Renewing R2P

There is still much work to be done on how to define and apply R2P, but there is hope for the concept, says Lloyd Axworthy.
By: /
April 17, 2014
President and Vice-Chancellor of The University of Winnipeg

In recent years, it has become increasingly apparent that the current international architecture for governing the world—based on the foundation of state sovereignty—is fracturing.  Risks transcend borders and the need to focus on issues of human security remains paramount. The challenges presented to us by internal conflict and suffering demonstrate that our old understandings of threat no longer apply.

The Rwandan genocide represented the most upsetting collapse of international cooperation and humanitarian assistance of the 1990s. The ineffective response from the UN, the inviolability of state sovereignty, and the eventual outcome still haunt many of us to this day.

The Canadian policy proposal of human security—which ultimately resulted in the creation of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) doctrine—was meant as a new foundation for an international architecture to redefine state sovereignty and work to eliminate impunity for state and military leaders who would choose to promote or allow violence against civilians.

It was with a sense of hope that those of us who were the instigators of the R2P concept witnessed its inclusion in the World Summit Document at the UN in 2005. That hope was underscored further when the words “Responsibility to Protect were included in Security Council resolutions and applied in both Darfur (Sudan) and Libya.

However, recently I feel as if all of this progress might be falling through the cracks. On the one hand we are witnessing Syria tear itself apart, with over 150,000 civilian casualties and millions of refugees and internally displaced persons. Three years on and the UN Security Council finds itself constrained by the outdated and overused veto decisions from its P5 members even in the most dire of circumstances. Following the events in Ukraine, we have also witnessed a return of Cold War-like aggression and hostility by Russia. Meanwhile, the response of Western democracies has been heavier on the rhetoric than on effective action.

Last month, the University of Winnipeg recognized Dr. Denis Mukwege, a medical doctor and activist from Bukavu in the eastern region in Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), with an honorary doctorate. He was in Winnipeg fundraising for Panzi Hospital, a refuge for women who have suffered from acts of sexual violence, in what might be the most dangerous places for women in the whole world.

Over lunch one day, we were able to share our fears and concerns for the region and to reflect on the long history of a conflict that has taken 6 million lives.  Indeed, the regional instability there was directly linked to the aftermath of the genocide in Rwanda. Mukwege expressed that the tensions that were stirred up so many years ago remain fresh like old wounds that refuse to heal. His is concerned that the possibility for violence remains real in the region and will do so for the foreseeable future. It is clear that the international community has failed the people of the DRC in the most egregious of ways—by doing almost nothing. 

In terms of R2P, there is clearly much more work to be done to protect the lives of civilians. Just as we had to 20 years ago, it is time to once again reevaluate the assumptions we are working under and to delineate a better way of governing the world in a more just and collaborative manner.

R2P is a concept that still needs a lot of work in its definition and application, but there is hope. It is encouraging to note that there is an active debate taking place in the emerging states on how the principle of R2P can be better adapted to meet their concerns and needs. There is, I find, an awakening interest among young people in the idea as a way of resetting governance to match the complexity and significance of global challenges.

As one measures progress in reforming international practices and institutions, the decade and half since we initiated the Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty is not a lot time to assess the evolution of R2P. But the next ten years will be even more crucial in determining how it and its variations can be enhanced to new levels of acceptance and application.

Throughout the month of April 2014, the Canadian Centre for the Responsibility to Protect and OpenCanada.org will be publishing reflections on the lessons learned since the Rwandan Genocide from prominent Canadians who have shown leadership in promoting global humanitarianism as part of its series Canadian Voices on R2P.

Also in the series


Peacekeeping Does Not Have to Wait

Roméo Dallaire on how the international community can guarantee swift international action where civilians are under imminent threat.

Protecting the Responsiblity to Protect

The “responsibility to protect” be made real through “the capacity to deploy,” says Hugh Segal. Without that, the doctrine will lose salience.

New Tools to Prevent Mass Atrocities

Technology can be used to gather, analyze, and communicate information for the sake of predicting, preventing, and mitigating atrocities in an unprecedented way, argues Christopher Tuckwood.

How Much "Law" Is There in "International Law"?

Bob Rae on our collective failure to properly enforce the rule of law.

The Role of the Churches in the Rwandan Genocide

Churches are uniquely positioned to address conflict before it gets out of hand, says Lois M Wilson. Yet they failed to act 20 years ago in Rwanda.

Today's Digital Witnesses Can Prevent Tomorrow's War Crimes

A growing cadre of scholars, practitioners, and hobbyists are leveraging new tools to help prevent gross violations of human rights and holding perpetrators to account after heinous crimes are committed, says Robert Muggah.

Returning to the Responsiblity to Protect

If we want to make R2P's hope of "never again" a reality, we need to turn away from the critique of sovereignty and the example of Libya, argues John Duncan.

Protecting R2P From Misuse

Acting on R2P inappropriately or invoking it as a pretext for other objectives like regime change can be as damaging as inaction to R2P’s long-run effectiveness, argues Maria L. Banda.

Time For Canada to Recommit to R2P

In the 20 years since the Rwandan genocide, Canada has gone from being the most vocal supporter of the norm to one of its meekest.

Learning Something, Not Everything

Two decades ago, the global media virtually ignored the killing in Rwanda. Has it learned from its mistake since, asks Michael Valpy.

The Eight Lessons of Rwanda

Irwin Cotler on what we have learned in the 20 years since the Rwandan genocide.