Time Management: The 2013 RtoP Debate

13 Sep

A less than full Trusteeship Council was the setting for the fourth General Assembly debate on the Responsibility to Protect (RtoP) norm held on September 11.This was the first debate featuring Dr. Jennifer Welsh, the new UN special representative on the responsibility to protect.   Following an opening panel that included remarks from Dr. Welsh, over 60 government statements were offered, most of them positive and all moderated by Adama Dieng, UN special representative for the prevention of genocide.

The debate this year seemed to be, on content alone, preferable to previous iterations.  While delegations continue to raise reservations regarding several aspects of the norm —  a number of which we feel warrant more respectful attention from the RtoP community — delegations also demonstrated greater skill in articulating the nuances of the norm as it has evolved under the guidance of the ‘Joint Office’ on the prevention of genocide and the responsibility to protect and through dialogue with the five reports on RtoP issued by the Secretary General.

Nevertheless, the debate generated surprisingly little controversy or even energy, especially given what has been going on in the world in recent weeks with Syria.  Reactions to the efforts of Mr. Dieng to ‘keep time’ in a packed agenda were significantly more visible than reactions to delegate statements. Our interpretation is that this is not an indictment of the issue and its importance, but rather a reflection on the context for this debate within the UN system.  This context include a number of competitive meetings on September 11 that forced many delegations to spread their involvements thin; renewed energy and excitement over prospects for a new and more robust commitment to post-2015 development goals; even a recognition of the long shadow cast by the Council and its increasingly consolidated power over the specifics of any RtoP response.  Indeed, if there are no clear pathways to the effective preventive response that many delegations called for, to the degree that available responses to atrocity crime threats are in the hands of unaccountable institutional partners such as the Council, this creates disincentives to enthusiastic engagement with the norm.  And there remains a considerable lack of clarity regarding what a commitment to prevention might practically entail, the fitness of the full UN system to engage such a commitment, and the sufficiency of tools and capacities needed to move beyond the politics of atrocity crime response towards a cleaner, more transparent and more principled engagement with these threats.

Under Secretary General Jan Eliasson noted during his own remarks that no one can do everything but everyone can do something.   Until we are able to define what those options for doing something actually are (especially for civil society), and more importantly how those discrete responses impact other facets of the UN’s ongoing security commitments, we will continue to leave assets on the table that we desperately need engaged in the preventive task.   The enduring questions for us relate to how diplomats are to keep track of all of the unanswered questions and unanticipated consequences that characterize RtoP in its current iteration and how we are going to find the right blend of wisdom, skills and capacities to meet new challenges.

Our strong conviction remains that RtoP has outgrown its current expressive formats.   We prefer a more expansive diplomatic engagement with the norm, an engagement that would allow for real dialogue, fewer prepared statements, more resolutions outlining actionable commitments and less need for anyone to be in the unenviable role of cutting off speakers who are making points that the system as a whole needs to consider more fully and under less time pressure.

Any process that allows delegations merely precious minutes to deliver an address on an issue that is both controversial and essential to the work of the United Nations must yield to a process that is more in keeping with the way in which other GA-tethered processes — from small arms to development goals — find expression.   Mr. Dieng, whom we highly regard, should not be in the position of playing time keeper with delegations that, at least for now, have few opportunities to weigh in thoughtfully on the promises of the norm and its still-limited implementation options.

This problem should not be addressed, as some are suggesting, simply by adding days to what is essentially a ‘general debate’ format, which in our view remains the least effective way for delegates to communicate concerns and resolve differences.  In order to facilitate more diplomatic engagement at headquarters, it is time to find ways, including through a more active partnership with the office of the new GA president, to allow this process to breathe more deeply, and especially more regularly.

For RtoP to succeed fully as a fair, viable and implementable norm, it needs more than it currently holds – more stakeholder involvement, more diverse policy voices, more actionable resolutions, more capacity assistance, more diplomatic attention to evolving dangers and their political contexts.   The debate on September 11 made clear that there is steadily growing diplomatic interest in RtoP but there remains an inadequate diplomatic culture of response, one that could help the UN system work through a myriad of political and logistical issues before the next crisis arises.  More dedicated time and space will help expand and enrich such a culture.

Diplomats at UN headquarters navigate a diverse range of issues and structural responsibilities.  RtoP is a primary focus of only a modest portion of UN missions.   We need to ensure that all diplomats have more frequent opportunities to address concerns in a good faith manner such that the 130 or so delegations that did not speak up at this year’s RtoP debate have reason and occasion to weigh in as well.

Dr Robert Zuber

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