The Rohingya Exodus: Who is the Subject of the Responsibility to Protect?


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The Rohingya Exodus: Who is the Subject of the Responsibility to Protect?
By Igor Milić is a postgraduate student at an English-taught masters course (MSc) in International Security Studies at the University of Trento and Sant Anna School of Advanced Studies.

The responsibility to protect (R2P), as enshrined in the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS) 2001 proposal has long been discussed, both from a theoretical and a practical point of view. The controversial issue of the unilaterality of humanitarian intervention from which the R2P itself stems and the arguable failure of the doctrine to provide a satisfactory on-field answer to the Libyan challenge in 2011 have just compounded the future of a genuine proposal for ending mass atrocities. However, a new crisis has recently rekindled at least a debate on the practical applicability of the doctrine: namely, the Rohingya exodus from Myanmar’s Rakhine State.

The question of who could and should intervene is certainly of paramount importance. Nevertheless, even before dealing with the most adequate and concrete response to the predicament in question, it can be argued that there is a fundamental theoretical shortcoming in the theory which becomes particularly evident with the aforementioned crisis: the question of the statelessness of the Rohingya. Drawing from such observations, this paper shows how the ostensibly main theoretical aporia of the R2P is at the same time the point of departure for its modest improvement. It thus both acquires a landmark status in the evolution of state sovereignty and becomes a bearer of the imperfection of the concept of sovereignty itself.

Since International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS) defined the responsibility to protect (R2P) in 2001, the doctrine has been constantly debated. With regard to unilateral humanitarian intervention of the 1990s, the R2P was envisaged as a legal way of reshaping state sovereignty through rethinking the traditional idea thereof and repudiating unconditionally the absolutist one (Bellamy, 2009:8-35).1 The answer to this challenge was the idea of sovereignty as responsibility and the debate on sovereignty and human rights seemed to have reached its epilogue.

Yet, since the intervention in Libya (2011), the debate on both the theoretical background and the practical implications has been suddenly rekindled, notwithstanding the prior authorisation by the Security Council of the UN. A new challenge emerged: the possibility of abuse of mandates. Today, the impression is that the doctrine has inherent limits, which are, arguably and quite paradoxically, also its strong points. This can be observed in the case of the Myanmar’s Rohingya2, as it befits perfectly the idea that the exodus of a stateless people represents the paradigm of the excess of responsibility, both a nodal point of the pervertibility of R2P and a starting point for its unpretentious and self-critical perfectibility.

The first part tries to reshape the theoretical framework of the R2P, the final aim being that of understanding where the R2P stems from as well as that of identifying its points of undecidability. The second part tackles the Rohingya crisis from both a social and historical perspective, whereas the last one points towards an unresolved and potentially unresolvable conundrum of the doctrine which the exodus in question has just exacerbated.

The Responsibility to Protect (R2P): Where are We Today? Any Caveats?

In Kofi Annan’s famous doubtful claim ‘if humanitarian intervention is, indeed, an unacceptable assault on sovereignty, how should we respond to a Rwanda, to a Srebrenica – to gross and systematic violations of human rights that offend every precept of our common humanity? (Annan, 2000:34)3, a number of problematic points might have been consciously underlined and others potentially overlooked.

The first one is the ostensibly ’unacceptable assault on sovereignty’: for, what is the need and the end of stating the unacceptability of the unacceptable? Doesn’t unacceptability per se disappear the moment it enters the symbolic order qua language: is it thus appropriate to talk about a subject’s unacceptable unacceptability to be adapted, to be rendered adequate? Is it proper at all to identify the international community with it, to exempt it from the status of yet another sovereignty and to incautiously individuate it as a pure source of rectification of an outer deviance, namely – gross violations of human rights? What is at stake here: a flawed State sovereignty, a defective humanitarian intervention, a faulty R2P or does unacceptable unacceptability simply stand for the very condition of possibility of an international community and its aforementioned responses?

No doubt probably highlights better the agony of more than half a million people which have recently fled Myanmar. Speaking of ‘our common humanity’ becomes thus equally simplistic and deterministic. Humanity, in other words, cannot help but be universal precisely to the extent that it is not (Rancière, 2010:62-76): there can be no responsibility without this paradox and aporia, without the cleavage and rupture within the universality of humanity itself. The point, then, is that the existence of our common humanity would structurally undermine the struggle for human rights, underscoring the superfluous enforcement of their fundamentality. However, this important passage has been overlooked by many.


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