La responsabilité de protéger | Jean-Baptiste Jeangène Vilmer

vilmerJean-Baptiste Jeangène Vilmer, La responsabilité de protéger, Paris : PUF, 2015, 125 p.

Compte rendu par Joachim J. Savelsberg (Arsham and Charlotte Ohanessian Chair, University of Minnesota)

In this concise book Jean-Baptiste Jeangène Vilmer brilliantly guides the reader through the history and legal, philosophical, and political foundations of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P; precisely “Responsibility to protect populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity”), codified in paragraphs 138 and 139 of the United Nations (UN) General Assembly Resolution of September 16, 2005. Vilmer includes a chapter each on R2P’s sources, conception, birth, operationalization, regional approaches, and critics. In his critique of the critics he proves himself a decided adherent and defender of R2P.

In this English language review of a French book, I dedicate considerable space to a summary (and yet have to leave out fascinating detail about actors, arguments and fine distinctions in mutations of the doctrine). I end with a plea to take cultural conditions and consequences of interventionist doctrines such as R2P more seriously than Vilmer does.

Vilmer identifies three basic sources of R2P: classic philosophical reflections (on just war, sovereignty and humanitarian intervention); post-World War II human rights doctrines; and structural changes of the post-Cold War era. He traces the redefinition of sovereignty in negative (exclusion of forms of violence against populations) and positive terms (inclusion of responsibility) and highlights the Conventions of 1948 and 1949 as laying the judicial groundwork for R2P. The end of the Cold War is essential, illustrated by the increase in peace missions and the more than quadrupling of annual UN Security Council (UNSC) resolutions after 1989.

Vilmer guides the reader through the work of the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty via the UN High-level Panel’s 2005 report that clarified and narrowed the doctrine to the subsequent report of the UN Secretary General. The result was a narrowed but more consensual R2P that entered into the agenda of the 2005 General Assembly summit. It was unanimously adopted, despite expression of concerns. Paragraph 138 establishes the responsibility of States to protect their populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity; paragraph 139 elaborates on the responsibility of the international community.

Vilmer examines early life stages of R2P with conflicts and debates on: cyclone Nargis and the doctrine’s (non-)applicability to natural catastrophes; interventions by Russia (Georgia) and Israel (Gaza), evoking the need to clarify “populations” (including those in occupied territories?); the assessment of success (Kenya) and the failures to protect (Darfur, Sri Lanka). Debates motivate a Secretary General’s report that clarifies the primacy of the territorial state and obligations of the international community, and stresses the diversity of means of intervention. This report subsequently served as the central reference in informal communications among a growing “group of friends of R2P” in the General Assembly.

A chapter on the different approaches to R2P outside the “center” (great openness in Africa versus insistence on sovereignty in Asia) is finally followed by an engagement with critics. So-called Realists stress that the doctrine evokes counterproductive interventions and is naïve in presuming that States are guided by moral considerations. Vilmer objects that the juxtaposition of interests and moral appeal is artificial. Countries recognize that their image is shaped by adherence to international norms and that such an image plays to their interest. I agree, and it may be time to challenge the common use of the “Realist” label to include, with Émile Durkheim, the recognition of social and legal norms as “social facts.”

Vilmer recognizes limits of enforcement and accountability. Again I agree. Countries are tempted to take a free rider position when the protection of populations is at stake. Solutions Vilmer suggests merit consideration: assigning responsibility for specific cases to specific states (e.g., Australia toward East Timor); and the task of distribution to specific institutions (e.g., UNSC). He does not spell out potential sanctions though against those who do not accept such assignments. This is a problem as the weakening of norms begins with the refusal to sanction those who do not live up to the norm of sanctioning the norm breaker.

Finally, Vilmer responds to the anti-imperialism critique that R2P serves as a Trojan horse of post-colonial domination. Recent examples he cites support three objections: the occident is far from homogeneous when interventions are at stake; interventions typically do not lead to long-term occupation; and interventionist tendencies are substantial even in parts of the Global South, especially Africa.

In short, Vilmer is a realist, not as the term is commonly used, but in its more appropriate sense. Norms are real. They matter in social life, including in the life of nations. They are supplemented by scripts, cognitive models of appropriate action, as demonstrated by many studies in the tradition of the World Polity School.

Generally I propose a stronger acknowledgment of conflicts among supporters of intervention and of cultural conditions and cultural consequences of interventionist doctrines. In the following I draw on recent research on Darfur1.

First, R2P faces potentially competing normative commitments and strategic preferences, even among proponents of intervention. While the international community did not stand by idly, the UNSC referral to the International Criminal Court was not followed by decisive assistance. In 2014, Chief Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda declared before the UNSC her decision to “hibernate” her prosecution of President al-Bashir and others. Ambivalences in the diplomatic field are responsible, where conflicts between prosecution and peace negotiations loom large. In the words of one of my interviewees: “If you want to make peace in Darfur through negotiations, you have to deal… with the people who hold the power in the Sudanese government, and that includes Omar al-Bashir. If you want to achieve justice through the International Criminal Court, well, then you should stigmatize someone who is indicted. You shouldn’t talk to Omar al-Bashir.”

Cultural sensitivities and policy preferences lead to further conflict among those who care. For example, States dedicated to humanitarian aid resist narratives that depict governing elites as criminals. Beyond specific examples, multivariate analyses show a statistical relationship between a country’s investment in humanitarian and development aid and its reluctance to support interventions that impede the delivery of aid2 . Further, cultural sensitivities may hinder the application of the genocide label (e.g., Germany), with consequences for potential interventions.

Not all of these impediments and ambivalences are acknowledged in Vilmer’s book. But, of course, like the ICC, the R2P is young. Indeed, the 20th and the beginning 21st centuries differ from their predecessors not so much by the intensity of mass atrocities, but by the creation of institutions for their prevention and punishment3 . My in-depth interviews with non-governmental organization specialists, diplomats and Africa correspondents and analysis of more than 3000 media reports from eight countries showed that the notion of criminal violence has largely replaced both the view of perpetrators as heroes and great state builders, and the denial of mass atrocities. Effects are likely as the following quotation from an interview with an Africa correspondent of a prominent European newspaper illustrates: “In the past rebel leaders would direct us to the next village where they left piles of corpses behind, and they would show off their child soldiers. They have become much more cautious in recent years.” The civilizing potential of new institutions such as the ICC and R2P, not the least through cultural mechanisms, will have to prove itself in coming decades. Scholars must monitor the process as Vilmer does in La Responsabilité de Protéger. I highly recommend his book to scholars and practitioners in the fields of human rights and international relations.


  1.  Joachim J. Savelsberg, Representing Mass Violence: Conflicting Responses to Human Rights Violations in Darfur, University of California Press, 2015; open access-online  <> []
  2. Joachim J. Savelsberg and Hollie Nyseth Brehm, “Representing human rights violations in Darfur: global justice, national distinctions”, American Journal of Sociology, 2015, 121 (2), p. 564-603. []
  3. Martha Minow, Between Vengeance and Forgiveness: Facing History after Mass Violence and Genocide, Boston : Beacon Press, 1998. []

Laisser un commentaire

Votre adresse de messagerie ne sera pas publiée. Les champs obligatoires sont indiqués avec *