The photo of Aylan Kurdi, the three-year old Syrian boy whose body appeared on the shores of Turkey recently, has underlined the seminal humanitarian challenge of our time. Our global paralysis on Syria has contributed to the death of over 200,000 civilians and displacement of millions. There is nothing new in the current refugee crisis we are witnessing.
With modern communication technology, we cannot say that we did not know about the killing fields of Syria, where children like Aylan are being injured and killed on a daily basis. Our problem is not the lack of information but one of indifference and inaction. Nevertheless, the innocent death of Aylan provides a compelling reminder about the sheer magnitude and brutality of the Syrian crisis, and why we must overcome the yardsticks of our self-interests and step up to our collective responsibility.
Last week at the UN headquarters in New York, the General Assembly’s annual forum on the Responsibility to Protect took place. The “informal and interactive dialogue” focused on the UN Secretary-General’s latest R2P report, entitled “A Vital and Enduring commitment: Implementing the Responsibility to Protect.” Sixty-nine member states and the European Union delivered statements on behalf of 91 states. The Canadian Centre for the Responsibility to Protect, based at the Munk School of Global Affairs of the University of Toronto, was one of the four civil society groups to speak at the dialogue.
Since 2009, Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon, with the assistance of his Special Advisor on the Responsibility to Protect and in consultation with member states and civil society, has been producing an annual report on the issue. (R2P states that when a state or government fails to protect its people from four mass atrocity crimes — genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing — the international community has the responsibility to do so.)
With a different theme every year, the Secretary-General’s reports have made enormous contributions in providing conceptual clarity to R2P such as the three-pillar approach, role ofregional and sub-regional organizations, prevention mechanisms, and operational aspects oftimely and decisive response. Over the years, there has been a growing support for the Secretary-General’s special advisor on R2P and the Office on the Prevention of Genocide.
This year’s dialogue on R2P at the UN General Assembly was a particularly meaningful occasion, as it marks the 10th anniversary since the 2005 World Summit. This year also marks the centennial of the Armenian Genocide, the 20th anniversary of the Srebrenica massacre, and the70th anniversary of the signing of the UN Charter. Last Friday, the UN General Assembly passed a resolution establishing December 9 as the International Day of Commemoration and Dignity of the Victims of the Crime of Genocide and of the Prevention of this Crime. Under the leadership of the Republic of Armenia, more than 80 member states co-sponsored the resolution, a remarkable feat indeed.
As we soberly reflect upon these anniversaries and commemorations, we might ask: have we learned any lessons? If the Rwandan Genocide took place under our watch today, are we in any better position to prevent what General Roméo Dallaire called the “failure of humanity”?
To be sure, it is a daunting question when we look around at the state of our world today, and the on-going challenges in Syria, the Central African Republic, South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Yemen, Iraq, Libya, and North Korea, to name a few. These current challenges not only shock our conscience but compel us to reflect deeply our pledge of “never again.”
Yet, every day, in every corner of the globe, too many people — especially women and children — fear for their lives, security and freedom. The rise of non-state armed groups, such as the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), Boko Haram, Al-Shabaab, who are willing to commit crimes against humanity and use rape, abduction, and torture to advance their goals, also pose new challenges. In addition to their deliberate targeting of religious and ethnic minorities, their indiscriminate use of force and strategic use of social media aptly illustrate the limitations in our state-centric approach on global security. The widespread nature of these terror groups, their ability to recruit young minds, and the degree of violent extremism that we have seen in the last decade, should also remind us that we are not just dealing with another “civil war” in some distant country in Africa, the way the Rwandan Genocide in 1994 was once wrongfully dismissed by the international community.
Nor is it fair to say that we do not have an international legal framework to prevent, prosecute and respond to crimes committed by groups like the ISIL or the Kim regime in North Korea. Our obligations under the existing international legal regime, ranging anywhere from the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide to the Geneva Convention to the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, provide very clear frameworks to understand the situation on the ground in these conflict zones. The real potential for R2P, therefore, rests not so much in the debates of the ivory tower or the legality of what it attempts to do, but in its ability to mobilize our capacity so that we may turn promise into practice and save human lives.
Progress made, progress needed
Despite controversies surrounding the NATO-led intervention in Libya, R2P has made some remarkable progress as we reflect upon the last decade of its lifespan within the international community. It has helped to avert mass atrocity crimes in Côte d’Ivoire, Guinea, Kenya and Kyrgyzstan. To this date, the Human Rights Council has adopted 13 resolutions that feature the responsibility to protect, including three on the prevention of genocide and nine relating to country-specific situations. In several resolutions authorizing the UN peace operations, the Security Council has emphasized the need to support national authorities in upholding their responsibility to protect. There are over 30 resolutions adopted by the UN Security Council with direct references to R2P. The African Commission on Human Rights and Peoples’ Rights has adopted a resolution on strengthening the responsibility to protect in Africa. The European Parliament has recommended full implementation of R2P by the European Union. The Inter-Parliamentary Union Assembly in Quito in 2013, which brought together over 600 parliamentarians across the globe, adopted a resolution on enforcing R2P at home, the first of its kind in its history.
The Group of Friends of R2P, co-chaired by the Kingdom of the Netherlands and the Republic of Rwanda, has grown to 49 members. Karel J.G. van Oosterom from the Netherlands, speaking on behalf of the Group of Friends at the UNGA dialogue last week, called for an adoption of a resolution marking the 10th anniversary and “reaffirming its commitment to the principle that the international community should never submit to the politics of indifference and inaction.”
The R2P National Focal Point Initiative, led by the Global Centre for R2P, which involves appointing a senior-level official responsible for mainstreaming R2P and atrocity prevention, has grown rapidly in the past few years to over 50 members. Its latest member, South Korea, will be hosting next year’s meeting of Group of Friends of R2P — excellent news for gaining momentum in the Asia-Pacific region.
The UN Secretary General has introduced a “Human Rights Up Front” initiative to mainstream protection and human rights across the UN system, while Jennifer Welsh, his Special Advisor on R2P, is working closely with member states and civil society organizations to develop a ‘compendium of practice’ for implementing R2P. Considering that R2P marks one of the most significant developments in our understanding of sovereignty, with an aspiration only matched by the UN Charter, the momentum gained in the last few years for R2P is truly remarkable. Looking ahead, the focus should be on careful and consistent implementation, because every challenge we successfully manage using R2P will set a precedent for future crises.
There are six main ways in which we can take a step closer towards institutionalizing R2P in the next decade.
First, domestic embracing of R2P by all member states is critical. Appointing the National R2P Focal Point is an important first step, but it must be accompanied by an action plan with specific policy options and long-term strategies tailored to national and regional circumstances. TheUNA-UK report on implementing R2P, authored by Jason Ralph, provides a very helpful prototype on turning R2P into policy at the domestic level.
Second, a stronger partnership must be built between parliamentarians, academics, journalists, businesses, security sectors, and civil society groups across the globe, to widen and deepen public support for R2P. The Canadian Centre for R2P has a R2P Scholars Network of over 100 fellows around the world working to solidify the knowledge base of R2P, while the International Coalition for R2P has a growing network of over 80 civil society organizations. Advancing R2P requires input from all sectors of society, particularly for a successful long-term movement.
Third, to make prevention a priority for R2P, more resources must be dedicated towards education, training, and investment in infrastructure. We must be proactive in using technology and social media to track and assess risks, refute hateful messages, and empower the younger generations. Addressing the root causes of mass atrocities and building national resilience will be a slow process, requiring patience, persistence and paradigm change.
Fourth, to end the culture of impunity, member states that have yet to join the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court and the Additional Protocols I and II to the Geneva Conventions must ratify them in a timely manner. A firm mechanism to hold perpetrators accountable will be an important deterrent against future mass atrocity crimes.
Fifth, mainstreaming R2P across the UN system in line with the “Human Rights Up Front” initiative will require a careful re-assessment of the UN’s protection capacity, as well as enhancing clarity and efficiency in its coordination mechanisms. Restraining the Security Council’s use of the veto power for mass atrocity situations is an important component of this process.
Lastly, the real success of Pillar Three for R2P will depend on building deployable capacity in political, financial, technical, humanitarian, and if necessary, military terms. Timely and decisive responses will require a credible pool of resources and a comprehensive strategy of engagement, especially in the face of violent extremism.
As the UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon once said, there will never be a clear blueprint for tackling mass atrocities, because every situation will require a different set of responses. We must also be mindful of unintended consequences, new challenges and threats, as well as difficulties of overcoming our short-term political interests in the face of every new crisis.
Nevertheless, R2P remains a powerful paradigm to unite our efforts, mobilize resources, and choose hope over cynicism in our struggle against hate, indifference and mass atrocities. Canada has a long-standing history of promoting global humanitarianism – history will judge us for our actions more than our words. Fighting for human dignity everywhere is a challenge that each one of us must embrace, for the death of an innocent three-year old boy is one too many while we remain as bystanders to the worst humanitarian crisis of our time.