Response to David Rieff‘s “R2P, RIP” in New York Times and International Herald Tribune 7 November 2011
The following response was sent to the New York Times and International Herald Tribune on 10 November with the request that it be published either as an op ed or a letter:
David Rieff (R2P,RIP, 7 November) is right to say that advocates of the responsibility to protect doctrine – and I have been in that trench from the beginning – should not be too triumphal about the course of events in Libya. As evidenced by the Security Council’s lamentably inadequate response to the carnage in Syria, there has indeed been a backlash in some quarters against the perceived overreach of the NATO-led international forces in converting a clear and limited civilian protection mandate into an effectively unlimited regime change one. Clearly it will be harder to get Security Council endorsement in the future for the use of coercive military force in response to occurring or impending mass atrocity crimes.
But in suggesting that R2P is now for all practical purposes dead, Rieff massively overstates the case. Of course counterfactuals can never be proven, but UN member states – all of them – instinctively now accept that if equivalently quick and robust military action had been taken in the 1990s, when North and South were hopelessly divided over “humanitarian intervention”, some 8,000 lives would have been saved in Srebrenica and 800,000 in Rwanda. No-one wants a return to the indifference and inaction of the past. A major General Assembly debate in July 2011 – when criticism of NATO in Libya was alive and well -- showed overwhelming continuing support for RtoP in all its dimensions.
The point is that R2P does have multiple dimensions, and coercive military intervention is just one of them, at the extreme end of the prevention-reaction response spectrum. The lesson of Libya is that R2P advocates have to define all over again, with more precision this time, the stringent prudential criteria which should have to be satisfied before coercive military force is authorized by the Security Council, and which should govern its subsequent application.
Five such criteria (seriousness of harm feared; genuine intent to address that harm; nothing less than military coercion likely to succeed; force application proportional to the harm feared; and overall balance of consequences positive) have been long on the table. They should be adopted as formal Security Council guidelines, not as a guaranteed route to consensus but an aid to achieving and holding it in hard cases. They were all clearly applicable when the Security Council acted to prevent imminent massacre in Benghazi in March. But some – especially proportionality – were much less obviously so as the intervention wore on.
It is only very rarely, even in the face of unarguable horrors being committed, that all the stars will align in favour of coercive military intervention. The ‘balance of consequences’ criterion will as often as not make clear that more harm than good would follow the use of force. Sometimes diplomatic persuasion will work, as with Kofi Annan’s mission to Kenya in 2008. More often, when prevention fails, we will simply have to rely on measures like targeted sanctions and threats of international criminal prosecution: Syria, like Darfur, may be such a case. What we should not do is throw up our hands, like David Rieff, and say it’s all just too hard. The stakes are too high for that.
Gareth Evans (Former Australian Foreign Minister and President Emeritus of the International Crisis Group; co-chair of the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty which initiated the R2P concept; author of The Responsibility to Protect: Ending Mass Atrocity Crimes Once and For All (Brookings Institution Press, 2008)).
This was published in the following abbreviated form in the Letters column of the International Herald Tribune on 16 November 2011:
David Rieff (“R2P,RIP,” Views, Nov. 7) is right to say that advocates of the Responsibility to Protect doctrine – and I have been in that trench from the beginning – should not be too triumphal about the course of events in Libya. It will indeed be harder in the future to get the U.N. Security Council to endorse the use of coercive military force to stop or prevent mass atrocities.
But Mr. Rieff’s suggestion that we should be mourning possible mortal damage to R2P overstates the case. Counterfactuals can never be proven, but all UN member states essentially now accept that if equivalently quick and robust military action had been taken in the 1990s, when the North and the South were hopelessly divided over “humanitarian intervention”, some 8,000 lives would have been saved in Srebrenica and 800,000 in Rwanda. No-one wants a return to the inaction of the past.
The lesson of Libya is that R2P advocates have to define more precisely the stringent prudential criteria that must be satisfied before the Security Council authorizes coercive military force, and those that should govern the application of force.
Five criteria have been long on the table: that the harm feared is serious, that the intent to address that harm is genuine, that nothing less than military coercion is likely to succeed, that force be applied proportionately to the harm feared, and that the net balance of consequences is likely to be positive. These standard should be adopted as formal Security Council guidelines. They all clearly applied when the Security Council acted to prevent an imminent massacre in Benghazi, Libya, in March. But some of the criteria– especially proportionality – did much less obviously so as the intervention wore on.
GARETH EVANS, TOKYO Former foreign minister of Australia and president emeritus of the International Crisis Group