Fulfilling the Promise of R2P: Our Shared Responsibility

Prof. Alex J. Bellamy, Director, Asia Pacific Centre for the Responsibility to Protect

We humans have often demonstrated an immense capacity to tolerate colossal inhumanity. As a result, no region of the world has escaped the scourge of genocide and mass atrocities in the past century or so. Time and again there have been impassioned appeals to put an end to these crimes, which shock the very conscience of mankind. Yet until very recently the world’s default response to mass killing, rape, torture and forced deportation was to stand aside and do little. From Phnom Penh to Kigali, the outside world offered little but fine words to the victims of atrocity crimes.

One response to the problem of mass atrocities has come in the form of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) principle. Although – like all human-made things – it is far from perfect, R2P offers the best chance in our own time to build an international community less tolerant of mass atrocities and more predisposed to preventing them and protecting their intended victims. My optimism is based on the fact that R2P has achieved something that earlier projects did not: genuine and resilient international consensus.

R2P was adopted unanimously in 2005 by the United Nations General Assembly, in which all 193 Member States of the UN are represented. Four years later, in 2009, that same body agreed—again unanimously—to continue consideration of the principle’s implementation. The UN Security Council has referred to R2P in no fewer than 40 resolutions. The UN’s General Assembly and Human Rights Council have also adopted resolutions referring to the principle. To those who see Western hegemony lurking in the shadows—it bears pointing out that by virtue of their permanent membership of the UN Security Council, China and Russia have cast more votes at the UN in favor of the principle than have the great majority of Western democracies. This is a truly global undertaking and therein lies the transformative potential of R2P.

R2P is a disarmingly simply idea. It holds that sovereign states have a responsibility to protect their own populations from four crimes that indisputably ‘shock the conscience of humankind’ and their incitement: genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing, and crimes against humanity. It requires that the UN’s Member States assist each other to fulfill their responsibility, because some states lack the physical capacity and legitimacy needed to protect their populations from these crimes. Finally, R2P says that when states are ‘manifestly failing’ to protect their populations from these four crimes, whether through lack of capacity or will or as a result of deliberate intent, the international community should respond in a ‘timely and decisive’ fashion with diplomatic, humanitarian, and other peaceful means and, failing that, with all the tools that are available to the United Nations (UN) Security Council. This can include the use of military force, which is sometimes a tragic necessity. R2P calls specifically for the prevention of the four crimes and of their incitement.

These are the three pillars of the Responsibility to Protect: (1) the primary responsibility of states to protect their own population from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity, and from their incitement; (2) the duty of states to assist each other to build the capacities necessary to discharge the first responsibility; (3) the international community’s responsibility to take timely and decisive action to protect populations from the four crimes when the state in question fails to do so. The principle is simple; it is the politics that surround it and the challenge of realizing its ambition in practice that is so difficult.

This is where individual responsibility comes in. R2P is not a self-fulfilling norm. It is a statement of shared expectation – a commitment of what the world ought to do in order to end genocide and mass atrocities once and for all. We all have a role to play and the choices each of us make will shape whether or not things change for the better. Naturally, whilst we can point to some notable successes – think of the diplomatic effort that ended Kenya’s post-election violence in 2008, of the successful efforts to ensure that Myanmar’s 2015 election was conducted peacefully (in a context where the risk of atrocities was uniformly judged to be very high), and of desperate ongoing efforts to prevent the escalation of violence in Burundi — but our practice sometimes falls well short of the mark as it did in Sri Lanka and as it is in Syria.  The world’s failures to protect are not failures of R2P as a principle, it is rather a failure of national leaders and others to honor the commitments they made in 2005.  R2P creates a shared expectation that allows us to judge when we are succeeding or failing. But translating the promise into practice depends on choices of individuals and groups around the world.

That is why a journal like this is so important. We need fresh thinking, we need analysis, we need to know what is happening, why and with what effects. The international community has never tried to implement a principle like R2P before and there is no blueprint to follow. We need, therefore, to learn from our experience – and to do so rapidly. There are also myriad new challenges, unforeseen a decade ago – in particular those posed by non-state armed groups and violent extremists. By contributing to the debate, generating new knowledge and sharing analysis, journals like this can make an incredibly useful contribution to practice.

As students and academics we have choices. We can choose to use our research, community engagement and other skills to help strengthen R2P and improve its implementation.  We can help figure out what works and what does not work, to learn the lessons from past cases, to help build the capacities that states and societies need to resist the forces of extremism and escalation, to deepen our understanding of how R2P is conceptualized and practiced in different parts of the world, and to hold leaders to account on whether they are fulfilling their commitments. Alternatively, we can choose the comparatively easy path of cynicism and despair: we could condemn R2P as western imperialism (but explain that to the many Africans, Asians and Latin Americans working hard to implement the principle), we could insist that R2P will never work and that only some unimagined global revolution can do the trick (in the meantime, the cost of inaction will be paid in the lives of the victims of today’s and tomorrow’s atrocity crimes), in short we can promote hopelessness from our ivory towers, in the safe comfort of knowing that we will never be held accountable for our ideas or held responsible for making them work in practice. Cynicism is the easy road to take, but that is not the road taken by those who want to make R2P a daily lived reality. They have chosen a much more challenging path, but one that can make a real and positive difference to lives real people lead.

R2P was not designed to be a precious jar sitting on the mantelpiece in perfect conceptual isolation. It was meant to be used, tarnished, brought into the rough and tumble of global political life. As a result, its imperfections and those of its implementation are all too obvious to see. But so too is the progress it is engendering. The world is now more likely to respond to genocide and mass atrocities than it was before R2P. It is much more likely to prioritize protection in its responses.  But there is much more that needs to be done. This important initiative, spearheaded by students from the University of Leeds and the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva, can make an important contribution to delivering on the commitment to R2P that all states made ten years ago. And that, I think, would be time very well spent.

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