R2P’s future in Southeast Asia: In need of reconceptualisation

Commitment to the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) therefore provides ASEAN with a major pathway toward realizing its vision of a caring and sharing community

Surin Pitsuwan, former Secretary General of ASEAN, 09/09/14

‘[R2P] won’t work, and you are condemning ASEAN. You are giving ASEAN a kiss of death’

Surin Pitsuwan (in reference to Cyclone Nargis), then Secretary General of ASEAN, 2008,

In the first seminar of the 2014-2015 ICCS Seminar Series, Justin Morris, University of Hull, argued for the curtailing of the UNSC veto when it comes to R2P. With regional organisations seen as being potential partners to the UN in regards to R2P, I want to explore under what circumstances R2P might have a future in ASEAN.

Deepening suspicion of the R2P principle has led to a lack of commitment at a time where there have been calls from international NGO’s for both Myanmar and ASEAN to recognise its responsibility to protect the Rohingya population, as well as regional actors advocating the enshrining of R2P in order to create ‘a caring ASEAN community’. It seems unlikely that a curtailing of the veto alone would have much of a positive regional impact beyond preventing China and Russia blocking R2P operations. As it currently stands, any invocation in the region would be met with suspicion due to ASEAN’s concerns of interventionism, which runs contrary to the ‘ASEAN Way’ of non-inteference.

Despite the UN introducing the concept to the ASEAN region it has proven difficult for R2P to be accepted. This difficulty can partly be explained by concerns about the misuse of coercion, which is included in the UN’s three pillars of R2P[1], increasing the north-south divide due to perceptions that R2P operations would most likely be undertaken by developed countries of the west. R2P, therefore, is viewed as a pretext for western intervention into developing countries. Curtailing the veto would do little to reassure these states that the UNSC is a neutral arbiter; especially due to its chequered past of unfair selectivity and coercive measures which have escalated to regime change, as demonstrated in Libya where R2P escalated into the overthrow of Gaddafi. In addition, R2P is perceived as incompatible with the ASEAN political context. Many scholars have demonstrated the problems that R2P would have in a region which follows the so called ‘ASEAN way’ where non-interference and consensus have led to enduring peace; resulting in an expressed commitment in their continuation. Myanmar’s Saffron Revolution, not the first problematic episode in ASEAN’s history, was met with an almost awkward silence from other ASEAN states.

These suspicions were demonstrated in the case of the 2008 Cyclone Nargis where R2P was discussed by the French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner; seeing Myanmar as not meeting its responsibility, he called for unilateral intervention to deliver aid. The response from regional leaders was extremely muted and solutions were instead sought outside of the R2P framework due to fears that R2P would legitimise a western intervention at a time when the presence of French and British warships heightened Myanmar’s suspicion. Even aid was seen to be potentially problematic due to the opportunity for politicization. Whilst the viability of R2P in this case is debated, the responses from the ASEAN community highlighted a typical level of suspicion. Surin Pitsuwan argued that R2P ‘won’t work, and you are condemning ASEAN. You are giving ASEAN a kiss of death’ and Indonesian leaders who at the time held a non-permanent seat on the Security Council argued that there were better forums for discussion that ‘avoided the political spin of the technical realities’. These suspicions and the continuation of norms are a good demonstration of why commitment has been quite limited beyond a discursive acceptance. Whilst notable academics have argued that the more ‘human rights’ focused AICHR and ASPC represent new directions in which R2P could take hold[2], these are marked by limitations. The AICHR, for example, calls on the region to not tolerate violations of human rights but goes on to negate commitment through an emphasis on the maintenance of sovereignty[3]. The growth of civil society which could help with norm localization and diffusion also suffers from limitations including widespread misunderstandings concerning the R2P concept.

This isn’t to say that the R2P concept has no future in the region, but that any future is problematic without its transformation. In order for R2P to take hold, therefore, it would have to respect the norms which prioritise state sovereignty. Here, one of Morris’s other ideas[4] is of greater relevance; that in order for R2P to advance there must be a separation of R2P and the non-consensual coercive aspects. ASEAN states have already accepted these two pillars[5] and here Nargis proves an interesting case study again. Despite there being a move away from R2P discourse, the recognition that Myanmar was responsible for its citizens led to new initiatives and allowed aid to be delivered, albeit not in a timely manner due to its initial suspicion. ASEAN’s diplomacy between the two mistrustful sides led to assurances that previously rejected international assistance would not be politicized and would be overseen by the Tripartite Core Group (TCG). Whilst R2P as a concept was rejected in this case, and it was far from a victory for the concept, it can be seen as a successful application of the principle and the expansion of a more positive form of security; ASEAN was able to assist Myanmar in meeting its responsibility to its people. This re-interpretation emphasising the first two pillars would have utility for R2P in Southeast Asia and allow its invocation as more trust develops. Of course this may be problematic in cases where states are actively engaging in activities which undermine protection, such as in the Rohingya case, but coercive elements could still take place outside of the R2P framework whilst the invocation of R2P would allow a diplomatic process in which ASEAN states could assist Myanmar in delivering upon its responsibilities as a state. Removing what is seen as the problematic coercive aspect that can lead to military intervention would give the concept of R2P a greater chance of proliferating in the region; removing suspicion of a north-south divide as well as preventing too strong an erosion of state sovereignty.

Scott Edwards completed an MA in International relations (Asia-Pacific) at the University of Birmingham and an undergraduate degree in History and International Relations at Coventry University. He is currently working on his PhD proposals and finalising his contributions as a country assessor for two countries in Transparency International’s Government and Defence Anti-Corruption report.

Image source: Flickr / Andrew Mercer


[1] The UN describes R2P as being based on 3 pillars; the first being acceptance states have responsibility to their citizens, the second that states must assist each other to meet this need and the final pillar emphasises coercive aspects if states fail to protect their citizens

[2] See, for example Sukma, R., (2012) The ASEAN political and security community (APSC): Opportunities and Constraints for R2P in Southeast Asia, The Pacific Review, Vol. 25, No. 1, pp. 135-152 and Kraft, H., (2012) RtoP by Increments: The AICHR and Localizing the Responsibility to Protect in Southeast Asia, The Pacific Review, Vol. 25, No. 1 pp. 27-49

[3] AICHR (2009) AICHR Terms of Reference (Jakarta: ASEAN Secretariat)

[4] Ideas presented at an ICCS reading group 14th October, 2014

[5] See, for example, the special issue of Pacific Review on R2P (Vol. 25, No.1), including but not limited to; Alexandra, L., (2012) Indonesia and the Responsibility to Protect, The Pacific Review, Vol. 25, No. 1, pp. 51-74; Kraisoraphong, K., (2012) Thailand and the Responsibility to Protect, The Pacific Review, Vol. 25, No. 1, pp. 1-25

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