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Book Reviews

Book cover: RESPONSIBILITY TO PROTECT, by Alex J. Bellamy


Reviewed by Damien Larramendy

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by Alex J. Bellamy
Cambridge: Polity Press, 2009
268 pages, $29.95
ISBN 978-0-7456-4348-9

Reviewed by Damien Larramendy

Responsibility to Protect is an excellent academic book on the responsibility to protect (R2P) civilian populations from potential genocides, ethnic cleansing, war crimes and crimes against humanity. The book also delves into the debates that have arisen from the concept of R2P, and the author makes a convincing case for it. In this book, Alex Bellamy, Executive Director of the Asia‑Pacific Centre for the Responsibility to Protect, clearly explains the theoretical challenges, political debates, and practical obstacles tied to the concept of R2P and its implementation. Beyond the ‘to-and-fro’ of arguments for and against the concept, the book leaves us with the impression that the principle of R2P, although quite new, possesses enormous potential that needs to be exploited, and that we should be thinking about its ‘operationalization’ in the future.

The book is divided into two main parts. In the first part, the author goes through each argument that calls R2P into question and shows that those arguments can be refuted, or, at least, that they have serious deficiencies. The second part describes the steps to take to implement R2P, identifying the existing tools and the improvements that need to be made to them.

In Part One of the book, the author’s main objective is to convince the reader that, contrary to what its critics claim, R2P is a tool that would strengthen rather than weaken state sovereignty. Bellamy argues that sovereignty involves, not only the rights, but also the responsibilities of states towards their own populations; only states that fully respect the fundamental rights of their citizens are entitled to exercise the entire range of sovereign rights. Thus, a justified humanitarian intervention in the name of R2P would not encroach upon a state’s sovereignty—on the contrary, it would protect and promote sovereignty. In the case of serious violations, R2P would gradually shift from the state in which those violations occurred to the international community.

Part Two of the book examines the issue of the ‘operationalization’ of R2P, and analyzes the different tools that the international community possesses to implement the three parts of R2P, i.e., the responsibility to prevent, to react, and to rebuild.

The responsibility to prevent is advantageous in that it removes R2P from the armed intervention debate, but it also has to contend with serious obstacles, both theoretical (where does prevention begin?) and practical (what type of actor should lead and coordinate prevention efforts: diplomats or development agencies?). According to Bellamy, the responsibility to prevent can be implemented through four types of tools available to the UN: early warning systems, preventive diplomacy, ending impunity and preventive deployments. However, in order to be fully effective, those tools require institutional reforms that are unlikely to materialize.

The responsibility to react that is incumbent upon the international community can only be set in motion when the ‘just cause’ threshold is reached, and it must follow four precautionary principles: right intention, last resort, proportional means and reasonable prospects. The responsibility to react includes two categories of measures: measures that do not entail the use of armed force, and measures that do so. However, it is quite difficult to identify the threshold at which resorting to the use of armed force would be legitimate, to know when all other options have been exhausted, or to predict whether the measures taken will have a largely positive or negative impact upon the population. The use of armed force also raises the question of impartiality, which is supposed to characterize UN interventions.
While the responsibility to rebuild would appear to be the least disputed aspect of R2P, it is still fertile ground for disagreement between those who believe that rebuilding is a security-led undertaking—and therefore within the Security Council’s remit—and those who feel it is an economic and social-led activity—and therefore within the General Assembly’s remit. In a parallel debate, some support a large and directive engagement from the international community, whereas others advocate a ‘light footprint.’

Bellamy concludes by putting forward various recommendations on how to improve the ‘operationalization’ of R2P. For example, he strongly emphasizes the importance of putting just as much effort and analysis into the responsibility to prevent and to rebuild as into the responsibility to react. He also points out that the Security Council needs to adopt clear principles and objective criteria of implementation with regard to R2P, as its current ad hoc approach is undermining its legitimacy in certain parts of the world. Lastly, recognizing that this ad hoc approach subjects R2P and its implementation to arbitrary action and the interests of the ‘permanent five’ of the Council, he recommends that states in favour of R2P provide the material, human, and financial resources required to strengthen and sustain the UN’s institutional capacities. Such a commitment would send a strong message to sceptics that those states’ support of R2P is very real and is not connected to any political agenda.

Responsibility to Protect is an inspiring and convincing work. However, it is a pity that Bellamy tends at times to minimize the danger of the R2P concept potentially being exploited as a neo-colonialist tool, instead of focusing upon the ways to prevent such a situation. It is a very real threat that deserves some reflection. Also, given that the author makes generous use of the term “international community,” it is too bad that the term is not clearly defined, as it seems to be used to designate the Security Council at some points, the General Assembly at other points, and civil society at still others. As those three types of actors very often have divergent opinions, it would have been wise to use the term more sparingly. Lastly, it is unfortunate that the bibliography is virtually devoid of Francophone sources with respect to R2P, which would have enriched the author’s perspective.

Despite those pitfalls, Responsibility to Protect is an excellent introductory work on R2P, and it will provide those who are interested in the topic with the elements required for a more in‑depth reflection.

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Damien Larramendy is a research assistant at the Francophone Research Network on Peace Operations, a unit of the Centre for International Studies and Research at the University of Montreal. He is working on a master’s degree in peace and conflict studies at the University of St. Andrews in the United Kingdom.

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