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Then and Now: 25 years of atrocities and the responsibility to protect

As the UN commemorates the start of the Rwanda genocide, a timeline of non-interference to intervention.

Whether or not to intervene in national conflicts – and to what extent – has challenged humanitarian aid for decades. Here, a wreath is seen at the Genocide Memorial in Gisozi in Kigali, Rwanda 6 April, 2019. (Baz Ratner/REUTERS)

State sovereignty – and keeping out of your neighbours’ business – is the bedrock of the international system and world order. Under international law, countries can only use force against another in self-defence. So when abusive governments dismiss their critics for attempting to interfere in internal affairs, the law is on their side.

The Genocide Convention, the first international legal instrument codifying genocide as a crime, was adopted in 1948 on the heels of the Holocaust. While a crucial step forward for human rights and international criminal law, the convention stays shy of authorising armed action in the event of mass atrocities. But later massacres in Cambodia, Rwanda, and the former Yugoslavia sparked a rethink to state sovereignty. After some soul searching, an independent panel worked out a way to square the rights of people with the rights of states and came up with “The Responsibility to Protect” (R2P). 

Not international law, R2P is a “norm” – a concept agreed among states – that values collective safety and security, and which holds that in rare and extreme circumstances, such as genocide or ethnic cleansing, stopping the abuse trumps state sovereignty. It includes a range of possible actions, crucially, up to and including force: The UN Security Council can authorise military intervention on humanitarian grounds.

But that’s where politics kicks in and the ideal of R2P bumps up against realpolitik. First, states hesitate to put their own men and women in harm's way on foreign soil in a conflict that is not their own. Second, they rarely agree on which situations justify intervention. And third, some believe “R2P” has been manipulated to provide cover for regime change. 

The Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect reports that R2P has been invoked in more than 80 UN Security Council resolutions about Central African Republic, Côte d’Ivoire, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Liberia, Libya, Mali, Somalia, South Sudan, Syria, and Yemen, as well as other thematic resolutions including the prevention of genocide.

Starting with the 1994 Rwanda genocide, which the UN commemorates this week, this timeline chronicles the horrors that led to R2P, and the events over time where the norm has been both tested and applied. That leads up to today’s violence in Myanmar and Ethiopia, which some outside and inside the countries say necessitates international intervention.

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