Interview by Georgiana Epure, Charlotte Abbott and Emma Bapt
In 2005, governments unanimously agreed that they have both an individual and a collective responsibility to protect (R2P) populations, not just citizens, from four crimes: genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes and ethnic cleansing. In 2008, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon established the position of the Special Advisor on the Responsibility to Protect and since 2009 the Secretary-General has been publishing annual reports on R2P clarifying and developing what this concept means and what ‘tools’ it needs in order to be implemented more effectively. Fifteen years after the adoption of the R2P, we talked with Dr. Karen Smith, the UN Special Adviser of the Secretary-General on the Responsibility to Protect. Our interview touched on a series of issues that range from how the coronavirus pandemic affects atrocity prevention efforts to the role that religious leaders have in countering incitement to violence, and the relation between R2P and the Women, Peace and Security agenda – the topic of the Secretary-General’s upcoming report on R2P.
Recently, the UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres has called for an end to the ‘tsunami of hate and xenophobia’ sparked by the coronavirus pandemic. What is the state of the R2P norm in an age of increasing nationalism where more and more leaders legitimise hate speech, which may lead to hate crimes and other early warnings of atrocity crimes?
The rise in hate speech that we have seen accompanying a rise in nationalism and populism in many parts of the world underscores the fact that R2P is as relevant as ever. States – including their leaders – must be reminded of the responsibility they have, and the commitment they made in 2005, to protect their populations (including minorities and migrants). It is important to note that no country is immune from hate speech and its potential violent effects. During the current global pandemic, we have seen a worrying trend in which already vulnerable populations are targeted by hate speech and sometimes violent behaviour, based on accusations related to the spread of the coronavirus. The UN Secretary-General recognised the importance of addressing rising hate speech when, at the beginning of last year, he tasked the Office of the Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide to coordinate the development of a UN-wide Strategy and Plan of Action on Hate Speech, which is currently being rolled out, and has recently been supplemented by a guidance note on addressing COVID-19 related hate speech. Importantly, the Strategy and Plan of Action calls for more rather than less speech, underlining the importance of protecting freedom of expression whilst addressing hate speech that incites violence.
In May, the UN Security Council was close to voting on a resolution calling for a global ceasefire that would enable the international community to focus on ending the coronavirus pandemic. Conflict, fragile societies and the threat of atrocities may severely impact nations’ ability to confront COVID-19. Do you think the pandemic will reshape the way in which the international community thinks about global responsibilities and basic universal rights?
The COVID-19 pandemic clearly has serious implications for the responsibility to protect, not least because it is likely to significantly increase the risk to already vulnerable populations. We are already witnessing that those parts of the population who already face high levels of risk – including ethnic, religious and sexual minorities, refugees, the poor, and women, are facing increased risk to their safety and their livelihoods. In many countries minorities have become the target of hate speech and in some cases even violence, based on their alleged association with the spreading of infections. In the development of national and global responses to the crisis, it is essential that any action takes into consideration the potential implications for the risk of atrocity crimes. Some of the lessons being learned in dealing with the COVID-19 outbreak are also relevant for atrocity prevention. These include the obvious, but consistently under-prioritised, fact that prevention is better than cure. Similarly, the importance of early warning – whether with reference to conflict, pandemics, or atrocity crimes, has been underlined. Like many other global governance challenges, the virus does not respect borders and therefore a multilateral, collective global response is really the only viable solution. Worryingly, over the past few years there has been a trend towards weakening multilateral institutions and, as part of growing nationalist and populist sentiments around the world, a general questioning of multilateralism. We must therefore also see the current crisis as presenting the international community with an opportunity to reflect on the nature of the current global order, and which issues should be prioritised, in the interests of building a better world.
Role of religious leaders
More and more attention is directed towards bringing religious leaders into efforts to prevent and counter incitement to violence, including identity-based violence. Last year, Ms Federica Mogherini, then European Union High Representative of Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, announced a new EU-sponsored Global Exchange on Religion in Society to connect and empower civil society actors who are working on faith and social inclusion. Notably, in 2017, under the stewardship of the UN Office on Genocide Prevention and the Responsibility to Protect, the UN Secretary General launched the Plan of Action for Religious Leaders and Actors to Prevent Incitement to Violence that Could Lead to Atrocity Crimes. Where do we factor in an approach to R2P that mobilises members of civil society and focuses on particular areas (i.e. religion) for prevention purposes within the more common state-centric R2P approach? Is this a sign of a shift in approach, or R2Psimply diversifying its prevention ‘toolkit’?
While it remains the primary responsibility of states to protect their populations from atrocity crimes, this is not to the exclusion of other (non-state) actors. Particularly with regard to prevention, it is obvious that individual governments cannot build tolerant, resilient societies without the support of civil society. Many civil society actors can and have been playing important roles. These include women, youth, and religious leaders. As mentioned earlier, we have witnessed a disturbing rise in hate speech in recent years, much (but not all) of which targets religion. It is here that religious leaders can be particularly important in promoting tolerance and preventing incitement to hatred amongst their followers. As part of its Plan of Action for Religious Leaders, the Office of the Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide has worked with religious leaders from across different world regions and faiths to come up with a strategy that outlines specific targets aimed at preventing hate speech through enhancing education and capacity building, fostering inter-and intra-faith dialogue, and strengthening collaboration with traditional and new media. Religious leaders are undoubtedly essential partners in the fight against atrocities.
R2P focal points
Last year the Global Network of R2P Focal Points welcomed its second regional focal point (after the EU): the Organisation of American States. Why is it important that states and regional actors have such a focal point? What does the fact that most, if not all, R2P focal points are based in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs say about R2P? Doesn’t this pattern in a way contradict R2P’s focus on domestic prevention?
The global focal points initiative is another stepping stone to wider implementation of R2P. The idea behind having such focal points in governments and regional organisations is that they are tasked with raising atrocity prevention as a priority across the work of governments, whether that be conflict prevention, development assistance, or education. While it should, in essence, matter less which ministry the focal point is based in, but rather how active they are, the fact that most focal points to date have been appointed in ministries of foreign affairs does tell us something about how most states still view R2P. While the international community’s responsibility to assist prevention efforts and respond to the commission of atrocities in all states is of course an important element of R2P, this should not override the primary responsibility of states to protect their own populations. In this regard, more needs to be done to emphasise the importance of thinking of R2P in domestic terms – even in states where the commission of atrocity crimes seems unlikely. As mentioned above, we are seeing a worrying rise in intolerance, hate speech and incitement to violence in many countries, and these risk factors should be taken seriously and addressed appropriately.
Women, Peace and Security agenda
Many scholars and practitioners have noted that R2P lacks a gender lens. Where do you situate the Women Peace and Security agenda in the process of making the R2P norm more gender sensitive? Given R2P scepticism, do you think that moving towards merging these two agendas might risk bringing down the WPS agenda’s consensus power?
The criticism of R2P lacking a gender lens is partly justified. While explicit reference to gender is, for example, limited in tools such as the Framework for Analysis, in practice, there is greater emphasis on the role of gender inequality, gender-based violence, and the role of women in particular in assessments that are done using this tool. Having said that, there is certainly room for improvement, and a need to think more systematically about how to incorporate gender more effectively into R2P but also – and this is important – to make atrocity prevention an integral part of the WPS agenda. To this end, this year’s SG report on R2P will focus on this exact issue. It is particularly relevant given the significance of 2020 for both agendas – 25 years since the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action for women’s rights, 20 years since the passing of the UN Security Council resolution 1325 on women, peace and security, and 15 years since the adoption of the R2P during the World Summit in 2005. I don’t think that highlighting the areas of complementarity have to mean merging the agendas. It is more about recognising the potential for mutual reinforcement that already exists.
Measuring R2P success
Despite the rich literature on R2P, much of it documents where R2P went wrong, and numerous scholars argue that it is obsolete or a “hollow norm”. Are there any success stories? The bigger question is: how do you measure R2P success today?
It is always easier to identify and focus on where things went wrong – this is also how we have been trained by the global news cycle. The focus on where R2P has not been successful is also linked to the emphasis on the use of military force to respond to atrocities. If we agree that the ultimate aim of R2P is to prevent atrocities from occurring in the first place, this is where we should measure success. This, however, is difficult, as it often leads us down the path of counterfactuals. Conflict averted and atrocities prevented are not newsworthy, and it is often difficult to say what would or could have happened had certain steps not been taken. There are, however, some examples of where collective action by states, regional actors and the international community successfully prevented the likely commission of atrocities. One often-cited case is Kenya, following election violence in 2008. Another is The Gambia. When the outgoing president Jammeh refused to hand over power to his elected successor and ordered troops to be deployed to act against the civilian population, ECOWAS deployed a mediation team. They were supported by the UNSC, the AU, EU and key states. When the mediation failed, ECOWAS deployed a coalition of military forces to protect the civilian population. Eventually President Jammeh stepped down, and ECOWAS forces remained to oversee the transition of power. These are two clear examples of the responsibility to protect in action.
A word for young people working on atrocity prevention
What advice do you have for young scholars and practitioners who are interested in working in the field of atrocity prevention?
I would strongly encourage anyone interested in this field to pursue it – there is much work that remains to be done, both on the academic side and in practice. In terms of students working on R2P and atrocity prevention: while there is certainly a place for theoretical work on issues such as norm evolution and contestation, my experience has been that there is an even greater need for policy-oriented research that can help to advance the implementation of the responsibility to protect in a very practical way. For example, this year’s Secretary-General’s report will focus on women and R2P. While there is evidence-based research showing a clear link between gender equality and women’s rights and a state’s propensity for conflict, much research is still needed to explicitly highlight the links between these issues and atrocity prevention in particular. Similarly, there is still much to learn about what causes atrocity crimes to be committed, and what types of responses are effective in preventing them in different contexts. More research is essential if we want to strengthen our prevention efforts. With regards to working in the field of atrocity prevention, I would underline that there is a need for individuals who are committed to prioritising atrocity prevention across all fields, so do not be discouraged if you do not find a job in an organisation specifically dedicated to it. What we need is for atrocity prevention to be mainstreamed and prioritised across domestic and foreign policy making, development cooperation, education, and so forth.
After a series of thought-provoking answers from Dr. Karen Smith, the interview came to a close with the R2P Student Journal engaging in role reversal. We invited Dr. Smith to state the most important and redundant questions regarding R2P today. In her opinion, the most important question related to the norm’s implementation: ‘How can we ensure effective prevention of atrocity crimes?’, whilst the most redundant question is: ‘Is R2P still relevant?’.