But R2P has been a useful frame for focusing diplomacy and peace-building efforts in a number of countries at risk of horrific violence against civilians. In Kenya, for example, the United Nations and some governments used R2P as a rallying cry for their work, along with Kenyans themselves, to prevent the violence that some expected after this year’s presidential elections. Similarly, in 2011, as South Sudan prepared for its historic referendum and ultimate separation from Khartoum after a devastating 23-year civil war, R2P’s preventive powers were brought into high relief. An international coalition — including such unlikely allies as Russia, China, Norway, the Arab League, the African Union and the United States — “flooded the zone” with preventive diplomacy, expanded peacekeeping mandates and used high-level political involvement to ensure that the separation did not ignite new bouts of violence.
However unpopular or unknown R2P might be in the United States, it has emerged as a preferred vehicle in other parts of the world for mobilizing support for action against potential mass atrocities. Even China and Russia have endorsed the concept, and in the case of Libya, they allowed an intervention justified in the name of R2P to go forward. It is usually in the hardest, most extreme cases, such as Syria — where it is too late for prevention and diplomatic efforts have not deterred the regime from slaughtering its citizens — that R2P has failed to erase the polarizing debates over military intervention.
The official U.S. reticence to emphasize the “responsibility to protect” reflects, in part, a bipartisan reluctance to sign on to anything that smacks of the United Nations. Another possible drawback to R2P is the erroneous perception that it requires a military deployment or other steps that Americans may not believe are in the national interest. R2P contemplates a range of preventive moves intended to forestall the need for military force. If properly working, it should be a stimulus for international action, not a straightjacket.
Ironically, the U.S. government has initiatives that could improve its capacity to implement R2P. The intelligence community recently completed its first-ever National Intelligence Estimate on mass atrocities, a document that should focus policymakers’ attention on countries at risk of genocide or crimes against humanity. The Pentagon has created a planning doctrine on how to respond to mass atrocities, and such outposts as the U.S. Africa Command now routinely include atrocity-prevention missions in their scenario planning. A new White House-led Atrocities Prevention Board, while hectored by some for appearing feckless in the face of violence in Sudan and Congo, is highlighting the need for new tools for nonmilitary prevention and response, such as a global sanctions system that would target perpetrators and could lessen the need for military action.
At its core, R2P works best in prevention. If the world had thought of Syria as an R2P problem two years ago, when only a handful of protesters had been shot dead by the Assad regime, we might have brought much greater financial, legal and diplomatic tools to bear and been in much better shape than we are today, facing only unpalatable options for halting the slaughter. Americans’ understandable reluctance to get involved in more military actions abroad makes it imperative that such tools be further developed. Our best chance to rid the world of genocide and other forms of mass atrocity will be in trying to make sure they don’t begin.
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