home       biography       publications       speeches       organisations       images       @contact

R2P: Still in Need of the Friends

Presentation by Professor the Hon Gareth Evans, Co-Chair of the International Commission on Intervention & State Sovereignty 2001 and the Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect, to Group of Friends of the Responsibility to Protect, hosted  by Permanent Representatives of Rwanda and The Netherlands, New York, 26 February 2016

For those of you who managed to escape hearing me address the President of the UN General Assembly’s event this morning, I will briefly summarise the stocktake I there gave as to how R2P is doing - 15 years since the Commission report that gave birth to the idea, and a decade after 2005 - using as my benchmarks the four big things that we designed R2P to be: a normative force; a catalyst for institutional change; a framework for preventive action; and a framework for effective reactive action when prevention has failed.

My basic take is positive - but we have a lot of unfinished business. I want to primarily focus on how this distinguished Friends Group can help meet the gaps and shortfalls we still face: so I will thread through my stocktake a number of specific suggested action items, some of which I know are already on your agenda and some which are perhaps not.

R2P as a Normative Force.  We have seen continuing growth in acceptance of R2P as a principle, or normative standard, on a scale which would have been unimaginable for the concept of “humanitarian intervention” which R2P has now almost completely, and rightly, displaced. Many states are still clearly more comfortable with the first two pillars of R2P than they are with the third, and there will always be argument about what precise form action should take in a particular case. But there is no longer any serious dissent evident in relation to any of the elements of the 2005 Resolution: the best evidence of this likes in the contributions to the UNGA interactive debates since 2009, and the more than 40 resolutions referencing R2P that have now been passed by the Security Council (35 of them after the divisions over Libya in 2011.

But more is needed to consolidate the norm, and Friends’ advocacy is important here:

  • Another substantive resolution from the UNGA is required, clearly reaffirming the core normative commitment made at the 2005 World Summit: I hope there will be warm support for the resolution drafted by the strong cross-regional group of Australia, Botswana, Brazil, Denmark, Ghana, Guatemala, the Republic of Korea and Slovenia,
  • It is crucial that the next Secretary-Geneal prioritizes R2P and the prevention of mass atrocity crimes as Ban Ki-moon did. States - and especially Friends who are members of the Security Council (presently nine states: France, UK, US, Angola, Japan, New Zealand, Senegal, Spain and Uruguay) should encourage candidates to make this a core priority of their tenure as SG.
  • We must continue to support the institutionalization of R2P at the UN - including more routine mention in UNSC resolutions, and not just in relatively easy pillar one language. The Security Council should consider adopting a resolution which builds on UNSCR 2150 (20th commemoration of Rwandan Genocide).
  • Global leaders need to talk up R2P at every available opportunity. The deliberate decision of the Obama administration to refrain, other than in an in-house UN context, from actually using “responsibility to protect” terminology is disappointing: the main privately stated reason being a domestic political one, viz. not to stir up those many forces in the country deeply sceptical of any terms associated with national or international legal obligations. While maybe not using R2P terminology at all is better than using it totally inappropriately (as with Tony Blair in the case of Iraq, and Vladimir Putin with South Ossetia) reluctance to publicly embrace it is manifestly not helpful for norm consolidation.

R2P as an Institutional Catalyst.  Delivering protection in practice means, inter alia, the continued evolution of institutional preparedness R2P has been a change agent here, with civilian response capability receiving much more organized attention; militaries rethinking their force configuration, doctrine, rules of engagement, and training; and 50+ states and intergovernmental organizations now being members members of the Global Network of R2P Focal Points convened by the Global Centre on R2P directed by Dr Simon Adams.
But here as elsewhere more needs to be done, with Friends leading the advocacy:

  • Many more focal points need to be established, and with a real - not just cosmetic - focus on R2P, which is not the case everywhere now.
  • Here at UN Headquarters, where the roles of the Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide and (unhappily still only part-time) Special Adviser on R2P, need to be not only “recognized" (as I understand the draft resolution language does) but rationalised and strengthened, including with stronger financial support.

R2P as a Preventive Framework.  The credibility of the whole R2P enterprise has depended from the outset on giving central importance to prevention. Especially in the context of post-crisis prevention of recurrence, R2P-driven strategies have had a number of notable successes, notably in Kenya after 2008; a number of West African cases; and Kyrgyzstan after 2010.  Most peacekeeping operations now have protection of civilians mandates - built on R2P’s sister concept of Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict (POC) - and most of the time those operations are succeeding in keeping the lids on some often very simmering pots.

There is also now, with the help inter alia of successive Special Adviser/SG reports, a very good understanding of the large toolbox of preventive measures available at all stages of the conflict cycle. But there is still more  prevention rhetoric than effective delivery.

The scope of necessary R2P preventive activity, if we are serious about long-term structural prevention as well as heading off immediately imminent catastrophes, is so vast - and overlaps so much with conflict prevention strategies - that Friends’ advocacy contribution is probably best focused on particular cases coming to the boil now, where effective action might avert a disaster.
Key cases in this respect are currently:

  • Burundi: long on edge of volcano, with civilians at imminent risk of mass atrocity crimes as the political crisis deepens. There is a need to urgently enhance the international presence and close the protection gap facing civilians. The UN must take the lead following the failure by the AU to endorse any meaningful response at the AU Summit on 30-31 January in Addis: it should mandate a Special Political Mission to facilitate political dialogue and monitor and report on human rights, with a police contingent to assist in maintaining rule of law, protecting civilians, and monitoring borders.

  • CAR: The historic Presidential elections are not the end of the crisis. MINUSCA needs to robustly protect civilians from spoilers who would disrupt the transition from conflict to stability following the elections, and it is important for the Mission to deploy to all areas where civilians under threat.

  • South Sudan: A major humanitarian catastrophe is looming if we don't see movement in the peace process before the start of the rainy season in May. 

R2P as a Reactive Framework.  This is where R2P’s credibility ultimately stands or falls. What do we do if prevention has manifestly failed, and mass atrocity crimes are actually occurring or imminently about to occur? Here R2P’s record has been mixed, at best, whether we be talking about diplomatic persuasion, stronger measures like sanctions or criminal prosecutions, or military intervention.

There have been some success stories: Kenya in 2008, Cote d'Ivoire, and - at least initially - Libya in 2011. And some partial success can be claimed for the new or revitalized UN peacekeeping operations in Congo, South Sudan, and the CAR. But there have also been some serious failures, certainly including Sri Lanka in 2009. In Sudan, where the original crisis in Darfur predates R2P but the situation continues to deteriorate, President Omar al-Bashir remains effectively untouched either by his International Criminal Court indictment or multiple Security Council resolutions. And, above all, there has been catastrophic international paralysis over Syria.

Addressing these realities is the biggest challenge of all for the Friends group (and in particular our nine members currently on the Security Council). There are many areas where our advocacy is important. My agenda would include the following:

  • Most obviously, trying to find solutions for the current most extreme occurrence situations, viz. Syria/ Iraq and Yemen.
  • Syria: There is no obvious alternative to the current peace talks effort - but with all sides perpetrating atrocity crimes, it is important to continue looking at crisis through R2P as well as conflict prevention lens
  • Iraq: It is particularly important to apply such a R2P lens here, and especially in the fight against IS/Daesh - as I have been arguing to the Australian Governments (and would to Canadian colleagues now stepping back from a combat role). Stopping further atrocities of kind perpetrated against Yazidis is a more defensible basis for external military engagement than “waging war on terrorism” or “imposing political stability”, which we know can be counterproductive in this region.
  • Yemen: The humanitarian situation is still in huge crisis. The Panel of Experts report says both sides have committed widespread and systematic "crimes" including indiscriminate shelling - and its call for an international commission of inquiry should be acted on.
  • UNSC members should request more regularized briefings by the Special Advisers and consider establishing a UN Security Council Working Group on R2P.
  • The UNSC should be encouraged to convene a formal meeting in 2016 to discuss R2P (and in this context consider adopting resolution, mentioned above, building on Resolution 2150 re 20th commemoration of Rwandan Genocide).
  • We should actively support the Accountability, Coherence and Transparency (ACT) Group’s Code of Conduct and French/Mexico veto restraint initiatives, both of which are receiving increasing support from the wider UN membership.
  • Above all, the unhappy legacy of Libya must be solved. Re-establishing UNSC consensus in the hardest of cases is not impossible, but it will take time. Brazil’s “responsibility while protecting” (RWP) proposal remains the most constructive of all the suggested ways forward, requiring as it would all Council members to accept close monitoring and review of any coercive military mandate throughout such a mandate’s lifetime. I hope it continues to be seriously debated.

We must constantly remember, and remind those who need to be reminded, that R2P has been from the outset a political project - designed to change mindsets and behaviour, and to ensure the effectiveness of existing international human rights and humanitarian law - not to write new law. And that R2P is built upon universal values, not least African concerns: it is not a Western fixation, and not about Western values but genuinely universal values.

We have come a long way in the last decade, and I see no evidence anywhere that anyone wants a return to the bad old days, when the whole UN was a consensus free zone on atrocity crime issues. But an immense amount remains to be done, and the role of the Friends Group will be absolutely central in ensuring that, when it comes to mass atrocity crimes, we never again have to say “never again”.