Skip to main content

At least part of Moscow's justification for its invasion of Ukraine is Russia's claim of a need to protect civilians at risk from political violence and human rights abuses. This rhetoric is associated with the intervention framework, which Canada played a major part in developing and promoting, known as Responsibility to Protect or "R2P."

The invocation of R2P in the context of a Russian invasion of Ukraine, however, appears to be a cynical ploy to justify actions which have little or nothing to do with humanitarian imperatives. It also brings to light the continuing challenge of clarifying what exactly R2P is – and what it isn't.

R2P is many things. Some call it a doctrine, others a package of emerging norms or a pseudo-legal concept. In principle, R2P insists that states have a responsibility to protect their own citizens from war crimes, crimes against humanity, genocide and ethnic cleansing. If a state is unwilling or unable to do so, R2P dictates that the international community assumes that responsibility.

R2P was most recently invoked by the United Nations Security Council in order to stop bloodshed – and justify NATO's intervention – in Libya. Following the demise of Moammar Gadhafi's regime, conventional wisdom held that the international community had finally demonstrated that R2P was more than mere rhetoric. This wishful thinking recently hit a snag with the failure to replicate any R2P-style intervention in Syria. Few things undermine the integrity of international law and humanitarian impulses more than selective application.

But R2P is also a language and as such is a double-edged sword, susceptible to being used and abused. What counts as R2P depends on who's speaking. R2P was intended to provide the space wherein humanitarian action and inaction would be justified. But it also allows states to abuse the concept by applying it selectively wherever they see fit.

Enter Russia's justification for intervening in Crimea. According to the speaker of the Duma, Russian President Vladimir Putin has been authorized to "use all available means to protect the people of Crimea from tyranny and violence." Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov similarly evoked R2P rhetoric in stating that "we are talking here about protection of our citizens and compatriots, about protection of the most fundamental of the human rights".

This is not the first time Russia has deployed R2P-style rhetoric to justify military incursions. In its 2008 invasion of Georgia, senior Russian officials maintained that their actions were justified on the basis of the country's responsibility to protect Russian nationals in South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Others saw the invocation of R2P as a disingenuous political plot to justify violating Georgia's sovereignty. Today, Russia finds itself in a very similar position. But is Ukraine really a case for R2P?

Russia's actions are hypocritical insofar as they undermine a principle Moscow deems to be holy in international relations and international law: the inviolability of state sovereignty. Russia has been adamant that any intervention to stop suffering and violence in Syria had to be approved by the Security Council. Now, as a response to unknown and unclear threats to Ukrainian Russians, Moscow appears more than willing to unilaterally throw Ukraine's sovereignty to the wind.

It also isn't clear precisely what threat the people of Ukraine face. There does not appear to be any imminent risk of genocide, crimes against humanity or ethnic cleansing in Crimea. Indeed, Russia's use of R2P-type language is all the more precarious in that at least part of the threat posed to Ukrainians stems from Russia itself. The threat's source is now rebranding itself as a protector.

But Russia's use of R2P-type language isn't fooling anyone. The invasion of Ukraine isn't a case for R2P. If there is cause to pursue an R2P-type intervention in Ukraine, then the Security Council is, for better or worse, the only rightful authority to determine to authorize intervention. Intervening in the name of the responsibility to protect cannot be unilateral.

By misappropriating and abusing R2P language to justify intervention, Russia also weakens the very concept of R2P. It confuses rather than clarifies where R2P should and shouldn't apply. It exposes R2P's Achilles heel: the fact that it remains unclear precisely what it is.

R2P was intended to place the human experience at the very heart of decision-making in international relations. It was anything but a modest proposal: the boundaries of intervention were to be redrawn, sovereignty was to be redefined.

But R2P cannot ultimately be successful in making intervention more humanitarian if there is no consensus as to what it is or where it applies. Insofar as it is a language, R2P remains a conversation. Russia needs to be part of that and 'the West' needs to listen to its concerns. But the cynical appropriation of R2P-style rhetoric for interventions that have little-to-nothing to do with humanitarian imperatives only weaken an already fragile concept.

Mark Kersten is a researcher at the London School of Economics and the author of the blog Justice in Conflict.

Interact with The Globe