Whose Responsibility To Protect?

Whose Responsibility To Protect?

It is my pleasure to introduce The Mantle’s inaugural virtual roundtable. The issue at hand, the United Nations’ doctrine of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) is fascinating in so many respects. A recent development in international relations, R2P touches on many practical, philosophical, and moral quandaries revolving around conflict and security.

R2P’s raison d’être—to never let another Holocaust or Rwanda or Cambodia happen again—is laudable. Its implications on the evolution of the international state system, on individual state sovereignty, and on how and when a population under threat of mass death can be protected are—to say the very least—complicated issues to ponder.

The participants in this roundtable discussion, moderated by Marie Mainil, know all too well the complexities underpinning the R2P doctrine and its implementation. They represent the best of their generation whose task it will be to carry on—or extinguish—R2P’s torch. It was no small task for the United Nations to adopt the principles of R2P at the 2005 World Summit. Great challenges still lie ahead. This discussion, I hope, fuels and furthers the debate on this emerging norm.

To follow the roundtable, "Whose Responsibility to Protect?" see Marie's introductory remarks below. Then, click on each of the participants to read their essays and rebuttals. At the bottom of the discussion page, you can view Marie's concluding remarks to this conversation. Letters regarding this debate are welcome and can be sent to letters [at] mantlethought.org (subject: On%20Whose%20Responsibility%20to%20Protect%3F) (letters(at)mantlethought.org).

- Shaun Randol, Editor. October 7, 2009


frontispiece animation and illustrations by Sarah D. Schulman

Moderator's Introduction

Marie Mainil

From a small community and big family in Belgium, Marie somehow always dreamed of changing the world. Stopping and preventing wars, eradicating diseases like the Leukemia her little sister was fighting, ending abuse…her list was long. Through being an athlete and working as a communicator and partnership builder for social and environmental impact organizations, she has been lucky to travel and study the world, a process that spiced her empathy skills. Years of interacting with people across the globe and social status reinforced Marie’s appreciation for authenticity, humility, and respect. Through her journey, Marie became a woman in transition. While she appreciates being put at times and puts a prime on loyalty, she practices periodic movement and “remise en question.” She finds strength in the strong women figures in her life, as well as in the work of artists and athletes. She finds necessary weakness in being a perfectionist. Her favorite thing to do is making beings happy. Her favorite saying: Life is extraordinary, even when it rains…give. 

Along her way, Marie writes occasional pieces for The Mantle. She is convinced, and particularly interested in the power of authenticity and truth, and creativity and performance, in helping change the world for the better.

The United Nations doctrine of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) is too often misunderstood, and its practical implementation needs more work. Nevertheless, talented colleagues are working hard on setting the record straight as to what R2P means, as well as at contributing to the actualization of what the concept strives for: protection from genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing.

In the recent history of the doctrine, I have often wondered: what is the point of R2P if it does not seem to protect at risk populations like Gazans, Sri Lankans, and Somalis, to name just a few?

Given the spirit of the R2P doctrine (that states have an obligation to protect populations from genocide, crimes against humanity, ethnic cleansing, and war crimes), how do we reconcile a state-centric bias of R2P and its potential for use in places where no state exists or functions? Is this a contradiction, in theory and/or in practice that must be remedied? If yes, how so?

Thank you to Marion Arnaud, Savita Pawnday, Jonas Claes, and Sarah Teitt, four of the many talented colleagues referred to above, for helping us think through the meaning and challenges of R2P. The floor is theirs.

(Marie is presently a Communication Coordinator/Survey Manager for the Program on International Policy Attitudes in Washington, DC. View Marie's complete bio here). 

The responsibility to protect concerns the enduring, perennial obligations of states to protect populations from mass atrocities. The international community can and must encourage, assist and, in extreme cases, compel states to provide this protection. The R2P principle is notable insofar as it is premised on the idea that the “responsibility” of the agent (i.e. the state) is not contingent upon the capacity of the agent to perform its responsibilities (in contrast to most moral and political philosophy discussions of “responsibility”).

The essential spirit of the norm of responsibility to protect (R2P), is the protection of populations from mass atrocity crimes either by the state, and, if it fails, the international community.

Moderator's Conclusion

Wrapping-up: What About a Splash in Legitimacy and Integrity?

I was recently reminded of the important lessons of Sergio Vieira De Mello’s diplomacy while reading a post by Karen Murphy over at Chasing the Flame. In the midst of this discussion on the Responsibility to Protect, stateless spaces and “state+” spaces (in Jonas Claes’s words, those countries/strong states unwilling to act as responsible sovereigns), the relevance of Sergio’s legacy captured by Samantha Power struck me:

* Legitimacy matters, and it comes both from legal authority or consent and from competent performance

*Fearful people must be made more secure

*Spoilers, rogue states, and non-state militants must be engaged, if only so they can be sized up and neutralized

*Dignity is the cornerstone of order

*We outsiders must bring humility and patience to our dealings with foreign lands

On the morning of September 14, 2009, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the first resolution (A/RES/63/308) on the Responsibility to Protect. Although the resolution is not yet available online, you can see a draft of the resolution (here) on the International Coalition for The Responsibility to Protect Website. While, as we have discussed in this virtual roundtable, serious progress is needed with the R2P norm in terms of operational strategies and implementation (including flexible warning-response-prevention mechanisms, appropriate military guidance through the chain of command to stop atrocities, and political will, among others) a GA resolution is a welcome step in the efforts aimed at preventing and stopping the R2P crimes of genocide, ethnic cleansing, war crimes, and crimes against humanity.

With regards to spoilers and rogue states, Jonas offered a compelling argument for diplomatic approaches to engage R2P opponents (often strong states, according to his analysis) in civilian protection. As he reminds us, through the words of Gareth Evans: “State that can’t or won’t strop internal atrocity crimes are the kind of rogue, or failed states or failing states, that can’t or won’t stop terrorism, weapons proliferation, the spread of health pandemics… and more global risks.”

As to dignity, as Marion and others remind us, the role of local civil society in R2P efforts is crucial. The work of local actors she presents reminds us that civilian populations who are often reduced to the status of passive or neutral “victims” assert themselves and are essential to rethinking their situation and commenting on it. One objective here is to reduce the gap between what happens in the corridors of diplomacy and the reality on the ground.

And on the last point, the role of the international community as a whole, and the role of regions (as Sarah reminds us) is an important part of dealing with mass atrocities in our times. While this virtual roundtable certainly confers a sense of urgency in dealing with R2P crimes, and rightly so, it also recognizes the value of incremental positive changes.

In the spirit of The Mantle and the doctrine of the Responsibility to Protect, I would like to end these comments by issuing an invitation to colleagues around the world who are working on addressing, concerned about, and perhaps experiencing mass atrocities crimes to weigh in on this debate. Your letters to Shaun Randol, editor of The Mantle, in reaction to this roundtable and the issues it is concerned with, would certainly enrich this discussion. Send your thoughts to letters [at] mantlethought.org (subject: On%20Whose%20Responsibility%20to%20Protect%3F) (letters(at)mantlethought.org).

Lastly: do you wonder what you can do to help prevent and stop mass atrocities?

*Educate yourself. The many different sources cited in this roundtable are good places to start. One of the most compelling resources I have seen recently is a short, powerful, creative video (here) on which describes the link between minerals used in our everyday electronics (like cell phones) and the devastating war in Congo.

*Act. Many groups out there, some referred to in this forum, offer both educational resources and many different choices of ways for you to act. If you are interested, I invite you to contact me (marie.mainil [at] gmail.com (marie.mainil(at)gmail.com))—I am happy to share ideas and opportunities to get involved which, I promise, beyond being essentially important, you will find rewarding and enjoyable.