Debating the Responsibility to Protect?

Policy Debates in Brazil, China and South Africa on Protecting People From Atrocity Crimes

Debate R2P Rotmann Brockmeier Policypaper

Source: Meraj Chhaya / Flickr

Executive Summary

A decade since the United Nations adopted the doctrine of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) people from atrocity crimes, most politicians, academics and civil society advocates in the West have come to realize the impossibility of seriously addressing the questions that arise from intervention and atrocity prevention without engaging with leading emerging powers. Given the growth in the number of powers influencing world affairs, discussions on R2P that remain limited to policy elites from Europe, North America, Australia and a few African countries have become increasingly antiquated and futile.

In recent years, this recognition has prompted an increase in analysis from academics and civil society groups – mostly Western, in both cases – of the positions and government policies on R2P in emerging powers. Much of the analysis focuses on official government policy and on R2P discussions between governments and Western officials. In contrast, this paper focuses on the domestic debates on protection that are unfolding in three key emerging powers: Brazil, China and South Africa. This choice of focus is based on the assumption that broader, more nuanced and better informed national debates are a prerequisite for successful engagement at the global level.

We argue that in Brazil and South Africa, there is great potential to encourage and facilitate broader and deeper national debates on foreign policy in general and on protection from atrocities in particular. Although public debates on protection have been limited in these two countries, there are actors with the interest and the potential, if not always the capacity, to foster more and deeper discussions on these issues. Despite current political constraints, there is also room in China to build upon the discussions and engagement taking place in elite academic circles and to deepen debates on the practical dimensions of protection like diplomacy and peacekeeping. While there is little room for public controversy and criticism in China, the capacity and pressure to fill the shoes of a great power provide some structural advantages for engagement, compared to the relatively weaker foreign policy establishments in Brazil and South Africa.

We show that, unsurprisingly, Brazil, China and South Africa approach R2P and protection from different angles. In China, debates on protection and Chinese foreign policy are closely linked to national economic interests (and in some cases, the fate of Chinese workers) abroad. In Brazil and South Africa, the participation in peacekeeping missions in Haiti and the Central African Republic, respectively, have sparked some of the loudest domestic debates on protection. In South Africa, the principle of non-indifference is closely intertwined with humanitarian intervention. But in Brazil, non-indifference is more related to humanitarian aid and the socioeconomic development of other countries.

The participants in debates on protection also differ between these three countries. In the democracies of Brazil and South Africa, the media is vital in channeling debates and highlighting criticisms of the government. In China, the relevant discussions are held within elite academic circles and in closed-door forums with government officials. There are civil society organizations – such as Conectas in Brazil and the Human Rights Institute of South Africa – working on the promotion of human rights and their country’s contributions to protection abroad. While they have very limited capacities, they show the potential for growth in civil society participation in foreign policy debates. Meanwhile, domestic civil society in China has different priorities, and it is unlikely that its participation in foreign policy debates will grow in the near future.

Despite huge differences between their levels of openness, the debates on foreign policy in all three countries remain elite debates. Unlike the United States and some European countries, in which there are broader constituencies organizing around the plight of particular communities abroad or around atrocity prevention itself, the main participants in Brazil, China and South Africa are the government and small groups of experts in think tanks and academia. All three countries share a civil society and a public that are largely, and understandably so, concerned with human rights at home rather than abroad, and focus on issues like poverty reduction, income inequality, human rights, education and corruption. NGOs and civil society actors that are interested in engaging with their government’s foreign policy community often lack the capacity to do so. Access to decision-makers is strictly controlled in China. In Brazil and South Africa, the claims of foreign policy bureaucracies that they are open to civil society are not always affirmed by the experience of NGOs.

Based on these characteristics of the national debates on foreign policy, protection and R2P in Brazil, China and South Africa, we see two plausible programmatic avenues for international NGOs, donors and academic partnerships that seek to encourage more public debate in these countries:

The first approach – relevant mostly for the open societies of Brazil and South Africa – would aim to support a wide range of participants at universities, think tanks and NGOs that are already participating in protection debates. This strategy could increase the extent and depth of their contributions if they had more capacity – essentially, this means funding for time spent on developing expertise and engaging in debate.

The second approach would be to support and broaden internal debates within political parties and governments. This could be done by offering opportunities for exchange with other emerging powers, neighboring countries or partners in the Global North in the form of conferences, dialogue programs and working exchanges for government or party officials. Debates on protection usually start, if at all, on the occasion of a government’s introduction of a policy or initiative. At times, the best informed, most fervent and influential critics of these government initiatives are members of the ruling elites themselves – as was the case for the criticism of the South African government’s Libya policy. Strengthening these internal debates by facilitating international exchange thus has the potential of increasing the depth of the overall debates on protection issues. This can only be effective, however, if designed in ways that treat participants from the Global South as equal stakeholders, beginning with the choice and framing of the topics and agendas. Activities need to be politically relevant to the participants, which requires a focus on practical effects rather than abstract concepts that are disconnected from domestic political debate.

Finally, our analysis shows that it is not useful to frame debates on the protection of people from atrocities under the strict label of the Responsibility to Protect. Dialogue programs and debates should build upon existing themes and debates in Brazil, China and South Africa. These themes include these countries’ participation in peacekeeping operations, their role in preventive diplomacy and their mediation efforts. Other relevant themes are concepts that arise from local debates and vary in meaning between different countries (e.g., the principle of non-indifference), or those that seek to find new ways of reconciling the need for more international engagement with critical analyses on past interventions. Understanding and engaging with these themes and each national debate on its own right will help to promote a more constructive and nuanced international debate in the future.


The full policy paper is available for download.

This policy paper is a part of the Global Norm Evolution & Responsibility to Protect project.