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Returning to the Responsiblity to Protect

John Duncan | April 23, 2014

The International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS), sponsored by Canada, published The Responsibility to Protect in 2001. The basic concept of R2P was adopted by the United Nations in 2005 and its subsequent development has been supported by an international civil society network.

R2P targets a narrow group of mass atrocity crimes: genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing, and crimes against humanity. Although other issues certainly deserve attention, the need to prevent these four crimes at least—arguably the most abhorrent—is not controversial. However, the doctrine has included a critique of sovereignty, which has attracted controversy and challenges to its development. Consequently, it remains as much hope as reality. “Never again” is its hope; the occurrence of mass atrocity crimes like the Rwandan genocide, the Cambodian killing fields, and the Holocaust, its ground.

R2P’s fundamental principle is that a state is responsible for the protection of its population from mass atrocity. The principle arises from and contributes to a humanitarian spirit that has over the years established a variety of international instruments to protect populations, such as the 1951 Genocide Convention. The latter was brought to bear on perpetrators of the 1994 Rwandan genocide, leading to two decades of prosecution. Although it can do nothing for the hundreds of thousands of murdered Rwandans—nothing can—effective prosecution weaves a web of deterrence, helping to protect populations going forward. Focusing international attention on the responsibility of states to protect their populations encourages the development and application of instruments such as the Genocide Convention, making mass atrocity crimes less and less likely.

R2P’s fundamental principle has, however, been widely interpreted as including limits on state sovereignty, which has generated controversy. According to R2P’s own narrative, in the past state sovereignty was said to be a barrier to international intervention to stop atrocities. R2P has removed the barrier by arguing that if a state fails in its responsibility to protect its population it fails to fulfil the conditions of sovereignty, opening the door for other states to intervene on behalf of its population. This was the rationale for the 2011 UN-supported intervention in Libya, in which R2P was invoked. Unfortunately, mission creep in Libya nudged the intervention down the slippery slope to regime change (not to mention allegations that inadequate time was given to diplomacy, a required ceasefire was not implemented, an arms embargo was violated, war crimes were committed, and human insecurity was generated in the region). Regime change in Libya led to R2P buyer’s remorse especially among the BRICS countries for whom the doctrine seemed to turn into a Trojan horse. Consequently, Security Council consensus (which would have to include Russia and China from the BRICS) has become very unlikely on R2P.

Unfortunately, these results do not stray from past patterns. Looking back over the last 60 years or so, the most powerful states—the ones with the capacity to intervene—did not shrink from intervention behind the excuse of sovereignty. Whenever they wanted to intervene they did so. In fact, brutal leaders such as the Shah of Iran, Castillo Armas, Mobutu, and Pinochet were largely installed and maintained by powerful Western states that intervened to replace popular independent nationalist leaders such as Mosasdeqh, Arbenz, Lumumba, and Allende. Even the 2001 ICISS report notes that “state practice reflected the unwillingness of many countries to give up the use of intervention for political or other purposes as an instrument of policy.” Leading powers “intervened in support of friendly leaders against local populations.” Sovereignty was no more of an obstacle for humanitarian intervention than it was for interest-serving aggression. Certainly “during the Cold War years” the latter was “state practice.”

But if sovereignty has not been a major obstacle to intervention and if intervention has served powerful interests, then turning the responsibility to protect into a critique of sovereignty will not prevent mass atrocity crimes. Political and geopolitical ambition in the calculations of the strong will always have at least as much play as protecting the weak.

The responsibility to protect, not the critique of sovereignty, is the fundamental issue. Even Michael Ignatieff, one of the authors of the ICISS report, conceded in 2013 that attempts to move the concept of sovereignty over to the concept of responsibility had not managed one “millimetre” of movement.

To continue the journey of hope to “never again,” we should turn away from the critique of sovereignty and the example of Libya. Recollecting the lessons of the past, we should beware of interventionists bearing gifts, and embark on an odyssey back to R2P’s foundation, charting interconnections with complementary international instruments along the way so as to weave a substantial web of deterrence around the principle of state responsibility for the protection of populations.

Throughout the month of April 2014, the Canadian Centre for the Responsibility to Protect and 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.


In Afghanistan, Signs of Democracy Taking Hold

Scott Smith | April 23, 2014

On April 13, just over a week after balloting took place in Afghanistan’s crucial 2014 presidential election, the Independent Election Commission released the first batch of preliminary results. Accounting for approximately ten percent of the vote, and covering 26 of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces, these results yielded at least three important conclusions. First, Afghans seemed to vote across ethnic lines far more than what was predicted. Second, Ashraf Ghani, who won only 3% of the vote in the 2009 election, is indeed a front-runner. He won 37.6% of the votes in the preliminary count, in second place behind Abdullah Abdullah, President Hamid Karzai’s main challenger in 2009, with 41.9%. Third, the candidate who was widely presumed to be backed by President Karzai, Zalmai Rassoul, earned only 9.8%, putting him in a distant third place. If no candidate receives 50% in the first round, a run-off between the two top vote-getters will be held. More …


Peacekeepers Will Not Save the Central African Republic

Josh Scheinert | April 22, 2014

It’s happening again. A complex, ongoing crisis in a remote corner of Africa is finally garnering mainstream attention. Ongoing violence is finally destroying the Central African Republic’s (CAR) anonymity.

The CAR’s most recent bout of violence is not that recent—it erupted in late 2012 when a group of rebels, the Séléka, accused the government of disregarding the 2007 and 2011 peace agreements. The fighting that ensued has displaced hundreds of thousands as they fled the violence. The capital, Bangui, and other towns around the country have been reduced to mere ghost towns with residents too fearful to go out.

In March of last year, the rebels seized Bangui and their leader, François Bozizé, became the country’s president.

Religion, though not a direct cause of the unrest, has found a role for itself amid the violence. Displaced persons camps are oftentimes split between Muslims and Christians. Indeed, perhaps it is the easily distillable narrative of Muslim rebels killing Christian civilians followed by Christian militias killing Muslim civilians that awoke our collective public consciousness.

Answering the call of CAR’s desperate civilians, on April 10 the UN Security Council authorized an 11,800-person protection force—of 10,000 peacekeepers and 1,800 police. On paper, it sounds impressive. In principle, it sounds like a good idea.

But, the latest reports out of the CAR don’t suggest there is a peace to keep. The Séléka and the various militia groups are still fighting while civilians are caught in the middle and are often targets. The agreement signed by both sides in January is not holding. If there is to be peace anytime soon, it will have to be the peacekeepers that make it. More …


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

Robert Muggah | April 21, 2014

War crimes and mass atrocities are reported not just by journalists, aid workers, and survivors on the frontlines, but also by thousands of advocates around the world. The twenty first century is giving rise to collaborative conflict prevention and digital witnessing. Concerned citizens are using satellite maps, (big) data scraping systems, and crowd sourcing technologies to report on war crimes and mass atrocities in real time. A growing cadre of scholarspractitioners, and hobbyists are leveraging new tools to disrupt genocidal violence. While such technologies on their own are no panacea, they offer a means to prevent gross violations of human rights and holding perpetrators to account after heinous crimes are committed.  More …


Renewing R2P

Lloyd Axworthy | April 17, 2014

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. More …

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