Returning to the Responsiblity to Protect

If we want to make R2P's hope of "never again" a reality, we need to turn away from the critique of sovereignty and the example of Libya, argues John Duncan.
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April 23, 2014

Director, Ethics, Society, and Law program, Trinity College, University of Toronto

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 OpenCanada.org 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.

Also in the series


Peacekeeping Does Not Have to Wait

Roméo Dallaire on how the international community can guarantee swift international action where civilians are under imminent threat.

Protecting the Responsiblity to Protect

The “responsibility to protect” be made real through “the capacity to deploy,” says Hugh Segal. Without that, the doctrine will lose salience.

New Tools to Prevent Mass Atrocities

Technology can be used to gather, analyze, and communicate information for the sake of predicting, preventing, and mitigating atrocities in an unprecedented way, argues Christopher Tuckwood.

How Much "Law" Is There in "International Law"?

Bob Rae on our collective failure to properly enforce the rule of law.

The Role of the Churches in the Rwandan Genocide

Churches are uniquely positioned to address conflict before it gets out of hand, says Lois M Wilson. Yet they failed to act 20 years ago in Rwanda.

Renewing R2P

There is still much work to be done on how to define and apply R2P, but there is hope for the concept, says Lloyd Axworthy.

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

A growing cadre of scholars, practitioners, and hobbyists are leveraging new tools to help prevent gross violations of human rights and holding perpetrators to account after heinous crimes are committed, says Robert Muggah.

Protecting R2P From Misuse

Acting on R2P inappropriately or invoking it as a pretext for other objectives like regime change can be as damaging as inaction to R2P’s long-run effectiveness, argues Maria L. Banda.

Time For Canada to Recommit to R2P

In the 20 years since the Rwandan genocide, Canada has gone from being the most vocal supporter of the norm to one of its meekest.

Learning Something, Not Everything

Two decades ago, the global media virtually ignored the killing in Rwanda. Has it learned from its mistake since, asks Michael Valpy.

The Eight Lessons of Rwanda

Irwin Cotler on what we have learned in the 20 years since the Rwandan genocide.