China and the “Responsibility to Protect” in International Law

The duty of the global community to intervene on humanitarian grounds is a topic hotly debated in international law. If a leader’s are starving, dying, and helpless, whose responsibility is it to account for their wellbeing?

James Zhaojie Li, Professor at the Tsinghua University School of Law, came to the Center today to discuss this concept: the responsibility to protect (R2P). As a legal notion, R2P refers to the obligation of a sovereign state against genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity, and ethnic cleansing; if a country is unable or unwilling to uphold this duty, then it befalls the international community to intervene in order to protect the livelihood of citizens. Li explains that this principle has not yet crystallized into customary international law, but he also mentions that China has had a complicated history with the doctrine. R2P explicitly defines a tradeoff between sovereign statehood and principles of noninterference and humanitarian intervention. China has long been a strong supporter of state’s rights and territorial sovereignty; its choice to abstain from the United Nations resolution that authorized the invasion of Libya on grounds of the leadership’s failure of responsibility to protect only further generated a jaded attitude.

When the second test of R2P came along, Syria, China vetoed the resolution and the conflict in Syria remains unsolved today. But is the idea of responsibility to protect dead? Li claims no. In fact, he defines a selective adaptation model of international law: China engages and supports international law only when it maximizes its benefits, and either opposes or attempts to reshape legal principles that do not help the country in the long game. This is seen in what Li calls China’s reformation of responsibility to protect into the notion of responsible protection: the burden falls on the international community to responsibly protect the citizens of the globe rather than have the onus be on the leaders of individual countries. 

The transformation of responsibility to protect into responsible protection may have important implications for Chinese political behavior in the near future. Issues in contemporary China like the repression of Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang begs the question: is China a candidate for humanitarian intervention based on R2P?  

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