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.