Nepal, Dec. 7 — Slaughtering people not for anything they do, but simply for who they are-their national, ethnic, racial, religious, or political identity-is morally as bad as it gets. Yet that was the fate of at least 80 million men, women, and children in the twentieth century, including Armenians in Turkey, Jews in Europe, suspect classes in the Soviet Union and China, communists in Indonesia, non-communists in Cambodia, Bengalis in former East Pakistan, Asians in Uganda, Tutsis in Rwanda, and Muslims in the former Yugoslavia.
The Genocide Convention, adopted on December 9, 1948, in response to the Holocaust, should have been a circuit breaker. It wasn’t. Whether we label their suffering “genocide,” “politicide,” “democide,” or-sensibly, to avoid linguistic and legal hair-splitting-simply “mass atrocity crimes,” innocent civilians have continued to be slaughtered. And they are suffering or fearful still in many parts of the world-particularly the Middle East, Sudan, South Sudan, and Central Africa, and in vulnerable corners of Asia such as North Korea, Myanmar, and Afghanistan.
The United Nations General Assembly has now set December 9 as the International Day to commemorate genocide victims and focus on prevention. It is a good time to take stock of how far we have come-and have yet to go-in translating into reality the moral aspiration expressed seven decades ago.
The good news is that a genuine-and unprecedented-global consensus has emerged over the last ten years : State sovereignty is not a license to kill. Mass atrocity crimes-even those committed entirely within a state’s borders-have become the world’s business.
In 2005, the World Summit of heads of state and government and the UN General Assembly unanimously adopted the principle of the “Responsibility to Protect,” or R2P, as it has come to be known. The principle was designed to establish new standards of behavior and a framework for effective action to prevent and respond to genocide, ethnic cleansing, other crimes against humanity, and major war crimes.
The resolution’s “three pillars” asserted, first, the responsibility of a state to its own people not to commit or permit such mass atrocity crimes; second, the responsibility of other states to assist them; and, third, the responsibility of others to respond with “timely and decisive action” (including coercive military force, authorized by the UN Security Council) if a state is “manifestly failing” to protect its people.
The best evidence for the widespread acceptance of R2P as a normative standard lies in the General Assembly’s annual debates. Despite some early squirming, and although many states are more comfortable with the first two pillars than they are with the third, there is no serious doubt about any aspect of the principle. And, significantly, R2P language has been used nearly 40 times in Security Council resolutions since 2005, including recently in response to atrocity threats in Yemen, Libya, Mali, Sudan, South Sudan, and the Central African Republic (CAR).
R2P has also served as a catalyst for institutional change, with more than 50 states and intergovernmental organizations having established “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, as is the need for militaries to rethink their force configuration, doctrine, rules of engagement, and training to deal better with mass atrocity response operations-which often need to fall somewhere between peacekeeping and full-scale combat.