R2P then and now: A conversation with Professor Gareth Evans about gross human rights violations in a changing global environment

Interview by Charlotte Abbott

Responsibility to Protect Student Journal Editorial Team

The Responsibility to Protect (R2P) concept was first outlined in 2001 with the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS) Report, authored by Professor Gareth Evans and Mohamed Sahnoun. In 2005 Governments unanimously agreed that they have a responsibility to protect populations from four crimes: genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes and ethnic cleansing. Fifteen years on from the adoption of R2P, we spoke with Professor Gareth Evans regarding his involvement in the creation of R2P, and the global factors which have influenced it since 2005. We touched on topics such as the legacy of colonialism, changing power dynamics between States and corporations and the US presidential election.

Moral versus legal obligations

In your recent European Centre for the Responsibility to Protect (ECR2P) Lecture [based on your GCR2P blog piece] titled ‘R2P: The Dream and the Reality’, you suggest that R2P is centred around creating a ‘compelling new sense of moral and political obligation’, as opposed to creating new legal rules. If so, how do we then enforce differing moral and political obligations if these are not embedded in international law?

Being embedded in international law, treaty or customary, does not guarantee effective enforcement: that is international law’s eternal problem. What matters is the political will to enforce the relevant norms, and that has always been R2P’s objective. That applies both in respect of (a) the important international human rights and humanitarian law obligations that do already inhibit states’ treatment of their own citizens or wartime behaviour and which are R2P relevant, and (b) those obligations under Pillars Two and Three of R2P which are not presently (some limited obligations under the Genocide Convention apart) at all cast in legal terms although hopefully they will ultimately evolve, through practical acceptance in years to come, as customary international law. What is abundantly clear is that any attempt to negotiate an R2P treaty would have gone nowhere in 2005 – and has no better prospects now, not least given the attitude of the US Senate to treaty ratification even under adult presidential administrations. Achieving effective implementation of R2P in all its dimensions is overwhelmingly a matter for political, not legal, advocacy and action.

The International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty

The initial International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS) report lacked attention on gender, climate change, business and human rights. Were the ICISS report to be written now, would you include these topics in relation to the prevention of gross human rights violations? What else would you focus on?

No. I would write it as it now is. Without the narrow focus on the ‘four crimes’ in 2005 R2P would have had no chance of being embraced by the World Summit. Of course rape and gender-related crimes are often at the heart of the worst mass atrocity crimes; business can be centrally involved in both abetting and preventing such crimes; and CO2 reduction is an absolutely critical existential issue for the planet. But we don’t help the R2P cause at all by diluting its focus to extend to other public goods issues, whether related or unrelated and whatever their merit. See further my answer to your last question below.

The ICISS report was drafted before the war on terror. In what ways has the war on terror affected R2P implementation? How have R2P and counter-terrorism interacted given their different conceptions of security (human centred for R2P and state-centered for counter-terrorism)?

Counter-terrorism and R2P strategies are conceptually distinct but complementary, in the sense that R2P-atrocity crimes are often perpetrated by terrorist organisations. (R2P is similarly conceptually distinct but complementary to the United Nations ‘Protection of Civilians’ agenda – the latter being concerned with a broader range of protection issues than just atrocity crimes, and only in a wartime/conflict environment.) The main impact of the ‘war on terror’ on R2P was the way in which 9/11 in 2001, just before the ICISS report was published, moved terrorism to centre stage in international security policy discourse, after a decade in which the big debate was about ‘humanitarian intervention’. It remains something of a miracle that we were able to keep enough focus on the broader issue of mass atrocity crimes to win through as we did at the 2005 World Summit.

The development of R2P

Would you agree that the discourse of colonialism continues to affect the way in which R2P operates, in a practical sense? If so, how and why?

Colonialism discourse had a very strong negative impact on Western attempts to gain traction for the ‘right of humanitarian intervention’ in the 1990s. One of the great breakthroughs of ICISS was to change the underlying basis of that discourse by reconceptualising ‘right’ as ‘responsibility’ and ‘intervention’ as ‘protection’. The measure of our success was the unanimity of the 2005 resolution with the states of sub-Saharan Africa, every last one of them passionately anti-colonialist, playing an absolutely crucial supporting role. That dynamic has largely continued, with some states – like Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela – regularly trying to play a spoiling colonialism card, but gaining little traction in UN General Assembly debates and elsewhere for their efforts: the basic elements of the R2P norm are still pretty much universally accepted.

The continuing fallout from the Permanent Three’s overreach in Libya in 2011, which enraged the BRICS countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) in particular, continues to inhibit consensus in the Security Council, and that has a whiff of anti-colonialist/imperialist sentiment about it – ‘these guys are never to be trusted’ –but this dispute has always been more about general geopolitics than anti-colonialism as such.

As Multinational Corporations (MNCs) are becoming increasingly wealthy and powerful, should the R2P be applied to MNCs as well as states (see the case of Uighur Muslims forced labour in Chinese and international MNCs and Facebook’s contribution to the spread of hate speech in Myanmar against the Rohingya)?

Non-state actors, including multinational corporations and terrorist and militia groups, have always been important players in an R2P context. Curbing their behaviour or – in the case of businesses – enlisting their support will often need to be addressed in crafting R2P preventive, reactive and peacebuilding strategies at both national and intergovernmental levels.

Before the US election, you argued that Trump vs Biden’s approach to the COVID-19 crisis would either ‘accelerate defensive nationalism and mistrust of international institutions and processes, or serve rather as a giant wake-up call as to the absolute necessity of effective international cooperation’. In light of Joe Biden’s election, where do you see international commitment to the ‘responsibility to protect’ heading in the next years, and in a ‘post-Covid’ world?

The Biden administration will be genuinely committed to both human rights protection and cooperative multilateralism, and as such I look forward to a renewed commitment by the US to the key elements of the R2P agenda – and certainly to the values which underlie it, and for that to be influential in underpinning wider international support for R2P. There will probably still be over-caution – which I found incredibly frustrating under the Obama administration – about publicly embracing R2P in a domestic, as distinct from UN context (because it implied commitment to certain courses of action, and Washington, whoever is in power, likes to be seen by domestic critics as absolutely unconstrained in keeping all its options open). And there will certainly be extreme resistance – in the prevailing domestic political environment – to rushing into new foreign military adventures. But I don’t think a Biden presidency would just wash its hands should another Rwandan or Bosnian genocide situation erupt on its watch. Syrian type cases – not to mention cases like Xinjiang’s Uighurs – will be much harder, but they always are.

Advice for young scholars and practitioners

What advice do you have for young scholars and practitioners who are interested in working in the field of atrocity prevention/responses to gross human rights violations?

I have spelt this out, in the context of international careers generally, at considerable length in an article for The Conversation. In short, acquire the right professional skills; do your best to acquire relevant experience, through internships in relevant organisations and as much adventurous travel as you can, Covid permitting; give trust to luck; and stay optimistic. It really is crucial that the next generation of scholars and practitioners – those with a serious practical policy, not just theoretical, bent – carry on the fight for effective implementation of R2P in all its dimensions. The task is not just to analyse the world’s behaviour, but to change it. Go for it!

We’d like to end this interview with a question, but this time you’re the one asking it. When it comes to R2P today, what question do you find to be most important? What do you find is the most redundant?

The question I continue to find most unhelpful is the kind originally asked me by the Canadian Foreign Minister Lloyd Axworthy, who initiated the ICISS Commission, and which has been repeated in endless variants in different settings (including this interview request!) since: ‘R2P is such a beautiful idea: why shouldn’t we talk about a ‘responsibility to protect’ the Inuit people of the Arctic Circle from the ravages of climate change?’

The point is that any concept which is about everything ends up being about nothing, certainly when it comes to effective operational implementation. ‘Human security’ – though making the valuable point that individuals count as much as states – has suffered that fate. R2P was designed above all else with an operational objective: to energise effective international responses to mass atrocity crimes, threatened or occurring, behind sovereign state borders: if you make it about lots of other (unquestionably valuable) causes, you completely lose any such traction.

The most important continuing question for me is ‘How do we recreate effective consensus on the UN Security Council when it comes to responding to the most extreme mass atrocity crime cases?’.

Plenty will say that comes down the list, and that the whole present advocacy focus should be on prevention rather than reaction because if the former is effective the latter is redundant. Apart from the practical reply that achieving preventive perfection is unhappily still a distant aspiration, effective reaction to the really hard cases – the Cambodias and Rwandas and Bosnias – is where R2P’s credibility, and longevity, really stands or falls. Get unanimity on these issues in the world’s most important security forum and everything else falls into place; fail, and the cynics and sceptics will continue to gnaw away at the very concept of R2P and its utility in every other context.

Atrocity Prevention, 15 Years Since the Adoption of R2P: Interview with UN Special Adviser on R2P Dr. Karen Smith

Interview by Georgiana Epure, Charlotte Abbott and Emma Bapt

In 2005, governments unanimously agreed that they have both an individual and a collective responsibility to protect (R2P) populations, not just citizens, from four crimes: genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes and ethnic cleansing. In 2008, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon established the position of the Special Advisor on the Responsibility to Protect and since 2009 the Secretary-General has been publishing annual reports on R2P clarifying and developing what this concept means and what ‘tools’ it needs in order to be implemented more effectively. Fifteen years after the adoption of the R2P, we talked with Dr. Karen Smith, the UN Special Adviser of the Secretary-General on the Responsibility to Protect. Our interview touched on a series of issues that range from how the coronavirus pandemic affects atrocity prevention efforts to the role that religious leaders have in countering incitement to violence, and the relation between R2P and the Women, Peace and Security agenda – the topic of the Secretary-General’s upcoming report on R2P.

COVID-19

Recently, the UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres has called for an end to the ‘tsunami of hate and xenophobia’ sparked by the coronavirus pandemic. What is the state of the R2P norm in an age of increasing nationalism where more and more leaders legitimise hate speech, which may lead to hate crimes and other early warnings of atrocity crimes?

The rise in hate speech that we have seen accompanying a rise in nationalism and populism in many parts of the world underscores the fact that R2P is as relevant as ever. States – including their leaders – must be reminded of the responsibility they have, and the commitment they made in 2005, to protect their populations (including minorities and migrants). It is important to note that no country is immune from hate speech and its potential violent effects. During the current global pandemic, we have seen a worrying trend in which already vulnerable populations are targeted by hate speech and sometimes violent behaviour, based on accusations related to the spread of the coronavirus. The UN Secretary-General recognised the importance of addressing rising hate speech when, at the beginning of last year, he tasked the Office of the Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide to coordinate the development of a UN-wide Strategy and Plan of Action on Hate Speech, which is currently being rolled out, and has recently been supplemented by a guidance note on addressing COVID-19 related hate speech. Importantly, the Strategy and Plan of Action calls for more rather than less speech, underlining the importance of protecting freedom of expression whilst addressing hate speech that incites violence.

In May, the UN Security Council was close to voting on a resolution calling for a global ceasefire that would enable the international community to focus on ending the coronavirus pandemic. Conflict, fragile societies and the threat of atrocities may severely impact nations’ ability to confront COVID-19. Do you think the pandemic will reshape the way in which the international community thinks about global responsibilities and basic universal rights? 

The COVID-19 pandemic clearly has serious implications for the responsibility to protect, not least because it is likely to significantly increase the risk to already vulnerable populations. We are already witnessing that those parts of the population who already face high levels of risk – including ethnic, religious and sexual minorities, refugees, the poor, and women, are facing increased risk to their safety and their livelihoods. In many countries minorities have become the target of hate speech and in some cases even violence, based on their alleged association with the spreading of infections. In the development of national and global responses to the crisis, it is essential that any action takes into consideration the potential implications for the risk of atrocity crimes. Some of the lessons being learned in dealing with the COVID-19 outbreak are also relevant for atrocity prevention. These include the obvious, but consistently under-prioritised, fact that prevention is better than cure. Similarly, the importance of early warning – whether with reference to conflict, pandemics, or atrocity crimes, has been underlined. Like many other global governance challenges, the virus does not respect borders and therefore a multilateral, collective global response is really the only viable solution. Worryingly, over the past few years there has been a trend towards weakening multilateral institutions and, as part of growing nationalist and populist sentiments around the world, a general questioning of multilateralism. We must therefore also see the current crisis as presenting the international community with an opportunity to reflect on the nature of the current global order, and which issues should be prioritised, in the interests of building a better world.

Role of religious leaders

More and more attention is directed towards bringing religious leaders into efforts to prevent and counter incitement to violence, including identity-based violence. Last year, Ms Federica Mogherini, then European Union High Representative of Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, announced a new EU-sponsored Global Exchange on Religion in Society to connect and empower civil society actors who are working on faith and social inclusion. Notably, in 2017, under the stewardship of the UN Office on Genocide Prevention and the Responsibility to Protect,  the UN Secretary General launched the Plan of Action for Religious Leaders and Actors to Prevent Incitement to Violence that Could Lead to Atrocity Crimes. Where do we factor in an approach to R2P that mobilises members of civil society and focuses on particular areas (i.e. religion) for prevention purposes within the more common state-centric R2P approach? Is this a sign of a shift in approach, or R2Psimply diversifying its prevention ‘toolkit’?

While it remains the primary responsibility of states to protect their populations from atrocity crimes, this is not to the exclusion of other (non-state) actors. Particularly with regard to prevention, it is obvious that individual governments cannot build tolerant, resilient societies without the support of civil society. Many civil society actors can and have been playing important roles. These include women, youth, and religious leaders. As mentioned earlier, we have witnessed a disturbing rise in hate speech in recent years, much (but not all) of which targets religion. It is here that religious leaders can be particularly important in promoting tolerance and preventing incitement to hatred amongst their followers. As part of its Plan of Action for Religious Leaders, the Office of the Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide has worked with religious leaders from across different world regions and faiths to come up with a strategy that outlines specific targets aimed at preventing hate speech through enhancing education and capacity building, fostering inter-and intra-faith dialogue, and strengthening collaboration with traditional and new media. Religious leaders are undoubtedly essential partners in the fight against atrocities.

R2P focal points

Last year the Global Network of R2P Focal Points welcomed its second regional focal point (after the EU): the Organisation of American States. Why is it important that states and regional actors have such a focal point? What does the fact that most, if not all, R2P focal points are based in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs say about R2P? Doesn’t this pattern in a way contradict R2P’s focus on domestic prevention?

The global focal points initiative is another stepping stone to wider implementation of R2P. The idea behind having such focal points in governments and regional organisations is that they are tasked with raising atrocity prevention as a priority across the work of governments, whether that be conflict prevention, development assistance, or education. While it should, in essence, matter less which ministry the focal point is based in, but rather how active they are, the fact that most focal points to date have been appointed in ministries of foreign affairs does tell us something about how most states still view R2P. While the international community’s responsibility to assist prevention efforts and respond to the commission of atrocities in all states is of course an important element of R2P, this should not override the primary responsibility of states to protect their own populations. In this regard, more needs to be done to emphasise the importance of thinking of R2P in domestic terms – even in states where the commission of atrocity crimes seems unlikely. As mentioned above, we are seeing a worrying rise in intolerance, hate speech and incitement to violence in many countries, and these risk factors should be taken seriously and addressed appropriately.

Women, Peace and Security agenda

Many scholars and practitioners have noted that R2P lacks a gender lens. Where do you situate the Women Peace and Security agenda in the process of making the R2P norm more gender sensitive? Given R2P scepticism, do you think that moving towards merging these two agendas might risk bringing down the WPS agenda’s consensus power?

The criticism of R2P lacking a gender lens is partly justified. While explicit reference to gender is, for example, limited in tools such as the Framework for Analysis, in practice, there is greater emphasis on the role of gender inequality, gender-based violence, and the role of women in particular in assessments that are done using this tool. Having said that, there is certainly room for improvement, and a need to think more systematically about how to incorporate gender more effectively into R2P but also – and this is important – to make atrocity prevention an integral part of the WPS agenda. To this end, this year’s SG report on R2P will focus on this exact issue. It is particularly relevant given the significance of 2020 for both agendas – 25 years since the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action for women’s rights, 20 years since the passing of the UN Security Council resolution 1325 on women, peace and security, and 15 years since the adoption of the R2P during the World Summit in 2005. I don’t think that highlighting the areas of complementarity have to mean merging the agendas. It is more about recognising the potential for mutual reinforcement that already exists.

Measuring R2P success

Despite the rich literature on R2P, much of it documents where R2P went wrong, and numerous scholars argue that it is obsolete or a “hollow norm”. Are there any success stories? The bigger question is: how do you measure R2P success today?

It is always easier to identify and focus on where things went wrong – this is also how we have been trained by the global news cycle. The focus on where R2P has not been successful is also linked to the emphasis on the use of military force to respond to atrocities. If we agree that the ultimate aim of R2P is to prevent atrocities from occurring in the first place, this is where we should measure success. This, however, is difficult, as it often leads us down the path of counterfactuals. Conflict averted and atrocities prevented are not newsworthy, and it is often difficult to say what would or could have happened had certain steps not been taken. There are, however, some examples of where collective action by states, regional actors and the international community successfully prevented the likely commission of atrocities. One often-cited case is Kenya, following election violence in 2008. Another is The Gambia. When the outgoing president Jammeh refused to hand over power to his elected successor and ordered troops to be deployed to act against the civilian population, ECOWAS deployed a mediation team. They were supported by the UNSC, the AU, EU and key states. When the mediation failed, ECOWAS deployed a coalition of military forces to protect the civilian population. Eventually President Jammeh stepped down, and ECOWAS forces remained to oversee the transition of power. These are two clear examples of the responsibility to protect in action.

A word for young people working on atrocity prevention

What advice do you have for young scholars and practitioners who are interested in working in the field of atrocity prevention?

I would strongly encourage anyone interested in this field to pursue it – there is much work that remains to be done, both on the academic side and in practice. In terms of students working on R2P and atrocity prevention: while there is certainly a place for theoretical work on issues such as norm evolution and contestation, my experience has been that there is an even greater need for policy-oriented research that can help to advance the implementation of the responsibility to protect in a very practical way. For example, this year’s Secretary-General’s report will focus on women and R2P. While there is evidence-based research showing a clear link between gender equality and women’s rights and a state’s propensity for conflict, much research is still needed to explicitly highlight the links between these issues and atrocity prevention in particular. Similarly, there is still much to learn about what causes atrocity crimes to be committed, and what types of responses are effective in preventing them in different contexts. More research is essential if we want to strengthen our prevention efforts. With regards to working in the field of atrocity prevention, I would underline that there is a need for individuals who are committed to prioritising atrocity prevention across all fields, so do not be discouraged if you do not find a job in an organisation specifically dedicated to it. What we need is for atrocity prevention to be mainstreamed and prioritised across domestic and foreign policy making, development cooperation, education, and so forth.

After a series of thought-provoking answers from Dr. Karen Smith, the interview came to a close with the R2P Student Journal engaging in role reversal. We invited Dr. Smith to state the most important and redundant questions regarding R2P today. In her opinion, the most important question related to the norm’s implementation: ‘How can we ensure effective prevention of atrocity crimes?’, whilst the most redundant question is: ‘Is R2P still relevant?’.