There’s Hope for R2P

But as with any emerging norm there are issues that must be overcome, says Art Eggleton.

By: /
24 March, 2014
By: Art Eggleton
Liberal Senator from Toronto

The crisis in Syria has once again put humanitarian intervention in the spotlight. Many are using this deadlock to claim that the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) doctrine is dead. Without doubt, there are issues that need to be overcome. But R2P is far from dead. Actually, its future is encouraging.

I am a firm believer in humanitarian intervention. During my days as Minister of Defence, the government authorized in 1999 Canadian involvement to stop ethnic cleansing and mass killing in Kosovo. I believed then as I do now that we must not avert our eyes but instead engage our resources to stop acts of moral abhorrence.

The R2P concept, born out of this idea in 2001, was controversial from the outset. R2P asserted that if a particular government is unwilling or unable to protect its citizens from the most horrific human rights abuses – genocide, ethnic cleansing, and other mass atrocities – then the international community must take quick and decisive action to protect civilians.

This belief went against the centuries old idea of the sanctity of state sovereignty. It began to change the prevailing mindset that mass human rights violations and genocide behind state walls were no one else’s business.

A change of this magnitude has ruffled many feathers. Yet despite this, it has come a long way in a short period of time. Even with some using R2P to justify the wrongheaded invasion of Iraq and with push back by some major powers, R2P was accepted by the UN General Assembly in 2005.

Since then, steady progress has been made. There has been significant increase in UN member support and a dwindling number of countries trying to derail it. Within the UN, as well as other international institutions and governments, the concept has been refined and support mechanisms have been created. For example, Washington has stepped up to the plate and announced that “preventing mass atrocities and genocide is a core national security interest and a core moral responsibility of the United States”.

As scholars Tim Dunne and Alex Bellamy point out, R2P has been invoked during many crises over the last few years. People often mistakenly believe that R2P is only about military intervention, when in fact it is much more than that – it uses different intervention leavers or tools depending on the circumstances. Military intervention is the last resort.

As they highlight, Kofi Annan invoked R2P when he successfully defused, through diplomatic prevention, the outbreak of ethnic violence in Kenya in early 2008. In Yemen, R2P diplomacy was central to a negotiated amnesty for President Saleh that led to the ending of the crisis. In the Ivory Coast, a combination of diplomacy, regional pressure, embargoes, and limited force by the French led to the prevention of mass killings by Gbagbo’s regime. In Guinea, diplomacy backed by a targeted arms embargo and sanctions were used to diffuse political and ethnic strife. And in South Sudan a whole host of tools where used, from peacekeeping, mediation, sanctions, international courts, diplomacy and economic enticement; all this prevented the mass atrocities that many people expected when the South broke away from the North.

Even in a crisis like Darfur where the international community’s insufficient protectionary measures have been criticized, a second look reveals a relatively far-reaching response. As author David Lanz points out, “Darfur hosts the world’s largest UN peacekeeping mission; it represented the first situation that the UN Security Council has referred to the International Criminal Court; sanctions had been imposed against Sudan; and significant resources were invested in peace negotiations”.

R2P is here to stay and it will only get stronger. But as with any emerging norm there are issues that must be overcome.

First, there is a need to beef up prevention. As General Roméo Dallaire has noted, “If we continue to deal with looming genocides and other mass atrocities in a reactive manner, we will confront more than just the moral failure to save lives”. Instead of being reactive we must deal with “underlying structural factors” such as poverty and inequality, tribalism, nationalism, corruption and climate change. Separately and together they increase the risks of genocide and crimes against humanity.

To do this, our efforts will be civil in nature and will build the foundation for peace and democracy. This will be done by supporting development, increasing economic capacity, building democratic institutions, and supporting better governance in fragile states.

Building preventative capacities like this will not be an easy job – far from it. But I suggest that it’s not only necessary, but an essential and more cost-effective way to prevent mass slaughter and to avoid military intervention as much as possible.

One of the ways that we can do this is by re-engaging R2P with the human security agenda, which promotes the concept of people-centred security.

According to UN Sectary General Ban Ki-Moon, human security is a “central factor” in ascertaining the links between peace, development and human rights. In his words: “It is more important than ever to find comprehensive solutions to the world’s interlinked problems. You cannot end poverty without empowering women and girls. You cannot establish lasting peace without respect for human rights. You cannot increase prosperity or address climate change without transforming the world’s energy systems.”

The second issue that needs to be addressed – which was precipitated by the Libya mission – is the idea of regime change. In Libya, Muammar Gaddafi committed horrific crimes against his people. The international community responded with proactive measures that first condemned Gaddafi’s attacks on civilians and applied targeted sanctions on the regime. But it quickly became clear that was not going to be enough. The UN Security Council then passed Resolution 1973, which authorized the use of “all necessary measures” to protect civilians and install a no-fly zone.

Many thousands of lives were saved by the NATO-led military operation that followed. It was a good example of R2P working as it was supposed to. Military force was used but only as a last resort. And it demonstrated that mass atrocities are acts of moral abhorrence and states do not have a right to commit horrific mass crimes against their people.

But critics have emerged not only in academic institutions but also on the Security Council. They were concerned that the ousting of Gaddafi meant that R2P had dubious motives. That the intervention was an excuse for regime change.

I don’t believe that this was the case at all. I believe that the intervention was based on sound humanitarian principles. But I don’t think we can take holding leaders accountable off the table. If a leader of a country commits mass atrocities against his people, how can he still have legitimacy? A line had been crossed in Libya and neither the international community nor Libya’s citizens should ever have welcomed him back.

Moreover, this intervention puts dictators on notice. It lets them know that mass atrocities against their people are not acceptable and that there will be consequences for committing them.

The third issue that must be dealt with concerns tough cases like Syria where geopolitical factors come into play. As former Australian Foreign Minister Gareth Evans has pointed out, in Syria there are “complex internal sectarian divisions with potentially explosive regional implications; anxiety about the democratic credentials of many of those in opposition; no Arab League unanimity in favour of tough action; a long Russian commitment to the Assad regime; and strong Syrian armed forces with a credible air-defence system, meaning that any intervention would be difficult and bloody.”

That’s the current dilemma. A divided UN Security Council on military action and a desire by all that if such force is used that it be proportional and not lead to worse consequences.

Unfortunately time is running out and too many innocents are being killed daily. I believe that humanitarian military intervention in Syria, or at least a no-fly zone, needs now to be seriously considered.

The protection that R2P can provide is crucial for humanity, for the innocent and for human rights. We should not go back to the time of Rwanda and Srebrenica where impunity rained and humanity cried.

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Also in the series

R2P in Disarray

R2P in Disarray


Politics trumps any moral obligation to intervene in a conflict argue Derek Burney and Fen Hampson. Just look at Syria.

The Security Council and the Future of Intervention

The Security Council and the Future of Intervention


Russia’s insistence that it is protecting ethnic Russians in Crimea is the latest chapter in the debate over when international intervention is justified, says Sir Jeremy Greenstock.

R2P: A Norm of the Past or Future?

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The Responsibility to Protect has been described as the fastest developing international norm in history. But has it’s moment passed?