When the Responsibility to Protect doctrine was adopted at the United Nations World Summit in 2005, the community of nations appeared to have entered a new epoch, one that valued human security over state sovereignty.
The doctrine, commonly referred to as R2P, requires the international community to use whatever means necessary – including diplomacy, humanitarian assistance and even military force – to prevent genocide and other mass atrocities.
The establishment of R2P was, in large measure, a response to the world’s failure to respond in a timely manner to the Rwandan genocide of 1994. However, decades later, the human security agenda has yet to be fully implemented. In fact, the world often shirks its responsibility to protect civilian populations from mass atrocities.
Are there any parallels between 1994 and 2016?
Yes, replied atrocities prevention expert Kyle Matthews, citing the ongoing genocidal campaign being carried out by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. The jihadist army is attempting to exterminate Yezidis, Assyrians and other Christians, as well as Shia Muslims.
“We see this unwillingness to label it as genocide,” said Matthews, who is the senior deputy director of the Montreal Institute for Genocide and Human Rights Studies at Concordia University, and a Fellow at the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute.
Under the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide of 1948, there is an international obligation to take action to stop genocide, Matthews said. For that reason, he believes states are “very, very careful” about using the term genocide, because “doing so would force them to react.”
Helen Clark Helen Clark, former prime minister of New Zealand and one of the frontrunners to become the next secretary general of the United Nations, has a lot to say about R2P. “The concept is good,” stated Clark in a telephone interview from New York, where she is administrator of the UN Development Programme. “There has definitely been interest maintained [in R2P] at the level of secretary general.”
However, Clark acknowledged that the advancement of the doctrine hashit some bumps in the road over the years. “I think one of the challenges it ran into back in the early 2000s was that it was being voiced around the time of the unilateral [U.S.-led] intervention in Iraq,” she said. “And so there was a tendency to join the dots and say, ‘Well, this is going to be cover for unilateral action.’” “I think all that swirling around international circles in early to mid-2000s, perhaps, didn’t get it offto the best start,” Clark explained. But she was quick to point that a 2013 UN human rights initiative enhances R2P.
norm still exits and the norm can still be effective elsewhere,” he said.
Is the ongoing slaughter in the Middle East really a failure of the community of nations, and not of the R2P doctrine?
“That’s my view,” agreed Martin, who played a pivotal role in R2P’s adoption by the UN.
Matthews agrees with Martin and Adams. “R2P is a principle, but it’s not a living, breathing organism that makes decisions on what to do,” said Matthews. And he contends that “it’s up to states” to take collective action to prevent mass atrocities.
Matthews also stressed that the use of military force is always the last resort under the R2P doctrine. In the case of Syria, he would like to see the international community “call out” those states – including Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey – that are “acting in a manner opposite to R2P” by funding groups that are creating conditions of “blood and chaos.”
Responsibility not to veto What use is R2P if the UN Security Council will not act to stop genocide or mass atrocities? Matthews responded by pointing out that the Security Council is a politicized body, where permanent members use their veto power to protect strategic allies. “As we’ve seen with Syria, Russia and China have used their veto four times now to block action,” he said.
Even attempts to refer countries like Syria to the International Criminal Court are blocked by members of the Security Council. “This is a problem,” Matthews said.
Does the UN Security Council require reform?
“Yes,” replied Martin, “but I don’t think it’s going to happen tomorrow.”
The former Liberal prime minister is an idealist, but decades of public service have made him a realist, too. “The world’s ability to deliver on security reform is pretty slight,” Martin said of the Security Council veto.
However, France is leading the “responsibility not to veto” movement at the UN, Matthews said. The French are building a network of countries to pressure the permanent members of the Security Council to refrain from using their veto power when there are mass atrocities being committed.
On June 10, 2016, Foreign Affair Minister Stephane Dion announced Ottawa’s support for a mass atrocities prevention initiative and the need for timely action by the UN Security Council. “Canada joined the Political Declaration on the suspension of the veto in cases of mass atrocity, led by France and Mexico,” Joseph Pickerill, Dion’s spokesperson, wrote in an email.
Judgment of history “Twenty years from now, people will look back at Syria and say, ‘We stood by and didn’t do much,” Matthews said. “This conflict in Syria has crossed international borders, and it’s destabilizing Europe with refugee outflows,” continued the genocide prevention expert. And he believes history will record that the world “spent so much money and resources dealing with the aftermath of the conflict,” but failed to deal with the source of the crisis.
“I know people in government are talking about R2P and they are going to be moving on that,” Matthews said of the Trudeau administration. “So that’s very positive.”
However, at present, the Canadian government is merely reacting to crises “instead of forecasting and responding in a more preventive manner,” explained Matthews. He recommends that the Canadian government establish a group of experts who are dedicated to “thinking longterm” about genocide prevention and “give the government the capacity to implement better policies.” “We have been working actively with like-minded states and civil society to strengthen the commitment to prevent mass atrocities, enhance early warning mechanisms, and respond effectively to impending crises,” said the spokesperson for Minister Dion. “We have advocated for the implementation of R2P through membership in the Group of Friends of R2P in New York and Geneva,” Pickerill wrote in an email.
In addition, Pickerill stated that Canada is working with the UN Office of the Special Adviser to the Secretary General on the Prevention of Genocide “to support the United Nations’ ability to anticipate, prevent, and halt mass atrocity.” However, Matthews would also like to see Ottawa create a R2P focal point at a high level within the federal government. “A focal point is somebody in the government whose sole job is to work on this [atrocity prevention],” he explained.
According to Matthews, the Global Centre for R2P has “managed to get over 50 countries now that have appointed a person in the government bureaucracy that is the R2P focal point.”
“They actually have to appoint someone with gravitas who is going to work on this,” Matthews said of the need for a genocide prevention expert within the government who will have direct access to “the channel of information with the UN.” Matthews also recommends that Canada finance non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and thinktanks in Canada that work on the issues of genocide prevention and mass atrocities. “We are running on gas fumes,” Matthews said of the NGO sector.
Furthermore, Matthews said that “Canada should also engage with global financial institutions to use financial leverage to pressure certain governments.” And he recommends that Canada include mass atrocities prevention elements in development assistance programs.
Martin also has sage advice for the Trudeau government. “I think, No. 1, we shouldn’t forget the role of sanctions,” said the former prime minister. After all, the use of military force should always be a last resort.
The UN Security Council has failed to invoke or apply R2P in critical situations. But the African Union does not need the approval of the Security Council to apply R2P. “If the African Union can agree among itself,” said Martin, “then they can move without the Security Council.” However, the African Union has a long way to go before it becomes a truly effective peacekeeping force. “Their troops require much more rigorous training than what they’ve got,” Martin said.
Martin sees a role for Canada in assisting the African Union to develop standing forces capable of responding to mass atrocity situations. “Canada should be a very important part of the training of those forces in Africa,” he said.
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