Growing the Responsibility to Protect

24 Aug

On September 11, the General Assembly will hold what has become its annual rite of Late Summer – the ‘debate’ on the Responsibility to Protect norm.

As is usual for the GA, this isn’t really a ‘debate’ at all. Instead it is a series of parallel statements by governments that too rarely take account either of the opinions of other states or of the content of the remarks by the panel of experts.  Nevertheless, the discussion this year does allow for an official ‘coming out’ party for Professor Jennifer Welsh, the new UN Special Adviser on the Responsibility to Protect.  It also allows the relatively small group of NGOs that take an active interest in RtoP to gauge the degree to which states are willing to offer public support (or express public concern) regarding the norm. 

GAPW has attended all of the GA’s RtoP focused debates to date.  We still think they are worth pursuing as an interim step, inasmuch as they allow states to comment on the various reports by the Secretary General on themes (regionalization, third pillar capacities, etc.) germane to the evolution and full implementation of the norm .  The debates also allow for limited NGO input, though the politics of NGO involvement on RtoP have never been transparent, nor has there been any clear role for NGOs aside from supporting what have largely been modest initiatives by states to begin to fill the RtoP toolbox, create focal points for state-based activities, and provide alternative narratives to help guide Security Council ‘use’ of the norm.

Clearly more is needed if the norm is to guide conduct more than provide rationalizations for conduct.  GAPW is quite supportive of the priorities of the Joint Office on the Prevention of Genocide and the Responsibility to Protect, though we have also maintained for some time that a more open-ended process that encourages diplomats beyond the Security Council to take regular account of the opportunities and challenges of RtoP would be to everyone’s advantage.  Moreover, the modest NGO community that engages with RtoP, by and large, has failed to provide leadership commensurate with efforts to ‘guard the gate’ from critics who would allegedly diminish the norm.  Such critics it seems can get on the ‘wrong side’ of the discussion merely by having the temerity to suggest that we must travel farther – and in some ways travel differently – if the norm is ever to achieve necessary levels of diplomatic trust and functional competence.

The International Coalition for the RtoP, which has done some good work expanding interest in the norm within diverse global regions, has recently shared their own assessment of what this September debate needs to accomplish.   Those recommendations appear at the end of this post.  There are some good (if vague) suggestions for what might grow from this debate, and we are particularly pleased with the gender references.  But our feeling is that we need to expect more from this flowering that, for now at least, blooms only once a year and for only brief periods of time.

Our own (arguably limited) sense from talking to persons worldwide who were originally attracted to the possibilities suggested by the norm is that the proverbial bloom is starting to come off the rose.  Thankfully, none of these discussions has indicated a serious reconsideration of the basic premise of sovereignty as responsibility, nor of the fundamental belief that the international community has a critical role to play in situations where states fail to protect populations.   The caution expressed is less a function of the norm itself and more of the political compromises of some of its caretakers, both institutionally authorized and self-appointed.  When people tell us that RtoP is ‘dead’ (it isn’t) they mean in part that those tasked with promoting and/or authorizing RtoP have planted at least some of their seeds in the wrong soil.

At some point in the future, it would be interesting to have a real debate focused on where this entire process of norm implementation is headed and the extent to which our structures and strategies are capable of getting us there.  Such a discussion would be rather un-UN-like and might possibly shake up the current ‘consensus’ working methods and civil society alliances which, in our view, have uncertain benefit for the credibility of the UNs commitments to prevent mass atrocity crimes and respond rapidly and with minimum coercive force in those situations (hopefully rare) in which diplomatic and other tools fail to halt the path towards violence.

If what we all say is true about the urgency of mass atrocity prevention, then clearly our emotional conveniences, political compromises, career interests and funding needs must always take a back seat.   More than any single responsibility, we need to find ways to lengthen the growing season for this norm and do more to ensure the right amounts of energy and commitment for it to reach full bloom.   At present, we seem to be in a developing situation that reminds us of the crocuses of early spring, a beautiful purple plant that has to work far too hard to force itself through cold soils and then threatens to disappear almost before we realize it is there.

ICRtoP 2013 GA Debate Recommendations

  • Conduct assessments and analyses of domestic capacities and best practices to prevent atrocities, so as to adopt, establish or strengthen existing mechanisms and state policies;
  • Develop a national plan of action for the prevention of atrocities and the operationalization of the Responsibility to Protect and/or appoint a focal point tasked with integrating RtoP within national policies;
  • Establish or enhance existing domestic early-warning mechanisms and ensure that the information gathered is analyzed as well as shared with relevant international actors to guarantee swift, preventive action;
  • Adopt or further strengthen existing policies to ensure the full and equal participation of women and minority populations in all political, judicial, reconciliation, and peacebuilding activities, as well as safeguard the protection of equal rights for such populations;
  • Create processes that cultivate dialogue between the State and communities that allow open communication and mutual trust-building, mechanisms that can support an early dissimulation of tensions.
  • Promote a safe and dynamic space for civil society, which includes ensuring an independent and fair media, as well as continue to form key partnerships between government and civil society actors to contribute to the prevention of atrocities.


Dr. Robert Zuber, Director GAPW

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