R2P (Responsibility to Protect): A Panacea in Theory Alone

Globalization has increased awareness, on an international level, the inherent inequities between the developing and developing worlds. This distinction has also become painfully evident through the actions of international institutions tasked with safeguarding the welfare of the world’s citizens. Although human suffering often falls prey to the political and economic elements of globalization, over the last several decades there has also been a rapprochement of people scattered around the globe who strive to regulate the violations of human rights and restore dignity to those who have viciously been stripped of it. In fact, it is often maintained that regardless of age or culture, color or creed, all human beings have an inherent moral obligation to participate in the elimination of social injustices and the violation of human rights whenever and wherever they occur. This, after all, defines the very nature and existence of humanitarian organizations, and the understanding that with sovereignty comes an obligation to protect citizens from mass violence and suffering. Moreover, on a global scale, this same responsibility and obligation rests in the hands of the international community, as has been illustrated by doctrines such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights or the Responsibility to Protect.

It is undeniable that the issue of sovereignty has always been and will forever be, at the forefront of the controversial debate over the efficacy of external intervention in the internal affairs and conflicts of individual states. Nevertheless, humanitarian catastrophes and mass atrocities, such as genocide or war crimes, are naturally viewed as morally unacceptable in today’s increasingly interconnected world. Therefore, in response to the questions and criticisms that mounted following past intervention efforts in Somalia and Kosovo, and those notable failures, (see Rwanda 1994), steps have been taken by the international community to attempt to create an effective system of protection and prevention. Originally conceived by the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty, the 2001 report The Responsibility to Protect (R2P or RtoP) was produced with the goal of establishing some consensus on the questions of when intervention should be permitted, under whose organization and authority, and the manner in which that intervention would occur. With a particular focus on preventing or stopping crimes of genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes, and ethnic cleansing, the doctrine maintains that state sovereignty implies a primary and fundamental responsibility to protect all citizens from such heinous crimes. Moreover, in the event that the state is unable or unwilling to do so, the responsibility then automatically transfers to international community, which is obligated either to assist the state in its efforts or intervene in whatever capacity it deems appropriately necessary, be it diplomatic or even militarily, to help prevent or halt mass atrocities from taking place. As such, despite initially being overshadowed by the terrorism events of September 11, 2001, ultimately the doctrine of R2P found favor within the international community and was endorsed by the United Nations as a norm, and not a law.

Although the use of military intervention as a last resort can only be authorized by the United Nations, by utilizing a range of pre-existing methods and techniques, such as mediation and sanctions, R2P provides a framework for dealing with mass atrocities that all actors responsible for the welfare of others are expected to follow. The problem however, is that in the years that have passed since its adoption, R2P has failed to fulfill its promise in places such as Darfur and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Even more recent crises, such as those in Libya or Ivory Coast, the R2P doctrine failed to promote a suitable and timely response from the international community. Although it has been argued that the response to the Libyan conflict saw action being taken, in a mass atrocity situation, in a shorter period of time than ever before, there is still a vastly unacceptable degree of uncertainty that surrounds the manner in which the international community resorts to R2P in all humanitarian conflicts. The question remains: how much does a conflict need to escalate before R2P is truly applied and how many lives must be lost before more serious steps towards intervention, by political, economic, or ultimately military means, are taken?

Some have argued that there is a bias surrounding the cases to which R2P is applied, as some conflicts hold a greater degree of urgency within global affairs. Also, in predictable fashion, critics take aim at the sovereignty issues within R2P, and with the notion that R2P is a “Trojan horse” for intervention or a “neo-colonial reassertion of control.” Yet as effective as R2P may appear in theory, its track record in real-time conflict remains checkered. Those associated with the lagging efforts of doctrines like R2P, see the failures of the system, maintaining that “theoretical advances are of no comfort to defenseless civilians savaged by lawless militias or wicked regimes.” Unfortunately, it would appear that R2P was developed as a new panacea for the international community’s issues of intervention and sovereignty, yet little that has been accomplished in terms of implementation.

The end of World War II was marked by the compelling declaration of “Never Again” as the international community vowed to uphold and protect the tenets of human rights and human dignity from the kinds of horrors experienced during the Holocaust. The problem is that within the international community, the once powerful and resounding cry of “Never Again” seems, to some extent, have lost its lustre and ability to rally the international community toward action. Although countless opportunities have arisen since the end of World War II for the states of the world to come together and prove the worth of that simple statement, the international community’s track record of protection and prevention remains flawed. Rather, the trend seems to be one of retrospective analysis and the constant creation of new documents and doctrines, tribunals and committees, and not one of full cooperation and the kind of swift and decisive action needed to prevent and stop mass atrocities before or while they are actually taking place. It would seem that the international community is practicing the perfect example of ‘insanity’: doing the same thing over and over again, and expecting different results. Nevertheless, the old adage that, “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” speaks to our moral responsibility as students of the past, to help curb present and future humanitarian crises, and to ensure that mitigation of genocide.

Daniela is a 2006 MA graduate in international relations of the University of Windsor, Ontario and can be reached at dkiszti@gmail.com.

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