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The Responsibility to Protect: 10 years on

R2P has travelled a remarkable journey in the realm of international relations since its endorsement in 2005.

By: /
8 May, 2015
By: Simon Adams
Executive Director of the Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect in New York

This year marks the 10th anniversary since the historic endorsement of R2P principle by the 150 heads of state and government at the 2005 World Summit. The Responsibility to Protect principle states that when a state fails to protect its own people from genocide, ethnic cleansing, war crimes and crimes against humanity, the international community has the responsibility to do so. Since its first inception through the 2001 ICISS report (sponsored by the Canadian government), R2P has travelled a remarkable journey in the realm of international relations. In light of on-going crises in Syria, the Central African Republic, Yemen and many other parts of the world, R2P remains more relevant than ever before.

As part of the advocacy campaign, “R2P at Crossroads: Ten Years since the 2005 World Summit Outcome,” the Canadian Centre for R2P and have partnered to engage with some of R2P’s leading scholars, activists and political representatives to reflect upon the evolution of paragraphs 138 and 139 of the 2005 World Summit Outcome in the last decade.

In this feature, we ask several prominent experts about their personal connection to the creation and scholarship of R2P, the greatest challenges around the issue today, and how governments, organizations and civil society members can help implement best practice around the principle in the years ahead.

Simon Adams, Executive Director, Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect

‘This is now an uncontroversial idea. The challenge is implementation’

What turned your attention towards R2P?

My background is in political activism. I was active in the international anti-apartheid movement during the 1980s and then I worked for the movement in South Africa during the transition to democracy. My family comes from Northern Ireland, where I was also involved in political activism during the peace process of the 1990s. I also had an academic career that was largely focused, unsurprisingly, around understanding armed political conflict and how to resolve it. But I don’t think it was until I was working in East Timor in 2001 and 2002 that I started to think more seriously about mass atrocities and their aftermath. I also visited Rwanda with a group of university students from across the African continent and that experience, especially coming face to face with both survivors and perpetrators of the genocide, had a profound impact on me. Some years later, I met [former Australian Minister of Foreign Affairs] Gareth Evans and we started talking about R2P and how it could help break the politics of indifference, help end impunity and now here I am.

What is the biggest challenge for R2P facing today? Why is it worth fighting for as we look at the next decade?

I think we’ve made tremendous progress in terms of the abstract belief that states and the international community have a responsibility to protect. I get to interact with a wide range of UN member states and this is now a thoroughly uncontroversial idea. The debate, the controversy and the challenge is around implementation. It’s about how to apply R2P in specific cases. It’s about what measures and means are appropriate. Those are fierce debates. It’s about how to close the gap between robust UN Security Council resolutions and operational realities on the ground in situations where populations are at risk. It’s about making sure that R2P is not misused for partisan political interests. It’s about continually clarifying what R2P is, what it is not, and how it applies in real material circumstances where people are facing the threat of atrocities. I believe that any norm that advances human rights, defends the vulnerable and erodes impunity is worth fighting for.

What role do you think the Global Centre for R2P has played in advocating for R2P in the last decade?

I don’t believe in false modesty, so I think it’s fair to say that our voice matters and that we have played a role shaping the debate around R2P and mass atrocity prevention at the United Nations. On a day-to-day level, a lot of the advocacy work we do is with the UN Security Council and concerns situations where atrocities are already occurring or are at imminent risk of occurring. I’ll leave it to others to determine how successful that work has been in specific cases. Overall, our publications, ideas and advice are actively sought after by policymakers and by other members of civil society so I think we are probably doing what we were set up to do by Kofi Annan, Gareth Evans, Human Rights Watch and others.

Kirsty Duncan, Member of Parliament

‘Questions remain as to the government’s use of language and understanding of R2P’

What turned your attention to R2P?

The increasingly urgent need for prevention, and the ability to respond effectively to mass atrocity crimes. Our collective failure to prevent atrocities in the Holocaust, the genocides in Rwanda and Srebenica, and more recent tragedies, such as Syria, that highlight the failure of individual states to protect their populations.

Although my previous academic research did not focus on conflicts, it did focus on prevention and response, particularly the prevention of climate change and adverse health effects, as well as the prevention of and response to pandemic influenza outbreaks. With respect to influenza, I led an expedition to the Arctic to search for the cause of the 1918 influenza, which killed between 20-to-40 million people. I hoped that finding the cause and describing the causal agent might allow scientists to improve current influenza vaccines, test present drugs against the deadly flu, and be better prepared should a similarly deadly flu virus return.

While the two fields are very different, prevention is the unifying element: we must examine and understand the root causes and drivers of mass atrocity crimes to better understand how to prevent them from recurring in the future.

What is the biggest challenge for R2P today?

I believe that the conversation should be broadened to include, for example, vulnerable communities and women, particularly to prevent rape and sexual violence from being used as a weapon of war.

Ultimately, it is unlikely that the discussion about (and advocacy for) R2P can be de-linked from the complex issue of Security Council reform. Perhaps an interim agreement is needed among the permanent members of the UN Security Council that would specify the need to refrain from using their veto on initiatives that are specifically aimed at protecting people‎.

Perhaps it is also time to look again at an improved early warning system with criteria for action, and the feasibility and utility of a UN stand-by rapid reaction force. While many might think of this as wishful thinking, the African continent is in the process of mobilizing an African Stand-by Force to enhance regional capacities to quickly respond to threats such as genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity.

‎And perhaps there should be ‎a parallel consideration of a rapid reaction force for environmental disasters and pandemics, such as Ebola.‎ The international community missed Ebola this past year, and took action too late, despite the early warnings by Médecins Sans Frontières‎.

How would you assess the Canadian government’s role in promoting R2P in the last decade?

I believe the current government has distanced itself from R2P, perhaps for ideological or partisan reasons, as the doctrine was initially championed by a Liberal government in concert with the international community.

A momentary change in policy did appear to occur on September 16, 2014, when Minister Jason Kenney made a call for a “responsibility to protect” people in peril in Iraq, and then again on March 26, 2015, with respect to Syria. I think questions remain as to the government’s use of language and understanding of R2P, particularly regarding the four years of mass atrocities in Syria.

In the lead-up to the NATO operation to protect Bhengazi from Muammar Gadaffi’s army, Prime Minister Stephen Harper frequently said that Canada must “protect civilians,” but said nothing of the R2P doctrine. Public statements on Syria made by Prime Minister Harper and former Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird also avoided using the term R2P.

When I asked the current government about its position on the R2P doctrine in June, 2014, the government responded with “Canada was instrumental in the creation of the current international framework for the prevention of mass atrocities.” That is, it again failed to name the framework.

Despite the current government’s retreat from the concept of R2P, the doctrine is mainstreamed within the UN system, including through the Office of Special Advisers on the Prevention of Genocide and the Responsibility to Protect, and, according to the Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect, has been referenced in 32 UN Security Council resolutions since 2006.

Moreover, numerous non-governmental organizations and think tanks, such as the Canadian Centre for the Responsibility to Protect, the Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect and the International Coalition for the Responsibility to Protect have appeared internationally as a result of Canada’s past leadership.

What are some concrete steps that governments can take to help implement R2P?

As a strong believer in the concept of humanitarian protection, I also believe that the international community – particularly in light of current events – should begin to place a greater emphasis on the prevention ‘pillar’ of R2P, most notably with respect to conflict prevention and counter-terrorism in areas such as Chad, Mali, Niger, and Nigeria. Providing assistance and capacity-building to help states uphold their own R2P will bolster their preventive capacities and, in turn, avoid the need for controversial and costly responses – especially when it may already be too late.

In the post-Libya era, governments must also undertake renewed efforts to come to a consensus on a multilateral, cooperative approach to civilian protection, particularly in the most difficult cases where action under Chapter VII of the UN Charter, including the use of military force, might be necessary to halt atrocity crimes, and in the rebuilding of those societies in the wake of such crimes, as we failed to do in Libya.

It is very important for Canada to seek to regain a seat on the UN Security Council, to have a strong and coherent foreign policy and not just bilateral (trade) relations, to re-invest in Francophone Africa, and to name a high-level R2P focal point within government, a senior-level official responsible for mainstreaming R2P and atrocity prevention. Forty-three countries from all regions of the world have now appointed a National R2P Focal Point. Such focal points would be instrumental in maintaining commitment to dialogue at the international level.

While the government responded to my written question regarding R2P by stating that Canada remains a member of the “Friends of R2P Group based in New York,” many academics and practitioners were not aware that this is the case, and perhaps this s‎peaks to the need for Canada to have greater involvement.

Malte Brosig, Senior Lecturer at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa

‘A conflict-resilient society would manage emerging conflicts by itself’

What is the biggest challenge for R2P facing today?

In Africa, we saw a steady decrease in the number of conflict events since the beginning of the millennium. However, this has changed in recent years. Since 2010 a strong upwards trend is visible (see graph below) with the number of conflict events almost tripling within only a few years. New conflicts emerged (South Sudan, Boko Haram, Mali, Libya), increasing the number of casualties. This often means that the most vulnerable people in conflicts (civilians, woman, children, elderly) are directly affected. Although R2P and POC are well reflected in global academia and the NGO community, there is no reason for complacency. Working on issues of R2P is a long-term project, which requires endurance and commitment often long before conflicts hit international media interest and long after media have left. Early decisive responses to looming crises can have a preventive character. In the cases such as in Mali or the CAR the international response came late. More efforts can be made for rapid response especially at the level of the UN. Decision-making within the Security Council but also resource assembling for example for peacekeeping operations takes up to six months or longer which is inadequate for tackling unexpected crises. Very often we only recognize a conflict once it broke out. The preventive side of the R2P debate does not receive adequate attention.


Source: Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Set, accessed 14 April 2015.

What are some “lessons learned” in the last decade in R2P’s discourse from the South African perspective?

South Africa has been a supporter of the concept of R2P from early on. The country’s deputy president Cyril Ramaphosa served in the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS), which has chiefly contributed to the conceptual foundations of R2P. However, with events in Libya we can observe a certain cooling down of South Africa’s endorsement of the concept. Primarily this has to do with the perceived hijacking of humanitarian ideas for the sake of power politics and regime change in Libya. The notion of R2P thus became politically tainted and has not actively been used. Instead POC became more fashionable as it is seen as less politicised and more practically applicable. R2P must fight for its humanitarian core and avoid being utilized by power politics. If it is constantly used for other purposes than humanitarian reasons it will certainly provoke skepticism and rejection especially in a post-colonial environment. At the same time criticism against R2P, justified or not, should not be used as cheap cover for ignoring staggering crimes which continue to be committed. Political accountability for war crimes, crimes against humanity etc., still remains a highly politicized issue in Africa, especially considering the broken relationship between the International Criminal Court and many African countries.

What are some concrete steps to be taken moving forward?

Normatively the concept has reached a certain degree of maturity although there remains ample space for further operationalization but conflicts need tailor-made solutions and not one-size-fits-all approaches. I think for the next 10 years we should keep a focus on the implementation of the concept and widening the debate. In order to make societies conflict-proof, a broader societal engagement is needed. At the centre of all action should be those affected by war crimes, crimes against humanity, etc. In this context the concept of resilience can be an innovative enrichment of for the R2P debate combined with a more people-centred approach. In the end, a conflict-resilient society would be able to manage emerging conflicts by itself without extensive state or international interventions. Obviously this raises many questions about political, social and economic participation.

Vesselin Popovski, Senior Academic Programme Officer at United Nations University – Institute for Sustainability and Peace

‘With the adoption of R2P, I was happy on one hand, but unhappy seeing the term limited’

What turned your attention towards R2P?

In 1999 to 2000, as Assistant Professor at the University of Exeter, I was writing a lot on humanitarian intervention – particularly after Kosovo – and this attracted the Research Analysts Department of the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office, who regularly invited me to their symposiums and brainstorming seminars. When the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS) decided to have one of its meetings in London, Adam Roberts (Oxford), Nick Wheeler (Aber) and I were invited to produce the concept paper to trigger the discussion. At that meeting, that FCO convened in London and I had the pleasure to meet Axworthy, Gareth Evans, Mohammad Sianoun, Michael Ignatieff, Ramesh Thakur and others and I was very honored to be part of this meeting which – together with other regional meetings – for the first time suggested to start using ‘R2P’ instead of ‘humanitarian intervention’, turning the focus from the interests of states to intervene (where there can never be any consensus) to the interests of victims of mass atrocities to survive. The report of ICISS – its bibliography and research – I consider to be still one of the best ever collection on this very controversial topic.

What are the biggest challenges for R2P today and over the next decade?

There are situations – such as North Korea, arguably ‘approaching’ the threshold of R2P (crimes against humanity) – where a huge challenge remains how to communicate to the authorities the need to think in terms of responsibility to protect people. Another challenge remains also the existence of non-state groups – ISIS, Boko Haram, al-Shabaab, al-Qaeda etc. – with capacity to threaten and commit mass violence against civilians and the lack of clear strategy how to deal with such groups. Another challenge is the different approach to what constitutes a ‘war crime’ – to exemplify, the government of Israel adopting an extremely narrow view and refusing to adapt its military strategy and military manuals as to reduce the suffering of the civilian population of Gaza. The same can be also said for Sri Lanka army assault on civilians in 2009.

Do you remember the 2005 World Summit Outcome?

I was at the time working for the UN University in Tokyo and certainly monitoring closely the 60th Session of the General Assembly and its World Summit Outcome document. I made a detailed analysis of the text of the WSO and what did it incorporate, what did it leave out from the R2P concept developed by ICISS and published in its R2P report. Generally, I had mixed feelings – I was on one hand happy to see Articles 138-140 added and adopted in the WSO, but on another hand I was unhappy seeing R2P limited both in terms of scope (only mass atrocities and not for example natural disasters and gross violations of human rights) and in terms of relying entirely on the Security Council to undertake timely measures when states are unwilling to protect. I felt the Council may easily be blocked by veto and putting all hopes in its hands may still leave massive number of people unprotected, because of frivolous political behavior of a permanent member of the Council.

What are some concrete steps that governments can take to help turn R2P into implementation?

First is to be responsible in its decision-making and not only to own population, but also to populations at deadly risk anywhere in the world. The R2P does not stop at national boundaries, it is a duty beyond borders. Also governments can collaborate more with civil society and the business sector to create a broader platform to implement R2P. A further dialogue is necessary both nationally – to reduce political tensions and afford all communities freedom of expression, freedom of assembly and political representation; and also bilaterally and regionally – to reduce potential tensions with minorities, displaced populations etc. would be good if every government allocate a ‘focal point’ – a minister – with full mandate to represent its position, to negotiate and answer inquiries, relevant to R2P.

Megan Schmidt, Senior Program Officer at the International Coalition for the Responsibility to Protect

‘Civil society can and will have a powerful influence in moving forward’

What turned your attention towards R2P?

While pursuing my Master’s degree I had the privilege of befriending a teacher who proved influential in encouraging and fostering my desire to contribute towards ending the commission of atrocity crimes.
I’ll never forget the stories shared with me about his experience as a boy fleeing with his family from Rwanda following the violence that began in 1959, seeking refuge in neighboring countries to escape attacks against him because of his Tutsi identity. Even decades later, he told the story with a sense of anxiety and fear, as if it were being relived in his mind in that very moment. My teacher would later introduce me to friends that had survived the 1994 genocide who, upon learning of my studies, were kind enough to share with me their stories of survival.

Central to the conversations I was privileged to have was the urgent need to ensure that the horrific violence experienced must not only never again consume Rwanda but, equally as important, be prevented from being witnessed in any part of the world.

What are the current and future challenges for R2P?

While a few detractors remain, we have witnessed in a remarkably swift manner the acceptance and reaffirmation of this political commitment by governments and regional bodies throughout the world. This is a feat that must not be overlooked. The challenge going forward now is one of implementation that must serve to illustrate the effectiveness of R2P in impacting the behavior of states, intergovernmental organizations, and other actors so that there is consistent prioritization of civilian protection from genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing. This will require understanding what it means to operationalize R2P in a practical sense. Central to addressing this challenge will be finding positive examples of prevention and response so as to further comprehend what implementation may look like as well as identify and address challenges that have arisen. While already impacting R2P, the issue of political will is one that will certainly continue to affect the next decade for the norm, particularly as an increased focus is given to operationalizing prevention and response. Identifying methods to incentivize action for civilian protection from atrocities will be central to overcoming the difficulties of garnering political will, which will require concerted action and coordination by all advocates engaged on the Responsibility to Protect.

What steps can various actors including governments take to help implement R2P?

I think it’s first necessary to acknowledge that civil society organizations have had a direct role in R2P’s advancement since before the 2005 World Summit and are serving as actors on the ground for the implementation of atrocities prevention and response. That said, there certainly is work to be done to continue to further the principles of R2P, of which civil society can and will have a powerful influence in moving forward. I’d like to identify three ways that civil society can contribute in this regard:

  1. First is to continue to raise awareness of the norm to not only reach those government and civil society actors who are unaware of what R2P entails but to also dispel misconceptions that remain about what the norm is and what it seeks to achieve. This will serve to assist in pushing forward implementation as more governments and organizations are informed about R2P and their role in the prevention of atrocity crimes.

  2. Second is the need to further incorporate atrocity-specific indicators and risk factors within documentation and early warning mechanisms. Civil society organizations are leading such documentation as well as working alongside states and regional bodies as they establish and implement their early warning systems, and it is imperative that indicators specifically targeting atrocity crimes are incorporated into such action. It is here that the new Framework of Analysis released by the UN Office for Genocide Prevention and R2P can be an instrumental tool.

  3. A necessary step for the future of R2P will be to increase understanding of how the norm relates with other agendas, which ties to the third point of the need for civil society actors to further engage across sectors. This will provide for a holistic comprehension of how various thematic issues and the actions taken to advance them support the prevention of and response to atrocity crimes (and vice versa), which will be instrumental for identifying policies and practices to institutionalize R2P at national, regional and international levels.

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