Norm Robustness and the Responsibility to Protect

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Journal of Global Security Studies, Volume 4, Issue 1, 1 January 2019, Pages 53–72 


This article begins by critically assessing some of the current measures used to evaluate the status and impact of the Responsibility to Protect (RtoP). It then lays the groundwork for a deeper examination of RtoP’s strength by specifying what kind of norm it is, and what it can reasonably be expected to do. The third section engages Zimmerman and Deitelhoff’s framework on norm robustness and contestation by positing two arguments. First, the past decade of diplomatic engagement and policy development has brought about greater consensus on RtoP’s core elements, and thus enhanced its validity; however, this process has also dampened many of RtoP’s original cosmopolitan aspirations. Second, persistent applicatory contestation about RtoP’s so-called third pillar is revealing deeper concerns about the norm’s justification – thereby leading some actors to avoid framing situations with RtoP terminology. I use two cases to address the broader theoretical questions raised about whether and how language matters in assessing norm robustness: the international community’s response to the deepening political violence in Burundi in 2015, and the evolution of the international community’s response to the war in Syria (2011–17). While these cases illustrate changing perceptions of the political utility of RtoP language, concrete engagement by the international community, particularly in the Burundi case, indicates that RtoP’s validity remains intact. The article concludes that norm decay is not equivalent to norm death, and that RtoP’s prescriptions will survive given that they are embedded in a broader normative structure of human rights, humanitarian law, and civilian protection.


You can access the full article by Jennifer Welsh here