International relations scholars generally argue that norm-building requires a number of successful cases. This essay, however, is about three concrete examples when virtually everyone—except for the state citing it—disputes the legitimacy of applying the emerging norm of the responsibility-to-protect (R2P). Misrepresentations of humanitarian intentions can be disingenuous and geopolitically driven, as was the case for the US and UK war in Iraq and the Russian claim to protect South Ossetians, or disinterested but wrong, as was the French invocation of R2P for Burma. These cases suggest that misuses can advance norms through contestation and conceptual clarification. Because contestation prompts debates, denial, and tactical concessions on the norm in question, it is insightful to compare and contrast R2P's development against the early stages of two theoretical models that deal most explicitly with contestation: the “spiral” of human rights change and the “cascade” of norm development.

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