There is no longer serious debate whether or not the international community has a responsibility to protect people from genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes, and ethnic cleansing, said Simon Adams, executive director of the Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect. He said that is a sign of great progress around the responsibility to protect (RtoP), the international security and human rights principle adopted ten years ago at the World Summit.
“We’ve won the battle of ideas,” Mr. Adams said. “I think the debate now is how we meaningfully implement it in specific circumstances.”
While he remains optimistic, he said, “we’ve still got very far to go,” and cited Rwanda as an important turning point when the United Nations (UN) had to “accept its inability to live up to the promises it made in the charter.”
“The UN was set up to stop wars between states, yet you’re more likely to be killed by your own government in the 21st century than you are of being killed by somebody else’s government,” he said. “We’ve got a 20th-century UN trying to cope with 21st-century problems.”
Mr. Adams said that even when a UN mission is focused on the protection of civilians, such as the one in South Sudan, “we run into logistical issues, we run into issues of the fact that they still can’t get the full complement of troops, and that has as much to do with the willingness of states to contribute resources both human and helicopters and other things as it does about political will.”
“We’ve seen some situations over the last couple of years which have really improved—Kenya was one that we were really worried about, around the elections last year—but we’ve seen Iraq, Nigeria, and a couple of other situations get a lot worse very, very quickly,” he said.
Mr. Adams said the situation in Burma (Myanmar) “is one that certainly keeps me awake at night.” While the country is opening up to a democratic transition, he said “the state-institutionalized discrimination against the Rohingya minority and also the recent violent and deadly attacks on Muslims more generally point to something very dark and sinister that’s going on in that country.”
The Q&A was conducted by Adam Lupel, director of publications at the International Peace Institute.
In the twenty years since the Rwandan genocide, the United Nations system has developed a considerable body of policies, principles, and institutions dedicated to the goal of preventing mass atrocities. Yet in 2014, large-scale violence against civilians has been all too prevalent. And it has even occurred in countries with a significant UN presence, such as South Sudan. Are we getting any closer to preventing these crimes and what are the obstacles that are preventing us?
You start with a very hard question. I think it’s an uneven story. Rwanda was such a fundamental failure. I had the opportunity to work in Rwanda after the genocide, and it’s something that sticks with me to this day. Probably not a day goes by when I don’t think about the kind of experience Rwanda had. I was there a while after the genocide, but it still had a very profound effect on me.
Rwanda is important because it was a turning point when the UN had to accept its inability to live up to the promises it made in the charter, and what it means when you have blue helmets there, and what obligations come with that.
Without Rwanda, and without the genocide at Srebrenica in 1995, there would be no responsibility to protect (RtoP). It was the kind of soul-searching in the aftermath of that failure that led to RtoP. And I think on some level, we’ve seen real progress, and on other levels we’ve still got very far to go.
And so in a couple of the cases that you mentioned, such as South Sudan, we see a mission which is focused on the protection of civilians, and yet we run into logistical issues, we run into issues of the fact that they still can’t get the full complement of troops, and that has as much to do with the willingness of states to contribute resources both human and helicopters and other things as it does about political will.
What always worries me is a situation like the Central African Republic, where there isn’t a strong international interest, where there aren’t states on the Security Council or outside it who really are emotionally engaged or engaged geopolitically with the situation. We see in those situations how hard we have to work to get the world to pay attention and take action. So I think that, despite all our weaknesses and setbacks, we are still slowly and hopefully moving in the right direction. But we still have very far to go.
This week, the deputy secretary-general lamented that far too often rhetoric outpaces action and that the very reputation of the UN hinges upon doing better. What do you think is needed to improve the speed of international action?
We’ve got a 20th-century UN trying to cope with 21st-century problems. The world has definitely changed since 1945—I think we can all agree on that. And yet I don’t think the UN has kept pace with that. So we hear under every secretary-general that there is going to be widespread UN reform, and yet we still have the same kind of structures that emerged out of 1945. I think a lot more can be done to make the UN capable of responding to what Kofi Annan once described as “problems without passports.” And I think that mass atrocity crimes, unfortunately, are one of those issues of our century.
The UN was set up to stop wars between states, yet you’re more likely to be killed by your own government in the 21st century than you are of being killed by somebody else’s government. The battle against mass atrocities is part of that, but it requires UN reform in order to be able to harness the political will to confront mass atrocities and to do so in a better and more timely way.
As you mentioned, in some cases, states themselves are the perpetrators of atrocity crimes. How do you see specifically the second pillar of RtoP, which relates to state assistance, addressing this?
I have been very lucky in the job that I do to see some of this in practice, where states reach out to one another, particularly with states that are fragile or have faced conflict or have experienced mass atrocities themselves. And what I’ve seen there and through the global network of RtoP focal points is that those states wanted to share their experience with other states as a sort of warning from history. And also reaching out regionally and sometimes much further than that to say, “This is a problem that we identify in our own country. Can you help us with it? Can you help us in terms of resources or can you help us even in terms of ideas, history, and historical experience because you went through something similar yourself or at least you have assisted in getting out of it.”
The part of RtoP which is often undervalued and under-examined is precisely this whole issue of how states assist one another. Because I think there are a number of countries in the world that have done really amazing work. They are not all the way there yet, but Liberia and Côte d’Ivoire are two examples of countries that have come out of atrocities, come out of conflict, realized that if they don’t deal with the underlying situations and conflicts in their country they will go back into conflict again, and that they have a brief window of time in which to begin to address these issues and build a better future. So I think the international community needs to get better at strengthening and sustaining the voices of people who want to improve their countries in that way.
Are there high-risk situations that you are monitoring that you believe are not getting the attention that they deserve?
The situation in Burma (Myanmar) is one that certainly keeps me awake at night. I think it’s something of a neglected case because the general story, the popular perception regarding Myanmar is that it’s come out of military dictatorship, that it’s on a reform process that’s opening up to a democratic transition and a better Myanmar.
I think that’s true, but I think underneath that truth is also a very dark aspect of what’s happening in the country at the moment. Particularly, the state-institutionalized discrimination against the Rohingya minority and also the recent violent and deadly attacks on Muslims more generally point to something very dark and sinister that’s going on in that country. And I think there is a storm gathering there and that more needs to be done right now to actually confront that. Yes, they should be applauded for the transition from military rule, but they have to uphold their responsibility to protect all their populations, regardless of their religious beliefs or ethnic background.
So Burma is one definitely that worries me, but 2014 has been a really challenging year. We’ve seen some situations over the last couple of years which have really improved—Kenya was one that we were really worried about, around the elections last year—but we’ve seen Iraq, Nigeria, and a couple of other situations get a lot worse very, very quickly.
Next year is the tenth anniversary of the World Summit, which first brought world leaders to agree on a fundamental responsibility to protect. As RtoP enters its second decade, are you optimistic for its future?
Yes, I am very optimistic for its future and I’m reminded of something that a colleague and friend of mine, Ed Luck, the former UN special adviser for RtoP, told me at the UK Houses of Parliament. He made this point, which really resonated with me: the two signature achievements of the UN in its early years were both made under the shadow of Auschwitz. There was the Genocide Convention and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights—both passed in December of 1948. Those are kind of foundation documents for all of us who believe in human rights and that a better world is possible.
But how would you measure success in the 1950s against those documents? There were tremendous inconsistencies, hypocrisies, with the language of human rights used and abused by both sides in the Cold War.
And yet, despite all of that, there was cumulative progress over the century, so that when we get to 1989 or 1990, the language of human rights becomes the dominant framework for understanding the world, if you like. And we can definitely see what the benefit is, looking over the century—there’s been real and huge progress.
So, measured against that, we’ve made extraordinary progress in ten years on the responsibility to protect. I don’t think anybody really seriously debates that the international community has a responsibility to protect people from genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes, and ethnic cleansing. We’ve won the battle of ideas. I think the debate now is how we meaningfully implement it in specific circumstances. And I for one am happy to continue to be part of that fight. So yes, I think we’re slowly crawling forward.