The Responsibility to Protect: Ending Mass Atrocity Crimes
The Responsibility to Protect: Ending Mass Atrocity Crimes
Toward a Common Set of Signals from the G20 about Russia’s War in Ukraine
Toward a Common Set of Signals from the G20 about Russia’s War in Ukraine
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.

Members of the police stand in front of banners of the G20 summit near a venue for the G20 Finance Ministers Meeting in Nusa Dua on Indonesia's resort island of Bali, on July 14, 2022. Sonny Tumbelaka/Pool via REUTERS
Commentary / Global

Toward a Common Set of Signals from the G20 about Russia’s War in Ukraine

The G20 countries’ positions on the war in Ukraine contrast starkly, yet the conflict raises issues of global concern – economic shocks and nuclear risks – that the leaders cannot pass over in silence.

When the Group of Twenty (G20) leaders gather in Bali, Indonesia, on 15 November, one head of state who belongs to the Group will be notable by his absence. Russian President Vladimir Putin has decided not to attend the event. This news will be a relief for Western participants, who hardly want to share photo opportunities with Putin while he pursues his war in Ukraine. The Kremlin’s foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, will be in Bali, but he may not be relishing the prospect. Lavrov walked out of a G20 foreign ministers’ meeting in July after his Western counterparts accused Russia of sparking the global food price crisis by invading its grain-producing neighbour.

Putin’s absence will not relieve the leaders who go to Bali of the challenge of how to address the war. The G20 is primarily an economic coordination mechanism, which was thrust into the limelight during the global financial crisis in 2008. Unlike the G7, which brings together like-minded Western countries with shared political interests, the G20 encompasses geopolitical rivals – the U.S. and China foremost among them – that are not apt to adopt strong common positions on international affairs. Yet Russia’s assault on Ukraine raises issues of global concern, including the widespread food and energy price shocks and the risks of nuclear weapons use, that the world’s most powerful politicians cannot pass over in silence.

The G20 meeting is, therefore, an opportunity for leaders to signal common positions about the war. Their primary focus should be on concrete commitments by the G20 countries to help poorer ones navigate economic turmoil. But the powers present in Bali could also use the occasion to underscore that they all expect Russia to refrain from nuclear use, in word as well as deed. Ideally, they would be as clear as possible that if Moscow does cross the nuclear threshold, it will face consequences not only from the West, but globally. A joint statement condemning Russia’s prosecution of the war or setting out potential peace terms will likely be impossible, given G20 members’ widely divergent positions on the war. But if G20 members can find common ground on economic issues and the nuclear taboo, the Bali summit will be a worthwhile diplomatic endeavour.

Diverse Ukraine Policies

The G20 members’ positions on the war differ starkly. The U.S. and most of its allies in the Group have imposed sanctions on Moscow and voted to condemn the invasion in the UN General Assembly. Most of the other members have at least condemned Russia’s aggression and illegal efforts to annex Ukrainian territory at the UN, but not resorted to sanctions (see map). Yet three weighty non-Western G20 members – China, India and South Africa – have not only declined to place sanctions on Russia but also abstained in UN votes on the war.

This map shows which G20 members have sanctioned Russia, and which voted to condemn its illegal "annexations" in Ukraine at the UN in October.

Various non-Western members of the G20 have at times tried to establish a diplomatic role in the war, although the results have mainly been negligible. South Africa attempted to take a lead at the UN in March by tabling a General Assembly resolution on humanitarian assistance to Ukraine. Western and Ukrainian diplomats rejected the draft out of hand because it made no reference to Moscow’s responsibility for the war (in contrast to an alternative UN text worked up by France and Mexico), although South African officials insisted to Crisis Group that theirs was a good-faith initiative to bolster multilateral cooperation.

Indonesian President Joko Widodo visited both Kyiv and Moscow over the summer, promising to facilitate communication between the warring capitals. Many observers suspected that his main concern was to make sure that the war would not stop the G20 summit from going ahead. Indonesia has raised the possibility of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy attending the summit, although Kyiv has indicated he will most likely only intervene via video link.

Other G20 members have also dipped their toes in Ukraine diplomacy. Mexico surprised and confused UN officials at September’s high-level UN General Assembly week by tabling a proposal for the Pope, the UN secretary-general and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to lead a ceasefire effort. This idea has not taken off to date. There has also been a sporadic flow of speculation among Western commentators that India – which has increased trade with Russia since the February assault – could eventually prove a useful facilitator of Russian-Ukrainian diplomacy, and Modi urged President Putin to take a “path to peace” at September’s Shanghai Cooperation Organisation summit.

In contrast to these fledgling and tentative peace efforts, Türkiye’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has emerged as one of the main diplomatic actors in the crisis. Türkiye hosted early, fruitless Russian-Ukrainian peace talks, but had success when it worked with the UN over the summer to broker the Black Sea grain deal. This deal permitted Ukraine to export its harvest by sea without Russian military interference. Türkiye and another G20 member, Saudi Arabia, also facilitated a sizeable prisoner swap – involving some 215 Ukrainians and 55 Russians – in September. Behind closed doors, G20 participants will surely probe Erdoğan as to whether his frequent interlocutor Putin is ready to compromise. But there is no sign in advance of the Bali summit that Ankara sees a breakthrough coming.

 

For the U.S. and Ukraine’s other allies, Beijing’s view of the war has been a constant source of anxiety.

But, however much attention Erdoğan garners in Bali, leaders may focus even more closely on what China’s President Xi Jinping has to say. For the U.S. and Ukraine’s other allies, Beijing’s view of the war has been a constant source of anxiety since February. In recent months, Western observers believe they have seen increasing signs of frustration in China with the course of the conflict. Beijing has indicated its concern that Moscow’s nuclear sabre-rattling, bad enough in itself, might be more than dangerous talk. This concern was heightened by the Kremlin’s vague, erroneous intimations that Ukraine, not Russia, wants to raise the nuclear stakes with a “dirty bomb”. Xi articulated these issues most clearly in a joint statement with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz opposing the “threat or use of nuclear weapons” in Ukraine.

Points of Agreement

While G20 members have, therefore, no shortage of opinions about Russia’s war in Ukraine, it is difficult to see how they could reconcile their divergent views in Bali. It is hard, for example, to square Mexico’s advocacy for an early ceasefire (which Brazil and Argentina also advocated for at the UN in September) with Western powers’ worries that Moscow could use a pause in hostilities to consolidate control over parts of Ukraine even as it rearms and repositions for the next phase of conflict.

Rather than focus on the specifics of how to end the war, G20 leaders may be better advised to identify broad areas of agreement about how to contain the war and its fallout. The most obvious would be for those G20 leaders who are in Bali to endorse the Xi-Scholz condemnation of nuclear threats and nuclear use. Alternatively, or additionally, they could reiterate the basic principle that a “nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought”, which the five nuclear weapons states (the UK, China, France, Russia and the U.S.) affirmed in a statement to the UN in January. Such a declaration might be complicated by the G20’s incompatible positions on non-proliferation issues (Brazil, for example, has lobbied for the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, whereas India is not even a member of the Non-Proliferation Treaty). Given Russia’s recurrent allusions to nuclear use in Ukraine, however, the leaders should at least be able to agree they are opposed to nuclear threats and nuclear war.

The goal of such a declaration, however minimal or vague, would be to signal to Moscow that it will face global diplomatic and other penalties, rather than just consequences from the West, if its nuclear rhetoric turns to action in any way. Russia has shown some interest in how its moves in Ukraine – such as its agreement to the Black Sea grain deal – are seen in the non-Western world. G20 leaders are not likely to spell out in concrete terms what steps they would take if Russia does cross the nuclear threshold – indeed, it might be better they do not try to be too explicit, as doing so might only highlight their differences. But some sort of common signalling, especially one that by definition has both U.S. and Chinese buy-in, could help strengthen the nuclear taboo.

G20 members can offer common support to efforts to reduce the global economic damage the conflict is doing.

Turning to the war’s impact, G20 members can offer common support to efforts to reduce the global economic damage the conflict is doing. They could start by making a statement in support of the Black Sea grain deal (which is up for renewal by Russia and Ukraine on 19 November) and calling for this deal, which now has to be reaffirmed every 120 days, to continue indefinitely until hostilities cease. Such a statement would be a fillip not only for President Erdoğan, but also for UN officials working on implementing the agreement, which Russia threatened to quit in October after a Ukrainian attack on its navy.

More broadly, G20 leaders can use the Bali summit to help prop up the teetering global economy, much as their predecessors did in 2008-2009. Potential priorities include pushing multilateral development banks to boost lending to poor countries to handle economic challenges that could foment political instability. In 2021, G20 members committed to support liquidity in the global economy by making available to poor countries $100 billion in International Monetary Fund Special Drawing Rights (a reserve asset that Crisis Group discussed in detail in a briefing prior to the 2022 G7 meeting). They have been slow to follow through with this pledge, and they need to pick up the pace as the international economic picture gets bleaker.

Given its origins and membership, the G20 has greater credibility as an economic crisis management mechanism than as a security forum. Its actions on the global economy will carry more weight than its members’ political statements about Ukraine. Yet the last year has made it clear that global economic affairs cannot be insulated from security shocks, and big powers must tend to both. At the same time, Russia’s nuclear menacing amid the conflict it is waging in Ukraine is simply too big an issue to ignore. The Bali summit is an opportunity for the leading Western and non-Western powers to at least articulate their shared interest in not letting the war escalate out of all control.

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