Intervention to protect populations from mass violations of human rights remains highly contentious and difficult. The ‘landmark’ consensus on the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) and its universal endorsement at the 2005 World Summit feels distant today when seen in light of Russia’s political statements on intervention in Ukraine, as well as the international community’s disappointing track record in, for example, Syria, South Sudan and the Central African Republic. What is more, evolving patterns of relative political, military and economic strength in the world suggests that consistent agreement on preventing and responding to atrocity crimes is going to become increasingly difficult. The growing confidence of the BRICS and other rising powers to question what are increasingly seen as Western human rights agendas has the potential to challenge consensus and inhibit action. There is, however, also potential for carving out deeper understanding and support for preventing mass human rights violations.
Russia’s current justification for its military presence in Crimea – that the rights of ethnic Russians were being “trampled” by the victors of the political unrest in Ukraine – is one example of this angry debate in action. Many states have rejected the protection argument: the Ukrainians have argued that the responsibility to protect ethnic Russians on Ukrainian territory rests with the government of Ukraine; US Permanent Representative to the UN, Samantha Power, has stated that there was “no evidence of threats against ethnic Russians or the Russian Federation” and that Russian action violated international law in response to “an imaginary threat”; China, so far, has quietly reiterated its interest in restoring Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity without further foreign interference, Russian or otherwise.
It is interesting that Russia has chosen to use this language of protection to justify its own action, only six months after Putin wrote that “[u]nder current international law, force is permitted only in self-defence or by a decision of the Security Council. Anything else…would constitute an act of aggression” in an opinion piece in the New York Times responding to a Western proposal for strikes against Syria in response to the use of chemical weapons. He later added that “it is alarming that military intervention in internal conflicts in foreign countries has become commonplace for the United States”. He is clearly caught by his own argument.
R2P was partly conceived as a framework for an agreed threshold for intervention for the protection of human rights. It is best seen as a tool for mobilising political will and guiding policy towards implementing existing international law (such as the Genocide Convention, the Geneva Conventions and the Rome Statute) on the prevention of genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes and ethnic cleansing. Russia’s misapplication of this idea serves to confirm the concerns of states who suspect that the universal language of protection can be employed to hide malign unilateral intentions; a negative addition to the legacy of an already contentious concept.
With changing patterns in relative power, the nature of international decision-making is also evolving. The multiplication of influential actors – especially in the economic field – and the bias toward the national and the local in determining legitimacy and moral authority are bound to generate more complicated scenarios surrounding the perpetration of atrocity crimes. Consistent agreement on preventing atrocity crimes is already difficult and, while it was never expected to mobilise a fail-safe response every time, R2P – particularly the coercive measures envisaged as a last resort when states are failing to protect their populations – clearly remains disputed in practice. What could the potential outcomes for R2P be in the future, with changing power relationships and new regional trends already visible in China’s rise, and with other emerging powers like Brazil, India, South Africa, Nigeria and Turkey creating their own regional impact?
Within this undulating global picture, there is one line of predictable continuity: the composition of the permanent seats in the UN Security Council. For all the continuing calls for Council reform, China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States endure in their privileged position, for the most part defining the limits of decisions to avert or halt international crises. Charged with responsibility for the maintenance of international peace and security, this group is, at its best, capable of sanctioning decisive action to prevent mass atrocities, as exemplified by the resolutions on Libya; and, at its worst, can stall action and harden international diplomatic and political gridlock, as in Syria.
While it could be argued that, by overstepping the precise terms of its mandate to protect civilians in Libya, NATO seriously compromised R2P, the Council’s subsequent willingness to refer to the principle in resolutions on South Sudan, Yemen, Côte d’Ivoire and Mali suggests otherwise. The impasse on Syria is not necessarily a direct product of the controversy surrounding the Libyan intervention, but rather one of conflicting state interests in a politically charged region. As the number of states with influence on the international stage grows, the dynamics within the permanent five will inevitably be affected, shaping the future implementation of R2P’s robust diplomatic, economic and military measures for atrocity prevention.
Simmering disputes over how to act on the promise of R2P do not necessarily mean, however, that the idea of preventing and responding to atrocities is going to be proved worthless. China, for example, insists on non-interference as a key rule in international affairs, but a growing desire to be seen as a responsible power and exert increased diplomatic influence has encouraged new patterns to emerge that could work in R2P’s favour. Since 2000, China has grown its manpower contribution to peacekeeping missions from 100 to 2,000 at the end of last year, suggesting it is tentatively interested in greater involvement in the promotion of regional and international stability and the protection of populations.
China’s foreign ministry’s think tank, the China Institute of International Studies, also published a document in 2012 arguing that China should champion ‘Responsible Protection’ instead of R2P, calling for firmer criteria for intervention, improved accountability and UN supervision to ensure any intervention remains focused on protection rather than regime change. That at least suggests negotiable possibilities.
Aside from the permanent five, the mix of the ten elected members of the council has the capacity in any particular year to steer the council in a new direction. Emerging powers such as Brazil, India, South Africa, Indonesia, Turkey and Nigeria are being elected regularly and ought to have an increasing effect on Council dynamics. These states also understand that their voices are bolstered by acting through regional organizations like the African Union or the Arab League, the former being particularly important for R2P through its principle of “non-indifference”. While holding the Council presidency in 2012, South Africa introduced a resolution to strengthen the Council’s relationship with regional organizations, particularly the African Union, with the aim of increasing the legitimacy of interventions in the region.
The Chinese idea of Responsible Protection was built on a Brazilian paper outlining “Responsibility while protecting”, which was released just after NATO’s intervention in Libya. This concept note reaffirmed just war principles for the use of force and called for a more coherent system of checks and balances in the Council for monitoring military missions. While the US, UK and France have been outwardly reserved about this suggestion – which they (rightly) suspected was partly a spoiling tactic – Brazil’s diplomatic skill and interest in conflict management could make it a useful actor on the principle’s strategic challenges if it is seriously interested in discussing the issue.
More recently, a number of states both inside and outside the Security Council have come out in support of a proposal for a voluntary ‘code of conduct’ restraining the use of the veto in cases of mass atrocities. During the last session of the General Assembly, French President François Hollande reiterated France’s endorsement of this idea, which it first aired in 2001. Engagement on this proposal from other P5 members is not yet forthcoming, but momentum is growing in the General Assembly and current elected members of the Security Council. At the beginning of 2014, Jordan made a statement as president of the Council expressing its support and intentions to engage further, while wider efforts to improve the transparency and accountability of the Council also include mention of this moratorium on the veto. Such a code would certainly not serve as a cure for all the Council’s failings, but there is merit in thinking creatively about how to improve the Council’s ability to address complex and destructive political crises with a minimum of subjective spoiling.
Of course, R2P is not just about responding to the imminent threat or ongoing perpetration of mass atrocities. There is also a preventive element that targets longer-term considerations, focusing on the structural causes of the four atrocity crimes (i.e., war crimes, genocide, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity). The provision of assistance and capacity-building to states at risk of mass atrocities is not subject to Security Council agreement and is already a feature of many development, security sector reform, institution-building and community engagement programmes that address the drivers of intolerance in divided societies in the long term. Strengthening the International Criminal Court, which will target impunity and increase international accountability for perpetrators, will ultimately provide the structures to sustain a culture of non-impunity, crucial for embedding the norm’s key principles.
There also appears to be a growing public awareness of the global, strategic implications of mass atrocities. The potential ripple effects of the rapidly deteriorating situation in the Democratic Republic of the Congo following the Rwandan Genocide and the threat posed by Syrian atrocities toward the stability of Lebanon, Iraq and Jordan are both seen as serious regional dangers. States and investors alike must learn that, though it may seem less costly to leave an area to chaos, stability everywhere is a component of long-term growth and security.
Political divisions and diversifying centres of power and influence could thus work in either direction. They have the potential to create new sticking-points between competing subjective interests, but they could also apply increased pressure on the Security Council to agree on responses to mass atrocities and encourage regional stability.
The label of R2P may not last in the shifting dynamics of world politics, but the legitimacy of the concept, if backed by the UN, and the framework for action it provides are vital additions to the armory of global diplomacy. Establishing a norm of atrocity prevention will not cause its miraculous implementation, nor will unanimous international approval of it make crimes against humanity disappear. But we are seeing more clearly that the politics and motivations that ferment mass atrocities are often complex and, as such, demand a multifaceted response. We have to begin with the following words: We will not tolerate this. When we say this firmly enough – and when enough people say this firmly – then we have the chance to turn concepts into action. The possibility of occasional failure does not negate the need to try every time.