Responsibility to Protect in the Real World: From Rwanda to Darfur to Kenya
Responsibility to Protect in the Real World: From Rwanda to Darfur to Kenya
Ten Conflicts to Watch in 2023
Ten Conflicts to Watch in 2023
Speech / Global

Responsibility to Protect in the Real World: From Rwanda to Darfur to Kenya

Address by Donald Steinberg, Deputy President, International Crisis Group at the Cardozo Law School, Yeshiva University, New York, 10 March 2008.

On January 2, a week after the failed Kenyan elections, I sent a message throughout the International Crisis Group network.  It read in part:

For me, the burning of the church in Eldoret with three dozen Kikuyu inside; the history of violence in the Rift Valley; and the hate speech prevalent among Kikuyus, Kalenjins, and Luos takes the Kenyan crisis out of the context of usual post-electoral conflicts and puts it squarely into a pre-R2P stage.

While the parallels between Kenya and Rwanda can be easily overdrawn, the deterioration in other seemingly solid regional African countries such as Cote d’Ivoire and Zimbabwe could easily be repeated in Kenya to tragic effect.  It’s time to sound the alarm bells.

Too frequently, faced with the daunting unfinished agenda ahead in consolidating the R2P norm and creating implementing mechanisms, we forget how much has been accomplished in the eight short years since the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty.

Kenya: R2P By Any Other Name

The progress can be measured not just by the insertion of a couple of paragraphs into the World Summit Outcome document or the passage of a General Assembly resolution, but by the willingness of Kofi Annan, John Kufuor, Jikaya Kikwete, Graca Machel, Benjamin Mkapa, and Cyril Ramaphosa to challenge the false assertion of sovereignty by Mwai Kibaki and to bring about a power-sharing solution.

For those who suggest that R2P is a concept being thrust on the developing world by the so-called global North, it’s instructive that those seizing the initiative and designing the outcome in Kenya were two Ghanaians, two South Africans, and two Tanzanians.   

Their work was supported by the willingness of the United States and European Union to sanction those resisting a peaceful solution, by he expressions of concern and commitment by the United Nations Security Council and the UN Secretary General, and by the work of groups such as the UN Department of Political Affairs and the International Crisis Group to inform the dialogue and discussion.

Given the backsliding and buyer’s remorse in the international community regarding the R2P norm, it is perhaps fortunate that no one labeled this as an R2P situation.  But the motivation, the early response, and the outcome are all straight from the R2P playbook.

Rwanda: A Cautionary Tale

For me, these actions were particularly welcome as a contrast to the U.S. response to Rwanda some 14 years before.  In April 1994, I was President Clinton’s special assistant for Africa when the plane carrying the Presidents of Rwanda and Burundi was shot down outside Kigali, sparking the genocide that killed some 800,000 Rwandans.  Within a few weeks it was clear that this was not a spontaneous blood-letting, but a planned, systematic exercise in extermination.  I’ll always regret that I bought into the common wisdom that in the wake of the Blackhawk Down killings in Mogadishu, the American people would not abide sending US troops to another remote African location.  Still, we could have done much short of sending US forces to help save lives.

We could have jammed the hate language on the radio station, Mille Collines.  We could have reinforced Romeo Dallaire’s forces with equipment and other support.  We could have pressed for new UN or African peacekeepers to save as many lives as possible.  We could have immediately declared the situation to be genocide.

But each time some of us pushed for these steps, others would ask: “Where’s the legal basis for these actions?  Where’s the public outcry, the hallelujah chorus of support?  Where’s the evidence to show that these actions will end the killings?”  Indeed, there were few voices in civil society, on college campuses, in the media, or in Congress calling for action beyond humanitarian relief.  And there was little ground truth to inform our efforts.

The jamming the radio station was caught up in a discussion of whether it was legal under international communications law.  The supply of 50 armored personnel carriers to Dallaire was fatally delayed by a debate over what color they should be painted to conform to international law.

Proposals to supply new peacekeepers were made moot not only by the lack of ready trained forces, especially from Africa, but also by disagreements over how we would pay for their deployment.  And we avoided the term “genocide” for fear it would result in pressure on ourselves to take the forceful actions we weren’t prepared to take.  Time and again, the voices of inaction triumphed until the genocide burned itself out.

Beyond Apologies to Action

Fortunately, the international community has gone beyond apologies and mea culpas for the failed response to Rwanda, as well as Somalia and Bosnia.  Indeed, it was in these failures of will that the roots of responsibility to protect were formed.

Consider the changes.  The international community has increasingly engaged in preventive actions to keep societies from falling apart – including the deployment of more than 100,000 military, police, and civilians personnel in UN peacekeeping operations.  Eleven different countries each provide more than $100 million annually for these operations. Another 76,000 forces are deployed in non-UN peace operations.

Of course, you cannot measure the global commitment to R2P solely in terms of its willingness to engage militarily in situations of existing or potentials genocide or mass atrocities.  Non-consensual military action is the last resort, following efforts at diplomacy, sanctions, humanitarian assistance, naming and shaming, and the like.  Even then, military engagement could occur only under the strictest of tests to ensure that this doesn’t become an excuse for regime change under another nameStill, it is significant that in a preventative or responsive manner, country after country has stepped forward militarily in potential R2P situations, such as the South Africans in Burundi, the British in Sierra Leone, the French in Cote d’Ivoire, the African Union in Darfur, NATO in Kosovo, the Americans in Macedonia, and the Australians in East Timor.    

Further, we have responded with institutional programs – such as the nascent Peacebuilding Commission -- to help societies to avoid falling into the genocide trap through preventive efforts and to emerge from conflict through recovery and reconstruction.

GCR2P: Taking R2P to the Next Level

Another step forward is the establishment at the Ralph Bunche Institute at CUNY of the Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect, and we’ll hear more tomorrow from that Centre’s Executive Director Andrew Knight and Program Director Nicole Deller.  Under their leadership, I believe the Centre will be a catalyst and a resource for those within the UN, governments, NGOs, civil society, and regional organizations seeking to defend the R2P norm, prevent backsliding, determine how to operationalize it, put a fine edge on the question of when military intervention is justified and how it is to be mandated, and apply these principles to real world cases.  

The Centre will also highlight the vital role that women have to play in pushing on R2P, not just as the primary victims of ethnic conflict and mass atrocities, but as a key to effective peace negotiations, post-conflict reconstruction, and rebuilding of civil society.

Darfur: The International Community Blinks Again

We have come a long way – but too many cases demonstrate how far we still have to go to bring R2P into the real world.  In Darfur, the international community has blinked in the face of mass atrocities.  We have tried to solve tragedy through half-measures and quick fixes.

  • We declined to send a UN protection force to Darfur, and instead sent the African Union, knowing full well that they lacked the transport, logistics, command and control, and forceful mandate to stop the abuses.  Despite their best efforts, these forces too frequently simply have a front-row seat to observe the killings.
  • We forced the Government and rebels into negotiations, but then went for a quick-fix solution that neither addressed the complex governance issues at play nor enlisted the support of civil society.  The Darfur Peace Agreement signed in Abuja in 2006 unraveled quickly and has actually hurt the cause of peace.
  • At UN, we passed resolution after resolution through the Security Council authorizing tough sanctions, a no-fly zone, and ICC indictments, but we never imposed them.  Khartoum’s objective remains a military solution in Darfur as a clear demonstration of the pain to be faced by others who might rebel in the Blue Nile region, the Nuba Mountains, Kordofan, and other regions.
  • Most recently, UNSC passed resolution 1769 authorizing a powerful UN/AU force – UNAMID – to protect civilians and ensure humanitarian space, but we have failed to press Khartoum to accept the kind of deployment needed to ensure an effective force or to mobilize the needed equipment and personnel.

Similarly, the international community has been overly respectful of sovereignty in its response to Robert Mugabe’s war on his own people in Zimbabwe, to the junta in Myanmar that shoots monks in the streets, to the rapes and mass killings in the eastern DRC, to the renewed ethnic violence in Sri Lanka, and similar situations.

Reaffirming Our Determination

Even in Kenya, the international community must show the commitment to the long-term challenges present in the R2P rebuilding mandate.  The recent political accord cannot be an elitist substitute for real actions needed to bring about a just and democratic society.

We must insist on constitutional and legal reform that reduce the power of the executive and overhaul the electoral framework; economic policies that ensure a more equitable distribution of land and income; a framework for addressing ethnic violence and humanitarian crises; engagement of civil society and the business community in governance issues; accountability for crimes committed in the post-election violence; and the dismantling of the ethnic militias.

These tough steps require a diligence, vision, and determination too often lacking in our common approach toward emerging crises.  But the alternative – more Rwandas, Somalias, and Bosnias – is unthinkable.  Thank you.

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