20 Years on from Rwanda, Can We Resuscitate R2P?
Patrick W. Quirk and Nathalie Tocci WASHINGTON—Last week marked the 20-year anniversary of mass genocide in Rwanda. Taking stock of what enabled Hutu extremists to slaughter as many as 1 million Tutsis and moderate Hutus, advocates, and pundits alike called for “never again.” Looking back, such consensus is relatively easy. So many innocents should never lose their lives. Accord is harder won, however, on how such noble goals should be achieved — indeed, the international community remains increasingly divided over how best to prevent mass atrocities from occurring anew or stopping those currently underway.
We urge Western and emerging powers to take the Rwandan anniversary as an occasion to discuss and modify the Responsibility to Protect (R2P), the norm that asserts states’ responsibility to protect innocent lives, not only because it is the right thing to do, but because their interests depend on it. The transatlantic allies and emerging powers have an interest in addressing conflict and in so doing preventing or curbing mass atrocities. Moral arguments aside, such forms of internal war and political violence can generate manifold consequences for the interests of these global players — from forcing mass migration of refugees and limiting access to natural resources to enabling terrorist organizations to leverage destabilized territories.
In sharing vulnerability to such consequences, Western and non-Western states alike have a common interest in engaging to stop these conflicts as well as protect those civilians whose lives are at stake. In spite of this overlap in interests, however, Western and emerging powers have divergent views on what is commonly known as the third pillar of R2P: the responsibility of the international community to intervene when a state manifestly fails to halt mass atrocities. Where the United States and Europe are more prone to endorse violations of sovereignty to balance risks associated with human rights violations, emerging powers are much more reticent to sign off on such actions.
Grounded in their respective political histories, this disconnect metastasized following the NATO-led intervention in Libya, which for emerging powers generally — and the so-called BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) particularly — surpassed R2P’s mandate. The follow-on consequence was to generate skepticism regarding R2P as a tool that could be employed not to save civilians but, instead, to pursue regime change. The Syrian people were the immediate casualty of this view. NATO’s perceived overreach and removal of Muammar Gaddafi created a knee-jerk normative reaction on Syria, where appetite to engage was far less than that initially expressed for Libya.
The interconnected engagements in Libya and Syria suggest that another consensual and UN-legitimized military intervention under R2P is unlikely any time soon. And therein lies the rub. Political violence shows no signs of abating, and the international community writ large will therefore need to deal with continued conflict and mass atrocities. However, they must reconcile their differences on the extant norms (R2P) and associated mechanisms for doing so. To move this forward, we recommend that the United States and Europe actively engage emerging powers on a discussion regarding the future of international responses to potential (or ongoing) mass atrocities.
In activating these discussions, the Atlantic democracies should signal their willingness to cede ground on R2P’s extant form. To concretely signal such readiness, the United States and Europe could propose using Brazil’s November 2011 “Responsibility while Protecting” (RwP) doctrine as a starting point for such dialogues. While far from perfect, RwP addresses many of the emerging powers’ concerns with R2P, especially its potential to be politicized and misused in the pursuit of other aims. It does so by grounding in international law the criteria required for the international community to engage in such operations, stipulating that interventions comply with the associated UN Security Council mandate.
In these discussions, Western powers could concede a concrete point outlined in RwP: that beyond authorizing interventions, the UNSC should develop enhanced procedures to closely monitor how they unfold. Yet all concessions cannot be made from the West. Indeed, Brazil, India, and others should offer to carry their share of the burden for future operations by proposing clear ways to provide financing, arms, and personnel. The time has passed where they can complain from the sideline as the United States and Europe bear the entire cost in blood and treasure.
Two decades after hundreds of thousands lost their lives in Rwanda, the future of R2P remains uncertain. Western and rising powers should use this anniversary as a prompt to resuscitate and revise R2P — for their respective national interests and the sake of normal people in war-prone states.
Patrick W. Quirk is a Fellow at the Transatlantic Academy of the German Marshall Fund in Washington DC. Nathalie Tocci is Deputy Director of the Rome-based Istituto Affari Internazionali. This article draws on the Transatlantic Academy’s forthcoming report, “Liberal Order in a Post-Western World.”
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.