The Responsibility to Protect: What is the way forward for implementation?

Published: 16 Sep 2013
By: Olivia Bueno

As the General Assembly came together last week to engage in an informal dialogue on the latest report of the UN Secretary-General on the Responsibility to Protect: State Responsibility and Prevention, the ongoing commission of genocide, ethnic cleansing, crimes against humanity and war crimes (known collectively as “atrocity crimes”) in Syria, Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo presented a stark reminder to the session of the enormity of the task ahead. As Samantha Power, US Ambassador to the UN said in reference to crimes committed in Syria, it would be “the understatement of the year to say that we have work to do.”

With so much uncertainty about whether the emerging norm of responsibility to protect will deliver on its promise of protection of populations at risk of atrocity crimes, it was encouraging to see that this year’s interactive dialogue garnered the largest turnout of member states since the dialogues began in 2009. Although some states sought to question or undermine the concept of R2P, the vast majority seemed to engage constructively, to begin to draw out their own perspectives on how the norm generally, and in particular its prevention aspect, could be implemented.

As one might expect, the perspectives on the issue were diverse, from areas of focus to concrete suggestions,  and the following just gives a small taste of some of the areas that were highlighted in the debate.

The Secretary-General, in his report, focused on recommending institutional changes intended to integrate R2P in government processes. He urged states to appoint focal points on R2P; conduct national assessments of risk and resilience, using the analysis framework on the prevention of genocide; sign, ratify and implement relevant international legal instruments; engage with and support other state and intergovernmental organisations to share experiences and enhance cooperation to promote the effective use of resources; and participate in peer review processes.

Many states endorsed these institutional recommendations, and many have already implemented some of them. But others spoke more conceptually, and sometimes quite passionately, about the areas where prevention might focus.

For instance the representative of Brazil emphasised a need to distinguish between “structural” and “targeted” prevention. By “structural” protection, she was referring to long term institutional changes intended to build resilience against mass atrocity; and by “targeted” prevention, she was referring to prevention measures that could be taken when risk factors were observed to prevent the commission or escalation of atrocity crimes. This seemed to be a useful framework that was echoed by others seeking to create a framework for analysing what mechanisms might be most useful and at what stage.

The Brazilian representative criticised the fact that the report did not focus enough on structural prevention and the relationship between structural prevention and development saying “the world is over armed and peace is under-funded.”

The Hungarian representative focused on the need for historical memory, saying that our first responsibility is to understand our own histories in order to prevent their repetition. The representative shared the experience of visiting national monuments commemorating his country’s own repressive history – reflecting that it could be difficult to face but that addressing this history openly was a responsibility.

Another representative, speaking on behalf of Guatemala, focused on the role of what he termed “intangibles” which would “make R2P crimes unthinkable.” He stressed that it was these intangibles that would have the greatest impact. The Secretary-General’s Special Adviser on R2P took up this notion as well, referring to these “intangibles” as a cultural shift and a movement away from a winner takes all politics, and reflecting that these were the things which were likely to have the greatest impact.

A wide variety of other measures were mentioned: the Czech Republic mentioned that there was a need to clarify the linkages between R2P and rule of law initiatives. Drawing on its own post-conflict experience, Libya stressed the importance of security sector reform. Cote d’Ivoire mentioned its own efforts to integrate human rights into the national curriculum and Belgium called for further exploration of how to use the Peacebuilding Commission.

As stated in our previous blog, ahead of the dialogue, IRRI launched a briefing note, Citizenship Rights and the Prevention of Atrocity Crimes: Contributions to the General Assembly dialogue on the Responsibility to Protect: State Responsibility and Prevention, seeking to draw out one particular aspect of prevention – the need for attention to citizenship rights. Although the majority of speakers focused on other issues, a few took up this issue. The representative of Cote d’Ivoire noted that dealing with the situation of statelessness in his country was critical to resolving conflict – and preventing the recurrence of atrocity crimes in his country.

Perhaps most powerfully, Cecile Kyenge, Italian Minister for Integration spoke about her own experience as a Congolese migrant and the vulnerability of marginalized communities. She pointed to the importance of citizenship and belonging, noting that “many atrocity crimes have begun with the weakening of the legal status of the same people who were later victimized,” particularly with regard to citizenship. When vulnerable groups lose their citizenship, she said, they are seen as not people in the eyes of many and violations against them are seen as legitimate.

On this note, the Minister noted that we must all be vigilant: “The moment that we think that we are immune to such phenomenon, we become less vigilant and the risk of such atrocities increases.” As the Minister noted, “the road ahead is long.” It is now for us, as civil society to reflect on how we can contribute and take the next steps along that road.

Programmes: Resolving Displacement, Responsibility to Protect R2P
Regions: Great Lakes Region, Democratic Republic of Congo, North and Horn of Africa, Sudan
Type: IRRI Blog