Most Asian states have chosen to bypass the debate on the Responsibility to Protect (RtoP), claiming that any discussion of the concept could undermine established notions of national sovereignty. This debate, though, can no longer simply be brushed aside by regional actors. No matter what one may think of the situation in Libya, it opens a complex debate about responses to imminent atrocities, divisions of labour in the context of such responses, and, perhaps most crucially, the way in which norms of intervention and responsibility will evolve. This debate shouldn’t proceed without Asia.
More profoundly, the rise of Asia in global politics entails the need for the region to participate in the development of global norms and, conversely, to abide by these norms. Asia must therefore articulate where it stands on the RtoP, and it must show that it can participate in the global debate about the concept in a constructive and forward-looking manner.
The first step in that process should be to acknowledge how the debate has evolved. Proponents of the RtoP are attempting to push discussion of the concept in two specific directions. One focuses on the tension between prevention and intervention in the logic of the concept. Too much has been made, they claim, of the argument that the RtoP justifies international military interventions within states. The idea, instead, is to emphasize that the prevention of violence is key, and that this process should start much earlier, in the development of legitimate and lawful models of politics in parts of the world where widespread violence is likely. The international community should assist in the development of these models of politics, and see that any military intervention, if it occurs, helps ensure their legitimacy and sustainability.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
The second point of emphasis involves the role of regional actors. Any RtoP action, proponents of the concept claim, should require the consent, if not material support on the ground, of states neighbouring the one where that international operation is to take place. This speaks to the logistics of any sustained international intervention in a zone of conflict.
More profoundly, though, this goes to the core of the norms and claims supporting the RtoP. Too often, supporters of the RtoP suggest, the concept has been portrayed as an imposition of the West on the non-Western world. The explicit support of regional states can prove that the RtoP is very much a global norm supported by both Western and non-Western states.
This has implications for Asia. Libya, for example, is seen as a test of these arguments. As the likelihood of an international intervention against the Gaddafi regime increased a few months ago, the support of regional states was a crucial component of the discussion and might well have constituted its deciding factor. China didn’t support the operation, but it didn’t oppose it. Did Beijing recognize that a threshold had been passed when an array of global and regional actors supported an RtoP operation in Libya, and that it shouldn’t stand in the way? Or did it simply want to let facts on the ground – the difficulty of a clear exit strategy in Libya, the impossibility of a similar operation in Syria – demonstrate that the RtoP will never constitute a new norm of international affairs? (Revelations that state-controlled Chinese firms might have attempted to provide the Gaddafi regime with weapons after the international community began its intervention in Libya add yet another layer of complexity to these questions.)