The Responsibility to Protect In Action
The debate today is about how, not whether, to protect civilians
For all the setbacks and frustrations in responding to mass atrocity crimes, the world has come a long way in the last ten years. To understand just how far, we need to remind ourselves where we were at the end of the 1990s—the decade of Rwanda, Bosnia, and Kosovo in which it became tragically clear that the catastrophes of the Holocaust of the 1940s and Cambodia in the 1970s were not unrepeatable aberrations. For all the great advances in international human rights and humanitarian law made after World War II—above all, the UN Convention on Genocide—states repeatedly ignored their legal obligations. And when it came to effective collective response to these catastrophes, the international community was impotent.
The basic problem was political. Policymaking in the 1990s was a consensus-free zone. In bitter and divisive debates in the UN General Assembly and elsewhere, a fundamental conceptual gulf opened between those, largely in the Global North, who rallied to the banner of “humanitarian intervention” or “the right to intervene,” and those, largely in the Global South, who—proud of their newly won independence, often conscious of their fragility, and remembering all too well the “civilizing missions” of the former imperial powers—argued that state sovereignty was absolute and internal events, however conscience-shocking, were none of the business of the rest of the world.
A Winning Argument
The other crucial step was to make clear that R2P was not just about coercive military intervention, but a whole series of graded policy responses: prevention, both long and short term, before the event; reaction when prevention failed (starting with persuasion, escalating to nonmilitary forms of pressure like sanctions and international criminal prosecutions, and considering military force only as a last resort in extreme situations); then postcrisis rebuilding aimed at preventing recurrence.
Articulated this way, the new concept did gain remarkable international traction within a very short time—winning unanimous endorsement by the more than 150 heads of state and government meeting as the UN General Assembly at the 2005 World Summit with a lot of the momentum coming, crucially, from Southern voices—especially in sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America. This was a spectacular achievement on paper—the historian Martin Gilbert described it as “the most significant adjustment to sovereignty in 360 years.” But what has it all meant in practice? The report card in early 2012 is overall very positive, but with some qualifications.
A Matured Principle
Second, although there was quite a deal of confusion initially about what are and are not “R2P situations,” much more clarity and consensus has emerged as successive cases have been debated—from Iraq to Darfur, Sri Lanka, Georgia, Myanmar, Kenya, Guinea, Côte d’Ivoire, Libya, and now Syria. It is generally agreed that they don’t involve natural disasters, human rights violations generally, or broad “human security” problems, but large-scale mass atrocity crimes (genocide, ethnic cleansing, war crimes, and crimes against humanity) that are being committed, or feared likely, here and now.
Third, there has been much progress made in developing the institutional capacity—diplomatic, legal, civil, and military—in national governments and international organizations, to anticipate and respond effectively to R2P challenges.
Fourth, the Security Council decision in March 2011 to authorize the use of military force in Libya, saw the invocation and implementation of R2P at the sharpest end of all—when prevention had manifestly failed and a massacre was manifestly imminent. If the international community had acted as swiftly and decisively in 1994 and 1995, 8,000 lives would have been saved in Srebrenica and 800,000 in Rwanda.
A Work in Progress
The bottom line is that R2P, ten years on, does face real challenges, but they are not insuperable. The principle is firmly established and has delivered major practical results. But its completely effective implementation is going to be a work in progress for some time yet.
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