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Book Launch: "The Responsibility to Protect - Ending Mass Atrocity Crimes Once and For All"

by Mr. Gareth Evans, President & CEO of the International Crisis Group
4th March 2009, Wednesday, 3.00pm - 5.00pm
Lecture Theatre 1, Nanyang Executive Centre

Introduction | Evolution of the Principle | 3 Pillars of R2P |
Debate on R2P and the Way Forward | Conclusion
Q & A Session | Speakers Profile


"Whatever else we make a mess of in the conduct of international relations…as an international community, don’t let’s make a mess again of dealing with another Cambodia, another Rwanda, another Srebrenica; another mass atrocity crime situation involving genocide, ethnic cleansing, war crimes in a civil war context, other major crimes against humanity".
Gareth Evans, 2009

With these poignant words in his opening remarks, Mr Gareth Evans launched his new book The Responsibility to Protect: Ending Mass Atrocity Crimes Once and For all. He reflected on his motivations for writing the book, stating his belief, shared by many in the international community, that we should do our utmost to prevent such mass atrocity crimes from ever occurring again.

1. Evolution of the Principle

1.1 Wrestling with the Issues
Mr Evans urged the international community to create a framework where the genuine global reflex would be to look at what to do about these atrocities, i.e. using the appropriate policy instruments, instead of disclaiming responsibility for them. Ancient to recent history contained examples of indifference to mass atrocities within states, and this (lack of) principle continued until the latter half of the 20th century. Even after the Second World War and the establishment of the United Nations and the Genocide Convention, nothing much had changed in terms of the prevailing conventions, which comprised indifference and the greater weight given to ‘sovereign immunity’, where it was impermissible for states to interfere in other states’ domestic affairs, formalised in Article 2(7) of the UN Charter.

This was institutionalised further during the post-Cold War years, which was a period when many states became independent. They were not only proud of this but also mindful of their own fragility and remembered the misuse of authority by imperial and colonial powers intervening in the affairs in their societies, under the guise of a civilising mission that was carried out in a very demeaning way. It was thus not surprising that sovereignty - especially where internal matters were concerned - ‘gained a whole new lease of life’ in the post-World War II period. This was highlighted when a number of invasions, e.g. Vietnam’s invasion of Cambodia in 1978, were done for ‘self-defence’ and not for humanitarian reasons.

In the 1990s, there was a rash of catastrophic violations involving mass killings, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity which had lacklustre (or worse) international response; examples include Somalia in 1993, Rwanda in 1994, Bosnia in 1995 and Kosovo in 1999. The last one was couched in terms of humanitarian intervention, but did not have agreement in the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) about the legitimacy of that intervention.

Two opposite reactions have since developed. One is the ‘right to intervene’ doctrine developed by the current Foreign Minister of France, Bernard Kouchner, which resonated with the global North but with no consensus regarding the appropriate responses and treated with suspicion by the global South; the other is the idea that sovereignty gives a state a de-facto ‘licence to kill’ its own people, voiced by a Chinese academic from Shanghai. There was a tendency to see this debate in very polarised terms.

1.2 Creating Common, Conceptual Policy Ground

"If humanitarian intervention is indeed an unacceptable assault on sovereignty, how then should we react to a Rwanda, to a Srebrenica, to gross and systematic violations of human rights that affect every precept of our common humanity?"
- Kofi Annan, 2000

The above question, quoted by Mr Evans, led in to the part about the consolidation of the principle of the Responsibility to Protect. This was ‘born’ in the report of the Canadian government-appointed Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (of which Mr Evans was the co-chairperson) which attempted to find common ground. The outcome comprised the following:

Changed the terms of the debate. There was an important linguistic shift that used ‘responsibility’ to protect rather than a ‘right’ to intervene. This forced actors to think anew about what they dealt with.

Made very clear that R2P was not just about coercive military action. It extended to the responsibility to prevent at the outset, from short to long term, by a variety of strategies. It also includes the responsibility to react, involving strategies from the persuasive to non-military coercive (e.g. diplomatic isolation, pressure, economic sanctions, targeted sanctions, etc.) to coercive military intervention. A third layer was the responsibility to rebuild, where after such an event, a state would be assisted in ascertaining and systematically addressing the underlying root causes of the problem so as to ensure that the cycle of violence would not start up again. Military intervention, he emphasised, was only located within the context of a broader and more nuanced statement of the R2P concept.
Focused more sharply on criteria for military intervention. There are a whole series of conceptual and prudential hurdles in order to overcome first, e.g. criteria or authority, and of legitimacy before applying such interventions.

This approach was a good way of treating this subject created the potential to open up a new way of looking at mass atrocity crimes that did not jangle that the humanitarian intervention language of the 1990s had. After September 11, 2001, in spite of attention being drawn to terrorism and other forms of violence, the concept gained a foothold in international discourse with much help from various stakeholders. It was eventually embraced and adopted by the UN General Assembly during 2005. In his opinion, it was quite extraordinary that R2P had cut conceptually across conventionally-accepted principles to the extent that it did.

The three pillars of R2P was summarised by Mr Evans is as follows:

  • First, sovereign states have the primary responsibility to protect their own people from mass atrocity crimes, defined as these four – genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing.
  • Second, if that sovereign state is incapable of exercising that responsibility, the wider international community and neighbours have the responsibility to assist that state to discharge its responsibility.
  • Third, if that sovereign state is manifestly failing to protect its people, either through incapacity or ill will because it is part of the problem, then the wider international community has the responsibility to engage in some way with the situation through whatever strategy and action is necessary, including action taken under Article Seven of the UN Charter, i.e. coercive military action with the consent of the UNSC.

2. Debate on R2P and the Way Forward

2.1 Conceptual Core

Some backsliding occurred in 2005, after the Outcome Document was signed, among some countries particularly in Asia, as well as doubt engendered by the human rights rationales invoked by the US and UK governments to invade Iraq in 2003. In the context of the ongoing debate, Mr Evans began writing his book to address the concerns regarding R2P and strategies necessary if it is to be successfully implemented in practice. Three big challenges were identified:

Conceptual. Making clear beyond doubt – in a way that will generate consensus – what R2P is about.

Institutional. Putting in place the necessary structures, processes, protections, development, use of military force for human protection, and various other strategies of states, governments and international organisations – so that they will be willing and able to cope with the appropriate responses to situations that arise.

Political. Ensuring the actual willingness to ‘press the buttons’ when the time comes, and to put people – perhaps in extreme cases – in harm’s way in order to ensure that such catastrophic human violence does not occur again. It should utilise bottom-up, top-down and ‘sideways’ strategies and actors, which in turn depend on good institutional processes and other factors.

He focused on the conceptual challenge, as it was still the most nebulous of the three. Two misunderstandings regarding R2P are prevalent: One is to view the concept too narrowly as just being humanitarian intervention in new clothes; that it is just about coercive military intervention and nothing else. The other is to mix it up with other elements and view it too widely, i.e. with classic human security problems such as HIV/Aids and natural disasters. He urged the audience not to view R2P this way, as it handicaps the needed instant reflex response to the extreme cases, which R2P tries to address, such as what had occurred in Cambodia and Rwanda.

2.2 The Overlaps and Differences Between R2P-Specific and Other Types of Cases

To illustrate his point, he brought up the idea of a Ven diagram to point out that at any given time, there are different sets of countries where different types of issues are relevant. These overlap to some extent and he locates only a relative handful of states where R2P could rightly apply.

Differences between Humans Security, Human Rights Cases, Conflict
and R2P Specific Cases

Three categories of countries can be observed where R2P can be applied, as these are the countries:

Where mass atrocity crimes are occurring right now ‘in front of our eyes’;
Because they are in situation where such atrocities are imminently about to occur; or
Countries which are susceptible to lapsing into mass atrocity crimes in the short to medium term, e.g. Zimbabwe.

The best way is to ‘define, refine and confine’ the concept of R2P is to focus on particular individual cases. R2P cases can be ascertained by looking at what are claimed to be such cases and how well those claims bear up. Mr Evans assessed briefly recent events in Kenya, Myanmar, Russia-South Ossetia-Georgia, and Darfur, Sudan. Only Kenya and Darfur qualified as R2P cases. Kenya’s problems were resolved successfully, in contrast to that of Rwanda’s more than a decade ago. And although the international response ‘has been less than adequate’ in Darfur, the ongoing International Criminal Court indictment of president al-Bashir of Sudan might contribute to the hitherto lack of international pressure to do something about it.


The upcoming UN General Assembly debate (a few months or so after the book launch) will be centred around the R2P for member states to reconsider and discuss the doctrine. Mr Evans commented that many countries in the global North, as well as Latin America and sub-Saharan Africa, still support the R2P. Asian countries generally however are notable exceptions, although Singapore received special mention as being particularly supportive of it. He concluded by quoting the UN Secretary General with regard to the R2P: ‘To get this right once and for all is something that history expects, and history demands.’

Extended Question and Answer Session

On the likelihood of nations not ‘suddenly’ supporting R2P given the recent history of inaction by the international community in Cambodia, Rwanda, Balkans etc., and whether the motive behind R2P actually originates from great power politics – whereby it depends upon major powers to decide why and when to intervene.

Mr Evans highlighted that whatever had happened in the past were errors. However the past is the driving force and it is the horrors of Rwanda and Srebrenica, and the collective impact it has on the international community, that have led to the adoption of the R2P. The international community has realised that one cannot just any longer stand by and go on making a mess of mass atrocities in the way that has occurred in the past.

On the need to expand the R2P framework, beyond the four mass atrocity crimes of genocide, war crimes, crime against humanity and ethnic cleansing, to include other types of crimes which do not fall neatly within the current criteria of mass atrocities.

He responded stating that the R2P is not about solving all of the world’s human security problems but about addressing and solving particular types of problems. It is for this reason that the focus has been made deliberately narrow. There are already a number of strategies and mechanisms dedicated to a whole range of human security issues like human rights, conflict resolution, humanitarian programmes etc., but the international community have in the past ‘stuffed up many times on the really big, ugly, spectacular, horrible genocide and crimes against humanity cases.’ The only way to solve this problem is to engender a reflex, instinctive response from the international community to do something about these four mass atrocity crimes.

• How can R2P agenda be advanced in Asia bearing in mind that most Asian countries consider their sovereignty very seriously?

Mr Evans pointed out that it is a matter of confronting the conceptual challenge by highlighting the narrow focus of the R2P principles, emphasising that the R2P is not just about the use of military force. Rather, it is about the use of preventive, persuasive and diplomatic mediation strategies. This would allay the fears of many countries and will clear the doubts behind the R2P.

International community has cold feet with reference to the R2P doctrine given the existence of legal norms like sovereignty and principles of non-intervention etc. In the light of these where does R2P doctrine presently stand as a legal norm for justification of intervention?

The R2P can be called a norm following the 2005 World Summit in which a unanimous decision was reached by more than 150 countries at the UN General Assembly in its favour. However it is not yet a customary international law which would then require a normative embrace by all countries, accompanied by practical implementation over a period of time. It is however moving towards that direction.

• Even though the Japanese government does not use the term ‘R2P’, can we say that the human security approach adopted by the Japanese government is the R2P in disguise?

There is an increasing recognition within the Japanese government and beyond, that the Responsibility to Protect is a subset of human security. It is not an alternative but rather fits neatly within the conceptual framework of human security, and can be characterised as a particular type of response to a particular kind of human security problem.

• In the case of mass atrocity crimes happening in major countries like China or Russia in the future, how can the international community apply the R2P in those countries?

Such a case involving major powers does not in any way diminishes the applicability of the principles of the R2P, but it does diminish the capacity to apply one particular kind of solution. When a major power misbehaves, military force is clearly not a realistic option as it can have disastrous unintended consequences. Persuasive political pressure, diplomatic and mediation strategies would be the most effective responses in such a scenario.


About the Speaker:

Mr Gareth Evans is currently president (until July 2009) of the International Crisis Group, the independent international non-governmental organisation working to prevent and resolve serious conflicts on five continents. He was in Australian politics for 21 years, 13 of them as a Cabinet Minister in the posts of Attorney General, Minister for Resources and Energy, Minister for Transport and Communications, and Foreign Minister. He is best known for his role in developing the UN peace plan for Cambodia, for helping to conclude the Chemical Weapons Convention, and for helping to initiate a new Asia-Pacific regional economic and security architecture. He was a Co-Chair of the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty that developed the Responsibility to Protect, and is currently Co-Chair of the International Advisory Board of the Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect.

Posted on: 4/3/2009 5:05:00 AM  |  Topic: Internal and Cross-Border Conflict

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