In The Media

How to make R2P work

by Geoffrey Johnston (feat. Kyle Matthews)

The Kingston Whig
August 18, 2016

The international community selectively applies the principle of Responsibility to Protect (R2P) and too often turns a blind eye to mass atrocities, including genocide.

Yet there have been instances when the world has done the right thing, intervening to prevent the mass slaughter of innocent civilians, thereby vindicating R2P.

The community of nations adopted the R2P doctrine at the United Nations World Summit in 2005. And there can be no doubt that the UN would not have embraced R2P were it not for the tireless diplomatic campaign waged in support of the doctrine by the government of former Canadian prime minister Paul Martin.

Although the world does not always live up to its commitment to use humanitarian, diplomatic or military intervention to prevent mass atrocities, there is still reason to be optimistic about the future of R2P.

Biggest successes

"I think R2P, in its heart, is a preventative doctrine," stated Simon Adams, executive director of the New York City-based Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect. He pointed out that governments around the world are struggling with internal conflicts, identity politics and human rights abuses that sometimes rise to the level of mass atrocity crimes.

It is important to remember that diplomatic initiatives to prevent mass atrocities are key tools of R2P. And Adams believes constructive diplomatic engagements in Guinea and Kenya in recent years "played a positive role" in preventing mass killings.

In the view of Kyle Matthews, the international community helped to prevent mass atrocities in Kenya after the bloody 2007 national election. The Montreal-based expert on mass atrocities prevention noted that the African Union pressured the Kenyan regime to calm the violence and respect human rights.

Another successful application of the R2P norm was the French intervention in Mali, 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. "I think what we're seeing is there's starting to be a slow development of the preventive side [of R2P]."

"I think Africa was a success," agreed Paul Martin. However, he conceded in a telephone interview that the picture in Africa has been less rosy as of late. Conflicts in Central African Republic, Burundi, South Sudan and other hot spots have demonstrated that civilian protection remains a difficult task.

Similarly, the situation in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) remains murky. For nearly two decades, the DRC has been plagued by war, internal conflicts and mass civilian exploitation, sexual violence, and mass murder. The United Nations has deployed the largest peacekeeping mission in history to Congo -- with decidedly mixed results.

Adams believes the situation in the DRC has improved in the past couple of years. "But I also think these tend to be complex conflict situations, and there are no neat, tidy and easy solutions," he said of internal conflicts. "And anyone who thought R2P was going to be this magical panacea that was going to be able to sprinkle pixie dust over any kind of complex conflict and immediately resolve it, was fooling themselves."

"But I do think when we look around the world right now," continued Adams, "not only has R2P saved lives over the last 10 years, it is saving lives right now." And he said that the world is witnessing a number of conflict in which UN peacekeepers are upholding the principles of R2P.

"I think one of the things that is happening right now that worries me a little bit about Africa, following the EU [European Union] deal [on migration] is the idea that countries have to be paid" to co-operate on important international issues, Martin said.

"There comes a point that where humanitarian aid, when it starts to put pressure on a lot of countries, becomes R2P," Martin said of the need to provide assistance in response to massive humanitarian crises that threaten regional stability. "My own view is that governments should act when there's an issue."

Martin is also concerned about NATO. "There's a lack of will in a number of the NATO countries," the former prime minister said of the western alliance's unwillingness to get involved in the prevention of mass atrocities. "And I think this is something that Canada has really got to essentially start to push for," he said.

Libya and R2P

Kyle Matthews views the international military intervention in Libya as a qualified success. During a 2011 civil conflict, Col. Gadhafi, Libya's autocratic ruler, threatened to wipe out entire cities controlled by rebels. Possessing attack aircraft and heavy armour, Gadhafi had the military means to make good on his threat.

Matthews pointed out that, for the first time in history, the UN Security Council used the language of R2P in resolutions authorizing the protection of civilians in Libya. The subsequent NATO-led air campaign, in which Canadian CF-18s participated, prevented Gadhafi from carrying out his plan for the mass destruction of targeted civilian population centres.

However, the mission quickly changed from a civilian protection mandate to regime change. The NATO air campaign played a big role in Gadhafi's demise and the collapse of his autocratic regime. Since 2011, Libya has become a failed state, where brutal militias and terrorist organizations thrive.

"You can criticize all you want now," Matthews said of the Libyan intervention, "but the coalition did stop Gadhafi from unleashing his entire military force on Benghazi."

Was the military intervention in Libya in the spring of 2011, authorized by UN Security Council Resolutions 1970 and 1973, a successful application of R2P? "I think it was the right thing for the Security Council to do," Adams said. "I thought that then and I think it still now. Nothing has changed me in that view."

"I think the Responsibility to Protect doctrine symbolizes the consideration that every sovereign nation that is a liberal democracy has an obligation and responsibility in the world -- whether they are a member of NATO, a member of the United Nations -- to step in and help," said Rona Ambrose, the interim Conservative Party Leader and current Leader of the Official Opposition. "And yes, there are many things that go into that consideration.

"I think when we acted in 2011, there's no doubt it was to join the world in a campaign to help stop mass atrocity," Ambrose said of the former Conservative government's decision to participate in the NATO-led air campaign against the Gadhafi regime.

"And that's why I worry about Mr. Trudeau's approach to the issue of Iraq and Syria," she said, pivoting away from the application of R2P in Libya to the mass atrocities being committed by the Islamic State in the Middle East today. "Because I don't know what more proof he needs," she said of the Liberal government's reluctance to acknowledge the genocidal campaign targeting Assyrian Christians and Shia Muslims.

Now that a number of other nations have acknowledged the ongoing genocide, Ambrose hopes the Trudeau government will act decisively to protect vulnerable groups. For example, she urges Canada to prioritize persecuted groups for refugee resettlement in Canada, as well as ramp up its military and diplomatic efforts to combat the Islamic State.

Intelligence failure

"I've also been on the record that there were also a number of mistakes that were made in Libya," stated Simon Adams. First, said Adams, "somewhere along the line, shifting from a protection operation to essentially a regime change operation was a mistake."

Second, he believes it was "a mistake at the end of the mission that the international community pulled out when militias were vying for power" in Libya. "The international community, including those who had intervened, were all too happy and willing to quickly pack up and get out of there as quickly as possible."

The destruction of the Gadhafi regime without a government-in-waiting to replace it caused anarchy. As a result, said Adams, Libya descended into "warlordism."

"But I think there's a dangerous tendency to conflate what we see in Libya now with the reason for the intervention," Adams said. "And to say because the situation is bad now, therefore it must have been a bad decision to intervene, I don't think the two things are the same thing."

"I think Libya, as an example, has indicated to us that when you are going to do this, you've got to have superior intelligence," Martin said. "And you've got to have your alternative for afterwards.

"I don't believe either of those [Iraq and Libya] is an excuse for not acting," the former prime minister said. "And it's important to make that point "¦ I think that you have to act."

"The issue of intelligence is important," agreed Matthews. As he sees it, the problem is that five or six countries have significant intelligence capacity but never share it with the UN, "so sometimes the UN is flying blind." As a result, the United Nations sometimes makes crucial decisions based on faulty intelligence.

In the case of the 2011 intervention in Libya, Matthews conceded that the western coalition that helped depose the Gadhafi regime "did not know enough about the history of Benghazi, and "how they had a history of tension with Gadhafi."

Matthews contends that atrocity-prevention experts need to work with intelligence experts to understand the situation on the ground in order to intervene effectively. "Because, right now, we don't know who all the actors are," he said, adding that fluid situations can "change very quickly."

Atrocity prevention

In the final analysis, what does Paul Martin want Canadians to understand about R2P? "I really believe that it is the quality of the intelligence and the absolute necessity of recognizing that you're going to leave troops there for a long time, if you haven't got an alternative in place," he said of military intervention to halt genocide or mass atrocities.

"You've got to be working much harder at having the alternative in place when you go in, but it must not be used as an excuse for not acting," Martin said of the need for through preparation when planning to intervene in the affairs of a sovereign country. "There's just no excuse for allowing people to be massacred. We haven't solved these things; the fact of the matter is, you have to solve these things -- period."

"It's not a perfect story," Matthews said of the development of R2P since 2005. "If you look at the world today, there are a lot of danger zones and a lot of places with atrocities. But I think we have seen some success and a growing constituency for R2P across the world."

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