In The Media

Genocide gave rise to R2P

by Geoffrey Johnston (feat. Kyle Matthews)

The Kingston Whig
August 11, 2016

In the aftermath of the Second World War, the civilized world recoiled in horror as the full extent of the Holocaust was revealed. And "Never Again!" became a common refrain in the post-war era, a solemn pledge for future generations.

The war devastated the traditional European powers and smashed the old international order. A new epoch in international relations was dawning, one in which America and the Soviet Union would become superpowers and face off in the Cold War.

American power was not sufficient to ensure international peace and security and human rights. So the community of nations came together to establish the United Nations in the immediate post-war period.

The newly established world body hammered out the remarkable Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which launched a fledgling human rights movement that has grown stronger over the decades.

Determined to prevent another Holocaust, the UN General Assembly adopted the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide in December 1948, and it came into force in January 1951. Under Article 1 of the convention, genocide, "whether committed in time of peace or in time of war, is a crime under international law which they undertake to prevent and to punish."

However, the genocide convention proved to be an ineffective deterrent to brutal regimes determined to reorder their societies at any cost. For example, the Khmer Rouge regime slaughtered millions of people in Cambodia between 1975 and 1979.

When the Cold War ended and the Communist world crumbled, the international system underwent yet another massive restructuring, ushering in an era of ethnic nationalism, religious extremism and genocidal violence. And the community once again failed to make good on its solemn pledge of Never Again.

Rwandan genocide

In 1994, Canadian Brig.-Gen. Romeo Dallaire commanded a UN peacekeeping force in Rwanda. Witnessing the rise of tribal hatred and recognizing that the stage was being set for mass murder, Dallaire was determined to stop it from happening.

As genocide loomed, Dallaire appealed to UN headquarters for the military means to prevent the impending mass slaughter of innocent civilians. Tragically, his plea went unheeded by the top brass at the United Nations.

It took only weeks for militant Hutu militias to slaughter nearly a million Tutsis and moderate Hutus. Most of the victims were hacked to death with machetes. The UN and the community of nations only deployed a multinational peacekeeping force after it was too late.

Was the Rwandan genocide the worst failure in the history of UN peacekeeping? "It's hard to say it's the worst, but it's hard to say it wasn't," replied Simon Adams, executive director of the Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect (R2P). "I think in the short list of the most tragic failures in the UN's history, Rwanda would rank right there at the top, followed very closely by Srebrenica the following year."

"It's certainly one of the biggest failures when you look at how many people lost their lives," Kyle Matthews said of the Rwandan genocide. "Roughly a million people killed over a three-month period. I would argue that was definitely a much bigger failure than even Syria today," said Matthews, who is the senior deputy director of the Montreal Institute for Genocide and Human Rights Studies at Concordia University, and a Fellow at the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute.

"There is no doubt about the extent of the horror," former Canadian prime minister Paul Martin said of the Rwandan genocide. "I had the opportunity to talk to a number of people who went through it, and some had lost major sections of their family."

Although Martin declined to say whether the Rwandan genocide constituted the "worst" failure in UN history, he acknowledged the scope and horror of the genocide.

"I would say that terrible events like this are of such a deep degree of evil and horror that you can't quantify one worse than the other," Martin said. "They're just awful."

The impact of the Rwandan genocide on the United Nations cannot be understated. "The scale of the tragedy in Rwanda makes it historically unique," Adams said.

"You can't understand the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) norm, either, without understanding the legacy of the Rwandan genocide and the genocide at Srebrenica, and the complete and utter failure of UN peacekeeping to keep its promise to the vulnerable that where a blue helmet was around, we were safe," Adams said of the UN doctrine that obliges the community of nations to intervene in the affairs of sovereign nation-states to stop or prevent mass civilian deaths or genocide.

"I think on a political level, the Responsibility to Protect was an outcome of that," Adams continued. "It was an attempt to grapple with the failure to stop genocide."

The genocides in Rwanda and at Srebrenica "led to a soul searching," Matthews said of the turmoil and guilt that engulfed the world after those tragic events of 1994 and 1995. And he pointed out that Kofi Annan, who later went on to become UN secretary general, headed UN peacekeeping operations during the conflicts in Rwanda and Bosnia. "He saw that peacekeepers in the area just weren't doing enough."

"They woke up the world," Martin said of the genocides that rocked the world during the 1990s. "There's no doubt, without those [atrocities], we would not have had the Responsibility to Protect."

Establishing R2P and 'playing cleanup'

When he became prime minister of Canada in 2003, Paul Martin was determined to advance the protection of civilian populations and prevent mass atrocities. And that meant getting the UN to embrace R2P.

The former prime minister is quick to heap praise on Allan Rock, who was Canada's permanent ambassador to the UN during that period and had the tough task of building support for R2P. "I think Allan Rock did a tremendous job, demonstrating just what a Canadian can do just because of the unique position Canada has," Martin said.

"What then transpired is that Allan called me, and asked me if I would speak to a number of countries that, for one reason or another, were somewhat recalcitrant, which I did, on a personal basis," Martin said of Canada's diplomatic tag team tactics.

Some countries had misgivings about how the doctrine might be applied. "One of the big things was the fear that it was going to be misused for regime change," Martin revealed.

"Latin American countries, as an example, were very worried that this could mean that the Americans were going to have the Monroe Doctrine and this kind of thing," Martin said, referring to president James Monroe's foreign policy doctrine that claimed the Western Hemisphere as America's sphere of influence.

Martin was on a first-name basis with the presidents and prime ministers who opposed the notion of R2P, including the leaders of South Africa, Algeria, Pakistan, Jamaica and Chile. "So I talked to a lot of other countries who were somewhat weary, but all ended up supporting it," he said of his sales calls.

"The fact of the matter is, I think Lloyd Axworthy [who was Canada's foreign minister from 1996 to 2000] and Allan Rock played much bigger roles than I did," Martin said modestly. "I came in at the end and in areas where they asked me. I played cleanup. It was Canada, but it was also personal relationships."

Watershed moment

In a nutshell, the R2P doctrine states that the community of nations has an obligation to prevent mass civilian death and/or stop genocide. Under R2P, the community of nations is permitted to use all means necessary to save lives, including using diplomacy and humanitarian assistance. And when all else fails, the use of military force is permitted. In short, R2P places the modern concept of human security above the traditional construct of national sovereignty.

"There was an attempt in 2005 to reconcile a contradiction that is at the heart of the UN charter," Adams said of the adoption of the R2P doctrine at the UN world summit. He explained that the charter emphasizes "the importance of sovereignty to international peace and security," while also addressing "universal values and universal human rights."

"I think it was a shift, because it was a departure from the bad old days of inaction" in the face of mass of mass atrocities, he said of the UN's adoption of R2P.

The language of R2P attributed to the UN summit outcome document "got some buy-in" in 2005, stated Kyle Matthews. "But since then, I would argue that the R2P idea of the responsibility to prevent mass atrocity crimes has actually become one of the biggest ideas to emerge in international affairs in the last 23 years and has the potential to reshape global governance and enforcement of human rights norms."

Matthews gives credit to the government of Paul Martin for pushing the R2P doctrine onto the international agenda. And now, Matthews said, mass-atrocity prevention is a slow-growing international norm.

Was the community of nations' endorsement of R2P a watershed moment in international relations? "I think, over time, it will be," Martin answered. "I have not weakened in any way, shape or form in my support for R2P."

However, the former prime minister knows that more work needs to be done. "There is no doubt that R2P has not been helped by Iraq," he said, referring to the American-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein in 2003. "And I think we have learned that R2P on its own, in the case of military intervention, is not enough."


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