Signature Lecture: The Responsibility to Protect and the Arab Spring

Series: Speaker Series
May 24, 2012

Signature Lecture: The Responsibility to Protect and the Arab Spring

Former Canadian Minister of Foreign Affairs, the Honourable Lloyd Axworthy, internationally recognized for promoting the human security concept, spoke on the Arab Spring and the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) to an audience of 250 at the CIGI Auditorium. The event, co-sponsored by the Balsillie School of International Affairs, was part of CIGI’s Signature Lecture Series.

In addition to creating a new sense of energy in the region, Axworthy said, the Arab Spring is changing conventional wisdoms about, and the practice of customs in, the Middle East. He referred to George F. Kennan’s policy of containment and the opportunities and challenges presented during the Cold War, stating that, similarly, there are new ambiguities and a huge opportunity to engage with and support the transformation of the Middle East.

Axworthy traced the development of the human security concept from a United Nations (UN) document in 1994, through to its first test as a monumental anti-personnel land mine treaty signed in Ottawa in 1997, explaining the influence that this doctrine and R2P have had on shifting the architecture of international relations. The idea of human security challenges the 300-year dominance of national security and Westphalian sovereignty. As he explained, a very different view of the world has now been put forward: much like the unacceptable Nuremberg defence, governments and their leaders can no longer hide within their own borders for crimes against humanity.

Drawing upon the Arab Spring — specifically the UN Security Council-sanctioned NATO intervention in Libya — Axworthy stressed the importance of neither imposing nor repeating colonial practices when engaging in foreign intervention. Military intervention is an extremely delicate negotiation and can result in serious moral and legal questions, the audience heard. When military action in Libya progressed from human security to regime change, many in the international community raised concerns.

Despite all of its military-oriented attention, R2P entails much more than troops on the ground and planes dropping bombs. Axworthy explained that diplomatic, corporate and non-governmental action can all support the principles of R2P. In Syria, for example, UN observers are supporting the human security concept without engaging in armed conflict. Moreover, R2P is not just about peacekeeping, but also includes peace building through early prevention, which Axworthy claimed the international community has not perfected quite yet, as well as the responsibilities to respond and rebuild. It’s not acceptable, Axworthy argued, to simply walk away from a situation that foreign intervention helped to shape. He said that when NATO, for example, has fulfilled its military role, it may be time to look at other constituents’ resources and capacities to rebuild. Axworthy also explained that R2P can, and should, be applied to situations beyond mass atrocities and state brutality, for example, where famine and natural disasters occur, or where governments are not in a position to protect their citizens.

Axworthy was joined by Bessma Momani, CIGI senior fellow and professor of political science at the Balsillie School of International Affairs, who moderated online and live audience questions and prompted Dr. Axworthy to consider challenging questions on the R2P doctrine, from its universality to its threshold for implementation.

From September to May each year, the CIGI Speaker Series are presented on important international topics to raise public awareness and understanding on a variety of current global issues. This series features some of the most prominent and acclaimed figures in their respective areas of global governance.
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