In September 2005, countries of the United Nations took a momentous step and endorsed the “Responsibility to Protect” doctrine, a framework designed to protect civilians from mass atrocities in cases in which their own governments prove unable or unwilling to do so. The doctrine is contentious, and it has only become more so with misinterpretation — a common caricature is that it means that “borders are nothing and human rights are everything” — and discussion of the concept in inappropriate contexts. Yet the basis of Responsibility to Protect remains universally endorsed, as expressed by the General Assembly three years ago: the international community must find a way to ensure the protection of innocent civilians, using mechanisms that neither abridge nor are effaced by the concept of state sovereignty.
Today the Secretary-General presented his report on R2P, and tomorrow the potential for controversy grows when the GA meets to discuss the doctrine. As it was the GA that endorsed R2P in 2005, it is in a position to reaffirm its support. The possibility, however, given some countries’ growing discomfort with (at least a misinterpreted version of) the concept, as well as GA President Miguel d’Escoto Brockmann’s particular style, exists that the GA will try to water down R2P or back off from the UN’s embrace of it.
This would be a grievous, and terribly counterproductive, mistake. In adopting R2P three years ago, GA countries signaled their commitment to helping the doctrine progress, making its laudable goals an achievable reality. The emphasis on R2P shifted to the more powerful Security Council, which officially incorporated the next year in Resolution 1674, then applied it to the specific case of Darfur. It has been hard enough to implement R2P; the misguided notion that it provides carte blanche for military intervention by Western powers is entirely fictitious, but it carries with it easy political points for the leaders of developing countries.
The GA naturally has many such leaders, and it would be regrettable if the current structure and politics of one UN body were to undermine — or just treat without its due seriousness — a seminal accomplishment in the UN’s history. Efforts should be focused on operationalizing R2P, strengthening its robust protection imperatives, and negotiating the global means to provide protection when it is needed. Provocative, and utterly substanceless, conceptions of R2P — those that claim that it is merely a vehicle for neocoloniasm — only detract from these efforts. I echo the plea Ban Ki-moon made this morning:
First, resist those who try to change the subject or turn our common effort to curb the worst atrocities in human history into a struggle over ideology, geography or economics. What do they offer to the victims of mass violence? Rancor instead of substance, rhetoric instead of policy, despair instead of hope. We can, and must, do better.
This is not about an R2P #2; this is the same Responsibility to Protect, one that countries still share as their crowning objective. Rather than mar its integrity in a raw publicity stunt, it’d be helpful for the GA to take note of the S-G’s report and move forward in a positive direction.