Translating lofty goals into action to protect the helpless
Friday, February 15, 2008

The "responsibility to protect" (R2P) norm - a proud Canadian initiative launched and supported by successive governments under three different prime ministers - was endorsed by the world leaders gathered at the United Nations in 2005. Revolutionary commitments made at grand summits can suffer many a slip by the time action is required.

Make no mistake: R2P is not just a slogan but a call to action. 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 Centre for R2P ( http://www.globalcentrer2p.org/) was launched yesterday at the UN.

The first danger is an embarrassed retreat from the agreed norm of 2005 based on buyers' remorse. Some national diplomats insist with straight faces that the UN rejected R2P in 2005. Continued advocacy and activism is needed to 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 fa├žade 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 lies with aggressive humanitarian warriors who gave "humanitarian intervention" 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 trauma and suffering rooted in the white man's burden. The weight of that historical baggage is 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 North-South consensus.

Throughout history, major powers have intervened against weaker states. R2P offers better protection through jointly negotiated rules for when outside intervention is justified and how it may be done under UN authority rather than unilaterally. It will thus lead to the "Gulliverization" of major power use of force, tying it with numerous threads of global norms and rules. Absent R2P, they have more freedom, not less, to do what they want.

Overenthusiastic supporters also can misuse the concept in non-R2P contexts. A group of retired NATO generals recently used it to advocate 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 new global centre will work to operationalize R2P. UN 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 Canada, 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 centres 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 been ad hoc and reactive, not 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 differs, conceptually and operationally, from war, collective security and peacekeeping. It requires its own guidelines and rules of engagement, as well as relationships to civil authorities and humanitarian actors. These differences need to be identified, articulated and incorporated into military training manuals and courses.

Each particular conflict requires its own specific protection actions against threats to the people at risk there, with the UN 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 Centre for R2P 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.

About the Author

Ramesh Thakur, former CIGI Distinguished Fellow

The opinions expressed in this article/comments are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of CIGI or its Board of Directors and/or International Board of Governors.