In his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech today, President Barack Obama urged the global community to intervene early, and work together, in responding to mass atrocities. “The closer we stand together, the less likely we will be faced with the choice between armed intervention and complicity in oppression,” he said.
A new Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) Special Report tackles these themes and recommends specific ways to intervene to stop genocide and mass atrocities. “The United States should take independent steps and work with allies to improve the responsiveness of the existing UN Security Council system while preparing and signaling a willingness, if the UN Security Council fails to act in future mass atrocity crises, to take necessary action to address them,” writes CFR Adjunct Senior Fellow Matthew C. Waxman, author of the report.
He notes “early preventive action is often critical to effective crisis response. Determining mass atrocities in the first place averts the human toll before it accumulates, and is also sometimes easier than stopping atrocities before they start.”
Waxman explains that U.S. strategy should include support for “responsibility to protect”—a concept that states, if a particular country is unwilling or unable to carry out its responsibility to protect its people, that responsibility must be transferred to the international community.
Waxman underscores that nonmilitary mechanisms are almost always a preferred option, he maintains that military threats and force remain important.
In Intervention to Stop Genocide and Mass Atrocities, Waxman recommends the United States should:
- Emphasize appropriate limits on Security Council vetoes: “In affirming its own commitment to the responsibility to protect, the United States should declare that each of the five permanent Security Council members has a special responsibility to uphold global norms and that the veto power should not be used to block timely and decisive action when genocide or crimes against humanity are manifestly occurring…”
- Encourage like-minded allies to issue similar or joint political statements on atrocity prevention and Security Council vetoes, while redoubling diplomacy on these issues with the Southern Hemisphere: “In the short term, similar statements from allies like Britain and France would reinforce the U.S. message supporting the responsibility to protect and the deterrent value of pledging in advance strong crisis response.”
- Stress the responsibility to protect and the need for timely and decisive action in its diplomacy on other multilateral legal issues: “The United States should integrate discussion of atrocity prevention and the responsibility to protect with its diplomacy on both UN Security Council reform and the International Criminal Court…” In particular, the United States should “make clear that it regards as unacceptable any reform proposal that undermines rather than improves the Security Council’s effectiveness in addressing [mass atrocity] crises.”
- Prepare to operate in cases of urgent necessity absent UN Security Council authorization. “Although it should not go so far as to declare in advance an explicit intention to do so, the United States should not completely hide its willingness to do so either.”
This report has been generously funded by the Jolie-Pitt Foundation.
Matthew C. Waxman is adjunct senior fellow for law and U.S. foreign policy at CFR. He is also associate professor of law at Columbia Law School. He previously served as principal deputy director of the State Department’s policy planning staff, deputy assistant secretary of defense for detainee affairs, director for contingency planning and international justice at the National Security Council, and special assistant to National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice. His publications include The Dynamics of Coercion: American Foreign Policy and the Limits of Military Might.
Council Special Reports (CSRs) are concise policy briefs that provide timely responses to developing crises or contribute to debates on current policy dilemmas. CSRs are written by individual authors in consultation with an advisory committee. The content of the reports is the sole responsibility of the authors.
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