In 2005 governments worldwide made a historic commitment to prevent and halt genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity, and ethnic cleansing by unanimously agreeing to the responsibility to protect (R2P). Enshrined in the UN World Summit Outcome Document, R2P affirms that the state holds the primary responsibility for protecting populations from mass atrocities and that the international community must assist states in fulfilling these obligations, as well as respond in a timely and decisive manner when a state fails to do so or is in fact the perpetrator of the crimes. This agreement for states to not remain indifferent in the face of the most horrific crimes was meant to prevent governments from using sovereignty to shield their massacres of their own populations. For the first time, states acknowledged that these four crimes—no matter the location, perpetrator, or circumstances—constitute threats to international peace and security and thus require action.
R2P offers a comprehensive framework to prevent and halt atrocities, prioritizing nonmilitary responses and emphasizing the use of diplomatic, legal, economic, and humanitarian measures to protect populations. If nonmilitary means are inadequate, the use of force can only be undertaken collectively, with Security Council authorization and in accordance with the UN Charter.
Prevention sits at the core of R2P, but what does this mean in practice? An effective strategy for prevention is likely two-pronged. Stakeholders at the local, national, regional, and international levels must first strengthen their institutional capacities to prevent and respond to crimes—for example, by ensuring national constitutions are inclusive and representative, judicial institutions are free and fair, early warning systems are equipped to recognize indicators of impending atrocities, and human rights monitors and mediation teams have the required training and resources. Second, they must garner the political will to react rapidly when populations are threatened.
Civil society plays an invaluable and multifaceted role in encouraging and inspiring governments to improve their abilities to protect and build the political will to act. Local groups often have unique and detailed knowledge of internal developments in countries facing potential or current atrocities, as well as the ability to mobilize their respective governments, publics, and media. Other organizations may work in places with otherwise limited activity and can bring an atrocities prevention lens to their research and reporting. Civil society can also share expertise and lessons learned across regions and subregions to develop nuanced policy options for prevention. These experiences and analyses all contribute to the collective international effort to protect populations from atrocities.
Driven by the belief that working in coalitions can strengthen civil society efforts, the International Coalition for the Responsibility to Protect (ICRtoP) was created to amplify the voices of these groups around the globe and ensure that organizations from all regions and sectors inform R2P implementation nationally and internationally. This global movement now exceeds sixty organizations undertaking a vast array of activities. They are engaging with diverse religious communities to facilitate local dialogue, providing legal support to judicial institutions to prevent impunity for crimes, working with governments to establish national atrocities prevention architecture, encouraging officials to take into account risks of atrocities as they develop domestic policies, calling on governments to curtail the illegal transfer of small arms and light weapons, and organizing public and private opportunities to highlight the roles of nongovernmental organizations, policymakers, security sector and media representatives, lawyers, and others in atrocities prevention.
More often than not, however, the greater danger is not that governments will intervene improperly but that they will not act at all.
The past decade has seen growing support for R2P and stronger determination in all parts of the world to prevent atrocities. Even so, there are still those who believe that R2P will only ever be a permission slip for military intervention and who do not understand that the norm is an unprecedented framework to guide states in using noncoercive and coercive measures to prevent, respond to, and rebuild after mass atrocities. More often than not, however, the greater danger is not that governments will intervene improperly but that they will not act at all. Our failures to stop atrocities in Sri Lanka, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Syria show the continuing need to make this norm a living reality.
Civil society can and must address the challenges by continuing to strive tirelessly—through ongoing initiatives as well as new and innovative strategies—to prevent mass atrocities. It must remind states that they already made the commitment to protect their populations from these crimes and convey that it is a ready partner as they work to uphold their promises.