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The Responsibility to Protect: Meeting the Challenges

Lecture by Gareth Evans, President of the International Crisis Group, to 10th Asia Pacific Programme for Senior Military Officers, S.Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Singapore, 5 August 2008.

Last year, at the height of the Burma/Myanmar regime’s bloody suppression of its protesting monks, a well-known Chinese professor from Shanghai was asked by an American newspaper for his reaction. His quoted reply, in two stark sentences, went to the core of the issue I have been asked to talk to you about this evening: “China has used tanks to kill people on Tiananmen Square. It is Myanmar’s sovereign right to kill their own people, too.”

For a great many people in the world, and certainly to Western ears, that is about as chilling and abhorrent a statement as it is possible to imagine, an apparent apologia not only for Tiananmen and the October Crackdown, but the killing fields of Cambodia, the genocide in Rwanda, the bloody massacre of Srebrenica, and the crimes against humanity continuing in Darfur. It seems to embrace the starkest possible interpretation of Westphalian principles – not only that what happens within state borders is nobody else’s business, but that sovereignty is a license to kill. It not only challenges head–on those who would argue for the option of coercive external military intervention in at least some of these situations, but seems to ignore all the developments in international human rights law which have occurred since 1945 – from the Universal Declaration and the Covenants, to the Genocide Convention and the Rome Statute establishing the International Criminal Court.

For many others, however, particularly in the global South, the Chinese professor’s statement, while chilling in its directness and certainly less diplomatically expressed than it might have been, captures a sentiment which has great resonance in the developing world -- and which has too often been ignored by enthusiastic human rights campaigners arguing for ‘the right to intervene’, by coercive military force if necessary, in internal situations where major rights violations were purportedly occurring. While ‘the right to intervene’ or ‘the right of humanitarian intervention’ might be seen in most of the global North as a noble and effective rallying cry - and was so seen through most of the 1990s -- it had the capacity elsewhere to enrage, and continues to do so, not least among those new states emerging through the whole post World War II period, proud of their identity, conscious in many cases of their fragility, and all too vividly remembering the many occasions in the past when they had been on the receiving end missions civilisatrices from the colonial and imperial powers.

There is a third way of reacting to the sentiment expressed in the Chinese professor’s statement, and that is not to leap into either attack or defence but to treat it as a challenge -- to find a solution to the problem of mass atrocity crimes which is neither an absolutist defence of all the worst manifestations of traditional sovereignty, nor an equally absolutist statement of the right to intervene coercively anywhere and any time whebn people seem to be suffering. At the 2000 Millennium General Assembly Kofi Annan, despairing at the lack of any kind of consensus on this issue throughout the previous decade, put the problem in the clearest of terms: If humanitarian intervention is indeed an unacceptable assault on sovereignty, how should we respond to a Rwanda, to a Srebrenica—to gross and systematic violations of human rights that offend every precept of our common humanity?

It was in response to this challenge that the concept of the responsibility to protect was born, in the 2001 report of that name by the Canadian-sponsored International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty which I had the privilege of co-chairing with the distinguished Algerian diplomat Mohamed Sahnoun. The core idea of the responsibility to protect (or “R2P” as we are all calling it for short in this age of acronymphomania - a condition not unfamiliar to military audiences!) is very simple. Turn the notion of “right to intervene” upside down. Talk not about the “right” of big states to do anything, but the responsibility of all states to protect their own people from atrocity crimes, and to help others to do so. Start with the traditional concept of sovereignty, and talk about the primary responsibility being that of individual states themselves, with the role of other states in the first instance being to assist them in that role. But don’t stop there: make it absolutely clear that if states do not or cannot meet the responsibility to protect their own people, as a result either of ill-will or incapacity, it then falls to the wider international community to take the appropriate action.

Focus not on the notion of “intervention” but of protection: look at the whole issue from the perspective of the victims, the men being killed, the women being raped, the children dying of starvation; and look at the responsibility in question as being above all a responsibility to prevent, with the question of reaction – through diplomatic pressure, through sanctions, through international criminal prosecutions, and ultimately through military action – arising only if prevention has failed. And accept coercive military intervention only as an absolute last resort, after a number of clearly defined criteria have been met, and the approval of the Security Council has been obtained.

Well, as many blue-ribbon commissions and panels have discovered over the years, it is one thing to labour mightily and produce what looks like a major new contribution to some policy debate, but quite another to get any policymaker to take any notice of it. But the extraordinary thing is that governments did take notice of the R2P idea: within four years – after a series of further high-level reports and a great deal of diplomatic scrambling -- it had won unanimous endorsement by the more than 150 heads of state and government meeting as the UN General Assembly at the 2005 World Summit.

The Summit Outcome Document was as explicit as it could have been: in a section headed ‘Responsibility to protect populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity’, there are two substantive paragraphs, the first focusing on the responsibility of sovereign states to protect their own peoples and of other states to assist them in doing so, and the second on the need to take collective action in the case of states ‘manifestly failing to protect their populations’, including through the Security Council under Chapter VII of the Charter. In just four years, a mere blink of an eye in the history of ideas, a phrase that nobody had heard of had become the central conceptual reference point, accepted as such by the General Assembly, sitting at head of state and government level, without a single dissenting voice.

But it was too early in 2005, and it remains too early now, to break out the champagne. Our Shanghai professor’s statement, made two years after the Summit, is clear enough indication in itself that the notion that sovereignty has real limits is not exactly universally accepted. And there are plenty of signs, especially in the UN corridors in New York, where nothing is ever beyond argument, that much more work needs to be done to bed down the new norm. For whatever reason – embrace of the concept but concern about its misuse; ideological association of any intervention with neo-imperialism or neo-colonialism; or in some cases simply embarrassment about their own behaviour – there is an evident willingness by a number of states to deflate or undermine the new norm before it is fully consolidated and operational. The language of “buyers remorse” is in the air. There has been a falling away of overt commitment to the norm in sub-Saharan Africa (although in substance still remaining a significant theme in the doctrine of the AU and some of the sub-regional organizations), and some increased scepticism in the Arab-Islamic and Latin American worlds. And in Asia there was, frankly, never much enthusiasm to start with. .

So for those of us who believe that, whatever the compelling attractions of traditional sovereignty, we cannot simply turn a blind eye to mass atrocity crimes, and that the 2005 cannot be the high water mark from which the tides now recede, there is still a big job ahead. The immediate objective must be to get to the point where, when the next conscience-shocking case of large-scale killing, or ethnic cleansing, or other war crimes or crimes against humanity come along, as they are all too unhappily likely to, the immediate reflex response of the whole international community will be not to ask whether action is necessary, but rather what action is required, by whom, when, and where.

There have been some encouraging signs – in particular the swift and supportive diplomatic and political response to the crisis in Kenya early in 2008, when responsibility to protect language was much used – that this may be beginning to happen, but there are still three big challenges that need to be addressed if R2P is indeed to have complete reflex international acceptance in principle, and if it is to be given practical operational effect as new cases arise.

The first challenge is essentially conceptual, to ensure that the scope and limits of the responsibility to protect are fully and completely understood in a way that is clearly not the case now. In particular, it is to ensure that R2P is seen not as a Trojan horse for bad old imperial, colonial and militarist habits, but rather the best starting point the international community has, and is maybe ever likely to have, in preventing and responding to genocide and other mass atrocity crimes.

The second challenge is institutional preparedness, to build the kind of capacity within international institutions, governments, and regional organization that will ensure that, assuming that there is an understanding of the need to act – whether preventively or reactively, and whether through political and diplomatic, or economic, or legal or policing and military measures – there will be the physical capability to do so.

The third challenge, as always, is political preparedness, how to generate that indispensable ingredient of will: how to have in place the mechanisms and strategies necessary to generate an effective political response as new R2P situations arise.

The Conceptual Challenge

The conceptual challenge is to address a number of misunderstandings about the scope and limits of R2P – some of them cynically and deliberately fostered by those with other axes to grind, or interests to protect, but the majority the product of quite genuine misapprehension as to what R2P is all about. Let me focus for present purposes on just the two major ones. .

The first is to think of R2P too narrowly and to think that it is ‘just another name for humanitarian intervention’. This is absolutely not the case: they are very different concepts. The very core of the traditional meaning of “humanitarian intervention” is coercive military intervention for humanitarian purposes – nothing more or less. But “the responsibility to protect” is about much more than that. Above all, R2P is about taking effective preventive action, and at the earliest possible stage. It implies encouragement and support being given to those states struggling with situations that have not yet deteriorated to the point where genocide or other atrocity crimes are a reality, but where it is foreseeable that if effective preventive action is not taken, with or without outside support, they could so deteriorate. It recognizes the need to bring to bear every appropriate preventive response: be it political, diplomatic, legal, economic, or in the security sector but falling short of coercive action (e.g. a “preventive deployment” of troops, as in Macedonia in 1995). The responsibility to take preventive action is very much that of the sovereign state itself, quite apart from that of the international community. And when it comes to the international community, a very big part of its preventive response should be to help countries to help themselves. A good case study of what R2P means in its preventive dimension is Burundi, in Central Africa since 1994, where what could easily have become another Rwanda scale genocide has been staved off by a series of peacemaking, peacekeeping and peacebuilding initiatives by the African and wider international community.

Of course there will be situations when prevention fails, crises and conflicts do break out, and reaction becomes necessary. But reaction does not have to mean military reaction: it can involve political, diplomatic, economic and legal pressure, measures which can themselves each cross the spectrum from persuasive to intrusive, and from less coercive (e.g. economic incentives, offers of political mediation or legal arbitration) to more coercive (e.g. economic sanctions, political and diplomatic isolation, threats of referral to the International Criminal Court) – something which is true of military capability as well. Coercive military action is not excluded when it is the only possible way to stop large scale killing and other atrocity crimes, as nobody doubts was the case, for example, in Rwanda or Srebrenica. But it is a travesty of the R2P principle to say that it is about military force and nothing else. That’s what ‘humanitarian intervention’ is about, but it’s not R2P.

Even when a situation is very extreme, that still does not mean that coercive military force is necessarily the right course. Quite apart from the legal question of whether force is permitted under the UN Charter – which for nearly all purposes requires Security Council approval –there are a series of prudential criteria, or criteria of legitimacy, which should always have to be satisfied before it is exercised, and all the major reports on R2P leading up to the World Summit have spelled them out in similar terms.

The first of those criteria is certainly the seriousness of the threat: does it involve genocide or other large-scale killing, or ethnic cleansing or other serious violations of international humanitarian law, actual or imminently apprehended? Not ten years or more earlier, as was the case with Iraq at the time of the misguided invasion in 2003, but here and now.

But even if the threshold of seriousness is crossed in one or other of these ways – as was clearly not the case in Iraq in 2003 – that still does not mean it is time, under the R2P doctrine, for the invasion to start. There are another four criteria of legitimacy, all more or less equally important, which also have to be satisfied if the case is to be made out for coercive, non-consensual military force to be deployed within another country’s sovereign territory: 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); last resort (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).

In the case of Darfur, a great deal of the debate has ignored these considerations, with the choice for the international community too often being characterized as one between the stark options of Doing Nothing and Sending in the Marines, without acknowledging the many way stations in between. There is no doubt that the “seriousness of threat” criterion has been satisfied, with since 2003, in this region of Sudan, more than 200,000 dying from outright violence or war-related disease and malnutrition, well over two million being displaced, peacekeeping efforts proving manifestly inadequate, peace negotiations going nowhere fast, humanitarian relief faltering, the conflict spilling over into neighbouring countries, and the overall situation remaining desolate. But the argument is very strong -- and accepted by most governments, and relief organisations on the ground -- that a non-consensual military intervention (even assuming that the troops could be found anywhere to sustain it) would almost certainly be disastrously counterproductive, in terms of its impact on current humanitarian relief operations and the very fragile north-south peace process.

Darfur still remains, on any view, an “R2P situation”, and one moreover where the responsibility to react has shifted to the international community because of the manifest abdication of its own sovereign responsibility by Khartoum. The inability here to use coercive military measures does not mean that this is a case of “R2P failure”: it just means that the international responsibility to protect the people of Darfur against the incapacity or ill-will of the Sudan government has to take other forms, including the application of sustained diplomatic, economic and – as we are seeing now with the prosecution of Bashir -- legal pressure to change the cost-benefit balance of the regime’s calculations.

The other major conceptual misunderstanding about R2P is at the other end of the spectrum from those which take it that R2P is only about the application of military force. It’s the idea that R2P is about every kind of situation in which humans are at risk. Of course one can argue, linguistically and as a matter of good public policy, that the international community has the responsibility to protect people from the ravages of HIV/AIDS worldwide; the proliferation of nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction; the ready availability of small arms, and the use of landmines and cluster bombs; the impact of dramatic climate change, particularly on specific groups like the Inuit of the Arctic circle; and much more besides. But if one is looking for umbrella language to bring these issues and themes together, it is much more appropriate to use a concept like “human security” than to say these are proper applications of the new international norm of “the responsibility to protect”.

It is not just a matter here of making the formal point that these cases are clearly not intended to be subsumed under the various descriptions of mass atrocity crimes that appear in the World Summit outcome document and the relevant lead-up reports. The argument is a more practical one – if R2P is to be about protecting everybody from everything, it will end up protecting nobody from anything. The whole point of embracing the new language of “the responsibility to protect” is that it is capable of generating an effective, consensual response in extreme, conscience shocking cases, in a way that “right to intervene” language simply was not. We need to preserve the focus and bite of “R2P” as a rallying cry in the face of mass atrocities.

Clear thinking in this respect was very much put to the test in the context of Cyclone Nargis in Myanmar recently. French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner opened up a hornet’s nest when he argued that the initial foot-dragging of the generals – with scores of thousands of lives being thought to be at risk as a result – was itself sufficient to trigger the R2P principle, and to actually justify a coercive intervention, at least in the form of the air dropping or barge landing of relief supplies. Many people, again mainly in the global South, feared that this was the thin edge of the wedge and that R2P would become an excuse for a whole new set of coercive intrusions.

So those of us who were anxious that the whole R2P principle was being put at risk had to scramble quickly to get the debate back on the rails. The way we did it was to go back to the basic core of the concept: R2P is about protecting peoples from mass atrocity crimes, not natural disasters or other ills man-made or otherwise. It was only if the regime’s behaviour could reasonably be characterized as constituting a crime against humanity - because of evidence of deliberate intention to harm the surviving delta population, or perhaps because of reckless indifference as to whether they suffered or not - that the threshold application of R2P would be triggered, and even then the multiple prudential criteria would have to be satisfied. In the event, under immense pressure from ASEAN and other neighbours as well as the wider international community, the generals did start to cooperate sufficiently for the feared catastrophe to be avoided. But the case shows how important it is to maintain a clear head about what is, and what is not, an R2P situation if any kind of general consensus is to be maintained.

The Institutional Challenge

When it comes to meeting the institutional challenge of ensuring that R2P is effectively operational, there are a huge range of issues that need to be addressed. For a start, who is actually capable of doing what? There is a large cast of actors potentially available in the international community: the multiple entities that make up the UN system, other global and regional intergovernmental organizations (including the EU, AU and NATO), national governments, and nongovernmental organizations. But who among them can best do whatever job is required, by whatever means are needed—supportive, persuasive, or coercive? And in terms of process, what more needs to be done, in the crucial areas of diplomatic, civilian and military capability, to improve the effectiveness of the response to R2P situations, again across the whole spectrum from prevention to reaction to rebuilding? I have just written a book of some 350 pages, to be published next month, a large proportion of which is devoted to these issues, and I can’t begin to spell out now in the time available what is required.

But it is perhaps worth saying to this audience that when it comes to military preparedness, and in particular preparedness not just to mount training or monitoring or showing-the-flag operations but to actually deal with those perpetrating or obviously about to perpetrate atrocity crimes -- the situation faced for example by the Dutch peacekeepers in Srebrenica, and by UNAMID forces in Sudan and MONUC forces in the Eastern Congo almost every day --a great deal more needs to be done. Exercising this responsibility poses a number of very difficult problems for military planners because – as this audience will know much better than me -- it is not the kind of role in which militaries have been traditionally engaged, where they have well-developed doctrine and for which they can draw on a large body of experience.

What is involved here is neither traditional war fighting (where the object is to defeat an enemy, not just to stop particular kinds of violence and intimidation) nor, at the other extreme, traditional peacekeeping (which assumes that there is a peace to keep and is concerned essentially with monitoring, supervision, and verification). The new task is partly what is now described as “peacekeeping plus” or “complex peacekeeping,” where it is assumed from the outset that the mission, while primarily designed to hold together a ceasefire or peace settlement, is likely to run into trouble from spoilers of one kind or another; that military force is quite likely to have to be used at some stage, for civilian protection purposes as well as in self-defense; and where, accordingly, a Chapter VII rather than just Chapter VI mandate is required. New UN peacekeeping missions in recent years have been constructed almost routinely on this basis, but that does not mean that military planners and commanders are yet comfortable with running them.

And that is not the end of the R2P story: the other part of the task is that which may arise in a Rwanda-type case, where there is the sudden eruption of conscience-shocking crimes against humanity, beyond the capacity of any existing peacekeeping mission to deal with, demanding a rapid and forceful “fire brigade” response from a new or extended mission to quash the violence and protect those caught up in it. This is more than just “peacekeeping plus”—dealing with spoilers—but, again, it is not traditional war fighting either.

Together, these “peacekeeping plus” and “fire brigade” operations have been described as “coercive protection missions ,” which is as useful terminology as any to use in addressing what is needed to create the capability—essentially the same in both cases—to operate them effectively. But getting reasonably clear the overall concept of operations, as this language does, is only the beginning of the story. Operational effectiveness in practice depends on getting a number of other things right: force configuration (what kind of force structure, and quantities of personnel and equipment, do militaries have to have to be able to mount these kinds of operations, individually or collectively); deployability (how rapidly can the necessary forces get to whatever theater is involved); preparation (ensuring that doctrine and training are matched to these operations); mandates and rules of engagement (ensuring that they are appropriate for the particular mission proposed); and military-civilian cooperation (ensuring that structures and processes are in place to maximize the effectiveness of each). I know that systematic attention is being paid now to all these issues by a number of national forces, and increasingly by those multilateral actors capable of mounting military operations, but still not enough has been done. These problems are going to be around to haunt us for a long time yet to come.

The Political Challenge

The remaining challenge is the age-old one of mobilizing political will. Everything else can be in place, but without the will to make something happen by someone capable of making it happen, the institutional capability to deliver the right kind of response at the right time – whether at the preventive, reactive or rebuilding end of the spectrum – simply won’t be there, and even if the capability is there, it will not be used. For almost any spread of options, inertia will have the numbers.

But what I have learned very clearly from four decades of trying to make things happen, nationally and internationally, is that there is no point in simply mourning the absence of political will: this should be the occasion not for lamentation, but mobilization by those both within and outside the decision-making system in question. To explain a failure as the result of lack of political will, or organizational will, is simply to restate the problem, not provide an explanation or any kind of strategy for change. Political will is not a missing ingredient, waiting in each case to be found if we only had the key to the right cupboard or lifted the right stone. It has to be painfully and laboriously constructed, case by case, context by context.

It means ensuring that there is knowledge of the problem; generating concern to do something about it by making the right arguments – not just moral arguments, but national interest arguments, financial arguments, and domestic political arguments; creating a sense of confidence that doing something will actually make a difference; having in place institutional processes capable of translating that knowledge, concern and confident belief into relevant action; and leadership -- without which the ticking of all four other boxes will not matter: inertia will win, every time. The discouraging news is that achieving all these things, in both national and international decision-making, is very hard work indeed, and needs a strong measure of luck as well, particularly when it comes to leaders: whether in a situation of fragility and transition a society finds itself with a Mandela, a Milosevic or a Mugabe is not easy to plan. The better news is that at least the arguments and strategies are there, and that there are plenty of civil society actors and public sector actors around -- I’m sure some in this room -- with the competence, commitment and organizational capacity to advance them.


There is a lot more I could say on all these substantive issues, but let me finish on a more personal note. I suspect that for all of us for whom the idea of responsibility to protect really resonates, there will have been some personal experience which has touched us deeply. For many in Europe that will be bound to be scarifying family memories of the Holocaust or Bosnia; for others in Africa and Asia it may be a matter of knowing survivors from Cambodia or Rwanda or Darfur or any of the other mass atrocity scenes of more recent decades; for others still, perhaps – and I know this is true of many in the US – it will be the awful sense that they could have done more, in their past official lives, to generate the kind of international response that these situations required.

For me it was my visit to Cambodia in the late 1960s, just before the genocidal slaughter which killed two million of its people. I was a young Australian making my first trip to Europe, to take up a scholarship in Oxford, and I spent six months wending my way by plane and overland through a dozen countries in Asia, and a few more in Africa and the Middle East as well. And in every one of them I spent many hours and days on student campuses and in student hangouts, and in hard-class cross-country trains and ramshackle rural buses, getting to know in the process – usually fleetingly, but quite often enduringly, in friendships that have lasted to this day – scores of some of the liveliest and brightest people of that generation.

In the years that followed I have kept running into Indonesians, Singaporeans, Malaysians, Thais, Vietnamese, Indians, Pakistanis and others who I either met on the road on that trip, or who were there at the time and had a store of common experiences to exchange. But among all the countries in Asia I visited then, there is just one, Cambodia, from which I never again, in later years, saw any of those students whom I had met and befriended, or anyone exactly like them. Not one of those kids with whom I drank beer, ate noodles and careered up and down the dusty road from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap in share taxis, scattering chickens and pigs and little children in villages all along the way.

The reason, I am sadly certain, is that every last one of them died a few years later under Pol Pot’s murderous genocidal regime - either targeted for execution in the killing fields as a middle-class intellectual enemy of the state, or dying, as more than a million did, from starvation and disease following forced displacement to labour in the countryside. The knowledge, and the memory, of what must have happened to those young men and women haunts me to this day.

What this means is that my own attachment to the idea, and ideal, of the responsibility to protect is not just a matter of intellectual persuasion, but of very powerful emotional commitment. I know that will be the case for a great many of you too, as it is for people I meet in every walk of life in every part of the world.

You have a role, as senior military personnel, that may well put you, professionally as well as personally, closer to the cutting edge of confronting this problem than most others will ever have a chance to do. So let us work together, in all our different capacities, to ensure that, however many of the world’s problems we are unable to solve in the years ahead, we at least make sure that when it comes to mass atrocity crimes we never again –have to look back with anger, comprehension and shame after some new and terrible catastrophe, wondering how we could possibly have let it all happen again -- as we’ve done so often in the past, after the Holocaust, after Cambodia, after Rwanda, after Srebrenica. .. Let’s make sure that when it comes to making the responsibility to protect people from genocide and other mass atrocity crimes, we never again have to say ‘’never again”.