The prospects of R2P in Venezuela

By Ruben Tavenier

Although the origins of the current Venezuelan crisis can be traced back to the policies of former president Chavez, the situation steadily deteriorated after Maduro took office in 2013. The severe economic crisis escalated into a humanitarian crisis, causing millions of Venezuelans to seek refuge in surrounding countries. The people that stayed were faced with massive food shortages, a collapsed healthcare system, the outbreak of numerous diseases and hyperinflation of approximately 1.300.000 percent.

Whilst the Maduro government is currently embroiled in a power struggle, protests have broken out in the streets of Caracas, illustrating the growing public discontent with the situation. These protests have often been met with coordinated state violence. A panel of independent experts, sent on behalf of the Organization of American States, has reported crimes against humanity, citing the Maduro regime’s extrajudicial killings and arbitrary detention as a result of the violent crackdown on its opposition. This has led to calls for invoking the international norm of ‘Responsibility to Protect’ (R2P). With the observed crimes against humanity in Venezuela, a claim for R2P could potentially be made. However, some aspects of R2P seriously hamper the chance of it being successfully invoked in the case of Venezuela.

The history of R2P

Before diving further into the prospects of R2P in Venezuela, it is necessary to elaborate on R2P as a concept, with its virtues and flaws. The first report on R2P was published in 2001, in response to the inability of the international community to respond to the genocide that took place in Rwanda in the 1990s [1]. However, it was not until 2005 that the concept of R2P was unanimously endorsed during a UN World Summit.

Briefly, R2P is based on three pillars. Firstly, R2P entails that a sovereign state bears the responsibility to protect its population from a) war crimes, b) genocide, c) ethnic cleansing and d) crimes against humanity. Secondly, when such atrocities do occur, the international community should assist the sovereign nation in fulfilling its obligation to protect its citizens. However, the most salient pillar is number three: if the state is unable or unwilling to protect its citizens, it becomes the responsibility of the international community to take up that obligation.

Although R2P may seem like a new impetus to address atrocities anywhere, there are several serious pitfalls to consider. The third pillar allows coercive intervention if the state does not fulfill its obligation to protect its citizens, which has sparked a great deal of criticism. Intervening into the domestic affairs of another state is, in principle, a breach of the non-intervention principle and a violation of state sovereignty.

Whilst seemingly altruistic in nature, the norm of R2P could be used to disguise ulterior motives, which are often driven by self-interest instead of humanitarian concerns. Perhaps the most notable case of this was the intervention in Libya. In 2011, the United Nations Security Council adopted resolution 1973, authorizing a military intervention in Libya, aimed at protecting the population without the consent of the Libyan government. During this intervention, NATO arguably overstepped its mandate, which eventually lead to an unstable regime change. As a result, Russia and China, amongst others, grew wary of interventions carried out by the West, under the header of R2P, distrusting the implicit promotion of their own liberal interests [2]. The negative associations of R2P after the intervention in Libya significantly reduced the chance of a future R2P-based intervention, as could be seen in the case of Syria. What does this mean for the possible use of R2P in Venezuela?

R2P and the case of Venezuela

The road from crimes against humanity in Venezuela, for example illustrated by the refusal of Maduro to redistribute international aid, to the invocation of R2P is anything but clear-cut. Although the arguments in favor of military intervention in Venezuela may seem rather intuitive, intervening in order to stop the atrocities from taking place and alleviate the humanitarian situation in Venezuela could be spoiled by multiple actors and situations. Therefore, the question is not whether ‘R2P should be invoked’ but rather whether it is at all possible to invoke it in this particular situation.

At this moment, it seems particularly unlikely that Russia or China, both permanent members of the Security Council, will agree with an intervention in Venezuela. The stalemate between Russia, being a steadfast supporter of president Maduro, and the US, supporting the self-proclaimed interim-president Guaidó, will not be broken by R2P. Moreover, the cooperation between Russia and Venezuela also includes the military domain, illustrated by an ever-growing Russian military presence in Venezuela. With Russian boots on the ground, the already slim chances of R2P have quickly vanished completely.

Even though all the UN members have endorsed R2P in 2005, the international community, when faced with domestic atrocities, is often not able to cut through the geopolitical rivalries and stalemates. What may have started as a response to the inability of the international community to prevent or address atrocities, is nowadays tainted by competition between superpowers and their self-interests. Consequently, it is near impossible for the norm of R2P to be invoked in the case of Venezuela, leaving the international community once again paralyzed in face of a humanitarian crisis.


[1] Evans, G., Thakur, R., & Pape, R. A. (2013). Correspondence: Humanitarian intervention and the responsibility to protect. International security, 37(4), 199-214.

[2] Zyberi, G., Mason, K. (2013). An Institutional Approach to the Responsibility to Protect. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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