No one thought it was going to be easy. Ending mass atrocities once and for all had been high on the global rhetorical agenda for decades. “Never again,” we all said, and meant it: “No more Holocausts!” “No more Cambodias!” But when it came to effective international action, the world was a consensus-free zone. And among those who paid the price were the 800,000 men, women and children massacred in Rwanda in 1994, and the 8,000 men and boys slaughtered in Srebrenica, Bosnia, in 1995.
Throughout the 1990s, there was plenty of enthusiasm in the Global North (at least in principle) for sending in the Marines to exercise the “right of humanitarian intervention.” But countries across the Global South – with long memories of imperial civilizing missions, and determined to protect their hard-won sovereignty – utterly refused to acknowledge any such “right,” however conscience-shocking the atrocities might be.
This is why it was such a huge breakthrough when the U.N. General Assembly in 2005 unanimously endorsed the principle of the “responsibility to protect,” or “R2P,” as it is now universally known: the standard of the whole international community to prevent and halt genocide and other atrocity crimes behind sovereign borders. This conceptually bridged that North-South gap, changed the language of the debate from “right” to “responsibility” and laid new foundations for effective practical action. The British historian Martin Gilbert described it, a little breathlessly but not without reason, as “the most significant adjustment to sovereignty in 360 years.”
But how much difference has R2P actually made? A decade later, plenty of skeptics can be heard saying “none at all.” But that is much too pessimistic a reading.
R2P’s failures are all too obvious: the inability to stop the carnage in Sri Lanka in 2009; to bring Sudan’s President Omar Hassan al-Bashir to heel over Darfur; to stop the persecution of the Rohingya in Myanmar; to meet the continuing threats posed by Boko Haram in the Lake Chad basin; and above all to overcome the catastrophic international paralysis over Syria since 2011.
But there have also been plenty of successes. R2P-driven reactions, both diplomatic and military, have stopped massacres in their tracks in Kenya in 2008 and in Ivory Coast and Libya – at least initially – in 2011. There has also been some partial success in curbing ongoing violence can be claimed for the new or revitalized U.N. peacekeeping operations in Congo, South Sudan and the Central African Republic.
R2P-driven preventive strategies, as often as not unnoticed, have also averted new crises in Kenya and Cote d’Ivoire and stopped others occurring in Sierra Leone, Liberia, Guinea and Kyrgyzstan. In Burundi, constantly on the verge of volcanic ethnic conflict, intense international diplomatic engagement has at least so far helped contain further eruptions. Most U.N. peacekeeping operations now have strong mandates to protect civilians, and most are preventing simmering conflicts from escalating.
The back story to all of this is the steady consolidation of R2P’s status as an accepted norm, and the corresponding increase in supporting institutional mechanisms. The annual General Assembly debates show no desire at all to tear up, or even revisit, the 2005 consensus. And in the Security Council, R2P language has now been used in resolutions more than 40 times, including recently in response to atrocity threats in Yemen, Libya, Mali, Sudan, South Sudan and the CAR.
Institutionally, more than 50 states and intergovernmental organizations have now established R2P “focal points” – designated high-level officials whose job is to analyze atrocity risk and mobilize appropriate responses. Civilian response capability is receiving much more organized attention from a number of governments, as is the need for militaries to rethink their force configurations, doctrines, rules of engagement and training to better respond to mass atrocity.
That said, there is plenty of unfinished business. Embedding the norm into global political consciousness – not just that of U.N. officials – will require political leaders everywhere to talk it up: the strange reluctance of U.S. leaders to use R2P language outside the U.N. corridors is manifestly unhelpful. Institutional support could be much stronger still, not least within the U.N. system itself. And there needs to be even stronger emphasis by R2P advocates on the norm’s universality: It is not a Western fixation, and there is no room for selectivity or double standards in its application.
At the top of my wish list is recreating consensus in the U.N. Security Council about the proper scope and limits of military force when responding to extreme atrocities. This broke down badly after Libya in mid-2011, when the Western powers were perceived – I think rightly – as stretching a limited civilian-protection mandate into a regime-change crusade. It has led to a recurring unwillingness – disastrous in the case of Syria – to agree on even strong condemnatory resolutions lest they lead to the slippery slope of military intervention and overreach.
Bringing skeptical nations such as China and Russia back on board will be difficult, but is not impossible. The way forward has been mapped by Brazil’s “responsibility while protecting” proposal, which would require all council members to accept close monitoring and review of any coercive military mandate throughout such a mandate’s lifetime.
Still, getting governments across the world to embrace – not only in principle, but in practice – a fundamental new norm of international behavior is a slow and painstaking business. In this respect, responsibility to protect is still in its infancy. But the world is, and will remain, a better place for its birth.
Explore these other perspectives: