Bruce W. Jentleson is a professor at Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy and the 2015-16 Kissinger chair at the Kluge Center in the Library of Congress.
Jenna Karp is a Duke University senior studying public policy and global health and an intern in the State Department Foreign Service Internship Program.
As the UN General Assembly (UNGA) opens its seventieth session, you’ll hear “never again” rhetoric regarding genocide and other mass atrocities, while witnessing the “yet again” reality. The UNGA passed a resolution two weeks ago establishing an International Day of Commemoration and Dignity for past victims of genocide. One week before, it had held a dialogue marking the tenth anniversary of the adoption of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P). Unfortunately, while R2P was reaffirmed as “a vital and enduring commitment,” the gap between rhetoric and reality is all too evident in Syria, South Sudan, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, among other countries.
Closing the gap between rhetoric and reality is going to take a three-part strategy involving military intervention (when necessary), crisis diplomacy (when possible), and early prevention (steadily, systematically).
Military intervention will continue to be necessary in certain situations. This was the only means by which to stop Libyan dictator Muammar al-Qaddafi in 2011 from delivering on his threat to slaughter civilians. Although the immediate objective was achieved in the Libya case, the post-intervention dilemma—what R2P cofounder Gareth Evans calls the “responsibility to rebuild”—has been an abject failure. Libya thus shows both what late-stage military intervention can and cannot achieve.
Crisis diplomacy, also largely a late-innings effort, is a second strategy for prevention. In Kenya’s 2013 elections, coordinated diplomacy by the United States, Europe, and the UN helped to prevent replays of the mass violence witnessed in the 2008 elections. More frequent, though, have been cases like Burundi, South Sudan, and Guinea, in which crisis diplomacy has been too little too late—arriving only after atrocities are unfolding, subsequently having limited impact.
The final component to closing the gap is early prevention: acting when the number of options are greater, risks are smaller, and potential costs are lower. This basic logic underlies the original conceptualization of R2P put forth by the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty. Even though such logic runs counter to the political reality of postponing action until the bodies begin to pile up, more progress is being made by individual states, international institutions, regional bodies, and even non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to build capacities for R2P early prevention than is often acknowledged.
In 2012, the Obama administration established the Atrocities Prevention Board (APB), based in the White House, which is charged with coordinating the State Department, Department of Defense, U.S. Agency for International Development, and other federal agencies to ensure the steady attention needed for policy development and pre-establishing a mechanism for crises and other urgent situations. While short on resources and prey to bureaucratic turf battles, the APB has made a positive impact on U.S. preventive policies.
Within the UN system, spurred particularly by the 2009 mass killings in Sri Lanka, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon launched the Human Rights Up Front initiative in 2013, seeking to make human rights and atrocities prevention more of a “system-wide core responsibility…to act with moral courage to prevent serious and large-scale violations.” Here, too, the results have been limited thus far, but provide the basis upon which further progress can be built.
Regional institutions have also made their mark. The European Union (EU) has a number of initiatives including the EU Situation Room, which monitors the global political climate and assesses current crisis awareness. Individual EU member states like Denmark have developed their own R2P-related national action plans.
The African Union’s (AU) Peace and Security Council provides a regional decision-making mechanism linked to the Continental Early Warning System, a data collection and analysis center tasked with monitoring potential conflicts and threats to peace and security. Its “Panel of the Wise” draws on a group of distinguished African leaders who focus on conflict prevention. In West Africa, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) Conflict Prevention Framework and the Early Warning and Response Network (EWARN) came into play in Guinea in 2008, Niger in 2010, and Mali and Cote d’Ivoire in more recent years. Countries have also taken initiative independently. Ghana has its own National Peace Council, and Kenya, Tanzania, Rwanda, and Zambia all have their own national committees.
In Asia, there has been less region-wide initiative, although the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) convened a high-level advisory panel in 2014 that issued recommendations for “mainstreaming” R2P in Southeast Asia. Australia has been especially active, regionally and internationally, by adapting its civilian corps from a solely natural disasters mission to a conflict prevention one, for example. For its part, China has been showing more flexibility than is often acknowledged by Western states, with an increasingly conditional rather than absolutist approach to intervention and state sovereignty.
Latin America has a Network for Genocide and Mass Atrocity Prevention, which includes Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, and fourteen other countries. Brazil has also formulated its own variation of R2P, “Responsibility while Protecting” (RwP). While initially somewhat of a dilution of R2P, it has evolved into a serious component of the policy mix.
The NGO community has played a useful and creative role. The Focal Points Initiative led by the Global Centre for R2P now has fifty-one country members with broad, geographic representation. Each is developing internal capacity for promoting R2P at the national level and collectively serving as a like-minded network.
The Obama administration must use its remaining time in office to assure the continuity and effectiveness of the APB—Washington is full of doubts about its future—as well as of the State Department Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations (CSO) and other executive branch counterparts. At the UN, as Ban Ki-moon finishes his final term, strengthening the Human Rights Up Front Initiative provides a sorely needed opportunity to leave more of a legacy. Regional bodies also have much work to do, including the EU, both directly and in its assistance to Africa and other regions, the AU and the other African initiatives, ASEAN, and Latin American initiatives. And as is so often the case in twenty-first century global affairs, NGOs have their own crucial role to play, as has been the case with the Global Centre’s Focal Points Initiative.
To be sure, such early prevention measures will not resolve the Syria of 2015; that requires targeted, more immediate initiatives. But they can help prevent the next Syria. If there is one thing that the world can be sure of, it is that there will be more Syrias unless greater R2P early prevention capacity is built full-spectrum. The world may not achieve “never again,” but it is certainly possible and necessary to have fewer “yet agains”—and to narrow, even if not fully close, the rhetoric-reality gap.