Fifth annual report on the Responsibility to Protect (R2P): shining a light on local and national actors

As we sit and wait for world leaders to take a decision on the Syrian conflict (while Syrians are dying and suffering), I am reminded of the “international community’s incapacity to learn and listen. Listen because civil society groups, NGOs, think tanks and many others have been pushing for some type of intervention for two years now. Learn because world leaders always act when it is too late or too complicated to intervene. Once it is too late, we send the military in without finding a proper solution to the root causes of the conflict. The longer a conflict lasts the greater the difficulty and cost to act. Remember what the “Responsibility to Protect” states: if a state fails to protect its citizens, the international community should act in a “timely and decisive manner.” That is still something it is failing at.

In July, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon published his fifth annual report on the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) called “R2P: State responsibility and prevention” (official publication next week). In his introduction, the Secretary General explains the main focus and argument of the report: 1) prevention of mass atrocities 2) the main responsibility for mass atrocity prevention lies in the hands of the State.


 To put the report together the UN Office on Genocide Prevention and the Responsibility to Protect held a consultation process with UN member states, regional and sub-regional organizations, and civil society. They were invited to submit their views on progress made in terms of mass atrocity prevention, lessons learned from their own experience as well as challenges faced implementing these measures. In the end, 27 member states, one regional organization and 27 civil society organizations sent written submissions, and consultations were held with more than 120 members states.

Having had the luck to take part to meetings on this consultation process, I know that the Office’s main challenge was to find enough examples of lessons learned and to involve local civil society groups (this was a language issue). R2P is still an emerging norm and states are still in the process of creating or implementing prevention measures. Furthermore, the results of these policies and activities are unlikely to have immediate effects. Nonetheless, the consultation exercise provided important example of emerging mass atrocity prevention policies. 

Interestingly, the report starts by presenting a list of risk factors related to atrocity crimes. In doing so, the Secretary General emphasizes that no country is safe from mass atrocity crimes – preventing these crimes both at home and abroad is therefore everybody’s and every state’s responsibility. Particularly at risks, are states that have a history of discrimination, identity politics and/or deliberate exclusion. The absence of structures and laws designed to protect civilians, the presence of militias or a permissive environment increase these risks. But, nonetheless “No State can consider itself immune to the risk of atrocity crimes.” It is therefore wise of the report to provide examples of policy measures implemented in Australia, Portugal, Canada, France, Mexico, and Denmark.

At the heart of the Secretary General’s report lies the idea that because states have a responsibility to prevent mass atrocity crimes, they must build “societies that are resilient to atrocity crimes.” This focus on the state is smart because it corrects the misconception that R2P infringes on state sovereignty. Instead, the report clearly explains that creating an environment of resilience to mass atrocities reinforces State sovereignty and increases prospects for peace. Sovereignty is a right and a responsibility, and the best way to protect that cherished sovereignty is to respect the rights and lives of those who reside in the country.

In terms of policy measures, the report differentiates between structural and operational policy options. Structural policies are implemented to create an environment of resilience by addressing grievance and atrocity crimes (operational measures seek to mitigate tensions, halt imminent or ongoing crimes). These early preventive measures are interesting because they emphasize the need to get rid of sources of grievances before they create real tensions or escalate into violence. Among the policies cited are:

–       Constitutional protections;

–       Democracy (democratic electoral processes, political pluralism etc); National accountability mechanisms such as a fair and equal justice systems);

–       Security Sector reform (a legitimate and professional security sector);

–       Measures that address actual or perceived (economic) inequalities.

The emphasis is therefore on strong and legitimate national institutions and infrastructures that promote and guarantee human rights. Inclusive and accountable national infrastructures combined with specific national policies and measures are seen as the best ways to develop state resilience to mass atrocity crimes. 

One of the most interesting points of the report in the emphasis on the need for the creation of national or regional committees, parliamentary groups, or focal points that focus on atrocity prevention. Focal points and committees help coordinate national efforts to implement atrocity prevention strategies. Because these committees exist at local/national/regional level they are adapted to the local context. Indeed, while the responsibility to protect is a universal norm, there is no one-size-fits-all model for prevention policies. It depends on the country’s history, culture, demographics, etc. National and local actors are the ones who know what is needed.

The second appealing aspect of focal points or national committees is that they can include a variety of actors. Mass atrocity prevention and R2P are about national and internal actors first and should therefore encourage the participation of legislators, government officials, local NGOs and civil society groups. The best way to come up with policy and strategies that are adapted to the local and nation context is to create focal points that are inclusive and participatory.

Such focal points and regional committees already exist in Denmark, Ghana, Costa Rica, Canada, Kenya, the U.S. and Tanzania, among others. There have also been efforts to establish networks between focal points and committees so that states can share experiences and get an idea of the wide-ranging of existing initiatives available to them. This is crucial because even if policy measures are context-specific, policymakers can learn from countries where prevention measures have been successful. Such networks can create a “database” of policy options.

 Next week, the Deputy-Secretary-General, the Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide, and member state panellists, and civil society groups will convene in New York to discuss the report’s findings and national actions to strengthen government capacity to prevent mass atrocity crimes. Considering the present situation in Syria and our incapacity to learn from mistakes, one could question the need for such meetings. However, this is what makes the new report appealing: we should not wait and simply rely on external actors but on local and national ones. Considering the failure of the international community to act in a pro-active manner, starting the local and national level seems to be a more effective path to follow.



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