In The Media

R2P is a domestic obligation, not just a foreign policy one

by Kyle Matthews

National Post
December 19, 2014

This week’s Taliban attack against a school in Peshawar, Pakistan, in which over 140 children were murdered, has everyone talking about religious violence. In 2014 we are witnessing a heightened number of conflicts in which civilians are being targeted by groups who share almost identical religious ideologies with the Taliban and the now-infamous Islamic State (ISIS).

Libya, Nigeria, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Kenya, Somalia and Mali are all facing open conflict with armed jihadist groups. The BBC recently released a study that found more than 5,000 people lost their lives as a result of global jihadist violence in the month of November alone.

The Responsibility to Protect (R2P) doctrine stipulates that if a country is unable or unwilling to protect its civilians from mass atrocity crimes (genocide, ethnic cleansing, crimes against humanity and war crimes), then the international community must act swiftly to fill the protection void. Its origins are traced to the failure to prevent the atrocities of the 1990s, in particular the 1994 Rwandan genocide.

R2P did not get as much attention as it deserved when it was made public in 2001, partly due to the fact that it came just after the 9/11 attacks by al Qaeda. After the twin towers were brought down, many capitals became focused on combatting non-state actors and governments who use terrorism as a form of asymmetrical warfare. Countering religiously inspired violence by jihadists was seen through a counter-terrorism lens, while protecting people living outside of the West from mass atrocities was seen entirely through a humanitarian lens.

While all countries seated at the United Nations promised in 2005 to uphold R2P, ISIS and other groups are now forcing the world to reconsider how religious violence is growing as a threat to human rights. While the battle continues to rage in Kobane, Syria, the U.S.-led coalition’s air power has hit ISIS hard, allowing civilians to flee and permitting Kurdish militias to reorganize and protect the city. Air power is better than no power, and ISIS might very well suffer a strategic defeat in this part of Syria. But has it come too late?

The growth of the transnational jihadist movement has caught many countries off guard while also exposing the magnitude of the problem. The growing and “unprecedented” number of new foreign jihadists (the UN reports 1,000 per month) flocking to join ISIS in Iraq and Syria is mind-boggling. More than 15,000 foreign fighters are now part of ISIS’ ranks. Policymakers must grapple with the question of whether to apply a broad approach to atrocity prevention or to focus attention specifically on transnational jihadist groups who willfully target civilians — and other questions as well.

Does the prevention of mass atrocities include stopping Western citizens from joining groups that are committing them? Does countering ISIS and jihadist online propaganda and incitement to commit violence remain strictly a counter-terrorism issue, or an R2P issue, or both?

Alliances must be formed to implement R2P and combat genocide. And yes, that effort needs to include preventing jihadists (including those in the West) from traveling to join ISIS and other similar groups including Boko Haram and al-Shabaab. Political leaders and the public often see R2P as an external obligation, tied exclusively to foreign policy. However, R2P is also a domestic obligation of national governments charged with protecting their citizens from transnational extremist groups.

Today, we are witnessing an unprecedented overlap between the atrocity prevention field and counter-terrorism activities against religious extremists. R2P’s confluence with counter-terrorism will make many humanitarians and human rights defenders uneasy. But in an era where the burden of casualties falls on civilians, not soldiers, we are about to enter into a serious discussion.

Kyle Matthews is a fellow with the Canadian Defence and International Affairs Institute.

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