service. Despite initial resistance from states, they do have the right to claim asylum in law.

Alexander Bellamy emphasizes the need to pay more attention to the wide variety of levers and instruments that can be used, such as refugee law, human rights law, nonviolent peacemaking, and nonviolent civilian observation. Unarmed observers in dangerous places can help reduce the likelihood of atrocities, and these efforts could be massively upscaled to have a more significant impact.

The speakers also discuss universal jurisdiction, a legal concept that allows states to prosecute individuals who have committed atrocity crimes. This is being increasingly adopted by states and can help create a deterrent effect by demonstrating that there is no safe haven for those involved in such crimes. The conversation concludes with a sense of encouragement, as there is a lot more that countries can do to alleviate these problems.


The following transcript has been machine generated using “otter.ai.” Prior to using information from the transcript, please watch the video to catch any obvious errors.

Metta Spencer  00:00

Hi, I’m Metta Spencer. Today, let’s go to Australia and talk about the responsibility to protect (R2P). This is a topic that has been with us, in peace activists for 15-20 years, ever since it was introduced and became, in a way accepted as international law. But it remains pretty controversial, I think. So we’re going to talk to it. We’re going to Queensland, Australia, to the University of Queensland, and we’re going to talk to Professor Alex Bellamy, who is the director of the Asia Pacific Center for the Responsibility to Protect. He’s also a professor of peace and conflict studies at the University of Queensland. And, and he has met previously, the other panelist, who’s with me today, who is professor James C. Simeon, who is a professor of international, I guess, political science at York University here in Toronto where I live. And recently until fairly recently, James Simeon was the head of McLaughlin college. So he was the host to a number of different lectures and visitors and so on. And I think that Alexander, Alex Bellamy had visited there, and they got acquainted. So James proposed that I tried to contact you, Alex, and have good conversation about your work. And actually, it’s kind of neat, because I was also a professor of peace and conflict studies at University of Toronto until I retired some too many years ago, I think the best way to begin, if you will, Alex is to give us the background, the history of, because some people may not recall. Was it about 20 years ago, how long ago did the Responsibility to Protect come into fashion as it were?

Alexander Bellamy  02:17

Yes, it was agreed in 2005. But its genesis goes back to the end of the 1990s.

Metta Spencer  02:25

So give us a little m. R2P 101.

Alexander Bellamy  02:32

Thanks Metta. Thanks for those lovely words, and great to be with you. And great to see you again, James. So R2P it’s genesis lies in Rwanda, in 1994, and the Rwandan genocide, and the almost universal sense that the world failed to do what was necessary to first prevent the genocide and then protect people from the mass killing in Rwanda. And, of course, Rwanda was followed the year after by Srebrenica, where we saw another genocide that time in an area that had been declared by the UN to be a safe area. Now, in response to both of those things, there were un internal reports. And both of those reports found that what had happened in Rwanda and Srebrenica was a systematic failure on the part of the UN, that is, the UN system as a whole had failed to do the thing that the UN is there to do. And that started this conversation. Of course, four years after Bosnia, you had Kosovo. And in that case, the Security Council was blocked, because Russia and China wouldn’t sanction the use of force. And so NATO decided to act unilaterally and intervene in Kosovo. So what we ended up with in the end of the 1990s, was basically two sets of questions. One, how do you make sure that UN member states have the necessary will to prevent genocide and mass atrocities and protect vulnerable populations on the one hand, and on the other hand, how do you make sure that you don’t have an international system where individual states or groups of states just take it upon themselves to intervene because of course, that could be the thin end of the wedge, you could start to get all sorts of disorder. And in a landmark speech to the UN General Assembly in 1999, Kofi Annan set this as the challenge for the General Assembly. And he said, on the one hand, we can’t have a United Nations where we’re so beholden to sovereignty, that we don’t stop genocide. On the other hand, we can’t have a system where the rule prohibiting the use of force that means so little, that states can just go and intervene wherever they want, we need a way of bridging this gap. And it was actually the Canadian government that took up this challenge from Annan and commissioned an international commission of eight experts, I think co chaired by former Australian foreign minister Gareth Evans, and former Algerian and UN diplomat, Mohamed Sahnoun, to hold a series of consultations around the world and trying to figure out a way forward on this. And what they came up with was the concept of the responsibility to protect. And what they were arguing in that concept was that we needed to flip the question. So the question becomes no longer. When is it right to intervene with military force? What should we do when the Security Council is blocked? But the question is rather one of protection? How do we best protect people from these atrocity crimes? And their response was, Well, your best protect through prevention. And so there was a whole series of recommendations about how you improve prevention. But of course, response and rebuilding is important too. So you have those other elements. Now, the report was scheduled to be released initially, in September 2001. But of course, something else happened in September 2001, which shaped the whole agenda. And so it’s kind of telling, actually that, that it was scheduled to be released. And they ended up releasing it the following month, but of course for the first few years, without the international agenda was very much framed by 9/11. And these things sort of bubbled along. But what also happened in the early 21st century is you’ll remember, there was the kind of the UN’s oil for food crisis, and there was all sorts of kind of other problems at the UN. Eventually, Kofi Annan decided to sort of bite the bullet, and say, well, let’s have a huge international summit bring all the heads of state and government together, to reinvigorate the United Nations to set a new path. And there were proposals for Security Council reform, for General Assembly reform for the new Human Rights Council, and for the peacebuilding commission, and much more besides. On one part of that, Annan wanted to do was to go back to his original challenge in 1999, and say, well, can we can we do that as part of this process? And so he took some of the ideas from the Commission. These were, of course, negotiated away and negotiated down as things are at the UN. But in 2005, you had this consensus status, consensus statement. And there’s two things I want to kind of stress about that. One is that it was a consensus statement. Every UN member state, put their hand up to it and said, we agree to this. All of them played a role in negotiating it, you know, Canada was one of the countries whose diplomats played a key role in negotiating it. Two others…

Metta Spencer  07:57

Sorry, this was a, sorry this was a  general assembly motion. Aha So all countries , every country?

Alexander Bellamy  08:06

All of them, all of them. And the World Summit. So there’s 2005 meeting was at the level of heads of state and government. So more than 150 heads of state and government were in the room to sign off on this. It wasn’t even just a normal general assembly meeting. It was the largest ever gathering of heads of state and government. And with respect to R2P, they agreed three things. Firstly, they said, unequivocally, we all have a responsibility to protect our populations, from genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity, and ethnic cleansing, no ifs, no buts, it’s our responsibility. Secondly, they said that we also have a responsibility to help each other to fulfill their responsibilities, so to cooperate, to help each other to protect their populations. And then the third thing they said, which is the most controversial thing is they said when the state is manifestly failing to protect its own populations. Firstly, everyone else should use all political and humanitarian and diplomatic means that they can. But if that’s not working, then the Security Council has a special responsibility to use whatever means necessary, including economic sanctions, including the use of force to protect civilians from these four crimes. So that was what was agreed in 2005. And I mean, ultimately, it’s it doesn’t change international law. And in two respects, it doesn’t change international law. Firstly, it’s really just a political restatement of legal obligations everybody already had. They already had a legal obligation not to commit genocide, not to violate the Geneva Conventions, though it’s a political restatement. And the other thing around that controversial third pillar, there is nothing in that third pillar that actually changes international law. The UN Security Council already had the authority to authorize the use of force, whenever it sees a threat to international peace and security. And that’s an authority was given to it by the UN Charter. The UN Charter doesn’t tell the Security Council how it should judge what a threat to international peace and security is, that’s left to the council. So there’s nothing in our R2P, even that controversial third pillar, that either changes the law or gives the council rights that didn’t have before. All this is really important. There’s nothing in that third pillar that gives other states a right to intervene without the UN Security Council. So this was the sort of the bargain that was made, if you like. On the one hand, states like China, and at the time Russia, say, look, okay, we will take on some of this responsibility, and maybe we won’t block everything all the time. And in return for agreeing to do that. To the west, you must bring these things to the UN Security Council, the UN Security Council, not NATO, will be the decision maker on these things. So that was, in a sense, the bargain that was made in 2005.

Metta Spencer  08:09

Amazing. Oh, that’s an excellent summary, that is really refreshes my memory. And I think probably James, you know, as he was speaking, I had thoughts that came up, but I think you did, I bet we have the same thoughts, some of the same thoughts or some of the same questions or issues that arose. So would you step in and, and give what I think the first problems that came up after this thing was more, did not become international law, but was already, the issues that that came up, and that have made it more controversial, then Alex has even suggested so far, because it is. It has been,…

James C. Simeon  12:14

There are a number of concerns with respect to it, activists have pointed to R2P. And there have been opportunities for the world community, international community get involved in various crises that have been taking place, various genocides that have been taking place, and I can think of Syria as an example. Aleppo being one case in point. And they haven’t been able to implement R2P. And I think that’s really the real crux of the matter is, as Alex has pointed out, there wasn’t any fundamental change in terms of the operations of the United Nations. There was an agreement in principle that we have the responsibility to protect against these atrocity crimes. But as we all know, atrocity crimes are taking place now, and the United Nations does not seem capable of actually stepping in and protecting.

Metta Spencer  13:23

Well, I thought that mostly in terms of who, who is going to authorize this. So it’s, it’s, of course, the Security Council and, and you know, what kind of problems we have with regarding that as a legitimate final authority on who’s who’s a good guy, and who’s a bad guy and who deserves to, to be corrected. So, you know, maybe we need to talk about that, too, which is so larger problem than just about R2P, it’s the whole question of the veto and all that. And you want to go in into that, Alex?

Alexander Bellamy  14:02

Yeah, sure. Happy to. I think firstly, I would say when we’re looking at kind of problems and challenges and progress in relation to R2P, we always naturally and inevitably, and for very good reason, turn to questions of armed intervention, and to the obvious failures. Sometimes doing that, and can kind of mask some of the underlying changes that we’ve seen. So one of the most important underlying changes that we’ve seen, is in relation to the protection of civilians in peacekeeping. So if we go back to the 90s, and think about Rwanda and Srebrenica in both of those cases, you had UN peacekeeping missions on the ground, but they were not missions that had mandates to protect civilians. Now, partly as a result of R2P but partly as a result of, you know, parallel political processes. Most large UN peace operations have specific mandates to protect civilians. There is doctrine and training around the protection of civilians. And the academic evidence suggests that when they have those mandates and when they have adequate peacekeepers, they do actually contribute significantly to a downward trend of civilian victimization. And a really good example can be found in another cataclysm. Actually, we’re always looking at cataclysms in this in this field, in South Sudan, and if we compare UN action in Srebrenica with UN action in South Sudan, so you’ll all remember that either with Srebenica falling 1000s of people clamor inside the UN compound seeking security Ratko Mladic, and then the Bosnian Serb army turn up at the gates and say, “anyone who’s not UN personnel can’t be in this compound and you have to give them to us”. And they did. And the men and boys were taken off and shot. In South Sudan, when the same thing happened when violence erupted, people came to those compounds and went into the UN compounds. And militia turned up at the gates and said, “only UN personnel can be in the compound, you have to kick everybody else out,” and what did they do? They closed the gates and said, “no, we are not having”. And that’s a changed mindset. Initially, it was a few courageous people on the ground, who just decided to do that. But then that became kind of doctrine and his now UN policy, and yet it doesn’t protect…

Metta Spencer  16:38

Okay, so I’m thinking also of East Timor, but I guess East Timor may have happened before, before R2P came into, so we can’t give credit to R2P for that, but I believe the, the UN did protect lots and lots of people there. That was,…

Alexander Bellamy  16:54

Absolutely, yeah, East Timor as part, I think I mean, and James will know more about this than I do, is part of the story of the evolution of R2P. Because two things happen that I skipped over between Kosovo and 2005 that made leaders think that actually peacekeeping can work. One thing that happened was East Timor, the UN’s response was late. Hundreds, if not 1000s of people were killed in the anti post election violence. But nevertheless, overall, it was not as bad as it could have been and there was a transition. The other was Sierra Leone, which in 2001, the UN Mission in Sierra Leone, almost completely collapsed. But it was saved by some decisive action by the UN supported by the British and a few others. And that mission not only didn’t collapse, but it turned around, it adopted protection of civilians mandates, it became a little more proactive. And as a result, the peace process got going again, a peace was established and the peacekeepers were able to withdraw. And when we’re looking at the map of the world, more troubled spots today, we’re not looking all that much at West Africa. And there are still problems, of course, in West Africa, but 10-15 years ago, we would be looking at Sierra Leone, we’d be looking at Cote d’Ivoire, of course, we’re still looking at Nigeria. But now we’re not, those are not the places that we think are first and foremost when we’re thinking of the world’s disasters. And that’s, in part because of the way the UN and regional partners. So ECO, US and the AU have played vital roles as well. And again, sorry, I segue. But this is something we often miss, when we’re having a kind of a conversation amongst Westerners about R2P is we forget the significant African agency, you know, you can tell an African story about the origins of R2P that emphasize Rwanda, emphasizes the role of Kofi Annan and emphasizes the role of the AU. The AU actually has R2P written into its charter. It says the AU has a right to intervene in its members affairs in cases of genocide and mass atrocities The AU did that before the UN, so the African Union was already there, before the UN got there. So you’ve got these kind of underlying changes, the things that work, the thing that worries me right now is that we’re starting to lose ground on some of that as well. We’re starting to see the Security Council find it more difficult to reach common ground even on peacekeeping because of geopolitical problems. We’re starting to see as a result of kind of COVID and financial crisis and other things states becoming more reluctant to commit troops to peacekeeping operations. Again, James will know this better than I do, but right across the UN human rights agenda. You know women peace and security, through to anti torture, you’re seeing pushback in a way that I think is more pronounced now, that at any point since the end of the Cold War, and that’s right across which, which endangers those kind of that kind of underlying progress.

James C. Simeon  20:17

Alex, I’m wondering whether or not you can conceptualize R2P as a continuum. And at one end, you have prevention, early warning, and adopting different kinds of diplomatic measures, and so forth, to try to intervene to prevent the atrocity crimes from taking place. And at the other end, is you actually have chapter seven, and the Security Council. If you can get agreement, of course, among the five permanent members to intervene in those extreme cases, we haven’t had any examples of that. But as you’ve outlined, there have been a number of measures that have been put into place. And I’m wondering to what extent those measures have really been the heart and soul, if you will, of R2P, at least at this point?

Alexander Bellamy  21:12

Thanks, James. That’s a terrific, I think that’s a brilliant way of conceptualizing it, both in terms of how you think about R2P, but and also about how you understand the effect of R2P. I think you’re absolutely right, where R2P has been most effective. It’s been in that front end, or we’ve been called pillars one and two. So all this peacekeeping that we talked about all this protection of civilians work, all of that is pillar two, because that is all done with the consent of the host state. And where it’s been most effective, it is that a nod at the other end and it and it’s, I think it’s the case that at the other end of the spectrum, at the response end, R2P is always both going to have less effect, and results are going to be more ambiguous. And I think that’s for two reasons. First, it’s going to have less effect because when you’re talking about decision making about the use of force, there are so many other issues at play in that, issues about geopolitics, about domestic politics, about political leadership about that R2P, and protection is only ever going to be one of dozens of things that are at play in that decision making, it’s always going to be contingent, it’s always going to be unpredictable. That’s just the nature of decision making that and the other thing is, the results are always going to be tragic, right? Because when you’re at that stage, you’ve already got massive violence. So the results are likely to be ambiguous, people are going to die irrespective of whether you do something or not. And they’re going to die irrespective of what you do. Because the very nature of the fact that you’re in that decision making moment means that you’re in this highly violent, highly tragic, highly contingent situation. And I think, I think the way you conceptualize that is brilliant, because I think we often forget that about the intervention stage of decision making. So for example, if we look at Libya, you know, it is almost a consensus in the Western world, that the Libya intervention was a complete disaster, because there was six more months of conflict. And then two years later, Libya descended into civil war again. But what we’re not doing when we do that sort of analysis is two things. Firstly, we’re not asking what Libyans themselves think about this. And when we asked what Libyans themselves think about it, we get quite different answer. We discover, for example, but a year after the intervention, this was a Pew Research Center found this 75% of Libyans still supported the intervention. So even when things are starting to unravel. And the other interesting thing is, you could say, well, there’s all sorts of contingent reasons for that. But the one that I find most interesting about the polling in Libya, was that they found the highest pro US  approval ratings in Libya, a year after the intervention, higher than any approval rating they’d ever recorded anywhere in the Middle East, outside of Israel.

Metta Spencer  24:16

I’ll be darned.

Alexander Bellamy  24:17

Which, which is, which tells you something and that’s the first thing. The other thing we miss is, is the kind of the contingencies, well, what would have happened without that intervention? So we assume that sort of every death that occurs after the intervention is because of the intervention. And we we forget that well, things would have still been playing out. So Libya was already in a civil war at the point of intervention. And if we kind of then think, well, how would we find out what it would have been like, well, maybe we could look at other civil wars that have started in the region at around the same time, and we could look at Syria, and we could look at Yemen, and we could say, well, was Libya better or worse recently?

Metta Spencer  24:59

Refresh my memory about the the the history of that conflict. My memory was you got two forces there in different places. I can’t even remember the names of the towns, but there was this one place, you know, off to the, to the east. And, and they were these guys, these two armies in a way were coming toward each other. And it struck me that that’s exactly where you would want to insert unarmed peacekeepers and say, Don’t either one of you make another step forward. Because we’re not gonna allow this to happen. But that’s not what happened. Now. Remind me what did happen.

Alexander Bellamy  25:43

So what did happen? So yeah, you’re broadly right. So you have a situation where you have the rebels are holding Benghazi.

Metta Spencer  25:51

Benghazi that’s the word I wanted to know.

Alexander Bellamy  25:51

Then Gaddafi forces are, are closing in on it, but there’s two things that happen, which kind of relate it to R2P. One is, that Gaddafi’s forces are using force indiscriminately, right? They’re targeting civilians. The other is that Gaddafi uses in his public statements, explicitly the language used by the Rwandan genocide in 1994. He explicitly says, when we take Benghazi, we’re gonna kill all the cockroaches, he uses that phrase, the cockroaches, which is exactly, the immediately all the alarm bells go off. Right? Gaddafi is now whether he’s bluffing or whether he means that like, who knows. But this explains why the UN Security Council authorizes intervention. And again, that’s something that’s…

Metta Spencer  26:35

What did the UN peacekeepers do though, because I don’t think they did what I wanted them to do. And I can’t remember what they did do.

Alexander Bellamy  26:49

So the they they’re authorized to do two things they’re authorized to use all necessary means to protect civilians. And they’re authorized to impose an arms embargo. Now much of the debate subsequent, hinges around what all necessary means to protect civilians means.  Some people say, well, it didn’t mean regime change. Other people, myself included, say well, if it didn’t mean regime change, why doesn’t it say all necessary means except regime change?  Is the regime that doing the, and then some people say, Well, you know, the Russians and Chinese didn’t understand that. And then other people like me say, you’re telling me that Sergey Lavrov doesn’t understand what the word that your security council resolutions mean. You know, he sat in the council from, for a decade. He knew what it meant. He just didn’t like Gaddafi very much. So he didn’t care all that much what NATO but the other thing that happened was that unexpected things happen. And this is always coming back to the kind of contingency point. So one unexpected thing that happened fairly early on, that NATO didn’t anticipate was a place called Misrata. So Misurata was another city in the far west of of Libya. Never Yes, never. Yes, West get my geography right. And this was held by the rebels, but was entirely surrounded by Gaddafi, his forces. So NATO’s initial strikes, I’m gonna have his forces have stopped the attack on Benghazi. But now you’ve got this problem in Misrata, that they hadn’t anticipated. So, so what they do about Misrata, they extend what they’re doing to Misrata. And then you have other states are also getting kind of getting involved. You may remember just before Gaddafi fled Tripoli, there was a sort of a maritime landing. So a whole lot of boats arrived, and some rebel soldiers jumped out and took Tripoli and Gaddafi fled. Well, that was organized not by NATO that was organized by Qatar. Qatar had been backing some of its rebel groups, and it was Qatar was doing this in Syria later as well. And it was carried out and organize that and the best intel we have certainly in the files are not released yet. But this came as a bit of a surprise to NATO, as well, because what was NATO doing at this precise moment? They were actually talking to Gaddafi’s son about negotiating a kind of a graceful departure or maybe their retirement somewhere, you know, in Russia or China or somewhere. So NATO was negotiating with Gaddafi’s son a way of getting getting Gaddafi gone a new government in. And then you have this complication that no one saw coming, of suddenly the regime like literally collapsing in the space of a few days, and then you had sort of chaos. But then after the fall of Gaddafi then, I think, is where things become really tragic because you have a moment where maybe you could have done UN peacekeeping, maybe you could have had a peacebuilding mission. The UN actually assigned one of its most experienced diplomats, the guy called Ian Martin, who actually ran the UN’s operations in East Timor. Then he had a small planning cell in New York and he developed all sorts of plans for a follow on peacebuilding mission. But that was torpedoed. It was torpedoed, firstly, by the new Libyan Government that said, we don’t want any foreign troops on the ground, known, no UN. But also, of course, it appealed to everyone else in the Security Council, the Russians, and the Chinese didn’t want a mission there. And the Americans and Europeans didn’t want to pay for a mission. They didn’t want to risk admission, if they didn’t have to say it was this sort of mutually convenient bargain. That meant there was no follow up. So Gaddafi fell, but there was no support to the new government. Then for me, the other tragedy, then becomes the spiral into violence, because what starts to spiral is a wonderful election. And I say, wonderful election in 2012, because it was largely free and fair, was  huge turnout, and it delivered a terr… but it delivered a terrible parliament, partly because it was free and fair. No longer the clear majority, there were like dozens of different parties, you know, a beautiful experiment in democracy, but produces a terrible government, right? Because no one could control anything. There’s no UN on the ground, so no one can disarm the different militias. And so once Parliament can’t take decisions, people have got all these militias still running around on the ground, because no one’s disarming them. No one’s building a new Libyan army to sort of thing that UN peacekeepers do all the time. And so it descends into into civil war, and that, that’s the, for me is a real tragedy that it was, in some ways, the political seeds of the collapse was sown by this kind of beautiful moments of democracy in Libya, the fact that…

Metta Spencer  27:23

Okay.  That’s not the only you know, the only case of that, you know, all over the place. Now we see, you know, nonviolent movements, once in a while they win, and then, you know, they get control of the palace, and, and they haven’t a clue what to do. And this is almost standard. So I think one has to take that as almost predictable nowadays. And let me ask you this, because I’m just trying to I’m racking my brain trying to think of a recent case where the principle of R2P was even invoked. I don’t see it being called upon anymore. And and, of course, a lot of the conflicts are going on in the world or do not quite fit the characterization that we would think of in terms of the just the the government not taking care of its own citizens. But it’s, it’s nowadays becoming more international too, as in the old days, but, you know, certainly with the Rohingya, that would have been a case I think, where R2P could could be invoked, and also in China, you know?

Alexander Bellamy  33:28

Yeah. So given, you know, I like to talk a lot as you know, that already gathered. First of all, sort of say, one thing that I’ve argued and Ban Ki Moon argued when he was UN Secretary General, is around how we use R2P, that R2P isn’t something that we invoke in order to do things, it’s a responsibility that everybody has all the time. So all states always have these responsibility. There’s never a situation where a state doesn’t have a responsibility to protect people from genocide and mass atrocities. So the question is not whether or not something is an R2P situation, because everything is an R2P. No, there is never a moment where the three of us don’t have a responsibility to protect someone from genocide. The question is how best to fulfill that responsibility. And that’s a long way around to getting to the answer, which is safe, in some respects, hard to beat in terms of its formal usage is getting used all the time. Like I could not have imagined back in 2005 that we’d be sitting here 18 years on with more than 80 Eight- Zero UN Security Council resolutions specifically referring to R2P more.

Metta Spencer  34:53


Alexander Bellamy  34:53

Yeah, so in relation to South Sudan, Congo, Mali, Central African Republic, Yemen, and even Syria. Even Syria has R2P language in resolutions on on Syria. And Syria, as James has already said, is the biggest cataclysm of the more well until Ukrainians come along, of course. So you have more than 80 Security Council resolutions. So one thing is I like to tell my students when we’re talking about China’s position on R2P, I remind them, you know, China’s on the council Australia isn’t, but China has voted in favor of more resolutions with R2P in it, and Australia has.

Metta Spencer  35:34

Really? I really did not know that. I mean, not I, you say 60. And I would have said nothing lately.

Alexander Bellamy  35:43

Yeah, it’s because most of them are in the context of peacekeeping operations. And mostly they’re in the context of the UN has a peacekeeping mission in say, Congo, or South Sudan, that peacekeeping mission is mandated to protect civilians, and also to support the local authorities to protect populations, so to support the local state to fulfill its responsibility to protect so most of them are in that concept context. There are a few kind of outliers like the Syria one, for example. And Syria was a really interesting example because it, it was, a, it is a catastrophe. And I’ve written a whole book on what a catastrophe Syria was, it’s within the UN, for the UN is one of the UN’s repeated mistakes that it made in the 90s. In Syria, yet, even on Syria, there were moments where you could see the changes having an effect. And two that I single out. One is resolution 2165, which authorized the delivery of humanitarian aid into Syria without the consent of the government. That’s the first time the council had ever authorized the delivery of aid without the government’s consent. Of course, the government used all sorts of other ways to block it and hinder it. And we saw it as recently as a couple of weeks ago in the earthquake, these are, these are still haggling over what the entry points can be. And it’s by no means a solution, but it is unprecedented. The council have never done that before. And if we want to explain more, why did the council do it now, you can’t explain it without understanding this build up of support for protection. The other thing, of course, in Syria was the deal around chemical weapons. And the council did find common ground, on at least the idea that Syria shouldn’t have chemical weapons. And given that, up to six months before that Syria, and Russia and China are all saying Syria doesn’t have any chemical weapons.  The fact that we can go for that, to, they do have them too, they should be disarmed. We know admittedly Syria was using chemical weapons again within three months and using sarin again within nine months. But as a sort of a moment in the history of the Security Council, it’s another example of how the sort of the slow grind of the Human Rights politics that James knows all about, sometimes you can, you can kick a door a little bit ajar. And then for the next decade, the challenge is to try and keep the door a little bit open. So that maybe politics will come around again, and you can nudge it a little bit further open.

Metta Spencer  38:30

Well I am so glad to hear what because your real cheerleader, you really are promoting this as a very successful thing. And I really didn’t think of it that way. James, tell me. Who’s right. I mean, …

James C. Simeon  38:48

I was going to I was going to ask Alex, I think at one point, Alex, you said that R2P is aspirational in terms of what it hopes to achieve, and in addressing atrocity crimes. And right at the outset, going back to 2005, as you indicated, this was an exercise, I think, initially among many of the states, not necessarily all of them in norm building. And so R2P is really an international norm that is developing not only within the United Nation system, but presumably among states as well, and hopefully developing into customary international law. And I’m just wondering, to what extent, you see, I mean, it’s only been, as you say, 18 years, how far along is this norm building in terms of this new convention that’s developing amongst state parties?

Alexander Bellamy  39:47

Yeah, that’s a great question. And, you know, like, as you said, you know, it’s never never a straight line, and it’s always it’s always bumps and there’s two elements that I think one element is around expectations about what states think the Security Council ought to be doing, because they’re setting the tone and they’re judging. And that there I think, is really significant. Again, I’ll go back and just kind of briefly clarify my optimism with Metta and say, I am operating from a very low base. I’m the world that I live in, in Rwanda. Is anything better than that? It’s progress but it’s a low base. But on the

Metta Spencer  40:31

I would also wonder, you know, is it really that we’re making progress toward this norm building consensus? I, you know, I think things have been going to the dogs lately. So it’s really hard for me to be as optimistic as you are about, how we’re really catching on to what our social and human obligations are.

Alexander Bellamy  40:56

Yeah I probably get way too excited when China abstains on votes in the Security Council rather than like votes, no. But that’s probably considered the sort of nerd that I am. But, yeah, so one point around around the normative expectations that we can see in Syria as a good test site. One things I always tell my students is if you’re measuring a norm, don’t look at examples of compliance. Look at what happens when it’s violated, and how do other people react to that via, violation. And so Syria is a really good example, because the UN one of the things that UN General Assembly has done is passed three resolutions by more than a 66% majority. So a big majority, more than 140, states passed three resolutions in which they quote, “deplored the Security Council’s failure on Syria”. So you have a clear message from the council saying from the General Assembly, sorry, saying, we don’t think the council is doing a good job. And there’s a relationship between that then another things, so you now have 150 States have signed up to the Mexican French initiative around veto restraint. So one is linked to the other because they think that council is doing a bad job, that they’re more interested in veto restraint. And why do they think it’s doing a bad job? Well, because their standards themselves have changed in a, an example of this. And again, one that I use with my students, is, if you go back, you know, just as recently, you know, we’re all old enough to think the 1970s is still recent. So I’ll say just as recently as the 1970s, and you think of a Khmer Rouge, in Cambodia, you know, in three and a half years, the Khmer Rouge kills a quarter of the entire population, and the Security Council never even has a meeting on it. And not only does the Security Council not have a meeting on it, but literally nobody thinks that the Security Council should have a meeting on it.

Metta Spencer  42:47


Alexander Bellamy  42:48

You know, we talked, as recently as the UN in Bosnia, you know, the UN Mission in Bosnia was called the UN protection force, didn’t have a mandate to protect anyone other than UN peacekeepers. So these are the kinds of long term normative chains, what about at a local level, so we I run a center that’s working in the Asia Pacific, which when it comes to commitment to sovereignty, and a traditional view of sovereignty, probably this region is, you know, as hardcore as you can get. We love our sovereignty in this part of the world. But we’ve seen governments change position. So Malaysia, for example, started off very skeptical about R2P, and has moved to be fairly supportive of R2P. And its positions, both on the general subject but also on specific questions. So on the UN Security, when it served on the UN Security Council, for example, it voted on most R2P related issues in exactly the same way as Canada would have voted. And they came on to the council feeling fairly skeptical about it. And then they reached out and said, well, we’re skeptical about this concept, but we’ve never really thought about politics in the Congo, or in South Sudan or Mali. And then when they work through those issues, they come away with thinking, oh, actually, this is okay, we should be, we should be protecting populations. We saw Vietnam, do, do a similar sort of move. Also in, you know, ASEAN. so you know, ASEAN has a Human Rights Commission, that just last month, we had a meeting with five of their committee, so it’s 10 commissioners for the 10 members. We couldn’t get them all to a meeting. But we got five of them to a meeting with the UN Special Advisor on the responsibility to protect a brilliant Ugandan from UNHCR. And they were wanting to develop and explore and engage what the ASEAN Human Rights Commission can do in relation to R2P. Okay, with respect to what particular conflict?  So thinking about …

Metta Spencer  44:56

I have to think a lot about Myanmar. Yeah, talk about that.

Alexander Bellamy  45:03

Yep. So Myanmar looms really, really large, what they’re thinking of in relates to what James was talking earlier about that prevention end of the continuum. So what can they as an as an Human Rights Commission do to support member states to ensure that you know, the Human Rights legislations, the National Human Rights Institutions, all of that is supporting the prevention of things that are violations that may give rise to atrocities. On Myanmar, of course, the Myanmar representative was one of those who can’t get to a meeting. But what we have seen in the region is that governments understand that they have a Myanmar problem. They’re not quite sure how to deal with it. It doesn’t fit with their ASEAN way. But also the Myanmar problem is, is complicated by the fact that the Western way didn’t seem to work either. So decades of sanctions, didn’t seem to move the government either. So I think Myanmar is a really difficult case, precisely because there are no straightforward answers to how you get from where we are to reform. So Aung San Suu Kyi and the NUG government, were trying to do that. But even that involved serious compromises and trade offs, you know, Aung San Suu Kyi was in power during the Rohingya genocide, and she had to try and navigate her way around it. Some people say it was precisely because she brought coffee and and and to try and mediate that and provide some new solutions. It was precisely that that triggered animosity on the side of the military, and that propelled them to escalate in order to avoid having to you know, having to reconcile or having to give up land or having to give up economic privileges in Rakhine State. So it a Myanmar is one of those and Syria would be another, North Korea would be another, of course, the situation in Xinjiang is another where you have such difficult politics. But it’s really difficult to see what can be done and where governments are kind of hesitant and uncertain. And that’s where I think the role of us as academics can come in. And I think, in the R2P community, I think we’ve got to do a step change from norm building, and then evaluating norms. I think we’ve got to move away from that, and spend more time thinking about country specific situations. So what’s actually going on in Myanmar? Who are the who are the sources of threat? Who are the key actors? Who are the civil society?

Metta Spencer  47:51

Do you have a plan? I mean, if you were making decisions about what to do about Myanmar, what even what tools are available at all that I’m not aware of? Because I get, I would be stumped. What would you do? And James, what would you do?

Alexander Bellamy  48:11

Now? I’d like James to answer this one. So we’ve been following this closely for for years. And, you know, we, we do this regional outlook, every kind of quarter where we talk about atrocity risks and responses. And so we’re constantly debating this, and it’s difficult to know like, our, our go to position is to either ramp up economic coercion on the military, and ramp up other form, you know, individual sanctions, stop the children of the military going to university in the States, which they all love to do, for some reason. That’s the go to the problem with that these days. Is, is, A it doesn’t work. And B, you’ve got what’s called kind of China substitution. That is anything that the West does. The Myanmar military can replace with China so they can send their kids to Beijing instead, they can sell their natural resources to China instead. And what that does, is further limits the leverage of outside of other powers and increases China’s leverage. So then the other question.

Metta Spencer  49:25

Nobody’s talking about sending peacekeepers into Myanmar, for example.

James C. Simeon  49:28

But they are bringing, they’re bringing indictments at the International Criminal Court.

Metta Spencer  49:34


James C. Simeon  49:35

Yeah, for military officials. So you could use that hammer as well, I guess in those situations, which may apply additional pressure on the regime that’s engaged in these things. But I wonder if I could also ask you and I know time’s running out quickly and this has been on my mind. R2P not only focuses on the state and it’s responsibility to protect individuals from atrocity crimes, but it also engages the international community. It has the responsibility to be intervening in these kinds of crises. And I’m wondering to what extent R2P actually now is incorporating itself within the international community in a variety of other ways. I’ve done a lot of work on international refugee law and refugee flows, and so on. And there’s a resistance oftentimes to actually accept refugees. But if you look at R2P, the international community really has a responsibility to do that. And I, I’m really encouraged by what’s happening in Ukraine, and in terms of receiving all of those refugee flows, the Ukrainians and others, as a result of the illegal, if you will, invasion by Russia into the Ukraine as of February last year. So I’m just wondering, to what extent Alex, do you think that now, the international community has slowly if not completely accepted that they do have a responsibility, just like the states themselves? And I’m trying to think within the doctrine, it certainly seems to fall in within one of those pillars?

Alexander Bellamy  51:25

Yes, great point. Thanks. Thanks, James. So the first point, the appointed by the ICC, I think, is absolutely that they were able to get this ruling that because Bangladesh was a member of the ICC, that jurisdiction would apply. But it’s exactly the sort of thing that we need to be doing and the states need to be doing. And civil society groups can be doing, I kind of conceptualize it sometimes as the kind of the gritt in the eye. So sometimes, when you’ve got these really difficult cases, the more grit you can put in the eyes of perpetrators, the more you can just make their lives a little bit less comfortable. Through all of these things, the more you can maybe nudge them and nudge others, it’s because it’s not always just about nudging the perpetrators you’re looking at right now. But it’s also about nudging other governments that are thinking, Well, should I do that or not? And they’re constantly making a judgement. I think it’s absolutely no coincidence to what we saw in Rakhine State followed almost exactly the playbook that the sat Sri Lankan military did in Sri Lanka against the Tamils in 2009, in terms of surrounding the area, locking off humanitarian aid, and journalists coverage, and then an overwhelming use of force in a very limited amount of time. And then opening up, it was, they said, We’ve got to remember that perpetrators are learning from each other, as well and they are figuring out so this grit in the eye I think, really, really helps. And then only the other point. Gee, what was the other point? Sorry.

James C. Simeon  52:58

That the international community has embraced R2P, and it has a responsibility to protect.

Alexander Bellamy  53:04

You’re absolutely right. And I think we make it sometimes too easy for our governments by just talking about the military dimensions all the time. And it’s fantastic that you’ve mentioned the refugee issue, because the most straightforward way most governments can directly protect people from these crimes is by opening their borders and accepting refugees, right? We all know the perils of displacement. But the flip side of displacement is sometimes in the face of atrocity crimes, in particular, fleeing is the best form of protection. So whatever we can do, in those acute moments of crisis to make it easier and safer for people to flee, to protect them, once they’ve fled, makes it a direct, it is literally the most direct and clearest way of saving lives. There are two and a half million dollar for is alive today that wouldn’t necessarily be alive, have not bought has been opened and a huge humanitarian effort supply. And too often you get and I suspect the Canadian government is a bit like the Australian Government’s. We like the rhetoric of R2P but we’re a bit hazy on refugees. Constantly,

Metta Spencer  54:25

I am [inaudible] mentioned that because what’s on my mind very much these days is the plight of these guys who fled from Russia recently, about a million of them, because when they were going to be mobilized and sent to kill Ukrainians, they didn’t want to do that and they’ve left the country. They are having a hell of a time. They can’t get admission to many countries and people will in, I think even the official position of the Ukrainians is you should stay there and and resist you know, oppose your government. Don’t don’t flee you know. Stay there and fight fight, you’re fighting for justice, and rights and so on? Well, you know, that would have been a wonderful, exactly the right thing to say 10 years ago, and I was saying it 10 years ago, you know, like, you know, it takes some action to get rid of this jerk, are you going to find yourself in the Gulag where you don’t have a chance to fight back? And, and they didn’t? I mean, my friends, you know, had no, no interest in resisting, I think the Russians are very, in general, not, not very ready to go out and resist. But for this, right now. There’s about a million of these guys. And a lot of them are really in deep trouble, you know.

James C. Simeon  55:48

But you can claim on the basis of conscientious objection, that you’re morally opposed to this war, you don’t want to kill people, and therefore, you’re leaving Russia, and you’re seeking asylum elsewhere, because you’re going to be punished by not showing up when you’re conscripted for a service. So there are ways for these people to actually claim refugee status.

Metta Spencer  56:11

Apparently, EU won’t take them in, EU won’t let them enter. Many countries won’t let them in.  And I don’t even know what Canada’s official position is. There, it’s well, because I’m in touch with some of these guys, and they are really having a very difficult time.

James C. Simeon  56:27

Yeah, I can appreciate the resistance on the part of states, but they certainly would have a right to claim asylum on the basis that they’re opposed to the war. And they don’t want to take up arms against any state, Ukraine or anyone else. So even though states may resist this, initially, they do have that right. In law?

Metta Spencer  56:50

Well, okay, I’m gonna put you in touch with some of my friends. You can give advice. Yeah. Okay. Well,

Alexander Bellamy  57:00

Similar to what James was saying, as well, it’s I think it really touches on a really vital point. And it’s something that we all need to be paying more attention to is just the wide variety of levers and instruments that can be used, that we’re not necessarily using, including refugee law, including human rights law, including, you know, nonviolent peace, may peacemaking nonviolent civilian observation. So, you know, there’s nonviolent peace force that will send unarmed observers into dangerous places, but we know that when things are being observed, atrocities are less likely right? You know, massively upscaling that these are these are things that can be massively upscaled, you know, imagine if we had a million of them. You could make, imagine if we were really prioritizing refugee protection, and safe movements, if, you know, these are all kind of levers. So one things we one thing we did last year, we did a little kind of a guidebook for UN member states, on all the things the UN General Assembly can do. And we know it can do it, because in some cases in the past, it has done it, and we’ve done quite a lot in the 60s and 70s. And there’s a whole range, for example, we’ve got, you know, the UN General Assembly getting involved in criminal investigations, it can’t prosecute, it doesn’t have those powers, but it can collect evidence. And just sometimes the very act of collecting evidence, it’s not going to stop the hardened perpetrators. But it might stop the fourth or fifth in line who’s like, do I really want to, you know what to end up in The Hague or wherever. And imagine a world which is now getting very optimistic. Whenever you say, imagine a world you know, there’s something idealistic coming on, where we were doing all of these things. So there is no one thing that’s going to make the difference. But the more of these things we’re doing, and the more that different sorts of actors are doing different sorts of things.

James C. Simeon  59:01

Universal jurisdiction is being adopted by a number of states. And as you know, recently, there have been some people, Syrian officials who allegedly were involved in torture that lost their status and were prosecuted in Germany. And I think more and more states are taking this up. So that’s another indirect way you can address these kinds of issues. There’s no safe haven for people that are involved in these atrocity crimes.

Alexander Bellamy  59:28


Metta Spencer  59:28

You used some magic words explain this term, universal jurisdiction.

James C. Simeon  59:37

This is a term where any state can take on the responsibility of prosecuting individuals that have committed these atrocity crimes. So it’s a legal concept, and it gives the authority to individual states, when they obviously have individuals within their jurisdictions, and prosecute them for the commission of these kinds of crimes. And it’s something that is being used more and more by states. And this could be another lever, a demonstration effect that that hopefully will deter others from doing these things because they know that even if they leave and go to some other location, and they’re found out, they could be prosecuted there.

Metta Spencer  1:00:27

Okay, well, I’ve come out a little bit more encouraged because of this conversation. Because at least I’m learning I’ve learned that there’s been more going on that I, than I had been aware of that sounds progressive. So I’m certainly with with James and there’s some there’s, there’s a lot more that we should be doing and your your comment to that there’s a lot more that country’s can be doing to alleviate these these problems. So it’s been very refreshing and enlightening to me. And I’m glad to have had a chance to get together with you. So thank you very much.

Alexander Bellamy  1:01:08

Thank you. I’ve enjoyed it. Great to see you. Bye for now. Thanks for the great conversation.

Metta Spencer  1:01:13

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