Seven reasons why R2P is relevant today

As Canada marks 150 years, seven global experts look at how the Responsibility to Protect doctrine can protect human rights in the 21st century, and how it can evolve going forward. 

The United Nations Security Council meets to discuss the recent ballistic missile launch by North Korea at U.N. headquarters in New York, U.S., July 5, 2017. REUTERS/Mike Segar

In celebration of Canada’s 150th anniversary, the Canadian Centre for the Responsibility to Protect is running a nation-wide campaign to reflect upon the past, present and future of Canada’s commitment to global humanitarianism. This year also marks the 16th year since the Responsibility to Protect principle was first conceived under the sponsorship of the Canadian government, and over a decade since R2P was unanimously endorsed by 150 heads of state and government at the 2005 World Summit. 

Responsibility to Protect (R2P) is an emerging international norm which states that when a state or a government is unable or unwilling to protect its population from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity, the international community must take action. At the core of R2P is a belief in human equality and dignity — that nobody should be killed for who they are or what they believe. R2P stems from a firm commitment to “never again” allow atrocities like the Holocaust or the 1994 Rwandan Genocide. R2P provides a wide range of tools — diplomatic, economic, political, institutional and, if necessary, military — and encourages partnership between public and private sectors, as well as local, national, regional and international governing bodies. As former UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon once put it, R2P’s approach is narrow but deep, because while the scope of R2P is strictly limited to four mass atrocity crimes, successful implementation of R2P requires partnership at all levels in a timely and decisive manner, with a long-term approach. While R2P as a concept may be relatively young, the core beliefs of R2P are already well-entrenched in the existing international legal regime, such as international humanitarian law, international human rights law and the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement.

As we look around the state of the world today, there are deeply troubling signs which threaten the basic tenets of R2P. In places like Syria and North Korea, we are witnessing some of the greatest humanitarian challenges of our time, with millions of innocent civilians being killed and dying from hunger. Political extremism is on the rise, with non-state terror groups threatening the safety of ordinary citizens. The rapid advancement of communication technology which puts so much power at our fingertips has made it easier for us to be more informed, but it has also helped extremist groups to recruit new members, spread hate messages and plan cyber-attacks, thereby making all of us more vulnerable than ever before. We are living through extraordinarily challenging times, marked by new opportunities but also new disruptors like artificial intelligence, power shifts between the East and the West, rapid climate change and innovations at a rate faster than anyone could have anticipated.

While it may be tempting to become cynical about the state of the world today and the role that an emerging norm like R2P could play to protect ordinary people, the need for implementing R2P is greater than ever before. The unprecedented speed, duration and the gravity of the Syrian crisis, for instance, reminds us that this is a challenge for all of us, individual citizens of the world. There is no clear blueprint for saving human lives, but as Canadians — who believe in human dignity and celebrate our diversity — we share a collective duty to hold the bar high when it comes to protecting human rights. As we contemplate the progress and future direction of R2P, we turned to seven distinguished Canadians, who have been at the forefront of promoting global humanitarianism, to share their insights on how we can move forward. 

— Tina J. Park, co-founder & executive director of the Canadian Centre for the Responsibility to Protect

One of Canada’s many global achievements to celebrate.

— Allan Rock is a member of the Queen’s Privy Council for Canada and Canada’s former Ambassador to the United Nations. 

As we enumerate the many Canadian achievements during the 150 years since Confederation of which we are proud, we must surely include Canada’s major contributions to global governance and the maintenance of international peace and security. Particularly since the end of World War Two, Canada has been an indispensable player in the effort to make our world better and safer. We were full participants in the founding of the United Nations in 1946. A Canadian led the drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. Lester Pearson won the Nobel Peace Prize for inventing UN peacekeeping, which first proved its worth by calming the roiled waters of the Middle East following the 1956 Suez Crisis.

In the years since, Canada has almost continuously maintained the Pearsonian tradition of constructive engagement with the world. Pierre Trudeau pursued the dream of North-South equality. Brian Mulroney was a leader in the global effort to displace the racist and hateful apartheid regime in South Africa. Jean Chrétien’s government spearheaded the ban on land mines, the promotion of the Human Security Agenda, and the creation of the International Criminal Court. And Justin Trudeau has now made clear that Canada is determined to resume its activist, fully-engaged approach to multilateralism.

One of the foreign policy achievements of which Canada can be immensely proud is the principle of the Responsibility to Protect. When the world was reeling from genocide, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity during the last decades of the 20th century, Canada sponsored an international commission to find a better way to prevent and stop mass atrocity crimes. The principle that emerged is very simple: each sovereign state is responsible for protecting its own population from mass murder. And if a state is unable or unwilling to do so, then the international community will do it instead — by force if necessary, if all other means fail.

The principle was unanimously adopted by all UN member states in 2005. It has been invoked by the UN Security Council dozens of times, to remind states of their responsibility and, on occasion, to authorize a military operation aimed at protecting civilian populations at risk. It was invoked in Libya in 2011 to authorize a NATO military operation protecting those that Muammar Gaddafi had threatened to kill. While said implementation is still controversial, few doubt that without R2P, there would have been a very significant loss of life.

So as we turn with excitement to the next 150 years of Canada in the world, let’s remember our proud heritage as global citizens, and the extraordinary contributions to international relations made by Canadians in the past. Like our own democracy, global governance is always a work in progress, fragile and vulnerable to abuse. And like our system of government, international relations need constant effort, to ensure that values we cherish, like freedom and respect for human rights, are upheld and promoted.

A reminder of what is possible as our relationship with the ‘nation-state’ changes.

— Mel Cappe is a member of the Order of Canada and a Professor at the School of Public Policy and Governance in the University of Toronto. 

Canada can build on its championing of R2P to help guide the world to go beyond the ‘nation state.’ Technology, demography and globalization will create challenges for which the traditional role of the nation state is unsuited. In some ways, Canada, at our sesquicentennial, is already a post-Westphalian nation state.

Dani Rodrik, Tom Friedman and Richard Haass all point to the changing world order and the adaptation required of the nation state and post-war institutions that we have built to handle change. The UN, NATO, EU, NAFTA and other arrangements for providing rules of behaviour for nation states have all been positive. But the nature of sovereignty has changed. We have seen countries cede authority and power in all directions: to supra-national bodies, to sub-national entities, and to civil society and other non-state actors. R2P was just slightly ahead of its time. And Canada was the champion in the world to make it happen.

What the world will need to face today’s challenges are meta-institutions of which Canada is an exemplar in promoting. We led the way on the creation of R2P to deal with governments who do not protect their citizens. We instigated the creation of the G20 where the G7/8 had excluded some of the most important and fastest growing economies in the world. We created new coordination mechanisms like the Forum of the Federations to promote federalism as a solution to challenges of diversity. And we practice our preaching by using federalism coordinating mechanisms to align provinces, territories and the federal government to work on our commitments under the Paris Agreement.

Canada’s commitment for its next 150 years should be to help develop other meta-institutions as necessary to face these challenges. If the traditional nation state is threatened by state sponsored hacking, we should create new international accords and institutions to censure and punish but ultimately prevent bad behaviour. If nuclear proliferation threatens the future of life on earth, we should press for more robust international collaborations that go beyond UN talks in Geneva. Perhaps we need to go beyond the P5 and enlist and mandate middle powers or nations like Canada, Norway, Japan and Australia to play a more active and muscular role in both diplomacy and policing. If demographic change and migration are threats to the world order, mobilizing the nations that can make a difference in an alliance to prove the worth of sanctuary to asylum seekers could be a model to the world. If the threat of job loss from technology and climate change trigger migration, poverty or political disaffection, then we need to consider how to create non-traditional alliances of countries to exercise power in non-threatening ways in order to lead and not force.

Do we have a responsibility to the people of North Korea?

— Lois Wilson, CC OOnt, ordained United Minister, first female moderator, Distinguished Minister in Residence at Emmanuel College.    

Canada’s long standing commitment to humanitarianism and the protection of human rights has helped shape its foreign policy, crowned by its support for R2P. The question remains: how can R2P be implemented meaningfully by Canada in a world saturated with atrocities, barbarism and violations of human rights?         

The world knows of the humanitarian crisis in the DPRK. How can Canada best address that situation, given our commitment to R2P?

One of the best ways Canada can engage with North Korea is to emphasize the importance of diplomacy, dialogue and peaceful negotiations in its Controlled Engagement Policy, rather than military threats. This involves listening as well as projecting Canada’s point of view. Canada is committed to protecting the inalienable rights of human beings, but there is no way it can meaningfully address the human rights situation in the DPRK until it has established some trust with authorities in that country. That is a long slow process, but more enduring than threats. Canada has had some practice in this approach, having established diplomatic relations (however fleetingly) with the DPRK in 2001.

The NGO community could greatly assist this process by extending itself to create partnerships with some segments of the population of North Korea. A fruitful way to express humanitarian ideas would be to initiate and support people to people contacts between our two countries. Universities could be encouraged to establish and offer scholarships to North Korean students who wish to pursue postgraduate studies in Canada. They would become acquainted with how a democratic country seeks to better its citizens, and could then critique their own society and effect changes from the inside. Canadian young people in turn could begin to understand North Koreans better. Exchange of sports teams would help enormously in de-escalating tensions. An invitation for DPRK to send their famous circus to Canada would modify the image Canadians have of North Koreans. Both the United Church of Canada and the Presbyterian Church of Canada have lively contacts with their counterparts in the DPRK, and these should be supported and strengthened. By laying such a foundation, and creating trust, the path for the Canadian government to proceed with peaceful negotiations would be strengthened.

R2P: Still relevant in a Trump world.

— Hugh Segal, OC OOnt, is Master of Massey College, a fellow of the Canadian Institute of Global Affairs, and Chair of the NATO Association/Atlantic Council of Canada.

During the height of the 2016 American election, it would have struck many observers as most unlikely that, of all the candidates seeking the two U.S. presidential nominations, Donald Trump would have been more likely to make R2P a more real dynamic in global strategic affairs than any of the other Republican or Democratic candidates. At first sight, his political stances seemed isolationist, disengaged from global obligation and military commitment, and more focused on America’s internal challenges in economic, trade and migration policy. 

Russia’s muscular and prophylactic alliance with Syrian president Bashar al-Assad further diluted any hope of a Trump presidency that would engage directly on R2P, quite independent of the position that he took during his candidacy, a clearly stated preference for a re-creation of a viable detente context with Vladimir Putin’s Russia. This was not dissimilar from Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger’s balancing act between Soviet and American spheres of influence in the pre-Gorbachev days.

And while few would question the underlying pacifist attraction of always intellectualizing one’s way beyond R2P to a non-confrontation option — the path President Barack Obama took, with the encouragement of the UK parliament and others who preferred a compromise on chemical weapons over a confrontation — there are times when being able to express anger, revulsion and intense indignation about barbaric excess is essential to the survival of humanity itself.

Which is what R2P is really all about at its core. The lack of engagement in response to years of brutal and murderous slaughter by Assad of his own people simply encouraged more depravity. The events of late March and early April 2017 finally pushed the civilized world too far. It is hard to know what the cool and rational stance of Obama might have been had he faced this situation.

That Trump responded with emotion and anger to what was done by Assad’s air force to children, women and civilians is both encouraging and instructive. The American president’s choices, no doubt in part shaped by tactical options provided by the Pentagon and the National Security Council, were measured and focused. 

He has put the world on notice that military assets deployed by any government or non-state actor to violate chemical weapon rules, or target innocent civilians, are no longer immune from armed response. Immunity and impunity can no longer be assumed by those who counted on a lack of robust commitment to R2P, or the intimidating cover provided by Russia, Iran and their proxies. This is far from a fully developed Trump doctrine, or even a broad embrace of R2P, but it is one step along the right road. Diplomacy, outreach and negotiated economic approaches to the worst purposeful humanitarian violations are always preferable to a kinetic or combat response. But there are times when they are simply not sufficient.

For Pyongyang, Moscow, Beijing, Tehran and Damascus to understand that America has not abdicated is, on balance, a good thing. The Trump administration may or may not have a more thought through plan on R2P or the Middle East going forward. But it did have the will to act in the second week of April, which is a vital signal for the 28 members of NATO, especially partners like the Gulf States, Egypt, Israel, and others.

A world without any consequences, especially for violations of basic humanitarian principles about attacking noncombatants, is part of the past.

And, on balance, that, too, is a good thing.

R2P and private sector involvement.

— Brian Livingston is the current president of the Petroleum Club and former vice-president, general counsel and corporate secretary of Imperial Oil Limited.

I thought I would talk a little about a method to advance the R2P principle that does not involve force or the United Nations. This method can be referred to as investor activism. 

Many countries, including Canada, have passed laws restricting companies from doing business with countries whose governments have been accused of practicing genocide. Sudan is a good example of this. Notwithstanding this, there are still some companies with investments in Sudan. 

Four of the most significant companies are: 

-       China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) and its public subsidiary PetroChina Company Limited;

-       China Petrochemical Corporation and its public subsidiary China Petroleum and Chemical Corporation Limited (Sinopec);

-       Oil and Natural Gas Corporation (ONGC), based in India; and

-       Petronas (a Malaysian-based oil and gas corporation).

Further to this, a number of investment groups (particularly university endowment funds) have decided to divest of any shareholdings in these companies carrying on business in Sudan (Harvard and Yale in 2005, for example). However, a number of large and well known public mutual funds for investors (Fidelity, T. Rowe Price, Voya Financial, American Funds, TIAA-CREF and others) continue to invest in these companies. An organization based in Massachusetts called Investors Against Genocide (IAG) has been campaigning for over 10 years to get such public mutual funds to agree to not invest in companies that do business in countries like Sudan. IAG has sponsored a number of shareholder proposals with various large mutual fund managers in the past 10 years, asking that such mutual funds stop holding shares in companies that substantially contribute to genocide or crimes against humanity.

In my former job as a corporate secretary to a public company, I was very familiar with shareholder proposals filed by non-governmental organizations such as IAG. If such proposals were not supported by management, they would usually not receive many votes in favour of the proposal. As a result, most shareholder proposals were unsuccessful. The only ones that usually succeeded were those that had support from shareholder services groups such as Institutional Shareholder Services and Glass Lewis that would advise institutional shareholders to support the proposal.

The Investors Against Genocide movement has had mixed results. On the success side, IAG withdrew its shareholder proposal at the Teachers Insurance and Annuity Association- College Retirement Equities Fund (TIAA-CREF), when it adopted a public policy against investments tied to genocide. TIAA-CREF subsequently divested holdings in oil companies that are helping to support the genocide in Sudan. T. Rowe Price sold all its holdings in the above four companies by 2008. American Funds divested its holdings in PetroChina following a well-publicized shareholder vote on genocide-free investing there.

On the not-successful side, IAG’s shareholder proposals at Fidelity have not passed, with support in the 20 percent to 30 percent range. Shareholder proposals at Blackrock, JP Morgan, Franklin Templeton, Vanguard and Voya Financial have also not been successful.

As can be seen, the campaign continues.

Syria reminds us the media still has work to do.

— Michael Valpy, senior fellow at Massey College, fellow at the School of Public Policy and Governance, former Globe and Mail columnist and Africa correspondent.

As the horrid narrative of the battle of Aleppo — the bombing of hospitals, killing of children, shooting of families fleeing the city — reached its conclusion in December 2016, I did something I’ve never done before: tweeted Prime Minister Justin Trudeau asking him to offer Canada’s help, unilaterally if necessary, for Aleppo’s evacuation.

I was not alone in this wish: acquaintances and friends I encountered on campus and in email exchanges in those December days, students I knew and taught who posted on Facebook and Twitter, family members with whom I talked…what stuck in my mind was something the late Columbia University media theorist James Carey once said and which I tell my students every year: “The true subject matter of journalism is the conversation the public is having with itself.”

What was that conversation? The Globe and Mail said in an editorial on December 16: “In the West, there is widespread outrage about what is happening in Syria.” The Globe did not hear right. Not outrage, but despair, hopelessness, helplessness, the recognition in the West that our birthrights of democracy and trust in governments to build a better world were dangerously empty.

We know what Aleppo, Mosul, Libya, Myanmar and Darfur have told us: that the United Nations declaration in 2005 that sovereignty will not serve as a shield to permit crimes that shock the conscience and involve mass killing — the underlying principle of R2P — has been met with inadequate or absent policy.

The need for innovative risk-taking and trial-and-error advances in R2P has wilted against governments’ typical aversion to risk. Governments’ cupboards are all but bare on policies that reach beyond sovereign borders. Governments are grossly hampered by uncertainty. 

This is not, however, a comment of despondency. There is always hope for a better future and there is the valuable role in R2P that traditional media still has to play with governments and the public.

To be sure, the 20th century American political commentator Walter Lippmann’s model of journalism in democracy — that the media should be the translator between the public and policymaking elites because the public is no longer capable of assessing the complexities of modern society — does not work with R2P where policy is nearly invisible, and there is little else but rhetoric. 

But there is the counter model offered by U.S. philosopher John Dewey, who argued that the media can build public consensus, and therefore influence governments, by laying policy choices before the public along with their well-researched consequences. What would the response be to international R2P intervention? Would Canada be harmed? What action would be required?

The media exhaustively researches and answers complex questions about government budgets, Supreme Court decisions and trade agreements. It can do the same with the killing of people. Helpfully so.

Prime Minister Trudeau didn’t respond to my tweet.

Going forward: R2P remains useful but far from perfect.

— Marius Grinius is the former Canadian Ambassador to Vietnam, South Korea, North Korea and the UN. 

In Syria the use of barrel bombs and nerve agents by Assad against his own people cries out for R2P intervention by the United Nations. This, however, will not happen, thanks to regular Security Council vetoes by Russia and China, despite the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights having described the six-year conflict as “the worst man-made disaster since World War II.” Elsewhere in Syria ISIS militants are using civilians as human shields. Syria is not the only instance where the application of the R2P principle should save lives. Notwithstanding strong resolutions by the UN General Assembly, North Korea’s leadership continues to commit egregious human rights violations that have been called crimes against humanity. South Sudan’s leaders have been blamed for a famine that now threatens over one million people. Other current R2P candidates include the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Venezuela, Yemen, Mali and, perhaps again, Libya. 

But for the foreseeable future, R2P will remain an early warning indicator rather than an effective tool to protect innocent civilians. There are several reasons why:

-       Russia and China, two authoritarian regimes that are afraid of “colour revolutions” even when these fail, are simply anti-R2P. Perhaps they are thinking of implications for Chechnya, Tibet or Xinjiang. They certainly abhor the possibility of regime change in places like Syria or North Korea.

-       There is a lack of Western commitment. The lengthy April 2017 G7 Foreign Ministers’ communiqué comments on each trouble spot in the world with no mention of R2P, not even in the sections dealing with the UN, Peace and Security, or with Human Rights. Its absence in the communiqué is a clear indicator of where R2P stands among G7 security and humanitarian priorities. Separately, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson apparently did allude to holding to account those who commit crimes against innocents anywhere in the world. U.S. foreign policy under Trump, however, is still mostly a zig-zag of short-term reactions. A cruise missile strike against a Syrian military base does not make a coherent R2P strategy.

-       The readiness of nations to contribute resources to any future military intervention under R2P is unknown and unlikely.

-       R2P is far from an established global norm, unlike the idea of universal human rights or crimes against humanity. Much work remains to be done before R2P becomes well-known and accepted. The active support of civil society will be key to making that happen. But some elements of civil society will always be opposed to the use of force no matter how worthy the cause may be.

Until R2P becomes more widely accepted, the world will have to continue to rely on other tools, like the International Criminal Court, the ICRC and the UNHCR, to mitigate the outrages perpetrated against innocent civilians.