What is it about?

Who is the Special Adviser on the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) and why does this role matter? It is likely that only those who work closely with the R2P concept, designed in 2005 to reinforce the state and international commitment to halt mass atrocities – genocide, ethnic cleansing, war crimes, and crimes against humanity – have previously heard about the UN Office of the Special Adviser on R2P. This paper presents those interested in international politics and atrocity prevention with a fresh perspective on this office. It approaches the advisers not simply as international bureaucrats who function akin tiny cogs in the transnational human protection machine. Rather it views them as individual political leaders who perform in a theatrical sense and employ a range of rhetorical devices. Such performances might help them navigate the principle both strategically and creatively while remaining constrained in the UN’s robust institutional setting. As a result, this research sets to make better sense of the trajectory of R2P as a global norm of protection as well as encourage one to take another look at how international bureaucrats may 'do things with words'.

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Why is it important?

This article serves as a reminder that political principles and norms such as the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) cannot succeed or fail on their own. What they can do is shape the reality of international politics by offering a normative framework and providing discursive resources for states, non-state actors, international community, civil society, and individual leaders to deliberate and implement their collective responsibility to prevent and cease large-scale violence. I selected the understudied office of the Special Adviser on R2P to show how these 'performative leaders' may routinely engage in social construction and meaning-making of global politics via normative innovations and discursive micro-practices, for example: by ‘framing’ certain crises as at risk of mass violence to encourage action; (re)shaping states’ experience with norm use; reinterpreting the mandate given the needs at a specific time and context; strategically using language and rhetorical tools to navigate R2P through contestation and to support norm implementation.


For me, it is a sad but timely moment to publish on the responsibility to protect populations from genocide, ethnic cleansing, war crimes, and crimes against humanity as large-scale atrocities are now being committed close to home. I hope this article can be a reminder that norms are tested not as much by the matter of their violation – because most norms are and will be occasionally violated – but by our ability and will to prevent impunity. In this regard, this article is meant to be an encouragement to critically assess proliferating sensationalist claims that since the invasion happened 'the international law/order is dead,' and to instead continue, support, and appreciate the hard work of forging political change, little-by-little and day-by-day.

Anastasia Prokhorova

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This page is a summary of: The Special Adviser on the Responsibility to Protect: Performing Norm Leadership, Global Responsibility to Protect, June 2022, Brill, DOI: 10.1163/1875-984x-20220009.
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