R2P at 10: The Central African Republic, the Holocaust and the promise of the doctrine

If the first decade of R2P was a struggle over ideas, the next is to ensure it saves lives — like those under threat in the CAR.

By: /
1 May, 2015
By: Naomi Kikoler
Canadian human rights lawyer

“If I leave this place dressed like this – if I am identified as a Muslim – I will be hacked to death.”

What do you say to a man who tells you this?

His entire family had fled and he was one of only 10,000 Muslims left in Bangui, the capital of the Central African Republic (CAR), a city where over 100,000 Muslims had once lived.

One year ago last April I visited CAR. At that point in the conflict both Muslims and Christians had been the victims of mass atrocities and 600,000 Muslims had been driven from the country.

Every evening I heard the sounds of gunshots and grenades. The grenades were being used to kill and drive out the remaining Muslims living in besieged communities.

African Union peacekeepers were nearby but were unable to provide those trapped with adequate physical protection. The peacekeepers lacked the basic equipment needed to respond to the threats, including night vision goggles. As one peacekeeper said to me, “I send my men everyday into impossible situations. I am a Muslim, it breaks my heart that I cannot protect these people.”

When I went to CAR, I had worked with colleagues for seven years to develop policy around, and advocate for, the responsibility to protect populations from mass atrocity crimes (R2P). We advocated in the halls of the United Nations, in capitals and at the headquarters of regional organizations, to advance R2P, a political framework for making the contemporary promise of ‘never again’ real.

Thanks to the remarkable efforts of a committed, and persistent constellation of actors including governmental and civil society champions, R2P has made great strides since its adoption 10 years ago at the 2005 United Nations (UN) World Summit.

Government’s understanding of sovereignty has changed over the past 10 years. Today there is widespread acceptance that states bear a responsibility to protect their own populations from mass atrocities and that claims of ‘sovereignty’ cannot be used as a shield. R2P is regularly invoked in UN Security Council and Human Rights Council resolutions. The group of states that openly question R2P is negligible. And 44 governments have appointed senior-level officials as “R2P Focal Points” to help improve inter-state and intra-state cooperation on atrocity prevention.

Yet this means little for the man I spoke to in Bangui. As his experience starkly demonstrates, there is a dramatic gap between the ideals of the R2P doctrine versus the reality of what it means in practice today for the millions of men and women who face the daily risk of mass atrocities.

R2P’s normative advances have greatly outpaced its operational development of R2P. That is in many ways expected. The development of new norms takes considerable time. Invoking R2P in resolutions and statements are a critical component of a strategy for establishing a new norm. However, the test of R2P is lives saved, not lines in a resolution.

If the first decade of R2P was a struggle over ideas the challenge in the next decade is to ensure that the gains we have made save lives. The challenge going forward must be to accelerate efforts to operationalize R2P.

This requires that states recognize that atrocity prevention is a core national security interest. In keeping with this, financial and human resources must be dedicated to developing and strengthening the institutions that help to build and reinforce domestic and international architectures for prevention and protection (this includes making sure the peacekeepers in CAR have the equipment and training they need to save lives). It means engaging earlier in countries at risk and remaining engaged longer in countries that have recently experienced atrocities to prevent a recurrence.

Though there will likely never be a perfect convergence, there must be a narrowing of the gap between rhetoric and action.

The next 10 years of R2P should be defined by both a sense of urgency and humility. We must be humble in the recognition that our words today, as they have over the 70 years since the Holocaust, ring hallow for many of those whose lives are at risk. And that hollowness must haunt us and motivate us to ensure that our words have meaning in the future. Our timeframe for understanding when that ‘future’ is must be short. Clear benchmarks for operationalizing R2P at the domestic, regional and international level must be developed. We can and must bring rhetoric and reality closer.

If the international community continues as it has for the past 10 years, we will try to act preventively, but those instances will likely continue to be rare. Massacres will be halted, but more often than not, we will continue to act too little, too late, if at all. More lives will be needlessly lost to preventable atrocities and questions of R2P’s relevance will, with good reason, only intensify.

I told the man in Bangui of my grandfather. I shared with him that my grandfather had also been persecuted because of his identity. That my grandfather was the sole survivor of his extended family and part of only seven percent of the 100,000 Jews of Lodz, Poland, to survive the Holocaust.

I told him that sitting with him I felt as though I was sitting with my grandfather, helpless that I couldn’t protect him.

And we agreed that our hope was that our children would live in a world where ‘never again’ truly meant ‘never again.’

This piece is one of several reflections within an ongoing series produced by OpenCanada.org and the Canadian Centre for the Responsibility to Protect. The series commemorates the adoption of R2P at the 2005 UN World Summit and is part of the centre’s ‘R2P at Crossroads: Ten Years since the 2005 World Summit’ advocacy campaign.  

The views expressed here reflect the author’s solely in a private capacity.

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