The Responsibility to Protect: Ending Mass Atrocity Crimes
The Responsibility to Protect: Ending Mass Atrocity Crimes
Ten Conflicts to Watch in 2023
Ten Conflicts to Watch in 2023
Speech / Global

The Responsibility to Protect: Ending Mass Atrocity Crimes

Address by Gareth Evans, President, International Crisis Group, to Global Philanthropy Forum, San Francisco, 11 April 2008.

Every time you think that we really have accomplished something over the last few years, and that the world may be becoming a marginally more civilized place, something brings you up with rather a start.  I had such a moment when I came across this quote from a Shanghai professor in USA Today in October last year, at the time of the Burmese regime’s crackdown against the monks’ protest:

China has used tanks to kill people on Tiananmen Square. It is Myanmar’s sovereign right to kill their own people, too....

We have made some real progress, which I will describe in this talk, in getting apparent consensus at the highest levels of government that there is something wrong with the view that that it’s no-one’s business but their own if states murder or forcibly displace large numbers of their own citizens, or allow atrocity crimes to be committed by one group against another on their soil. But when it comes to getting that understanding deeply embedded in the consciousness and practice of states everywhere, and – it seems – into the minds of even university professors everywhere, we still have some distance to go.

The truth of the matter is that for an insanely long time – centuries in fact, going all the way back to the emergence of the modern system of states in the 1600s – the view has prevailed that state sovereignty is a license to kill. After World War II and Hitler's Holocaust some progress was certainly made in challenging this absolutist concept of sovereignty, with individual and group human rights recognized in the UN Charter and, more grandly, in the Universal Declaration; with the Nuremberg Tribunal Charter in 1945 recognising the concept of 'crimes against humanity'; and with the signing of the Genocide Convention in 1948.

But 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.

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, you’ll remember – before 9/11 came along to dominate everything – 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 between on the one hand, advocates of “humanitarian intervention” - the doctrine that there was a “right to intervene” militarily, against the will of the government of the country in question, in these cases - and on the other hand defenders of the traditional prerogatives of state sovereignty, who insisted 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.

This was the unpromising environment in which the concept of the responsibility to protect was born, and we need to take all that background into account if we are to appreciate just how significant, how groundbreaking, this new concept is.

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 violations 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, which I co-chaired, that came up in 2001 with the idea  of ‘the responsibility to protect’ (or ‘R2P’ as we are all now, rather inelegantly, calling it for short).

The core idea of the responsibility to protect, or R2P, 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 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. This 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, subtly yes, but very directly challenging.

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 toward becoming a new rule of customary international law. We have the new language gradually gaining currency and recognition. We have a new Secretary General of the UN who has embraced the concept with all the enthusiasm of his predecessor and is quick, like many governments now, to use R2P language to describe the situation in Darfur, and the situation in Kenya when it erupted so horribly – and so reminiscently of Rwanda – just over three months ago. And we have the evidence before our eyes of the international response to Kenya being, quick, responsive and successful – at least so far.

But it’s too early yet to break out the champagne. It’s one thing to have agreement in the abstract, quite another thing to have something that is operational in practice. It’s one thing to have formal agreement, 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.

Those of us passionate about R2P, and who believe as I do, that we at last have an internationally agreed basis on which we can begin to be confident that we’ll never again have to say ‘never again’, have to acknowledge that there are three big pieces of unfinished business.

First, there’s a conceptual challenge: to refine and define the concept in such a way that the many misunderstandings that still stand in the way of its genuine universal acceptance, and of getting agreement about what is and is not an R2P situation, are overcome.  Central among those misunderstandings, real or contrived, are that R2P is only about military intervention, and that the invasion of Iraq in 2003 was a good example of its application. It isn’t and it wasn’t.

Secondly, there’s an institutional challenge: 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.

Thirdly, there’s a political challenge: 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’ 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.

In order to tackle these challaneges in a systematic and effective way, I have been involved very recently in launching, with the help of a number of like-minded governments from both North and South, and foundations,  a new ‘Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect’. Based in New York, with a small but highly professional staff, working with Associated Centres being established in a number of countries, and a network of affiliates, and closely locked in to the UN system, this will provide research and advocacy support to both governments and NGOs, and engage over time in a major global public outreach exercise. I hope you will feel, when you learn more about it, that this Centre – and its associated programs and institutions – deserve your support.

Just a final personal word. 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 of us that will be bound to be scarifying family memories of the Holocaust; for others the experience of personal loss or closely knowing survivors from Rwanda or Srebrenica or any of the other mass atrocity scenes of more recent decades; for others still, perhaps, 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.

And it means that my 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, so let’s work together to make that ideal a reality.

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