A Responsibility to Prevent

OpenCanada talked to Naomi Kikoler about the need to clarify when and how the international community should step in to prevent mass atrocities.
By: /
March 27, 2013

When does a 'Responsibility to Protect' kick in?  Could Canada lead the way in developing a global approach to atrocity prevention? OpenCanada talked to Naomi Kikoler, Director of Policy & Advocacy with the Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect, on the need for Canada to help clarify when and what kind of intervention is required by the international community to prevent mass atrocities.

You've called prevention "the least understood dimension of R2P." Can you explain why that is?

There’s a lot of attention that’s placed on the use of force – it is the most controversial aspect of the doctrine. Many think that the use of force is what's most needed to prevent and protect populations against mass atrocity crime. But there's more to it than that. At this particular moment, we have a real opportunity to move R2P forward by strengthening the international architecture for prevention. Right now, there’s no prevention agenda and no proximate prevention tools. We don’t have a sense of what will compel the international community to act when there is a risk of genocide.  We aren’t investing the financial resources, the time, or the political capital to better understand what prevention should require states to do. At this moment, we have 25 countries that have made R2P a domestic priority – President Obama has said that the prevention of mass atrocities is a national priority for him. We need to build on this because there is a real need for the international community to start engaging at a much earlier stage of these crises rather than waiting until the last minute to implement a Band-Aid approach.


Why isn't this prevention-focused agenda moving forward faster?

Prevention rarely gets onto anyone’s political agenda – it's only once there’s been a massive failure (a Rwanda or a Srebrenica) that there’s remorse, which, at least in the short-term, fuels greater interest in prevention. Most of the at-risk populations are located in remote parts of the world or areas where we have few national interests. Syria is not the norm. Prioritizing prevention is hard because resources are limited. Right now, there isn’t a compelling narrative as to why states should prioritize prevention-related issues, such as judicial capacity-building, in remote areas. The financial and technical investment required to work with a state to refine its constitution and strengthen the rule of law is significant.

Is the Brazilian RwP proposal a helpful development?

It was very important for R2P at the moment it was put forward. I think the Brazilians wanted to have an impact on the larger debate around use of force. I don’t look at it as being strictly an R2P issue – RWP speaks to a variety of issues – and they put it forward for a variety of reasons. They wanted to say “we aren’t comfortable with intervention in any way and we need to make that clear. We need to say that the use of force must be an absolute last resort.” But saying that acknowledges, if only implicitly, that there is a role for force in some cases. I feel, and I can’t be certain, that there was a sense of frustration that the P3 and western states were behaving in a way that reminded the Brazilians and others of past interventions where the motives of those involved were less than pure. Having said that, their contribution was very constructive. They continue to engage with states from around the world to define what RWP and to show a strong desire to be a partner in the concept's normative development.

What do you think of the fact that as Brazil is emphasizing multilateralism, Canada is drawing back from engagement on R2P and RwP?

It’s absolutely heartbreaking. I don’t think that the Harper government recognizes the impact that its current actions are having on Canada’s stature internationally. Bilateral relations are important, but engagement in the multilateral sphere is equally important. What I’ve heard from ambassadors and diplomats from different countries all over the world is “what’s happened to Canada? Where is Canada?” There is an absence of leadership and voice; of taking a strong position and championing it at the UN.

There are few northern countries so uniquely placed to be leaders on issues like R2P and prevention as Canada; few countries that don’t have a difficult legacy of intervention or colonial adventurism and who are historically tolerant, and diverse.  We’ve abdicated that role. We used to be the one bringing together actors from countries to talk about these issues, and we used to try to brainstorm options to move resolutions and agendas forward. We don’t do it anymore, and no one has stepped into the gap. It hurts us in the long run and it will have an economic impact. We’ve gone from being the champion to being one of the many–why on earth would we give up that position?  We need Canada at the fore to move R2P forward.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity

Also in the series


With Power Comes Responsibility

OpenCanada talked to Gilberto Rodrigues about Brazil's increased interest in and impact on R2P.

The Mirage of R2P’s “BRICS Wall”

Patrick Quinton-Brown on how a shifting world order is shaping the political debates over intervention.

The ABC's of RWP

OpenCanada talked to Dr. Malte Brosig about how the Responsibility While Protecting differs from the Responsibility to Protect.