Nine years ago this month, the UN World Summit endorsed the Responsibility to Protect. But this summer’s bloodshed in Gaza was only the latest conflict to provoke a heated debate on whether the concept still has a future. In one corner, the journalist David Rieff argued that R2P wasn’t a useful framework for Gaza – or anywhere else. While the head of the Global Center on R2P stressed the opposite, that ‘both the Israeli government and Hamas have a responsibility to protect [the] civilians’, but have failed to do so. Ban Ki-moon’s own Special Adviser on R2P, the Oxford academic Jennifer Welsh, challenged both sides for their ‘violation[s] of international humanitarian law and international human rights law… [that] could constitute atrocity crimes’.
This is not another Gaza blog. This is an R2P blog from someone who grew up working on the terrible humanitarian crises of the ‘90s (the Rwandan genocide perhaps the most terrible of all), and was an evangelical advocate when Oxfam campaigned for governments to adopt R2P in 2005. But for most of the years since then, R2P has been a rare three-letter acronym in Oxfam’s campaigning.
Again and again, we’ve argued that every civilian must be protected from what seems like the rising tide of atrocities in conflicts from Syria to South Sudan. Sometimes governments respond. Sometimes they don’t. But we have seldom, if ever, found R2P an argument that persuades them to act when they otherwise wouldn’t.
Perhaps it seems that nothing can compel governments or the international community to protect civilians as much as they should. But sometimes, at least, active citizens – as this blog regularly reminds us – can persuade governments to act differently. Where millions of people have campaigned to control the arms trade, enormous changes have been made. Public opposition to fuelling Syria’s conflict with more arms has had a practical impact on at least some governments’ policies.
Yet those millions who raise their voices seem motivated by images and stories of human suffering, rather than an abstract global concept such as R2P. Or at the very least, we haven’t found a way to make that work.
R2P is ‘down but not out’, as one of its founders, Gareth Evans, has said, because of ‘the breakdown of trust’ that occurred once the US, UK and France were seen by other governments to have used R2P to justify not only protecting civilians, but removing a regime in Libya in 2011. As Evans says, that trust may one day be rebuilt. But three years on, there is little sign of it. And until that happens, it is difficult to see how to prevent R2P from being misapplied – by any government – for reasons that go beyond the prevention of atrocities.
All this leaves Oxfam increasingly cautious about invoking R2P in any current case – despite our support for the principle and enthusiastic campaigning for its adoption nine years ago. I’ve just written up our evolving approach in the journal Global Responsibility to Protect in a special issue on R2P and humanitarian action (gated, but the enlightened publishers are happy for me to upload this draft: Edmund Cairns R2P).
More importantly, where does this leave R2P? First of all, let’s be clear on one thing. Its principle is absolutely right. Governments and the world do have a responsibility to protect people from genocide and other mass atrocities. Ban Ki-moon’s latest report on R2P, released in August, offers a long list of sensible recommendations for how the international community should help governments do that – not least addressing the inequalities and exclusion that can help create a climate in which atrocities are more likely. It reaffirmed that all the so-called R2P ‘pillars’ were important, including the need sometimes to use force against those governments who choose to kill rather than protect their own citizens. And yet when the UN’s High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, gave her valedictory report to the Security Council in late August, she mourned the ‘hundreds of thousands of lives’ that have been lost because the Council has failed to take ‘firm and principled’ action to stop atrocities. If R2P was meant to change anything, was it not meant to change that?
It would be too glib to say that R2P is dead. If we gave up on every international agreement that wasn’t instantly successful, we would live in an even more dangerous world. Much of today’s violence – and the world’s inaction in the face of it – rides roughshod over R2P. But it also rides roughshod over international humanitarian and human rights law. Yet taken as a whole, such international rules have had an effect. They have helped prevent human rights abuses and violence being even worse, and given citizens around the world something against which they can at least try to hold their governments to account. This is absolutely not the time to give up on R2P or the international law on which it is based.
And yet as someone once so enthused by R2P, I’m left with this uncomfortable question. Can I think of real lives in a real crisis that have been saved because the words ‘responsibility to protect’ have been invoked? Some would argue that Libya and Cote d’Ivoire in 2011 qualify. Perhaps, but even if that was true, that is several years ago. What of the atrocities happening today and facing thousands of civilians tomorrow? I’d love to hear from others of how useful they have found R2P in their work in real crises.