A Living Reality? The Responsibility to Protect and the Prevention of Genocide and Mass Atrocities

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Alex J. Bellamy is Professor of International Security at the Griffith Asia Institute, Griffith University, Australia and Non-Resident Senior Adviser at the International Peace Institute, New York. 2

At the 2005 World Summit, the UN General Assembly unanimously adopted the concept of responsibility to protect (R2P). World leaders agreed that they each had to protect their own populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing, and crimes against humanity; that they should encourage and assist others to fulfill their own responsibilities; and that they should respond in a timely and decisive fashion. In the annals of international diplomacy it was a rare moment of unity and clarity in setting out the responsibilities of governments and the international community to protect people from these crimes. Member States agreed to continue considering measures to implement R2P, and the concept has been the subject of four informal dialogues in the UN General Assembly. The Security Council has referred to R2P in two thematic resolutions on protecting civilians in armed conflict and a presidential statement on preventive diplomacy. The principle has also appeared in Security Council resolutions on the situations in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Burundi, Darfur, Libya, Cote d’Ivoire, Yemen, South Sudan, and Mali. Given this track record, it is easy to agree with Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon that R2P is a concept “whose time has come.”

Preventing genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing, and crimes against humanity—that is, genocide and mass atrocities—lies at the heart of R2P. With the global fixation on questions of armed intervention, it is often forgotten that R2P includes a specific commitment to prevent these crimes and their incitement. In the long term, the principal measure of the concept’s success should not be evidence of more effective armed interventions (though that is certainly part of the equation) but rather the overall reduction of crises involving the crimes or their imminent risk.

Implementing R2P to prevent genocide and mass atrocities involves a comprehensive range of efforts to reduce underlying sources of risk, build national resilience to these risks, and prevent the escalation of crises and conflicts into violence against civilian populations. The strategies required for prevention are, in many respects, similar to those associated with peacebuilding, human rights action, and conflict resolution. Addressing underlying risk involves challenging discrimination in all its forms, addressing inequalities, and dealing with past crimes and injustices. Building national resilience involves establishing and maintaining the rule of law, reforming national security, establishing accountable institutions that can resolve disputes legitimately, and ensuring human rights. Preventing the escalation of crises can involve mediation, preventive diplomacy, and even targeted sanctions to deter would-be perpetrators. The prevention of genocide and mass atrocities is thus complex and multifaceted, involving partnerships between local actors and international agencies, and there is no one-size-fits-all approach to it.

Amongst others, some officials in the United Nations and European Union have raised concerns about the potential for R2P to weaken existing prevention efforts. These focus on the potential militarization of the work and fears that political controversies connected to R2P might undermine the progress already made. Such concerns should be addressed. But R2P does not change—or seek to change—rules governing the use of force, nor does it expand any entity’s authority to interfere in the affairs of sovereign states. World leaders explicitly insisted that R2P implementation be consistent with the UN Charter and existing international law. States seem to have understood this. Despite the controversy created by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)–led intervention in Libya, the Security Council has referred to R2P more frequently in the two years since Libya than it did in the prior five years, showing that the council’s underlying commitment to R2P is not swayed by differences in the principle’s implementation in specific cases.

It is telling that the R2P concept has been most effective as a guide for noncoercive means of preventing genocide and mass atrocities.

It is telling that the R2P concept has been most effective as a guide for noncoercive means of preventing genocide and mass atrocities. Although the precise contribution the concept made to the stemming of postelection violence in Kenya in 2007–08 is disputed, African Union mediator Kofi Annan explicitly framed his largely successful actions through R2P. The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and the United Nations employed a similar strategy to equally good effect in response to the 2009 crisis in Guinea, where international action helped prevent further escalation. In Yemen, the Security Council used R2P to remind the government of its protection responsibilities and create impetus for a negotiated transition of authority. In South Sudan and Mali, the United Nations has employed R2P to galvanize international assistance to states struggling to protect their populations from nonstate and state-based threats. Missions in both these countries are focused on preventing genocide and mass atrocities and protecting vulnerable populations. Most recently, the UN special adviser on the prevention of genocide played an important part in international efforts to ensure that the 2013 elections in Kenya did not result in mass bloodshed. The early signs are that these efforts proved helpful. These cases suggest that preventing genocide and mass atrocities is becoming a living reality in the work of the United Nations and its regional partners, even as abject failure to prevent mass atrocities in Sri Lanka and Syria are reminders that much work remains to be done.

The civil war in Sri Lanka ended in 2009 with the killing of approximately 40,000 Tamil civilians. A UN inquiry found that many may have died due to war crimes or crimes against humanity committed predominantly by government forces. This prompted serious questions about the United Nations’ own actions during the crisis. The resulting inquiry was damning. As the most influential Member States were unwilling even to discuss the crisis, basically because they supported the elimination of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE or Tamil Tigers), and as UN staff in Sri Lanka were subjected to harassment, the report found that the United Nations remained largely silent in the face of concerns about civilian protection in order to secure the cooperation of the Sri Lankan government, which it needed for humanitarian access. It found that the UN leadership was divided and sent inconsistent messages, that senior UN figures undermined casualty estimates that the United Nations itself reported, and that the UN country team was unsuited to operate in a conflict environment. No senior UN officials assumed responsibility for protecting Tamils.

Set against a backdrop of, at best, apathy from most Member States, the UN experience in Sri Lanka is a tale of an organization still not fully configured for its protection responsibilities. The crisis predated the secretary-general’s first R2P report. Much has changed in the United Nations since 2009 and further changes are afoot that should make the organization better able to anticipate and respond to protection crises. First, the United Nations now has an Office for Genocide Prevention and R2P (OGPRtoP) charged with monitoring situations and providing early warning advice. The office is also working to train government and UN officials in prevention, sensitize UN country teams, and publicly remind leaders of their responsibilities. Second, the United Nations is establishing a single crisis center responsible for observing cases, pooling resources, providing consolidated advice to leadership, and ensuring that the organization responds with a single voice. Third, the organization is beginning to grapple seriously with the mainstreaming of R2P, and the prevention of genocide and mass atrocities, across its activities—a move the secretary-general called for in 2009. Fourth, several UN agencies are developing their own policies and tools for enhancing protection, such as the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) Bureau for Crisis Prevention and Recovery and the development of real-time evaluations of protection responses at the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Finally, the secretary-general has acknowledged the problems uncovered with respect to the organization’s response to the crisis in Sri Lanka and has established a process to review further options for reform. These reforms should improve UN capacity to prevent genocide and mass atrocities and deserve support.

However, for all the progress made by fine-tuning UN institutional arrangements, the tragedy of Syria is a reminder of the lingering power of power politics. One of the United Nations’ first steps in implementing R2P was to establish a capacity for early warning and assessment of situations likely to give rise to genocide and mass atrocities. In one of his many pleas to the Security Council, the Secretary-General recalled with no satisfaction that everything that had come to pass in Syria since the first days of the protests there was predicted in advance. More than 130 states in the General Assembly have signaled their displeasure at the Security Council’s performance on Syria, and a solid majority in the council favors collective action, showing that R2P is simultaneously galvanizing and is being galvanized by a significant shift in international values in favor of humanitarianism and human rights. But that will be little comfort to the families of the victims or millions displaced in Syria and other sites of mass atrocities around the world.

Syria should be seen as pointing to two areas where more work is urgently needed.

It is easy to despair of R2P in the face of the Syrian situation; some commentators have done so, declaring “R2P RIP.” But that ignores the real progress made elsewhere. Rather than being cause for despair, Syria should be seen as pointing to two areas where more work is urgently needed. First is the need to further strengthen, widen, and deepen global consensus on R2P and the prevention of genocide and mass atrocities. If strengthened, the values that gave rise to R2P might develop into a global culture of nonindifference to mass human suffering. Second, researchers and practitioners need to understand what tools might be used, especially by civil society, to prevent violence and protect communities when official channels are blocked. Research on how communities prevent atrocities locally, how they protect themselves, and how international civil society might support them is gathering pace, but much more is needed to develop and drive effective strategies.

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