Part One of a Three Part Series
A Norm for Our Times
Few ideas have travelled further, faster, than the Responsibility to Protect (RtoP). In the ten years since its adoption by world leaders at the 2005 World Summit, RtoP has become a central part of the way we think about, and respond to, genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity. Whatever one thinks of its merits, it cannot be said that RtoP has failed to make itself relevant.
RtoP has progressed farthest in its normative development. In its first ten years, the principle has established itself as a political norm. Today, we expect that states will protect their populations from the four atrocity crimes and are critical of them when they fail. Equally, we expect that the international community will do whatever it can to protect people from atrocities when their own state manifestly fails to do so.It was not always thus.
In the 1990s, the UN created a “Protection Force” for Bosnia that was not mandated to protect civilians and drew down its forces from Rwanda when genocide struck; in the 1980s, the international community was absent entirely when the Guatemalan government unleashed genocide on the Mayans; and in the 1970s, the international community sanctioned Vietnam for ending the Khmer Rouge genocide in Cambodia that had claimed the lives of a quarter of that country’s population.
Today we expect better. More than two-thirds of the UN’s Member States voted to “deplore” the UN Security Council’s failure to protect Syrians from the tidal wave of abuse and mass killing that has afflicted their country since 2011. RtoP has appeared in more than thirty UN Security Council resolutions, in resolutions of the General Assembly’s third and fifth committees as well as its plenary sessions, in a series of informal Assembly dialogues and in Human Rights Council resolutions (see them all here). Over the course of these debates, conceptual uncertainty and determined opposition to RtoP have been gradually whittled away, replaced by a now broadly held understanding of what RtoP is that commands the support of a significant majority of states from every corner of the world.
That RtoP has largely won the battle of ideas about whether the community of states should protect populations from atrocity crimes, and the most appropriate framework for doing so is evident not just in the avalanche of resolutions and government statements, but in practice too. The international community is foregrounding the protection of populations like never before. In addition to referring to RtoP in the context of comprehensive resolutions addressing protection crises in countries such as Libya, Cote d’Ivoire, Darfur and Yemen and resolutions condemning atrocities and reminding actors of their responsibilities, as in the case of Syria, the UN Security Council has begun to specifically task its operations with the job of helping states to protect populations in countries such as South Sudan, Mali and the Central African Republic. Sometimes, as in efforts to prevent the escalation of violence in Kenya and Guinea, or to prevent its recurrence as in Kyrgyzstan, RtoP has proven to be one of the major catalysts for international action.
The principle also played a central role in elevating international attention to the chronic protection crisis in North Korea, to the point where, for the first time, the UN’s General Assembly, Human Rights Council and Security Council are all now seized of the issue. Shining a light on the crimes committed by that government and its agents has not only prompted that government to make some concessions, it has also made it more difficult for others to support it. There are unverified reports that late last year China handed a small group of North Korean refugees not back to Pyongyang, as has been its policy, but to the authorities in South Korea. If true, that would be a significant change of heart. Such progress on the human rights situation in the North Korea was unthinkable just a short time ago.
Together, these developments have made states more aware of their protection responsibilities. They have also made it less likely that perpetrators will “get away” with committing genocide and other atrocity crimes and more likely that the international community will take measures to protect vulnerable populations.
But having established itself as an international norm, RtoP now faces the challenge of making more of a difference to people’s lives, more of the time. As a practical doctrine, RtoP will be judged not on its ability to inspire warm words and comfortable resolutions but on the extent to which it helps bring real improvements for vulnerable populations. It already has been associated with a more resolute international attitude towards mass atrocity crimes. For example, the international community has not recoiled from Mali and the CAR, despite deliberate attacks on peacekeepers there, and in late 2012 the UN decided to open its gates and protect imperiled civilians in South Sudan.
At the same time, the dramatic rise of internal displacement, the Security Council’s failure to respond decisively to the tragedies in Syria and Sri Lanka, the international community’s inability to hold Libya together, and ongoing crises in South Sudan, Darfur, and the DRC that daily threaten the civilian population, remind us that there is no room for complacency. We need to redouble our efforts to implement what states agreed in 2005. To do that, in the coming decade we will need to address the unfinished conceptual, institutional and operational work of building RtoP.
Unfinished Conceptual Work
Experience in the first ten years has revealed the need for the further conceptual development of RtoP. First, and perhaps most importantly, there is the question of non-state armed groups. As agreed in 2005, RtoP is a state-based principle, yet it has become painfully clear that in many parts of the world the principle threat to civilian populations comes not from states but from non-state armed groups such as the “Islamic State”, Boko Haram, the Lord’s Resistance Army and al-Shabaab. The picture is further complicated by the fact that non-state armed groups can also sometimes play significant roles as protectors of civilian populations, as the Kurds’ stoic defense of Kobane recently demonstrated. Not only do we need to further clarify the relationship between RtoP and non-state armed groups, we should also elucidate carefully the operational relationship between atrocity prevention and doctrines associated with counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency.
This brings us to a related set of questions posed by extremely violent societies where the boundaries between “normal” or “everyday” violence and atrocity crimes are blurred. In these contexts, which include societies where violence linked to organized crime is so common that rates of violent death exceed those recorded in countries experiencing civil war and those where sexual and gender based violence is so endemic as to stretch our capacity to record it, the multiplication of individual crimes amount to patterns of violence not dissimilar to crimes against humanity. The relationship between RtoP and endemic violence needs to be carefully examined but there seems to be a prima facie case for thinking that, at the very least, efforts to reduce endemic violence ought to be considered part of RtoP’s agenda for prevention.
A third set of outstanding conceptual questions relate to the individual responsibility to protect. Thus far, RtoP’s common currency has been the collective: the state’s responsibility to protect; the international community’s duty to assist and take timely and decisive action when needed. Yet these collectivities are comprised of individuals and the courses of action they follow are determined by individual choices. Atrocities occur because military and political leaders choose to authorize them and armed individuals choose to commit them. Sometimes they might choose not to. The international community responds effectively to these crimes because officials choose to highlight them and political leaders choose to invest material and political capital in prevention and response. Equally, of course, they may choose not to. By their actions, countless bystanders can make it easier or more difficult for targeted individuals to survive.
Ultimately, like all social norms, whether RtoP becomes a daily “lived reality” depends on whether individuals in all parts of the world choose to make it so. In the face of genocide and mass atrocities, everyone – and not just those in the affected areas – has a choice to make about whether to employ their talents to help protect others, whether to stand aside in ambivalence, or whether to assist the perpetrators. RtoP establishes a moral imperative for individuals to do what they can to protect others from atrocities. We need to better understand individual decision-making, the varied contributions that individuals can make, and the factors that push them in these different directions. Civil society should figure large in this work.
This post was originally published on icrtopblog.org.
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