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The Responsibility To Protect: Ending Mass Atrocity Crimes Once and for All

Address by Gareth Evans, President, International Crisis Group, to the Institute for Public Policy Research, London, 15 December 2008 [1]

What is in issue here can be very simply stated. Whatever else we mess up in the conduct of international affairs - in responding to deadly conflict, in responding to human rights violations - let us at least ensure that we never again mess up when it comes to protecting people from mass atrocity crimes: the worst conflict and human rights cases of all, genocide, ethnic cleansing and other major crimes against humanity and war crimes.

Let us get to the point that when another man-made humanitarian catastrophe like Cambodia, or Rwanda, or Bosnia, or Darfur looms on the horizon, as it surely will, we will never again have to look back after another disastrous failure, asking ourselves -- with a mixture of anger, incomprehension, and shame - how we could possibly have let it happen again.

And let us get to the point that -- when the lives of thousands or more of men, women and children are again at risk because a country has shown that it is unable or unwilling to end a man-made humanitarian crisis within its borders -- the reflex response around the world is not to say, as countries have been saying for centuries, that it's none of our business, but rather to accept immediately that it is the business of all of us, and have the debate only about who should do what, when, and how.


It is almost impossible to overstate the extent to which there has been an absence of consensus on these issues in the past. In pre-modern - including biblical -- times, mass atrocities seem to have been a matter of indifference to everyone but the victims. With the emergence of the modern system of nation states in the 17th century that indifference simply became institutionalized: sovereign states did not interfere in each others internal affairs. Certainly there were instances in the 19th century of European states intervening in various corners of the Ottoman Empire to protect Christian minorities at risk - and the term "humanitarian intervention" was first used in this context. But there was no generally accepted principle in law, morality or state practice to challenge the core notion that it was no-one's business but their own if states murdered or forcibly displaced large numbers of their own citizens, or allowed atrocity crimes to be committed by one group against another on their soil.

Even after World War II, with the awful experience of Hitler's Holocaust; the recognition of individual and group human rights in the UN Charter and, more grandly, in the Universal Declaration; the recognition by the Nuremberg Tribunal Charter in 1945 of the concept of 'crimes against humanity', and the signing of the Genocide Convention in 1948, things did not fundamentally change. The overwhelming preoccupation of those who founded the UN was not in fact human rights but the problem of states waging aggressive war against each other. And what actually captured the mood of the time, and the mood that prevailed right through the Cold War years, was, more than any of the human rights provisions, Article 2(7) of the UN Charter: "Nothing should authorise intervention in matters essentially within the domestic jurisdiction of any State".

The state of mind that even massive atrocity crimes like those of the Cambodian killing fields were just not the rest of the world's business prevailed throughout the UN's first half-century of existence: Vietnam's invasion, which stopped the Khmer Rouge in its tracks, was universally attacked, not applauded. And Tanzania had to justify its overthrow of Uganda's Idi Amin by invoking 'self -defence', not any larger human rights justification.

With the arrival of the 1990s, and the end of the Cold War, the prevailing complacent assumptions about non-intervention did at last come under challenge as never before. The quintessential peace and security problem - before 9/11 came along to change the focus to terrorism - became not interstate war, but civil war and internal violence perpetrated on a massive scale. With the break-up of various Cold War state structures, and the removal of some superpower constraints, conscience-shocking situations repeatedly arose, above all in the former Yugoslavia and in Africa.

But old habits of non-intervention died very hard. Even when situations cried out for some kind of response, and the international community did react through the UN, it was too often erratically, incompletely or counter-productively, as in the debacle of Somalia in 1993, the catastrophe of Rwandan genocide in 1994, and the almost unbelievable default in Srebrenica, Bosnia just a year later, in 1995.

Then the killing and ethnic cleansing started all over again in Kosovo in 1999. Not everyone, but certainly most people, and governments, accepted quite rapidly that external military intervention was the only way to stop it. But again the Security Council failed to act in the face of a threatened veto by Russia. The action that needed to be taken was eventually taken, by a coalition of the willing, but in a way that challenged the integrity of the whole international security system (just as did the invasion of Iraq four years later in far less defensible circumstances).

Throughout the decade of the 1990s a fierce argument raged. On the one hand, there were advocates of "humanitarian intervention" - the doctrine that there was a "right to intervene" ("droit d'ingerence" in Bernard Kouchner's influential formulation) militarily, against the will of the government of the country in question, in these cases. On the other hand there were defenders of the traditional prerogatives of state sovereignty, who made the familiar case that internal events were none of the rest of the world's business. It was very much a North-South debate, with the many new states born out of decolonization being very proud of their new won sovereignty, very conscious of their fragility, and all too conscious of the way in which they had been on the receiving end in the past of not very benign interventions from the imperial and colonial powers, and not very keen to acknowledge their right to do so again, whatever the circumstances. And it was a very bitter debate, with the trenches dug deep on both sides, and the verbal missiles flowing thick and fast, often in very ugly terms.

It was an environment which led Kofi Annan to issue his now famous challenge to the General Assembly in 1999, and again in 2000: "If humanitarian intervention is indeed an unacceptable assault on sovereignty, how should we respond to a Rwanda, to a Srebrenica - to gross and systematic ,brviolations of human rights that offend every precept of our common humanity?"

And it was this challenge to which the Canadian-government responded by appointing the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS), which I co-chaired with Mohamed Sahnoun, that came up in 2001 with the idea of 'the responsibility to protect' - "R2P" for short. The core idea 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. Talk about the primary responsibility being that of individual states themselves - respecting their sovereignty - but make it absolutely clear that if they cannot meet that responsibility, through either ill-will or incapacity, it then shifts 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 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 two further reports (by a High Level Panel appointed by the UN Secretary General, and by Secretary-General Annan himself) 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, and within another year had been embraced in a Security Council resolution.

The language of the World Summit Outcome Document (paragraphs 138 and 139), the product of protracted and difficult lead-up negotiations, had some presentational changes as compared with the original proposals in the ICISS and other reports, but these did not alter the essential substance. It was a matter of cutting the same cake in different ways: rather than dividing it horizontally (into three layers: prevention, reaction and rebuilding), the Summit document sliced it vertically (into three segments: emphasizing respectively the role of the state itself, that of others to assist it, and that of others to take appropriate action if it was "manifestly failing" to prevent its own people, with in each case the emphasis being primarily on prevention, but embracing reaction and rebuilding as well).

The unanimous embrace of the R2P concept by the UN within five years of its first formulation was an unbelievably short time, just a blink of an eye, in the history of ideas - and particularly for an idea that was challenging the received wisdom of centuries. So a big part of the job is done. The foundations for consensus have been laid. We have in the new language a strong basis for finding common ground on hugely divisive issue (rather in the way that the Brundtland Commission years earlier, with 'sustainable development', found a way to bridge the chasm which then existed between environmentalists and developers). We have something in place which can properly be described as a new international norm, and perhaps on its way - if state practice follows its rhetoric -- toward becoming a new rule of customary international law.


But it was too early in 2005 to break out the champagne, and it is too early yet. There has been a persistent rearguard action by some governments, who seem unable to accept that their leaders signed up to the norm so unequivocally at the Summit. It's one thing to have formal agreement, and quite another to have the real agreement that means that when the next conscience-shocking atrocity situation comes along, as it surely will, the universal reflex action, all round the world, will be not to ask whether to act, but only where, when and how to act. And it's another thing again to have a doctrine which not only wins support in principle, but is operational in practice. To be confident that we'll never again have to say 'never again', we have to acknowledge that there are three big challenges to overcome - conceptual, institutional and political.

The conceptual challenge is to refine and define the concept in such a way that there are no longer basic misunderstandings, real or contrived, standing in the way of its genuine universal acceptance, and of getting agreement about what is and is not an R2P situation.

There are still two such basic misunderstandings which have widespread currency. The first is that which views R2P too narrowly, saying that it is essentially just humanitarian intervention in new clothes, at bottom all about coercive military intervention and nothing much else. Of course it is not: R2P is about the full spectrum of preventive, reactive and rebuilding response, with many other tools in the box, and the use of force only a last resort in extreme and exceptional cases, after multiple criteria - including that more good than harm will result - have been applied.

The other widespread misunderstanding is to view it too widely, as extending to almost any kind of situation in which human beings are at risk, from natural disasters to climate change to HIV/AIDS. But 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 the case of mass atrocity crimes, in a way that "right to intervene" language simply was not.

Perhaps the only way to really clarify the concept is to apply it to particular cases and make clear the extent to which it does and doesn't apply. A number of specific examples of situations that newly erupted or were ongoing in 2008 may help to make the point.

Kenya, right at the beginning of the year, with its genocidal explosion of violence, was as clear a case as one could find of an R2P situation demanding an immediate reaction. It was recognized and labeled as such, and the situation was rapidly brought under control by a diplomatic mediation effort mounted by Kofi Annan with the support of the AU and UN. Although there remains much more to be done to consolidate the peace, this is the best example we have of the necessary global reflex response being evident from the outset; it also showed clearly that an effective response did not have to involve the use of coercive military force.

Darfur continues to be, as it has been since 2003, a clear-cut R2P case involving ongoing crimes against humanity. But, by contrast with Kenya, the international community has not had much to be proud of so far in its response, not least in its failure to supply - from a global inventory of 11,842 military helicopters - the 22 needed to make the peacekeeping mission there even partially effective. It is not a case where a coercive military operation (as distinct from peacekeeping force, accepted by the government) would be likely to do more good than harm, and other form of external pressure are needed. At least the threatened indictment of President Bashir before the International Criminal Court now seems to have begun to concentrate the Khartoum regime's mind on the need to stop government-initiated violence in Darfur and to put a serious peace settlement proposal on the table.

Burma/Myanmar at the time of Cyclone Nargis was not a clear-cut R2P case at all, although some voices were raised arguing for coercive military intervention - in the form at least of helicopter drops and barge landings of supplies - in the face of the military regime's initial reluctance to allow international relief efforts. The only way it could have been characterized as an R2P case prima facie capable of justifying such a coercive response was if the regime's response had been so deliberately malicious, or recklessly indifferent to loss of life, that it itself constituted a crime against humanity. In the event enough relief was allowed in quickly enough to avert a further tragedy, and the argument subsided.

Russia invoked the responsibility to protect principle in its invasion of Georgia in August, but not in a way that really persuaded anyone. It was difficult to argue that the risk of harm to South Ossetians from the Georgian military, though certainly justifying international concern, was of such a scale that it demanded immediate military action, without recourse to the Security Council, that was not preceded by an exploration of less extreme measures, was not obviously motivated only by protective considerations and was very clearly disproportionate.

Somalia and the eastern Congo are clearly cases where crimes against humanity are continuing to be committed in a way that fully triggers the R2P norm, but again where the international community - while it has been engaged - has not responded with any great effectiveness to protect the people most in distress.

Zimbabwe has long been a case of R2P concern, in the sense at least that its history of atrocity crime in the past (Mugabe's assault on Matabeleland in the 1980), its current acute tensions, its lack of effective internal coping mechanisms, and its resistance to both external support and pressure, all make it a country where preventive action is certainly justified to ensure that such crimes don't occur in the future. Now the immiseration of the country is proceeding so rapidly, with violence to political opponents so widespread and the attitude of the authorities so indifferent to the complete breakdown of the health system, that it is arguable that crimes against humanity are being committed right now. That does not necessarily mean there is now a case for coercive military action: with neighbouring countries so adamantly opposed, that would be both almost impossible to mount and might well generate more harm than good. But it does mean that international pressure, through targeted sanctions and the like, should be stepped up, and renewed efforts made to solve the crisis through effective political negotiation.

One other less high-profile case is worth mentioning as an example of R2P (though it hasn't been called that in so many words) successfully in action, over a number of years, and with a strongly preventive rather than just reactive focus: in Burundi, a Rwanda-style genocide which could have erupted at almost any time over the last decade and a half has been prevented by a mixture of sustained preventive diplomacy, peacekeeping and economic and government capacity building support.

The institutional challenge is to put in place the early warning and response capability, the diplomatic capability, the civilian response capability, and - for extreme cases - the military capability, to ensure that the internationally community, if it has the will, can deliver the appropriate response to whatever new atrocity crime situation that comes along that demands its engagement. There are many different relevant actors involved here - from the UN to regional organizations to individual governments to international NGOs like my own International Crisis Group - and many different structures and strategies that need to be put in place: this is not the time to spell out the full range of necessary responses, but I have tried to do so (along with addressing in detail all the other issues I have raised in this talk) in a number of chapters in my recently published book, The Responsibility to Protect: Ending Mass Atrocity Crimes Once and For All (Brookings Institution Press, 2008).

The political challenge is to have in place the mechanisms to ensure that, again when a new challenge comes along, the political will can be in fact generated to meet it -- that means both 'top down', or at least peer group, energizing of the highest levels of government and intergovernmental decision making, and 'bottom up' grass roots action to kick the decision makers into action if they are showing signs of hesitation. One helpful new organizational development this year has been the establishment by a number of major international NGOs, with the support of a number of major governments, of the Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect (GCR2P), based in New York as a research and advocacy centre aimed particularly at working both with like-minded governments and global civil society to mobilize the necessary preparedness, and will to act in new situations as they arise.

Mobilising political will in any context - and it's no different here - requires three major things to come together: good information, good organization, and good arguments (not only moral, but of a national interest, financial interest and if possible domestic political interest character). Much more could be said about all these issues, but with so many self-conscious realists still around it is worth making the specific point about national interest that it is nowadays a much broader concept than it used to be. In this interdependent, globalised world, it's no longer possible to talk, as Chamberlain did in the 1930s, of faraway countries with people of whom we know nothing. Put simply, states that cannot or will not stop internal atrocity crimes are the kind of states which cannot or will not stop terrorism, weapons proliferation, drug and people trafficking, the spread of health pandemics and other global risks which every country in the world has a stake in ending.


All that said, at the end of the day this can't just be a debate about national interest. It has to be a debate about our common humanity, about our obligation simply as human beings not to stand by watching our fellow human beings suffering unbearable, unutterable horrors. This cant just be a matter of aspiration; it has to be a matter of delivery. Every one of us, whether national or international leaders or ordinary citizens, has to do whatever is within our capacity to help. We won't be able to live with ourselves if we do not.

[1] Similar presentations have been given in recent weeks to the University of Sydney on 24 October, American University of Beirut on 10 November, Royal Irish Academy on 21 November, Leuven Centre for Global Governance Studies on 27 November, Toronto Munk Debate on 1 December, Harvard Kennedy School of Government on 4 December, and Geneva Centre for Security Policy on 12 December 2008.