Norm linkage as politics of legitimacy: The interaction of protection and prosecution norms in humanitarian intervention debates

What should the “international community” do in the face of mass atrocities being committed in a country? Since the end of the Cold War, different (informal) norms have emerged that demand an intervention into the sovereign affairs of the respective state in such cases. The “duty to protect” postulates that the international community should intervene with military means, if necessary, if a state is unwilling or unable to shield its citizens from extreme violence. The “duty to prosecute” demands that atrocity crimes that would go unpunished in the respective state be prosecuted by international criminal justice mechanisms.

Although these two intervention norms have different primary objectives – the prevention of atrocities on the one hand and their punishment on the other –, conflicts and synergies between both have been debated ever since their inception: Can prosecutions help to end violence and protect civilians, or do they risk escalating ongoing violence? Do military interventions for the protection of civilians further or jeopardize the goals of international criminal justice? The ongoing debate about these questions is not limited to academic circles, but is also conducted and shaped by political actors. The proposed project examines the evolution of this political debate, by asking: Which collective interpretations of the relationship between protection and prosecution duties have prevailed in international political debates about interventions in humanitarian crises to date – and why? Can we confirm the claim by some analysts that arguments about conflicts and synergies between the two intervention norms are used strategically to legitimize specific intervention decisions? For example, do governments cite the alleged “deterrence” effect of criminal trials as an excuse to avoid more costly military protection measures? OR do they use And if so, how did some of these strategic interpretations come to prevail over others in the collective political discourse – and thus get to shape the international community’s collective intervention practices?

To answer these case-specific questions, the proposed projects develops and applies a general theoretical model of norm interaction, which can also be transferred to other policy areas, thus making a wider theoretical contribution to research about international norms. In this model, norm interaction is conceived as the product of a discursive politics of legitimacy. Strategic political actors construct a positive or negative discursive linkage between distinct international norms in order to enhance the legitimacy (and chances of realization) of their political preferences. Whether or not a linkage argument can prevail in the collective discourse depends on the discourse’s structural features: on configurations of interest and power as well as ascriptions of authority among the participants, and on precedents that can lead to a path-dependent norm evolution.

The project is funded by the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DSF) for a period of three years.

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Bombs, Trials, and Rights: Norm Complexity and the Evolution of Liberal Intervention Practices | 2019

Fehl, Caroline (2019): Bombs, Trials, and Rights: Norm Complexity and the Evolution of Liberal Intervention Practices, in: Human Rights Quarterly, 41:4, 893–915, DOI: 10.1353/hrq.2019.0066.

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Assad könnte in Idlib wieder Giftgas einsetzen – doch eine militärische Antwort wäre falsch | 2018

Fehl, Caroline (2018): Assad könnte in Idlib wieder Giftgas einsetzen – doch eine militärische Antwort wäre falsch, PRIF Blog, 13.9.2018.

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Navigating Norm Complexity | 2018

Fehl, Caroline (2018): Navigating Norm Complexity. A Shared Research Agenda for Diverse Constructivist Perspectives, PRIF Working Papers No. 41, Frankfurt/M.

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Chasing Justice for Syria | 2017

Fehl, Caroline/Mocková, Eliška (2017): Chasing Justice for Syria. Roadblocks and detours on the path to accountability, PRIF Spotlight 5/2017, Frankfurt/M.

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Probing the Responsibility to Protect's Civilian Dimension | 2014

Fehl, Caroline (2014): Probing the Responsibility to Protect's Civilian Dimension. What Can Non-Military Sanctions Achieve?, in: Fiott, Daniel/Koop, Joachim (eds), The Responsibility to Protect and the Third Pillar. Legitimacy and Operationalization, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 39-57,

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Growing Up Rough: The Changing Politics of Justice at the International Criminal Court | 2014

Fehl, Caroline (2014): Growing Up Rough: The Changing Politics of Justice at the International Criminal Court, PRIF Report No. 127, Frankfurt/M.

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Responsibility to Pretend? | 2013

Fehl, Caroline (2013): Responsibility to Pretend? Symbolische Politik und die nicht-militärische Dimension der R2P, in: Daase, Christopher/Junk, Julian (Hg.), Internationale Schutzverantwortung - Normative Erwartungen und politische Praxis, Friedens-Warte Sonderheft, 88:1, 117-139,

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Sanctions, Trials and Peace | 2012

Fehl, Caroline (2012): Sanctions, Trials and Peace. Promises and Pitfalls of Responsibility to Protect's Civilian Dimension, in: Fiott, Daniel/Zuber, Robert/Koops, Joachim (eds), Operationalizing the Responsibility to Protect: A Contribution to the Third Pillar Approach, Brüssel: Madariaga - College of Europe Foundation, Global Action to Prevent War, the Global Governance Institute and the International Coalition for the Responsibility to Protect, 95-103.

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Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG)
Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG)