Our responsibility to protect

by Ramesh Thakur

WATERLOO, Canada — Then Secretary General Kofi Annan’s famous “challenge of humanitarian intervention” in September 1999 provoked a furious backlash from many countries. Yet a mere six years later, the norm, reformulated as the “responsibility to protect” (R2P), was endorsed by the world leaders gathered at the United Nations. Annan called it one of his most precious achievements.

Revolutionary advances with commitments made at grand summits can suffer many a slip by the time action is required. Make no mistake: R2P is a not just a slogan but a call to action by the international community. Failure to act will make a mockery of the noble sentiments.

Recognizing that the global endorsement of the norm in 2005 was but the prelude to translating it into timely action to prevent crises and stop atrocities, a new Global Center for R2P will be launched Thursday at the U.N. in New York.

In 2005, all countries agreed that every state “has the responsibility to protect its populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity” and “should peaceful means be inadequate and national authorities are manifestly failing to protect their populations,” the “international community also has the responsibility to help to protect populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity.” Yet, intriguingly, some national diplomats insist that “the World Summit rejected R2P in 2005.”

The first danger is thus a shame-faced edging back from the agreed norm of 2005, a form of buyer’s remorse. Continued advocacy and activism by civil society and concerned governments is needed to remain steadfast and hold all governments’ feet to the fire of individual and collective responsibility to protect at-risk populations. Regimes that fear the searchlight of international attention being shone on their misdeeds will try to chip away at R2P until only its facade remains. They cannot be allowed to succeed. Better that they live with this fear than their people fear death and disappearance squads.

An opposite danger of rollback lies with the aggressive humanitarian warriors who gave “humanitarian intervention” such a bad name in the first place. Iraq is the best example of why the authors and promoters of R2P should fear “friends” as much as opponents. Developing countries’ histories and collective memories are full of examples of trauma and suffering rooted in the white man’s burden. The weight of that historical baggage is simply too strong to sustain the continued use of the language of humanitarian intervention.

The R2P formulation is less confrontational and polarizing, more likely to lead to consensus across the bitter North-South divide. “Humanitarian intervention” approaches the topic from the interveners’ perspective and isolates and privileges “intervention.” R2P is victim-centered and surrounds intervention with prevention before and rebuilding afterward.

History proves that the doctrines of sovereignty and nonintervention notwithstanding, regional and global powers have intervened, repeatedly, in the affairs of weaker states. R2P offers them better protection through agreed and jointly negotiated rules and “road maps” for when outside intervention is justified and how it may be done under U.N. authority rather than unilaterally. It will thus lead to the “Gulliverization” of major power use of force, tying it with global norms and rules. Absent R2P, they have relatively more freedom, not less, to do what they want.

Another danger from over-enthusiastic supporters is misuse of the concept in non-R2P contexts. A group of retired NATO generals, for example, recently used it to justify the first use of nuclear weapons to prevent nuclear proliferation. R2P is rooted in human solidarity, not in exceptionalism of the virtuous West against the evil rest.

The Global Center for R2P will work to make this doctrine a reality. U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki Moon has welcomed it as “an effective advocate in the struggle to prevent the world’s most heinous mass crimes.” Supported by Australia, Rwanda and other governments, foundations and private donors, it will generate research, conduct high-level advocacy and facilitate activities of those working to advance the R2P agenda. It will be the hub of affiliated regional centers in Asia, Australia, Africa, Europe and elsewhere.

Millions lost their lives during the Holocaust and in Cambodia, Rwanda, Srebrenica and Darfur. After each we said “never again,” and then looked back each next time with incomprehension, horror, anger and shame. How could we possibly have let it all happen again? Our responses have typically been ad hoc and reactive, rather than consolidated, comprehensive and systematic. We need a “paradigm shift” from a culture of reaction to one of prevention and rebuilding.

Intervention to protect civilian victims of atrocities differs, conceptually and operationally, from war, collective security and peacekeeping. It requires its own distinctive guidelines and rules of engagement, as well as relationship to civil authorities and humanitarian actors. These differences need to be identified, articulated and incorporated into military training manuals and courses.

Operationalizing R2P’s protection agenda in the field means adopting a bottom-up approach that brings together the humanitarian actors on the ground in conflict zones. Each particular context requires its own specific protection actions against threats to the people at risk there, with the U.N. agencies acting collaboratively with local civil society actors, NGOs and Red Cross representatives. They must come together in a distinct protection cluster to assess needs and priorities for each vulnerable group requiring protection and identifying, in advance, the custom-tailored responses for prevention and rebuilding.

The Global Center for R2P, supported by international luminaries including Kofi Annan and Sadako Ogata, will be a catalyst for implementing the commitment of all countries to protect people around the world from genocide, crimes against humanity, ethnic cleansing, and war crimes. Based in our common humanity, R2P aims to rescue vulnerable communities so that groups condemned to die in fear can live in hope instead — else we will not be able to live with ourselves.

Ramesh Thakur, one of the original R2P commissioners, is a distinguished fellow at the Center for International Governance Innovation in Waterloo, Ontario.