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Preventing Human Crisis
What’s an Ounce of Prevention Worth?
As those in troubled nations look for help from beyond their borders, the world wrestles with its own inaction on looming tragedies

On June 10, the international community found itself once again befuddled as political instability morphed into open, ethnically targeted violence in Kyrgyzstan. Its confusion seemed only to increase as Roza Otunbayeva, Kyrgyzstan’s interim leader, declared the situation in Osh to be “out of control” and explicitly requested “outside armed forces to calm the situation down.”

The request, itself, was striking—governments are loath to admit their deficiencies, especially regarding the capacity to maintain control within their own borders. Even in today’s interdependent world, monopoly of force remains fundamental to the logic of sovereignty.

Perhaps the only thing more surprising than the request, however, was the silence with which it was met. Inaction in the face of mass atrocity crimes has long been a plague on the global conscience. Yet it was precisely this inaction that the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) doctrine, endorsed in 2005 at the highest level and in the broadest collection of world leadership, was intended to address.

R2P provides a framework to prevent and halt mass atrocities by identifying the mutually reinforcing state and international responsibilities to protect civilian populations against genocide, crimes against humanity, ethnic cleansing, and war crimes. These responsibilities include not only the obligation of the state to protect its population but also an international commitment to assist states to fulfill this responsibility, and a promise to respond when a state fails to do so.

A Reluctance to Prevent
In the summer of 2008, Russia invoked a distorted understanding of R2P to justify its Georgian incursions. Yet, with top Kyrgyzstani authorities pleading for assistance as promised by R2P, Russia expressed a rather uncharacteristic support for multilateralism and deferred all such considerations to the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). In its defense, Russia was only one player within a broader international community from which little protection support was forthcoming.

What the Kyrgyzstani experience makes clear is that commitments to R2P remain largely rhetorical and that the international community has yet to determine how to approach its responsibility to “assist those under stress” with their own protection obligations.

The only element of the R2P framework that has attracted less attention in terms of implementation than immediate protection assistance is its promise to help states prevent mass atrocity crimes “before crises and conflicts break out.”

The responsibilities inscribed in the R2P framework are preventive, not simply responsive. The doctrine supports a spectrum of engagement that provides the international community tools to address the potential for mass atrocities well before slaughter begins. These tools range from targeted development and protection assistance for those unable to protect their populations, to various means appropriate to confront those unwilling to do so.

Yet, even among the strongest proponents of the R2P doctrine, the responsibility to prevent, as opposed to the responsibility to respond, is often forgotten.

For some, this forgetfulness is a conscious choice; they argue that emphasizing pre-crisis prevention will stretch and dilute the concept, limiting its power to mobilize political will in the face of the most extreme atrocities.
 
One of the great lessons to be learned from the word genocide, however, is that a term’s potency is not the best measure of its power to shape behavior. When states are left with no alternative beyond crisis intervention, the threshold for engagement rises so high that political will becomes virtually impossible to muster. Enabling states with concrete tools and methods for pre-crisis atrocity prevention could rather enhance the relevance of the concept by coupling rhetoric with action.

The Need for New Strategy
A second barrier to maximizing the preventive elements of R2P arises with what some have termed the problem of “comprehensiveness.” Building local protection capacity sounds a lot like state building, or the daunting task of transforming a barrage of weak and failing regimes into bulwarks of effective governance, peace, and stability. The seeming futility of such a large endeavor is seductive; it rids inaction of its discomfort.

Yet the capacity to protect civilian populations from genocide and other mass atrocities is much narrower than governance capacity writ large. It is also conceptually distinct: few would accuse Stalinist Russia of state weakness, while the Yugoslavia that hosted the Sarajevo Winter Games in 1984 could hardly be labeled a failing state in terms of broad governance capacity.

Can the international community wave aside the complexities of state fragility and set itself to the fresh construction of fully sound regimes with all the guarantees of effective governance, social inclusion, and shared economic prosperity? Certainly not with the speed and urgency demanded to halt mass atrocity crimes.

Can it adapt its approach to development assistance and diplomatic leverage in a way that targets crucial gaps in internal protection capacity before crises emerge? Likewise, can it use these tools to support and, when necessary, coax states to protect their own civilian populations from the most heinous forms of violence? Logic, as well as the intuition that has driven the development of the R2P framework, suggests that it can.

In this case, however, intuition has yet to lead to action, or even to much concerted thought on what the international community can do to foster state protection capacity within a strategic approach to pre-crisis atrocity prevention.

It would be foolish to assume that all states cited for high civilian atrocity risk have simply been waiting for the international community to lend a helping hand. For many states, perpetration of mass atrocities reflects unwillingness, not inability, to protect civilian populations.

However, for every Sudan there is a Kyrgyzstan. The international community must begin to think seriously about its obligation to prevent genocide and other mass atrocities and provide such governments with the support they require, before bodies are in need of burial.


— Rachel Gerber, Program Officer, The Stanley Foundation
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The Spring 2019 issue of Courier highlights some of the impact-driven activities the Stanley Foundation pursue with its partners. This includes stories that resulted from two journalism workshops: one examining the false missile alert in Hawaii, as well as one focused on issues of conflict and instability. This issue also examines how Green Banks could help bridge the climate finance gap, explores a new initiative that hopes to bring gender equity to the nuclear field, and brings you the stories of three teachers who enhanced their understanding of the world through travel. Spring 2019 PDF. Subscribe for Free.

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