Despite the war-weariness of Americans and political and institutional obstacles, the United States should take the global lead in fulfilling the "Responsibility to Protect," an international norm aimed at protecting civilians from genocide and mass atrocities, two senior U.S. foreign policy figures said July 23 at the release of a report issued by the U.S. Institute of Peace (USIP), the U.S. Holocaust Museum and the Brookings Institution. The Responsibility to Protect principle is generally known as "R2P."

USIP, Partners Release Report on Realizing ‘Responsibility to Protect’

The release of "The United States and R2P: From Words to Action" took place at a symposium held at the Holocaust Museum in Washington. It reflects the deliberations of experts and practitioners convened by the three institutions. In 2011, they established the Working Group on the Responsibility to Protect, and the report was written by its co-chairs, former Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright and former Presidential Senior Envoy to Sudan Richard S. Williamson.  

Albright and Williamson argued at the July 23 event for U.S. leadership on R2P, albeit with pragmatism in how it is done amid the varying circumstances of humanitarian crises and the political constraints. "Just because you can't do everything doesn't mean you shouldn't do something," said Williamson, now a nonresident senior fellow at Brookings who served in senior foreign policy posts in the Reagan, George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush administrations. While acknowledging "the fatigue of the American public" over wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, active support for R2P will make it more difficult for brutal leaders and other perpetrators of mass crimes to "open the gates of hell," he said.

Albright, chair of the global strategy firm Albright Stonebridge Group and a professor at Georgetown University, emphasized that the United States does not have sole responsibility for applying R2P. The United States may be the "indispensible nation," she said, repeating a term adopted by her and President Bill Clinton, but "we do not have to respond to this alone." The spread of communications and surveillance technologies dramatically improve the international community's ability to monitor signs of atrocities and thereby helps deter them, she said. At the same time, R2P does not create a new legal duty to act.

"The United States and R2P" provides a wide-ranging analysis of R2P, broadly described as an emerging global norm that seeks to protect civilians from genocide and other major violations of international humanitarian law. It lays out 20 recommendations for U.S. actions to strengthen the concept in practice. R2P was endorsed unanimously by national leaders meeting in 2005 at the United Nations World Summit. It features three main elements: every state's duty to protect its people from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity; the international community's commitment to help states fulfill that responsibility; and the preparedness of countries to act collectively under the U.N. Charter—diplomatically, economically and, if agreed, militarily—if a state is manifestly failing to protect its own people. 

R2P gained support amid soul-searching over the international community's inability to halt mass humanitarian crimes in numerous countries after the end of the Cold War, including in Iraq, the former Yugoslavia, Cambodia, East Timor, Rwanda and Sudan. Since its formal endorsement in 2005, the concept has gained wider political acceptance globally. In April 2012, President Barack Obama announced new steps by the U.S. government to help stop mass humanitarian crimes, including the creation of an Atrocity Prevention Board. Obama called preventing mass atrocities and genocide "a core national security interest and a core moral responsibility of the United States." 

Yet the overall international response to civilian atrocities has yielded "a mixed track record," as the report states. Concerned countries and organizations, operating under U.N. authority, worked to prevent atrocities in Côte d'Ivoire, Kenya and South Sudan. During the Libyan revolution the U.N. Security Council explicitly cited R2P in its authorization to defend civilians with a no-fly zone and by taking "all necessary measures." But in other cases, such as Sri Lanka, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and, most recently, Syria, mass killings have continued without an effective international response. 

"All too often, the promise of R2P has been more noteworthy in its breach than in the honoring of our commitments. Despite the lofty ambitions of its framers, the crimes R2P was intended to prevent have continued at a shocking pace in the last few years," the report says. It calls for new mechanisms to help prevent atrocities but also "the willingness to act and take risks when necessary to save lives."  

The two authors say the United States should "provide global leadership" on the issue. Specifically, their report calls on U.S. officials to "regularly articulate a clear vision of U.S. atrocity prevention policy and cast a spotlight on the U.S. commitment to R2P," as well as to respond rapidly as such humanitarian crises develop. "The U.S. government should consider any credible early warning of potential genocide or war crimes anywhere in the world to require an immediate high-level policy review to identify alternatives and take steps to reduce the likelihood of catastrophe," the report argues. Albright and Williamson also urge a U.S. diplomatic initiative at the U.N. and with other nations to strengthen global capacity to prevent atrocities covered by R2P; efforts to increase the effectiveness of the International Criminal Court; a U.S. study of modern technologies that can be employed to predict and deter threats of atrocities; and full congressional funding for crisis prevention and stabilization measures. 

Write Albright and Williamson, "These steps need not require vast, new expenditures, but they will not be possible if governments react to ongoing budget pressures by slashing current levels of investment. Experience tells us that funds devoted to crisis prevention are likely in the long run to save both treasure and lives." 

The report reviews political and institutional obstacles to advancing R2P, and the two co-chairs note that "there will always be limits on what we can accomplish in world affairs." But they add: "Asserting that nothing realistic can be done to stop mass atrocities makes such violations more likely. Engaging in constant preparations to prevent and end war crimes may save thousands, even millions, of lives." 

"The United States and R2P" follows on the work of the USIP-supported Genocide Prevention Task Force, which issued an influential December 2008 report, "Preventing Genocide: A Blueprint for U.S. Policymakers." That task force was convened by USIP, the Holocaust Museum and the American Academy of Diplomacy and was co-chaired by Albright and former Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen. The U.S. Atrocity Prevention Board launched last year reflected a specific recommendation made by the Genocide Prevention Task Force.  

The R2P report unveiled on July 23 moves beyond the earlier study in ways that can help policymakers develop practical next steps, said Jonas Claes, a program officer in USIP's Center for Conflict Management who helped coordinate the R2P working group. "This is the first report that provides recommendations on U.S. atrocity prevention policy through the lens of R2P. It bridges U.S. policy with the important work of the U.N. and shows that the atrocity prevention efforts identified as a foreign policy priority of the Obama administration and the international efforts to realize R2P complement each other," Claes said.

Appearing at the Holocaust Museum meeting, former Canadian Foreign Minister Lloyd Axworthy agreed that U.S. leadership on R2P is essential to its success; he called the report "a call to action." "It [R2P] can be a practicing protocol, as it was in Libya," said Axworthy, now the president of the University of Winnipeg. He said the United States is "the world's largest defender of human rights," but as such its officials should be "using the words ‘R2P' in a public way." He described R2P as "a template to work from" but one that demands reaching out to the public and civil society groups to mobilize support for its use in crises.

Another group of former U.S. foreign policy officials participating in the July 23 symposium considered the challenges of applying R2P to contemporary conflicts, particularly Syria. Heather Hurlburt, executive director of the National Security Network, compared the Clinton administration's decision to lead a humanitarian intervention over Bosnia—coming after the international failure to stop ethnic bloodletting in Rwanda—to the political context facing the Obama administration in Syria. She said foreign policy figures today have the lengthy, costly intervention in Iraq on their minds. "It makes it harder to see Syria through an R2P paradigm," she said.

Nicholas Burns of Harvard University said the legacy of Iraq in some respects has "imprisoned" discussion of U.S. moves in Syria. Both the humanitarian and the geopolitical dimensions of the Syrian conflict make the "risk of inaction" more dangerous than that of action, he argued, tipping the balance toward intervention. Columnist Michael Gerson said that applying R2P in "a two-sided civil war" such as Syria's is more difficult. Officials need to try to avoid being confronted with a choice of going to war or allowing impunity for atrocities, he said. "The focus needs to be on [developing] better choices," he said. 

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