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Mass Atrocities and the International Community: The Multilateral Framework for Prevention and Response
April 2011

Editor’s Note: A new series of feature articles in think. will examine the main themes of the three issue areas on which the Stanley Foundation focuses its programming—global leadership, nuclear material security, and genocide prevention. Each article will lay out the concerns, international trends and dynamics, and underlying reasoning on which our approach and advocacy are based. We will also strive to inspire you to learn more, take action, and work with us as we push for better US and global policies that lead to a secure peace.

In our February 2011 edition of think., we began a discussion of the real-world dynamics demanding more effective approaches to genocide and mass atrocity prevention.

Just as that edition of think. was released, wider regional unrest buoyed Libyan protesters to peacefully voice their discontent in a “Day of Rage.” Muammar Qaddafi’s savage response provoked a global backlash that jolted serious policy discussion on how to respond to unfolding atrocities out of the back halls of the United Nations and into the media mainstream.

UN-sanctioned military action in Libya, and even more recently in Côte d’Ivoire, has painted a vivid picture of the multilateral context in which atrocity-prevention policies are developed and executed. It is critically important, however, to learn as much from what these efforts do not immediately capture as what they do.

Operations in Libya and Côte d’Ivoire have reinforced the centrality of the UN Security Council in authorizing coercive responses to mass atrocity threats—and rightly so. From a legal standpoint, the Security Council remains the sole “right authority” to sanction the use of force by any state outside the parameters of self-defense. Politically, Security Council approval is even more important.

To ensure global support, morally and logistically, military action to halt mass atrocities must be genuinely multilateral and rooted in broad consensus on the need for action. Many world leaders, particularly those for whom the sting of Western imperialism has lingered beyond independence, distrust the motives of global powers who might independently and selectively call upon their militaries to prevent what those powers define as “atrocities” suffered in countries of strategic interest. While the vetoes wielded by some if its intervention-hesitant permanent members (notably Russia and China) often frustrate Security Council action, the support (or acquiescence) of these key players is critical to the perceived legitimacy of military intervention, even for humanitarian motives.

The Security Council, however, is not the only multilateral actor with a role to play in this process. Regional and subregional organizations can prove decisive when it comes to solidifying political consensus and supporting effective implementation of any action taken. Few dispute that, in the case of Libya, urgings for a no-fly zone voiced by the League of Arab States and the Organization of the Islamic Conference were the lynchpin that secured agreement on Security Council Resolution 1973.

Why are regional organizations so pivotal? As neighbors to countries in crisis, regional actors have a vested interest in crisis outcomes, as well as deep knowledge of the situations that fester in their own backyard. This interest and knowledge lends a unique legitimacy to their call for action. Physical proximity and local political ties mean they are also critical partners for the implementation of any operation.

All that said, military responses in Libya and Côte d’Ivoire have come to dominate current political discourse on the “responsibility to protect” (R2P) in a way that threatens to detract from the much broader role the international community can and should play in preventing mass atrocity crimes.

Those troubled by past global inaction in the face of mass atrocities—but also by the threat unilateralism poses for the long-term effectiveness of atrocity prevention efforts—may breathe a collective sigh of relief that these operations were undertaken in accordance with the multilateral framework inscribed in the UN Charter and broader international law. In doing so, however, it is easy to forget that that framework encompasses much more than military intervention.

The R2P principle adopted by world leaders in 2005 outlines a complex framework for atrocity prevention and response. Governments fail to protect their populations either because they are unable or unwilling to do so. For those that are unable, R2P charges the international community to help them meet their protection responsibilities. Long before crises erupt, it commits UN member nations to help countries build the institutions that provide stability and buffer against atrocity risk.

When preventive efforts fail, R2P insists that the world take action. The use of military force, however, rests explicitly on the inadequacy of peaceful measures to protect populations under threat. Even the category of coercive response measures includes a range of nonmilitary options such as economic sanctions, travel bans, asset freezes, and other diplomatic maneuvers.

Critics of the UN’s recent willingness to sanction military response to atrocity threats point to the fact that this willingness has been highly selective. Yes—military action is and should be selective. While not humanitarian endeavors, Afghanistan and Iraq remind us that even seemingly simple wars that pit a relatively small foe against a major military power can fast become complex and costly endeavors. When preventing civilian casualties is the primary objective of a military operation, “protectors” must consider seriously whether they might do more harm than good. In many cases, the answer will be a sobering “yes.”

In such situations, we cannot forget the broader framework defining the international community’s role in preventing mass atrocities. In immediate crises, skillful diplomacy that compels through political leverage, sanctions, and other peaceful measures is a tool always at our disposal. Before crises emerge, there are innumerable ways the international community can support nations under stress to build their resilience to atrocity risk.

These options are not consolation for the limits of military action—they are the true core of the global atrocity prevention agenda.

In future editions of think., we will explore how US government policy fits within this broader multilateral framework, and how it is evolving to better address the threat of mass atrocities and genocide.

Rachel Gerber

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