Limitations and Responsibilities: Prof. Edward Luck Discusses R2P

Jessica Zimerman
November 09, 2011

On November 9, 2011, Kerstin Müller MP and Tom Koenigs MP hosted Prof. Edward Luck, Special Advisor to the UN Secretary-General for Responsibility to Protect (R2P) at the German Bundestag for an open discussion with participants from academia, civil society and politics.

R2P refers to the international human rights norm which recognizes the international community’s responsibility to protect civilians from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity. Endorsed by the United Nations (UN) World Summit Outcome in 2005, the principle reflects a shift away from the principle of non-interference in the affairs of sovereignty nation states, towards an international order with a duty to defend its common humanity.

This discussion took place during a particularly timely juncture: relative international inaction in the face of thousands of civilian deaths in Syria exemplifies the political complications of implementing R2P, while at the same time demonstrating its necessity.

On one end of the spectrum are those who fear that R2P can be used a carte blanche for an actor to intervene in any given country for any reason they deem fit; while on the other end of the spectrum, there are those that argue that the principle is not nearly robust enough and that it should be extended to defend human rights such as freedom of speech, and even climate change.

Luck responded to such concerns by stating that he believes that the strength of R2P lies in its limits – its application, Luck argues, is “narrow but deep.” There is a meaningful threshold that warrants intervention and agreement on that threshold at the UN helps to ensure a considerable degree of consensus and legitimacy.

Luck was very conscientious in differentiating between the principle of R2P and humanitarian intervention, which is merely one of many tactics which to implement R2P. According to Luck, much of the debate surrounding R2P tends to be driven by those who mistakenly conflate R2P with military intervention.

Luck also pointed out that reactive measures are a fragment of his work: approximately 90% of the work of the Secretariat at the UN is quiet diplomacy. Their focus is on prevention and early engagement.

But, participants were eager to find out, what happens when UN member states deem military intervention necessary: Is regime change not a logical consequence? And if the international community has a responsibility to protect, does it not have then the responsibility to recover and rebuild?

R2P, Luck argued, is more focused on getting hostile regimes to change their stance towards their civilians at stake, as opposed to the overthrow of particular leadership. Regime change is not an objective of R2P nor is it an inherent result. On the question of Libya and whether or not the mandate of UNSCR 1973 was abused in Libya or not, Luck replied that “R2P did not begin in Libya and R2P will not end in Libya.”

Through Luck assured participants that “we’re getting there” in terms of institutionalizing a culture of prevention at the UN, he acknowledged that the ongoing  casualties in Syria and Darfur are “disappointing.” These cases motivated participants to question why R2P is applied in some cases but not others - should not a universal principle be applied universally?

While he acknowledged the shortcoming of selectivity, Luck however does not believe that “if you cannot act everywhere, you should not act anywhere.” He generally believes that the principle of R2P has progressed at the UN and went on to describe: “R2P has gone from crawling, to walking, to running – even it if sometimes stumbles or has a bad sense of direction.”

To read Müller's event report in German, please click here. More information on R2P is available on website of the International Coalition for the Responsibility to Protect (ICR2P).

Read stories from: