Institutionalizing Responsibility to Protect (R2P) in the bureaucratic structure of Middle Eastern states faces two major, intertwined problems: first, the ‘state’ in the context of Middle East, not withstanding differences and exceptions, has a set of unique attributes that make it highly impervious to norm-driven change across three key interrelated dimensions: democratization, protection of human rights, and R2P. Second, the strategic exigencies of post-9/11 order has made it even more ‘legitimate’ and ‘normal’ for autocratic regimes in the region to obstruct socio-political reform, and maintain – if not expand – their well-entrenched means of repression. However, recent democratic popular uprisings across the Arab world provide a perfect opportunity for advocates of R2P, and other universal principles, to engender and institutionalize norms, which accentuate the central role of the state in protecting its citizens’ life, liberty, and property.

Responsibility to Protect

The Responsibility to Protect was adopted unanimously by world leaders at the 2005 World Summit in New York and was reaffirmed by the United Nations Security Council in Resolution 1674 (2006).  The principle rests on three pillars: first, the responsibility of the state to protect its own population from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity, and from their incitement; second, the commitment of the international community to assist states in meeting these obligations; and lastly, the responsibility of United Nations (UN) Member States to respond in a timely and decisive manner when a state is manifestly failing to provide such protection.[1]

Norms are standards for behavior set by a community.[2] R2P, as an emerging[3] ‘prescriptive’ norm — emphasizing what is ought to be done — was adopted from the report drafted by the International Commission of Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS), which intended to reconcile the urgent issue of ‘humanitarian intervention’ with United Nations’ principles on state’ sovereignty. R2P is groundbreaking because it tends to challenge our state-centric conception of the world on two levels: first, it emphasizes the moral obligation of the international community to ‘uphold’ universal principles within a Westphalian international system, which accentuates the almost absolute autonomy of nation-states; second, it treats sovereignty as a conditional right that bears ‘responsibilities’, not an absolute privilege of the state. Throughout years, since its adoption at the UN, R2P’s emphasis has moved away from its more controversial elements, specifically ‘intervention’, towards the aspect of ‘prevention.’

Middle East’s Exceptionalism

R2P becomes much more sensible in the context of Middle East for several reasons. First, the region has been a site for atrocious crimes, especially in the last century. The region’s history is fraught with repeated instances of gross human rights violation. For instance, the Armenian genocide during WWI, the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians in 1948, massive war crimes during the Algerian independence movement, Saddam’s ethnic cleansing of Kurds, repeated war crimes and massacres during Israel’s invasion of Lebanon (1982-2006), Algeria’s ‘dirty war’ after the 1991 elections, and 2008 Israeli invasion of Gaza.  However, hardly anyone was held accountable for their crimes – collectively or individually – under the auspices of international law. Only after the fall of Saddam in 2003 did a local court – under the new Iraqi government and not the auspices of international law – commence to ‘try’ Saddam for his crimes. Second, the region is a hotbed of conflicts, military intervention by foreign powers, inter and intra-state wars, and long-standing territorial conflicts. For instance there have been three Arab-Israeli Wars, two Gulf Wars, and the Lebanese Civil War. Lastly, the region is home to one of the most ‘durable’ and ‘repressive’ authoritarian regimes. Despite the demise of autocratic leaders in a number of north African republics, monarchies continue to operate in a ‘business as usual mode’ with some additional cosmetic reforms and minor concessions – in an effort to appease potential and actual protesters – recently introduced. To put it bluntly, principles such as state responsibility and accountability are yet to take hold within the bureaucracy, despite the fact that precisely such principles have inspired successful protests in Egypt and Tunisia.

The concept of ‘rentier state’ best captures the dynamics of political rule in the region. A rentier state is one that derives a significant portion of its national budget not from domestically-raised taxes, but from external sources of income. Thus, the state is not ‘dependent’ on its people to maintain its institutional organs and finance its functions. The motto being: “no taxes, no representation.” The implicit social compact being: in exchange for generous welfare from the state, people surrender their right to representation and democratic participation.[4]

The advent of sweeping economic liberalization – followed by popular social movements – in the early 1980s paved the way for the collapse of autocratic-military regimes in South East Asia, South Asia, Latin America, North East Asia, and Sub-Saharan Africa.  The decisive collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, led to the emergence of democratic governments and popular people power revolutions in most of the Eastern European nations – followed by democratic transitions in the Caucasus, and anti-autocratic upheavals in Central Asia. However, in the previous century, the Middle East ‘successfully’ eluded waves of democratization that swept across the developing world. Despite undergoing decades of economic liberalization, political de-centralization, and close security-economic partnership with the U.S. and the E.U., no single Arab country can be properly identified as a ‘democracy.’  In a minimalist sense, democracy is a system where the top political leadership is elected through fair, popular, and competitive elections. We yet have to see whether Egypt and Tunisia would make a proper transition to liberal democracies. Moreover, most of countries in the region rank at the bottom of Amnesty International, Freedom house, Reporters without Borders’ lists.[5]

R2P encourages accountability and democratic governance on the part of the state, thus it can be most influential in ‘democratizing’ countries, which are committed to reform. On the other hand, R2P can hardly be effective in relatively ‘stable’ autocracies, which see the norm as undermining their privileged autonomy. National autonomy, self-sufficiency, and independence – thanks to continuous foreign interventions – are themes that have dominated the Arab street, and Middle Eastern politics – especially with the rise of Arab nationalism in the 1950s and Iranian revolution in 1979. To this date, any pressure for democratic opening, respect for human rights, and accountability in face of atrocious crimes has been harshly dealt with. Moreover, it seems that ‘democratization’ is not on the agenda of most states in the region. It only took mega-protests and unprecedented international pressure to get autocrats like Hosni Mubarak out.

Just short of being sardonic, Schlumberger (2007)[6] argued for adopting a ‘post-democratic’ paradigm in the region. According to him, contrary to the analysis and projections of many democratization experts – who heralded the political liberalization of 1980s as a step towards democratic transition – what we have witnessed is the rise of ‘neo-patriomonalism’, ‘neo-authoritarianism’, and further entrenchment of autocratic rule in the Middle East. Autocratic leaders have skillfully and strategically used the process of economic liberalization in order to reduce welfare liabilities for the state, while propping up and expanding their ‘favored clients’ by providing them special access and privileges to contracts, market operations, and major private-public partnership projects. Against this already gloomy backdrop, Droz-Vincent (2007)[7] points out even a more ominous development in recent decades: the rise of the military as a major economic player in the aftermath of economic opening. He argues that the military is being increasingly co-opted by political leaders in order to preserve the status quo. Leaders give the military substantial economic benefits as to keep them loyal. The military is also a ‘natural’ entrepreneur, in semi-liberalized economies, due to their organizational capacity, connections, and skills.   With military becoming a pivotal political and economic player, ensuring ‘accountability’ on their part vis-à-vis war crimes and mass atrocities becomes even more difficult. Moreover, a significant number of leaders in the region are ex-military officials or/and have very close ties with the military. In addition, a State of Emergency is still in place in countries such as Egypt and Algeria, while Internal Security Acts have been used by most regimes to crackdown on opposition in periods of ‘legitimacy crisis’.  The recent revolution in Egypt is very instructive. With the military having immense stake in the economy, plus the multi-billion US military aid, it gradually shifted to the side of protesters, eventually pushing Mubarak to step-down. The military is definitely playing a central role in the ongoing period of transition with the supreme military council – in conjunction with Mubarak’s cabinet – serving as a ‘caretaker’ authority.

The War on Terror

On the international level, the end of Cold War, rise of a revisionist Iran, and growing uncertainty over the future of Palestine-Israeli conflict injected a fresh impetus for ‘arms race’ and ‘militarization’ of politics in the region. With countries being in a ‘high security mode’, democratization and accountability, unfortunately, have taken the back-sit. As protests swept across Egypt and Bahrain, the rhetoric of war on terror has kept Washington and its allies wary with prospects of democratic change. The fear that ‘reliable’ allies could give way to ‘radical’ populist forces has made many – from Washington to Tel Aviv – anxious with the prospect of change and abandoning autocratic allies. Touted as a ‘bastion of democracy’ in the region – mainly by right-wing Americans – even Israel failed to come clean on its egregious records during the Lebanese Civil War. Ariel Sharon, implicated in the Sabra and Shatila Massacre, would become Israel’s Prime Minister after the end of the civil war. Turkey, a fledgling democracy as well as an E.U. candidate, is yet to render accountable scores of generals and soldiers, who have waged brutal campaigns against Kurdish separatists on Eastern territories.

The tragic events of 9/11 elevated the ‘security mode’ in the region to new heights. Desperate to ‘legitimize’ its invasion of Iraq and solicit support in its protracted war in Afghanistan, the U.S. narrowed its “Kantian democratic peace treatise” to Baghdad and Kabul. Under this new order, autocracies in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, and many Gulf emirates increasingly aligned with the U.S., and provided the necessary logistical, financial, and rhetorical support. Turkey, a major NATO-ally, became an indispensable partner in Afghanistan and Iraq, while Israel – under Ariel Sharon – suddenly transformed into ‘the partner’ in the region in an all-out-war against ‘global terrorism.'[8] A blessing in disguise, “war on terror” has provided the perfect opportunity for autocracies to retard democratization efforts in the name of ‘national security.’ Opposition groups, media, students, and civil society members have been detained or executed based on their link with ‘terrorism’, Muslim Brotherhood, and/or other militant Islamist movements. Moreover, from Jordan to North Africa, elections have been intermittently suspended, electoral results have been reversed, and parliamentarians have been harassed. If yesterday, ‘democratization’ was a basis for ‘funding’, today cooperation on efforts pertinent to the ‘war on terror’ is the main ground for strategic aid. No wonder, Egypt has been the second largest recipient of U.S. military aid.[9] In this dreary macro-political picture, we are yet to see even more ‘democratic’ countries in the region embracing principles of R2P.[10]

Obstacles to Preventive R2P

In theoretical terms, R2P’s mission to transform the international community and individual states into responsible actors is founded on a constructivist understanding of International Relations: the power of norms in shaping state’s behavior. However, in the context of ‘War on Terror’, regional arms race, and reign of realist thinking in the thoughts of most countries in the region, it is hard to see how ‘prescriptive norms’ — assuming R2P becomes a norm — can shape the behavior of these states.

Although, R2P has been shifting towards the aspect of prevention, institutionalizing R2P – as a means to prevent mass atrocities — is highly volunteeristic and contingent on the ‘political will’ of those who wish to adopt it. This is problematic, because given the nature of politics in the region – great sensitivity to foreign interference and external influence – it is doubtful to see any significant welcoming of R2P’s more ‘preventive’ aspects. R2P remains to be ambiguous on how it could ‘uniquely’ and ‘precisely’ tackle underlying structural factors that give birth to mass atrocities. If R2P seeks to be ‘preventive’ in essence, it would face theoretical as well as practical problems. If R2P seeks to transcend ‘personal violence’ and rather focus on ‘structural violence’ — a form of violence that can’t be identified with a specific actor, but is more or less the product of the way structures of power, security apparatus, and commerce are established — it would need to delve into issues such as rampant poverty, repression, and entrenched human rights violation.[11] Thus, inevitably, R2P would need to address these issues within the framework of good governance, human security, as well as, democratization. The theoretical pitfall is that R2P might ‘overstretch’ and get conceptually interwoven with other concepts. The political setback is that R2P might face greater resistance and opposition from Middle Eastern states, who would paint R2P as a ‘re-packaged’ beachhead for western-imposed political reform. Nonetheless, as democratic revolutions sweep across the region, now is the perfect opportunity for progressives, liberal institutions, and the international community to assist in the process of orderly transition to a system where R2P and democracy serve as pillars of the political authority.

As protests in Libya enter a dangerous and violent period, it is becoming increasingly evident that the state – by killing its own citizens – is in clear breach of R2P and international law. This is a major test for the international community to prove its commitment to principles of R2P and human rights. Whether the United Nations Security Council would transcend beyond pure censure and criticism, and instead move towards concrete steps in order to ameliorate the growing violence on the ground is something that we should watch for.


[1] Asia Pacific Center for R2P (2010). “Responsibility to Protect.” April

[2] Finnemore, Martha and Sikkink, Kathryn. 1999. “International Norm Dynamics and Political Change”.  Cambridge and MIT Press.

[3] Emerging, because it has yet to enjoy a strong, formalized legal-foundation on the UN level. At this point, there is only a consensus on the level of principle, but no specific legal guidelines on enforcing/implementing R2P and punishing those who violate it.

[4] See Schwarz, Rolf 2008. ‘Introduction: Ressistance to Globalization in the Arab Middle East.’ Review of International Political Economy. New York: Routledge.

[5] For more details check annual rankings released by these institutions available on line.

[6] Schlumberger, Oliver 2007. ‘Arab Authoritarianism: Debating the Dynamics and Durability of Nondemocratic Regimes.’ Debating Arab Authoritarianism: Dynamics and Durability in Nondemocratic Regimes. Schlumberger, O., ed. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

[7] Droz-Vincent, Philippe 2007. ‘From Political to Economic Actors: The Changing Role of Middle Eastern Armies.’ Debating Arab Authoritarianism: Dynamics and Durability in Nondemocratic Regimes. Schlumberger, O., ed. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

[8] Fisk, Bill. 2006. The Great War For Civilisation: The Conquest of the Middle East. New York: Alfred A. Knopf

[9] Heydarian, J 2010. “Egypt’s Impending Political Earthquake.” Foreign policy in Focus, March.

[10] In 2009, the UN released the Goldstone report, which implicated Iraeli officers based on the grounds that they committed war crimes during their latest invasion of Gaza. In 2010, Israel killed 9 Turkish nationals on Mavi Marmara Ship. UN proclaimed that Israeli forces intercepted the Flotilla in international waters, and called for independent, thorough, and comprehensive investigation. Israel refused to acknowledge the jurisdiction of the international community, and instead established its own investigation board.

[11] Johan Galtung, “Violence, Peace and Peace Research” Journal of Peace Research 6:3 (1969) cited in Busser, M 2007. “Critical vs. Problem Solving approach to Security and Responsibility to Protect.” P.h.D. diss. McMaster University