Stopping Mass Atrocities: Responsibility to Protect in Action
Stopping Mass Atrocities: Responsibility to Protect in Action
How the UN Can Make the Most of the New Agenda for Peace
How the UN Can Make the Most of the New Agenda for Peace
Op-Ed / Global 5 minutes

Stopping Mass Atrocities: Responsibility to Protect in Action

As each new conflict appears in the in-boxes of policymakers, the first question is whether this particular crisis warrants international engagement.  The answer is a measure of "political will," a complex calculation of national security, political, economic and diplomatic interests; moral values; public support for action; and capacity for effective engagement - all filtered through policymakers' individual perspectives. 

But there is one set of issues where engagement is - at least in principle - pre-ordained.  Under the concept of "responsibility to protect," unanimously adopted by the UN General Assembly following the World Summit in 2005, world leaders pledged to take national and collective action to prevent and stop genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes, and ethnic cleansing.  Responsibility to protect commits national leaders to safeguard their population from mass atrocities, and if they are unable or unwilling to do so, it commits the international community to assume the burden. 

For several years, the concept lay essentially dormant, especially as resentment grew against western intervention and unilateralism, especially from the Bush administration.  A "coalition of the unwilling", including India, Egypt, Pakistan and South Africa, even suggested that the world had never really endorsed the concept. 
By contrast, the year 2008 saw increased application of this concept to conflict prevention and resolution.  Not only were structures for early warning, preventative diplomacy and early response adopted within the United Nations, governments and regional organizations, but the concept was increasingly used as a lens for viewing emerging crises.  Its application - or in some cases, misapplication - in Kenya, Burma, Georgia, and Zimbabwe provided fascinating, although not entirely consistent, lessons.
When failed elections in Kenya in December 2007 were followed by vicious inter-ethnic riots in January, international actors asked if we were seeing the first stages of Rwanda-style genocide, and took pre-emptive action. The burning of a church in Eldoret with three dozen Kikuyus inside; the history of violence in the Rift Valley; and the hate speech prevalent among Kikuyus, Kalenjins, Luos and Luhyas moved this from the context of usual post-electoral conflicts and put it squarely into the realm of responsibility to protect.

Then-African Union (AU) chairperson John Kufuor, Desmond Tutu, and others soon descended on Nairobi.  The AU empowered former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan to help resolve the crisis.  He and his team adopted a sophisticated approach to stop the escalating violence and create a framework and a national dialogue to address the underlying roots of the conflict, including ethnic divides, disempowerment, and inequitable distribution of wealth and land.  A power-sharing government was established and disaster averted.  Those suggesting that responsibility to protect is a tool of the West should note that the intervention was designed and negotiated by Ghanaians, South Africans, Mozambicans and Tanzanians.  Regrettably, the failure of the parties to implement the agreement over the past year has raised disturbing new signs of impending disaster.

Subsequently, in Myanmar, the military junta's first reaction in May 2008 to the worst natural disaster in the country's recorded history - Cyclone Nargis - was to keep out desperately needed foreign aid.  It failed to launch a substantial relief operation and selectively blocked international access to the worst-affected areas.  It assured the world everything was under control while media were showing pictures of massive on-going deaths and suffering.  
Quickly, many asked if these actions constituted a crime against humanity, justifying coercive international action.  French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner, the father of "humanitarian intervention," argued that if deaths resulted from the junta's refusal to allow aid, this could invoke intervention.  While his proposal for a UN Security Council resolution was rejected by China, Russia, and others, the debate gave clarity to international outrage.  China and Myanmar's ASEAN friends warned the junta that without changes, they might not be able to forestall external intervention.  Within weeks, the junta welcomed aid channeled through regional actors and established an unprecedented aid coordination mechanism.  Soon after, the UN called the situation in Myanmar, "a normal relief and recovery effort."
A third case occurred involving responsibility to protect occurred when Russian troops crossed into South Ossetia and then Georgia proper in August 2008 and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin invoked the concept, arguing that the actions were designed to prevent genocide against South Ossetians.  Almost in unison, the international community rejected this assertion as a diplomatic shell-game.

Critics pointed out that responsibility to protect refers to a government's duty to protect populations within its own borders, not its citizens abroad.  They noted that Russia had failed to make the case that the threat to South Ossetians was of a nature and scale as to legitimize military force.  Further, they pointed out that Russia's action was likely motivated more by its desire to control South Ossetia and Abkhazia; dismantle Georgia's military and scuttle its NATO ambitions; and warn other former Soviet republics.  They also rejected Russian claims because its diplomats never sought UN Security Council approval for military intervention as required.  In sum, the broad rejection of Russia's claims helped set the strict parameters for the concept's application.

Finally, as Zimbabwe descended into humanitarian, economic, and political crisis during 2008, Kenyan Prime Minister Raila Odinga, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and other African figures called for forceful international action in responsibility-to-protect terms.  Some argued that mass atrocity crimes were already being committed, citing organized violence against and refusal to allow assistance to regime opponents.  Others argued that President Robert Mugabe's regime was showing "reckless indifference" to humanitarian suffering and was complicit in deaths resulting from cholera and starvation.  

But Zimbabwe displays disturbing limits on the use of responsibility to protect, especially in the absence of common support from regional actors.  Even those supporting coercive action acknowledged this was not possible without support of Zimbabwe's neighbors, especially South Africa, and the UN Security Council - which would be forthcoming.  Further, they admitted that coercive military action can do little to stop cholera, feed starving populations, return displaced persons, and rebuild hospitals, especially if faced with local armed resistance. 

Mugabe and his regime counted on negotiator Thabo Mbeki and regional leaders to prevent forceful political, diplomatic, humanitarian and economic measures.  The decision by the opposition Movement for Democratic Change in January 2009 to join a power-sharing government has provided a welcome dynamic of change and hope, but it is nonetheless disturbing that the invocation of responsibility to protect did nothing to force flexibility or accommodation from Mugabe and company.

While these four cases might be judged simplistically as three steps forward, one step back, the more important message is that fundamental steps are still required to translate responsibility to protect into effective action against mass atrocities.  Advocates must seek global consensus, resist backsliding, and enshrine its principles in relevant international, regional and national institutions.  They must view the concept neither too narrowly as only about military intervention, nor too widely as about all human security issues.  They must build capacity in international institutions, regional organizations, governments, and civil society: civilian and military, preventive and reactive.  And they must generate stronger political will to address new threats of mass atrocities.  The agenda is daunting, but the stakes are too high to let it pass.


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