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The Dream and the Reality

Global R2P Forum on R2P 15 Years after the World Summit

The World Summit brought us closer than we had ever been before to realising the dream of making ‘Never Again’ more than a slogan. Until then there had been zero international consensus as to how, in practice, to prevent and react to genocide and other mass atrocity crimes. National sovereignty trumped good international citizenship every time. To have now, in 2005, heads of state and government across the globe accept unanimously that such crimes were a matter of international peace and security concern even when committed wholly within the boundaries of a single sovereign state – that they were the whole world’s business, not nobody’s – was on any view a diplomatic triumph.

But that was then. Fifteen years later, in this pandemic-preoccupied, sovereignty-re-obsessed, post-truth, post-rationality, post-decency, Trumpian world we now seem to largely inhabit, there is nothing like the same optimism that the international community has either the capacity or will to halt or avert another Cambodia, Rwanda or Srebrenica – those talismanic horror-cases that so influenced both the crafting of the R2P concept by the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS) I co-chaired, and the unanimous embrace of all its key elements by the United Nations. But if we take hard, objective stock of what has, and has not, been accomplished over those fifteen years, there is much to celebrate, and much still to be reasonably optimistic about.

Normatively, the concept of “the responsibility to protect” has achieved a global acceptance unimaginable for the earlier concept of “the right of humanitarian intervention,” which R2P has now rightly and almost completely displaced. The best evidence for this lies in the General Assembly’s annual debates since 2009, which have shown consistent, clearly articulated support for what is now widely accepted as a new political (if not legal) norm, and in the more than eighty resolutions and presidential referencing R2P that have now been generated by the Security Council (the great majority of them coming after the bitter disagreements over Libya in 2011).

Institutionally, more than sixty states and intergovernmental organizations have now established (encouraged by indefatigable lobbying and secretarial support from the Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect) R2P “focal points” – designated high-level officials whose job is to analyse atrocity risk and mobilize appropriate responses. R2P has brought more organized attention to civilian response capability, and to the need for militaries to rethink their force configuration, doctrine, rules of engagement, and training to deal better with mass atrocity response operations.

Creating a culture of more effective support for the International Criminal Court (ICC) is crucial not only for the trial and punishment of some of the worst mass atrocity crimes of the past, but to deter future perpetrators. Implementation of the ICC’s mandate may not always have been perfect in its early years, but the court does not begin to deserve the attacks upon its integrity it has endured from some African leaders and, above all, the Trump administration. There are encouraging recent signs that the wheel may be turning for international criminal justice, with the long-overdue apprehension of Sudan’s former President al-Bashir and the notorious Rwandan genocidaire Felicien Kabuga, and the Gambia-initiated case filed against Myanmar for its treatment of the Rohingya.

Preventively, R2P-driven strategies have had a number of successes, notably in stopping the recurrence of violence in Kenya, the West African cases of Sierra Leone, Liberia, Guinea, Côte d’Ivoire and The Gambia, and in Kyrgyzstan. Today, volatile situations such as Burundi get recurring Security Council attention of a kind unknown to Rwanda in the 1990s. Strong civilian protection mandates are now the norm in peacekeeping operations. And the whole preventive toolbox—long-term and short-term, structural and operational—is much better understood, albeit with action still often lagging behind rhetoric.

Reactively, however, where it matters most that R2P make a difference, the record has been on any view disappointing, at least in recent years. On the positive side are success stories again in Kenya and Côte d’Ivoire, and (at least initially, in stopping the almost universally-feared massacre in Benghazi) Libya, as well as the partial successes that can be claimed for UN operations in the Congo, South Sudan, and the Central African Republic. But against these must be weighed serious failures in Sri Lanka, Sudan, Myanmar, Yemen and, above all, Syria. Re-establishing Security Council consensus in these hardest of cases will be extremely difficult, not least at a time of increasing hostility between the United States and China, and continuing recalcitrance by Russia. But, particularly if there is an early American return to something approximating responsible global citizenship, it is not impossible.

At the time of writing, in mid-2020, the jury is still out on whether the long term impact of the global Covid-19 crisis will be to accelerate defensive nationalism and mistrust of international institutions and processes, or serve rather as a giant wake up call as to the absolute necessity of effective international cooperation, not least between the world’s biggest players, if the world’s biggest problems are ever to be solved. Much will depend on the direction taken by the United States. But whatever the uncertainties that lie ahead in the medium term, I am optimistic enough to believe that R2P has a future.

As one of those who conceived it, I can attest that R2P was designed for pragmatists rather than purists, with full knowledge of the messy reality of real-world state motivations and behaviour. It was designed not to create new legal rules but rather a compelling new sense of moral and political obligation to apply existing ones. And for all that continues to go wrong, real progress has been made in achieving just that: a new norm of international behaviour which, overwhelmingly, states feel ashamed to violate, compelled to observe, or at least embarrassed to ignore.

While there will always be argument about what preventive or reactive tools are appropriate in particular cases – and while occasional thuggish defiance of any global consensus is, unhappily, probably inevitable – it is much harder than it used be to identify any state anywhere whose leadership sees no place for any toolbox at all. There is little visible stomach for a return to the bad old days when genocide and other appalling crimes against humanity committed behind sovereign state walls were of no concern to anyone but their victims. While “Never Again” has too often in the past been a hollow cry, with the advent of R2P it has recovered its power to shame.

This journal article was originally published in Global Responsibility to Protect, Vol 12, issue 3, 29 June 2020