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Responsibility to Protect in 2007: Five Thoughts for Policy Makers

Presentation by Gareth Evans, President of the International Crisis Group, to Panel Discussion on The Responsibility to Protect: Ensuring Effective Protection of Populations under Threat of Genocide and Crimes Against Humanity, Program to Commemorate 1994 Rwandan Genocide, United Nations, New York, 13 April 2007

The anniversary each year of the Rwandan genocide is an occasion not only to remember, as we must, the almost indescribable horrors that men and women are capable of inflicting on each other when restraint, and principle and governance and international commitment all break down – and Rwanda remains the most terrible benchmark of modern times of such personal and institutional failure – but also to take stock of how far we have come, and how far we have yet to go, in ensuring that another Rwanda really will never again happen.

To focus the ongoing discussion, I want to make, as succinctly as I can, five main points:

  • the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) principle remains the best starting point we have, or are ever likely to have in preventing and responding to genocides and mass atrocities;
  • we need to recognise, nonetheless, that the R2P principle is still at risk, and have to work hard to hold the line against backsliding;
  • even with the R2P principle itself firmly consolidated, there is still unfinished conceptual business to attend to;
  • there is much unfinished practical, capacity-building business to attend to; and
  • there is unfinished political business to attend to.

1. R2P as the Starting Point

It has taken the world an insanely long time to come to terms conceptually with the idea that state sovereignty is not a license to kill – that there is something fundamentally and intolerably wrong about states murdering or forcibly displacing large numbers of their own citizens, or standing by when others do so.

We didn’t get it right in any of the decades, or even centuries, before World War II, where – with only a handful of exceptions – there was almost complete indifference to what states did internally, or in their own spheres of imperial or other interest.

We began to get it right, after the awful experience of the Holocaust, with the Nuremberg Tribunal Charter, and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Genocide Convention, but still gave too much primacy to Article 2.7 of the UN Charter with its stricture that ‘Nothing should authorise intervention in matters essentially within the domestic jurisdiction of any state’.

With the unfolding series of horrors in the 1990s, there were serious attempts made again to get it right. There was the coining of the idea of ‘droit d’ingerence’ – the ‘right to intervene’ or, more fully, the ‘right of humanitarian intervention’ – but this enraged as many as it inspired, and reinforced rather than bridged a perception-gulf between the global North and the global South. And there was Kofi Annan’s valiant attempt to say that what was needed here was a balanced reconciliation of two different kinds of sovereignty, that of the state and that of the individual – but at the end of the day this restated the problem rather than solving it.

It was only with the report of the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS) in 2001 – for which we can thank our Canadian co-hosts here today – that a broadly acceptable conceptual solution at last appeared, with the emergence of the principle of ‘the responsibility to protect’.

There were at least two great advantages of this formulation over any previous attempt to solve the dilemma. The first was that it made clear that sovereign states remained the primary actors – it was their primary responsibility to protect, with the help of others as appropriate, their own peoples, and it was only if they were unable or unwilling to exercise that responsibility that any responsibility shifted to the wider international community. The second was that it made absolutely clear – in the way that proponents of ‘humanitarian intervention’ did not – that non-consensual military intervention was absolutely a last resort, and that R2P was about much more than that: it was about the responsibility to prevent, the responsibility to react (by a whole variety of strategies, diplomatic, political, economic, legal and, only in really extreme cases, military) and about the responsibility to rebuild shattered societies after catastrophic breakdowns had occurred.

This basic formulation did win remarkably widespread acceptance in a remarkably short time – through the transmission belt of endorsement by the High Level Panel in 2004, the Secretary-General’s own In Larger Freedom report in 2005, and ultimately the UN General Assembly World Summit in September 2005, with the Security Council then embracing the general principle in April 2006 and applying it specifically to Darfur in August last year.

What is just as intriguing, and heartening, as these formal developments is the evidence that is now emerging that people around the world seem to think that we have it right in formulating the principle that there are limits to state sovereignty when it comes to the protection of people from genocide and similarly severe human rights violations. A major new opinion poll was released earlier this month by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and WorldPublicOpinion.org which found that, in each of the eleven countries surveyed, many more people favoured than were opposed to the proposition that ‘the UN Security Council has the responsibility to authorise the use of military force to protect people from severe human rights violations such as genocide, even against the will of their own government’. An extraordinary 76 per cent of Chinese approved, as did 74 per cent of Americans, and for example 69 per cent of Palestinians, 64 per cent of Israelis, 54 per cent of French and Poles, and 51 per cent of Indians. So when it comes to the starting point for ensuring that never again do we have another Rwanda, I think the reality is clear that we are not going to any better, for the indefinitely foreseeable future, than the R2P principle. It touches the right bases, and the right chords, and has shown that it is capable of winning very broad international acceptance indeed. But for all that has been achieved we still have a long way to go in bedding down acceptance of the R2P principle and giving it practical effect as new cases arise.

2. R2P Still at Risk

My second point is that, for all the acceptance that R2P has won, those gains are still at some risk of drifting away, on the one hand in the face of continued hostility by enemies of the concept, and on the other hand as a result of misguided support for it by some of those who call themselves its friends.

The assault from the enemies is familiar enough. It comes for a start from those countries who continue have something to hide or be ashamed about in terms of their own internal behaviour and are deeply reluctant to acknowledge, as a result any limitations on their sovereignty: while they felt unable to hold out against the final consensus at the World Summit they will remain alert to any opportunity to puncture or undermine the concept. And opposition comes also from a variety of countries, notably in Asia, who retain a strong ideological aversion to imperialism in any shape or form, and who remain instinctively unwilling to concede in principle that external intervention – and in particular military intervention – could ever wholly avoid having that character. This is a recurring theme in a lot of academic literature which continues to have some influence – for example recent article by Alex de Waal and Mahmood Mamdani – although what I find interesting about such pieces is that they continue to hammer away at ‘humanitarian intervention’ as the target, and only incidentally mention R2P, flailing away at the old straw man without acknowledging that the debate has moved on and the extent to which their concerns have already been conceptually accommodated.

Trouble from those who say they are friends of R2P comes in two other ways. First, from those who play into the hands of the ideological critics I have just mentioned by being far too ready to think of R2P situations only in military terms. This has been a recurring problem with much of the campaigning over Darfur, where the debate has tended to polarise into a choice between, as Lee Feinstein puts it in his recent Council on Foreign Relations paper, ‘the stark options of Doing Nothing and Sending in the Marines’, without acknowledging the many way stations in between. The International Crisis Group, by contrast, has argued that in the present circumstances a non-consensual military intervention would almost certainly be disastrously counterproductive, in terms of its impact on current humanitarian relief operations and the very fragile north-south peace process; the situation is still, we have said, very much an R2P one, where there has been an abdication of its responsibility by the Khartoum government, but here R2P objectives are better pursued in other ways, including economic and legal pressures. If the concept of R2P is not to be eroded it is important that its friends apply it in an appropriately nuanced way.

The more troubling friends of R2P are those false friends who have misapplied it to justify military intervention in circumstances where this was plainly wrong. Nothing has done R2P more harm than its invocation by some of the defenders of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, notably the UK government, to paint it as justified by R2P principles, as other defences in terms of possession of weapons of mass destruction or support for international terrorism crumbled away. This has not been in the slightest bit analytically persuasive for a whole variety of reasons, including on the threshold question of whether Saddam Hussein’s current behaviour – as distinct from a decade earlier – could be characterised as either large scale killing or ethnic cleansing. But all the talk about overthrowing tyranny, and responding to Saddam’s human rights abuses, succeeded admirably in reinforcing the arguments of R2P opponents that any concession as to the limits of state sovereignty would create an excuse that would be exploited all too willingly by neo-colonialists and neo-imperialists keen to return to their bad old interventionist habits of decades past. This almost sank R2P at the World Summit, and has the capacity to continually undermine it in the future if not met with robust counter arguments about what R2P is really about.

3. Unfinished Conceptual Business

An important piece of unfinished business in this respect, and this is my third point, is the need to spell out with absolute precision what are the circumstances in which non-consensual military force can, and cannot, be used in a way that is consistent with R2P principles. The ICISS Commission, while of course making the point over and again that R2P was about much more than military intervention – and in fact more than anything else about the responsibility to prevent these situations arising in the first place – recognised that to the extent this was acknowledged as an option, albeit only in the most extreme cases, in reaction to major harm actually occurring or about to occur, then one simply had to spell out in detail when it was actually right to fight, and when it was not.

We accordingly identified a set of prudential criteria in this respect which we argued should be adopted by the Security Council. These were the seriousness of the harm being threatened (which would need to involve large scale loss of life or ethnic cleansing to prima facie justify something as extreme as military action); the motivation or primary purpose of the proposed military action (whether it was primarily to halt or avert the threat in question, or had some other main objective); whether there were reasonably available peaceful alternatives; the proportionality of the response; and, not least, the balance of consequences – whether overall more good than harm would be done by a military invasion.

These recommendations were subsequently embraced both by the High Level Panel and the Secretary-General in his own report – but not adopted by the World Summit, and they remain in limbo. Of course no criteria of the kind the Commission argued for, even if agreed as guidelines by the Security Council, will ever end argument on how they should be applied in particular instances, for example Darfur right now. But it is hard to believe these criteria would not be more helpful than the present totally ad hoc system in focusing attention on the relevant issues, revealing weaknesses in argument, and generally encouraging consensus.

4. Unfinished Practical Business

If R2P is not to remain more theoretical than real, we must somehow solve the problem of capacity, ensuring that the right civilian and, as necessary, military resources are always there in the right amounts and with the appropriate capability. And that means having readily available a set of responses that are somewhere between Doing Nothing and Sending in the Marines.

We need stronger early warning coordination and response machinery at the centre – with the UN Secretary General having a Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide and other Mass Atrocities reporting to him – a person, like the retiring incumbent Juan Mendez, of real international stature, but working full time, with a staff of appropriate size and quality, and supported by a standing Advisory Committee able to make waves as occasion demands and ensure that we never again have early warnings fall into the black hole of indifference that confronted General Dallaire in 1994.

We need effective diplomatic capacity ready and available to negotiate and mediate those situations which are capable of being stopped by effective early intervention of this kind.

We need a repertoire of carefully thought–through sanctions measures, with an effective, professionally resourced, mechanism ready to be put in place immediately to monitor the application and effectiveness of those sanctions.

We need a full range of civilian capabilities, especially effective policing, on permanent standby, with the capacity to be immediately deployed

And we do also need effective preparedness to mount military operations for civilian protection purposes – with the consent if at all possible of the government in question (as was the case in East Timor, for example, and has been the case with the limited forces so far sent to Darfur), but in really extreme cases, if there is no other way of protecting the people in question from slaughter and ethnic cleansing, without that consent.

The experience of the current AU mission in Darfur is a classic demonstration of the problem of military capacity in a consensual intervention situation – too few troops, too poorly equipped, and too immobile to perform effectively even the limited civilian protection task required by their present mandate. The UN is currently feeling desperately overstretched, with over 80,000 military and 15,000 civilian personnel deployed worldwide, but with the world’s armed services currently absorbing some 20 million men and women in uniform (with another 50 million reservists, and 11 million paramilitaries), it hardly seems beyond the wit of man to work out a way of making some of that capacity available when and where it’s needed to prevent and react to man-made catastrophe.

Another crucial practical operational issue is to address the question, up until now almost completely neglected by the world’s militaries, of developing detailed concepts of these R2P/ civilian protection operations, which involve neither traditional war-fighting (where the object is not to stop violence as such, but to defeat an enemy) and peacekeeping operations (which although these days usually involving much more than the traditional passive monitoring, have still not come to grips with the kind of responses needed to cope with the threat or reality of atrocity crimes). It’s not just a matter of force configuration, but of developing new doctrine, and new kinds of rules of engagement, and new kinds of training. Victoria Holt has shown us the way on all these topics in her excellent recent book for the Stimson Center, and it’s more than time for the relevant militaries and their governments around the world to respond.

5. Unfinished Political Business

As always, generating the political will to act – both in putting in place the necessary capacity-building measure, and then in responding with all that machinery to particular new crisis situations as they arise – is the biggest and hardest piece of unfinished business. But we have to recognise that finding the necessary political will to do anything hard, or expensive, or politically sensitive, or seen for better or worse as not directly relevant to national interests, is just a given in public affairs, domestically or internationally: its absence should not be a matter for lamentation, but mobilization. Political will is not hiding in a cupboard or under a stone somewhere waiting to be discovered: it has to be painstakingly built.

All of us have a role in this respect. It is a matter of not just top-down effort – with key officials in key governments, and those who can influence them directly (as hopefully we in Crisis Group can) making the effort to persuade and mobilise their peers in the international community to take the necessary action in the UN Security Council and elsewhere. It’s also a matter of bottom-up mobilisation: making the voices of ordinary concerned citizens heard in the corridors of power.

My own view, which I know is shared by many government and NGO representatives here today, is that it is time to build a new institutional structure to advance politically the R2P agenda. What is needed is a structure – perhaps we could call it the ‘Global Coalition for the Responsibility to Protect’ (GCR2P for short) – is a structure which draws together civil society organizations to liaise with like-minded governments and international organizations to recommend strategy, coordinate efforts, identify gaps, build political will, and serve as an information clearing house on R2P. Ideally it would have a group of distinguished international patrons – maybe one from each continent – and an effective working secretariat based here in New York, not trying to tightly control campaign and related activity, both top-down and bottom-up, but helping to guide and coordinate it. Discussions along these lines have commenced between a number of organisations, and I believe it’s in all our interests that something of this kind comes together over the next few months.

I have often argued that there is a political case for R2P on hard-headed, practical, national interest grounds: states that can’t or won’t stop internal atrocity crimes are the kind of rogue states, or failed or failing states, that can’t or won’t stop terrorism, weapons proliferation, drug and people trafficking, the spread of health pandemics and other global risks.

But at the end of the day I think all of here know and accept that the case for R2P rests simply on our common humanity: the impossibility of ignoring the cries of pain and distress of our fellow human beings. For any of us in and around the international community – from individuals to NGOs to national governments to international organizations – to yet again ignore that distress and agony, to once again be guilty of the tragic neglect with which we reacted to Rwanda thirteen years ago, and to once again make ‘never again’ a cry that rings totally emptily, is to diminish that common humanity to the point of despair. We should be united in our determination to not let that happen, and there is no greater or nobler cause on which any of us could be embarked.