Australia and the Responsibility to Protect

Statement may also be located at Asia Pacific Centre for Responsibility to Protect.

At the 2005 World Summit of the United Nations, commemorating 60 years since the birth of the United Nations, the responsibility to protect (R2P) was articulated as a shared commitment on the part of UN member states. In the intervening period, R2P has gained greater momentum as a framework for responding to, or trying to prevent, the outbreak of mass atrocities. The relative success of R2P prompted one leading scholar on global governance, Tom Weiss, to claim that ‘no idea has moved faster or farther in the international normative arena than R2P’.1

There are many reasons why R2P has transitioned from being an emerging norm, as it was spoken about in the middle of the last decade, to an action guiding norm that has widespread support today. Of these, there is no doubt that consistent and enduring support from successive Australian governments has been an important variable in explaining the evolution of R2P.2 Indeed, it should be remembered that there has been a bipartisan commitment to the protection of populations at risk from mass atrocities stretching back over many years. Recall that it was the government led by Prime Minister John Howard that undertook the interventions in

East Timor (1999) and the Solomon Islands (2003), both of which are now heralded as early examples underscoring the responsibility to assist states under stress and to protect populations at grave risk (in World Summit speak: Pillar 2 and Pillar 3 responsibilities). More recently, the bipartisan appeal of R2P prompted former Liberal Party Foreign Minister Alexander Downer to note that he was ‘at one’ with his long-serving Labour predecessor Gareth Evans in calling for Australia to show leadership in international affairs by making R2P ‘a major priority’.3

What follows is a brief analysis of the key drivers of the process of norm transmission that highlights Australia’s enduring contribution to the emergence, consolidation and institutionalisation of R2P. The analysis concludes with recommendations for Australia’s continued support for R2P under the leadership of Prime Minister Tony Abbott and Foreign Minister Julie Bishop.

Norm Promoter

The success of R2P owes a great deal to the clarity of the initial articulation by the International Commission on State Sovereignty and Intervention (ICISS). The work of this Commission, at the beginning of the century, shifted the focus from the ‘right’ of external states to intervene to the ‘responsibility’ of all states, first and foremost, to protect peoples in their jurisdiction from genocide and other crimes against humanity. Through his skillful co-chairing of the ICISS, former Foreign Minister Gareth Evans was able to shape the agenda with respect to mass atrocity prevention and response. Finding a way to ‘sell’ R2P to a developing world that had rightly been suspicious of interventionist practices was a major challenge: it was met with the ingenious argument that R2P was a friend of sovereignty rather than its enemy. In other words, to be considered a worthy member of the UN system in the 21st century, it was necessary not just to have the attributes of sovereignty but to exercise that power legitimately. Sovereignty was never meant to be a tyrant’s charter.

Following the 2001 ICISS report, and the inclusion of R2P (at Evan’s insistence) in Kofi Annan’s High-Level Panel report, there followed a critical period in which diplomatic first movers such as Australia had to drive the agenda forward. A milestone achievement in this respect was the 2005 World Summit Outcome Document, containing the three operative paragraphs about R2P (138, 139, 140).

Australia’s Permanent Representative to the UN, John Dauth, helped broker the global consensus that emerged at the World Summit, strongly supported by the then Minister for Foreign Affairs, Alexander Downer. From 2005 to 2009, Ambassador Robert Hill ‘led the charge to implement the RtoP by stressing its relevance to the UN’s protection of civilians agenda’.4

Norm Consolidator: Staying the Course

From 2005 to the present, there has been on-going diplomatic support from key states at all levels in international society, including Security Council Permanent Members such as the UK and France, and dozens of other sovereign states in the UN—notably Australia—who are active members of the Secretary General’s ‘Group of Friends of R2P’.5 This support takes many forms: first, declaratory statements in the UN General Assembly or other multilateral institutions outlining the importance of atrocity prevention and/or the need for timely responses to the outbreak of mass atrocities; second, leveraging R2P to censure governments that are manifestly failing to protect their peoples; and third, reminding the international community of its responsibility to assist or coerce governments when a risk of atrocities is present or already occurring. This is precisely the diplomatic support Foreign Minister Bishop provided in her address to the UN General Assembly on 27 September 2013. Recalling that all UN member states had endorsed R2P at the 2005 World Summit, Julie Bishop reminded world leaders that the ‘first obligation of any government is to protect its own citizens’, and that Australia would continue to press for Security Council action to uphold this principle in Syria.6 This address came just a day after Foreign Minister Bishop chaired the Security Council meeting that marked the adoption of the first-ever Security Council resolution dedicated exclusively to the problem of small arms and light weapons (SALW). Drawing important linkages between the Council’s thematic agendas, this Australian-led resolution related the Council’s effort to control SALW to its obligations under R2P by underscoring that small arms have been implicated in grave crimes covered by the R2P principle (i.e. genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity).7

For each of the past five years, the General Assembly has held an informal dialogue on a yearly Secretary General’s report on R2P. Australia is one of only twenty governments that have participated in all five dialogues. The statement presented on behalf of the Australian government at this year’s debate held on 11 September 2013 demonstrates a full spectrum endorsement of R2P. The statement opened with a commitment to the R2P principle – ‘the exercise of sovereignty by a State comes with a fundamental responsibility to protect its populations from mass atrocity crimes’, before wholeheartedly getting behind the prevention initiatives in the Secretary General’s report (this year’s theme focused on the role of state governments in atrocities prevention). Embedded in the statement was a succinct analysis of the Syria crisis through the lens of R2P – summarised as follows: the host state had manifestly failed, the international community therefore has a responsibility to take effective action, and yet ‘the Council has failed to fulfil its responsibility to prevent further atrocities for over two years. It must now meet its responsibilities’.8

There have been many other norm consolidators in the ranks of UN member states. Yet it would be difficult to find another state in the UN system that has been more committed to R2P from 2001 to the present: Canada, by contrast, was an R2P promoter but it has subsequently ‘fallen by the wayside’.9 Moving in the opposite direction, countries that were previously cautious to the framework are now giving it their endorsement, including a number of Southeast Asian and Latin American states (such as Thailand, Indonesia, Vietnam, Argentina and Brazil). The degree of consolidation is such that the Secretary-General and other leading advocates of R2P now talk about the challenge no longer being one of articulation but of implementation.

Norm implementer: Institutionalising R2P in domestic and international contexts

An engaged community of academics, practitioners, and advocacy networks has nudged the normative evolution of R2P forward. Several Australian governments have deemed this ‘epistemic community’ as being worthy of receiving modest yet targeted resources. Australia has provided funding to: the International Coalition for R2P to help build and mobilise a global network of NGOs seeking to advance R2P; the Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect (GCR2P) and their focal point initiative which supports governments to appoint a senior-level official responsible for the promotion of R2P at the national level (Australia co-chairs this initiative along with Denmark, Ghana and Costa Rica); as well as research led by the Asia Pacific Centre for R2P (AP R2P) to deepen understanding of atrocities prevention strategies and measures to institutionalize R2P at the state, regional and UN levels.

In its initial phase, AP R2P managed a $2m Australian R2P Fund which supported 14 research projects. Among these included a project on atrocities prevention led by Oxford Professor Jennifer M. Welsh, the newly appointed Secretary General’s Special Advisor for R2P. Professor Welsh recently joined a team at the UN Joint Office on Genocide Prevention and R2P, which the Australian government has funded to deepen the UN’s commitment to atrocities prevention, to raise alerts where there is risk such violence, and to advocate and mobilize for appropriate remedial action. These examples of Australia’s willingness to match its rhetorical support for R2P with the resources to translate words into deeds have undoubtedly contributed to the resilience, conceptual development and long-term sustainability of the principle.

Enabling a community of the committed to advance R2P is an important contribution. Further progress, however, requires a great deal more than this. It needs a coalition of the committed among great powers, emerging powers, countries in the global north and the global south, and civil society organisations. It requires effective leadership in the UN system, in capitals of member states, and in key regional and international institutions.

Maintaining Momentum

Australia’s bipartisan and enduring commitment to R2P has made it a change agent in the transmission of the norm from its initial ‘promoter’ phase, through to ‘consolidation’ after the World Summit, and implementation during the last 5-8 years. Such forward movement should not be taken for granted – the near universal consensus that the sovereign state bears the primary responsibility to protect is not matched by a parallel convergence in the international community as to what should be done when the host state is manifestly failing in its protection responsibilities.

Building a norm is a painstaking task; it is one where consistent declaratory support must be matched by well-considered and appropriate resource allocation. Australia’s continued support for R2P relies on the government and its agencies taking difficult political decisions in a time of relative austerity.

We close by foregrounding what we in the Asia Pacific Centre for R2P think the government should prioritise – it is anticipated that each of these points will receive more extensive analysis in subsequent publications by AP R2P and in dialogue with the relevant agencies:

• Maintain active support for the Australian R2P ‘focal point’ – both in terms of sustaining the role in DFAT and building a wider international constituency for member states to initiate focal points.

• Commission a review of R2P activities and commitments across all relevant institutions of government (mapping these against the three pillar analysis favoured by the current Secretary-General).

• Ensure there is alignment between R2P and related UN Security Council thematic agendas, specifically protection of civilians, women, peace & security, children and armed conflict, and small arms and light weapons.

• Continue to dedicate targeted resources to maintaining the work of the R2P community of the committed, while at the same time better integrating their research and advocacy into work being done within DFAT.

• Use the 2014 year on the Security Council to advance R2P both thematically and as a policy response to specific issues/crises that are clamoring for the attention of the ‘15’.

• Encourage regional engagement on atrocities prevention in the Asia Pacific, Security Cooperation in Asia Pacific study group on R2P.

These initiatives would ensure that the consistent support given by Australian governments to R2P endures. Australia should remain at the forefront of the global effort to protect populations from mass atrocities.


1 Thomas G. Weiss, ‘R2P Alive and Well after Libya’, Ethics and International Affairs, 25:3 (2011), p.287.
2 As Alex Bellamy put it, ‘Australia‘s commitment to the RtoP has been bipartisan and enduring’. See Alex J. Bellamy, ‘The Responsibility to Protect and Australian Foreign Policy’, Australian Journal of International Affairs, 64:4 (2010), p.436.
3 Alexander Downer, ‘Australia fumbles its chance at the United Nations’, The Adelaide Advertiser, 01 September 2013.
4 Alex Bellamy, ‘The Responsibility to Protect and Australian Foreign Policy’, p.436.
5 The Group of Friends of R2P is an informal group of states supportive of and seeking to advance the SG’s efforts to implement R2P. Australia is a member of the group, which is co-chaired by the Netherlands and Rwanda, and comprises some 40 states, a regional organisation and the Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect.
6 The Honourable Julie Bishop MP, ‘Building Global Security and Prosperity’, National Statement to the Opening of the General Debate of the 68th Session of the United Nations General Assembly, Australian Permanent Mission to the United Nations, 27 September 2013.
7 S/RES/2117, Resolution of the United Nations Security Council, 26 September 2013. ‘Statement by Mr. Michael Bliss, Political Coordinator, Australian Permanent Mission to the United Nations’, UN General Assembly, 11 September 2013.
8 Lloyd Axworthy and Allan Rock, ‘R2P: A New and Unfinished Agenda’, Global Responsibility to Protect, 1:1 (2009), pp.54-69.

Australia poised to break its promise to women of the world

This blog is reposted from with kind permission.

Foreword to Australia's Candidature Brochure

‘Australia: We do what we say’. During the Labor campaign for election to a two-year term of office as a non-permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, this slogan featured prominently on every page of the candidature brochure. This idea of a reliable, no-nonsense, straight-forward, ‘true-blue Aussie’ national character was a cornerstone of the Australian campaign, which proved successful in the first round elections in October 2012. Senator Bob Carr, Minister for Foreign Affairs, described the victory as ‘a big, juicy, decisive win’ and ‘the world saying “we see Australia as a good country, a fine global citizen”’.

Sources now suggest that the government is now back-tracking on its stated commitment to making the Women, Peace and Security (WPS) thematic agenda a ‘key priority’ for the Security Council Presidency in September. They speculate that perhaps Prime Minister Rudd, despite his appetite for the world stage, is not as committed to this agenda as his predecessor. It is simply not acceptable to shift the focus at the last minute away from ‘Women’s Leadership in Peacebuilding’ as announced to the world in a UN Women press release. A ‘side event’ on 6 September 2013, which would require no member state attendance or support, is in no way equivalent to pushing forward the WPS agenda within the Council itself.

As a non-permanent member, Australia enjoys a two-year term of office and two periods of holding the Council Presidency, which rotates alphabetically through the 15 member states of the Council month by month. The first Australian Presidency will be in September. During the Presidency, member states can engage the rest of the Council members in open debate, co-ordinate thematic discussions and provide opportunity to move forward issues that are central to their own foreign policy interests and priorities.

One of the things that various Australian government officials said that the country would do at the Council would be to champion the ‘Women, Peace and Security‘ agenda. This agenda is one of the thematic areas of work at the UN SC. United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325, adopted in October 2000, is often identified as the cornerstone of the WPS agenda at the United Nations. Resolution 1325 was the culmination of decades of activism and advocacy work by civil society organisations aimed at encouraging the United Nations to recognise the gendered impacts of armed conflict and the active roles played by both women as well as men in the pursuit of lasting and sustainable peace.

Since taking up the position in January 2013, Australia’s representatives at the UN and elsewhere have reiterated the government’s commitment to the WPS agenda. Just recently, in a reference paper titled ‘Australia’s Foreign Policy Directions’, the Minister for Foreign Affairs Senator the Hon. Bob Carr stated that:

A key priority for Australia on the Council — particularly during our Presidency in September — will be to highlight the important leadership role women can play in ensuring long-lasting peace in fragile post-conflict societies.

Initial consultations with civil society organisations in the first half of this year confirmed that Australia was planning high-level interventions at the Security Council engaging the question of women’s leadership in peacebuilding and post-conflict reconstruction. During these consultations, stakeholders were led to believe that such interventions would include at least an open debate, hopefully at the Ministerial level, and that the debate would inform a Presidential Statement, if not act as the foundation for a new Security Council resolution.

The Labor government is currently facing significant pressure, both domestically and internationally, regarding its stated policy toward asylum seekers that emanate largely from conflict countries and include sizeable numbers of women and children fleeing political persecution including gender-based violence. With an election imminent, is the Women, Peace and Security agenda going to be another arena in which the government fails to deliver on a promise it has made?

Laura J. Shepherd (UNSW) and Jacqui True (Monash)