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The Trials and Tests Faced by R2P
August 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. We took a look at the broader framework defining the international community’s role in preventing mass atrocities in the April edition. In this article, we examine current tests and trials of the international principle meant to protect civilians from becoming the target of violence.

In a snapshot of the current debate surrounding the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) and global efforts to prevent large-scale violence against civilians, Libya and Syria would dominate a frame of amorphous figures with blurred edges, each shifting haphazardly in unknown directions.

In the midst of such a muddle, it’s easy to get caught up in the moment. We seek to isolate individual crises, actors, positions, and decisions, and wonder how they will impact the future of political principles like the Responsibility to Protect—which asserts that all states have the responsibility to protect civilians from genocide, crimes against humanity, ethnic cleansing, and war crimes.

As NATO’s mandate in Libya enters its sixth month and the Syrian government clings to power with increasing violence, some claim R2P has failed to deliver its promise to ensure protection for civilians whose governments have turned against them. While it would be foolish to claim that unfolding events and global action (or inaction) will have no influence on the long-term development of the Responsibility to Protect principle, pointing to today’s snapshot as evidence of failure ignores its broader context. When taken at a wider angle, the current picture reveals many positive trends.

The United Nations, a product of the experience of two world wars, was created to prevent violent conflict between nations, not within them. For much of its existence and within very recent memory, insistence that the UN could not intervene in any matter that was “essentially within the jurisdiction of any state” kept state-generated violence against civilians off the agenda of decision-making bodies like the UN Security Council.

Such arguments, however, were marginal to debates over threats to civilians in Libya and Syria. UN member nations questioned whether and what kind of action the Security Council should take to counter such threats, but never the basic right of the council to do so. “It’s not your business” is no longer a viable argument to give the international community when it comes to internal violence targeted at civilians—a recent and striking shift in the history of global politics for which R2P deserves its share of credit.

Far from a checklist that mandates uniform action, R2P is a dynamic policy framework that is meant to twist, bend, and adapt as best it can to the complex realities of the world it hopes to improve.

Beyond Libya and Syria, it informs many and diverse approaches to crisis, each of which give it a chance to prove its meddle in the long run. Efforts have been long under way to usher South Sudan into statehood without resort to civilian-targeted violence. Stabilization support continues in Southern Kyrgyzstan to prevent a resurgence of violence against ethnic Uzbek populations.

Such policies may be isolated—and as yet imperfect—but broader initiatives are also under way to improve global prevention and response capacities. A network of capital-based government officials focused on the national-level implementation of R2P continues to grow. On August 4, the Obama administration issued a presidential directive to establish an Atrocities Prevention Board of top leaders within the US government to ensure better and more consistent responses to global threats of genocide, crimes against humanity, ethnic cleansing, and war crimes.

All of these efforts reflect a sense of obligation to protect civilians from mass atrocity violence—a sense that continues to root itself deeper within the psyche of global leaders. The fact that this sense has begun to compel action, however imperfect, reflects an early success for the Responsibility to Protect.

Moving forward, novel approaches and compelling moral sentiments must eventually meet the messy realities of the world.

Many have classified the campaign in Libya as a mistake because the conflict has proven more protracted and complex than initially anticipated. Struggle is equated with error. Though, as decades of peacekeeping experience have taught us, civilian protection is rarely a simple endeavor.

We learn by doing and, until very recently, inaction has been the global response to mass violence. As R2P is applied, mistakes will be made, as must adjustments. Translating a sense of obligation into effective policies requires experimentation and adaptive learning.

Global leaders must take care that this inevitable process of trial and error does not automatically become trial by fire for the broader commitments made in adopting the Responsibility to Protect.

A recent debate on the Responsibility to Protect within the UN General Assembly suggests that governments understand this problem, and remain committed to preserving R2P, even when its application in cases like Libya raises more questions than it provides answers.

As global events unfold, R2P is facing the tests and trials that both its supporters and skeptics always knew it would. But the real world is where we all must come of age. In the end, we are stronger for it.

Rachel Gerber


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