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Q&A: The trouble with stopping atrocities

‘Politics and ethics shouldn't be separated.’

Mayima stands in front of a memorial in Geneva
Ralph Mamiya in Geneva, 8 April 2021. (Ben Parker/TNH)

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When human rights atrocities happen anywhere, states have a right – and a duty – to do something about it. Adopted globally in 2005, the “Responsibility to Protect”, or R2P, is an international agreement to stop genocide, ethnic cleansing, and other crimes. So why do they keep happening?

Amid a spate of new atrocities in Ethiopia and elsewhere, The New Humanitarian spoke with Ralph Mamiya – who has worked in civilian protection at the UN and now advises the US government – to find out more about R2P’s achievements, and its limitations.

The UN Security Council can authorise military action to protect civilians, and R2P has been invoked at the UN dozens of times to authorise foreign military action in troublespots, with or without the acceptance of those on the ground – in Libya, Central African Republic, and South Sudan, for example.

Read more → 25 years of atrocities and the responsibility to protect

But today, the international community stands on the sidelines of many gross human rights violations depending on strategic alliances, and mistrust of each others’ motives – protesters in Myanmar, for example, have made placards calling for R2P to be upheld.

The problem often is that the veto-wielding permanent members of the Security Council – Britain, China, France, Russia, and the United States – can't agree when it comes to some of the most serious situations.

And while backers say military action is only the last resort, arguing that R2P is a package of measures that can mobilise international efforts to stop atrocities, critics point to how it has been misused as a disguise for regime change.

Mamiya is a fellow at the Geneva Centre for Security Policy and an adviser with the US Center for Excellence in Disaster Management and Humanitarian Assistance. Here is the interview, edited for length and clarity.

The New Humanitarian: Is R2P dead? Looking at Syria, Yemen, Myanmar, Tigray, and other situations around the world, how can you argue it isn’t?

Ralph Mamiya: I think that if we're going to focus on R2P narrowly as some kind of military exercise, then we can also ask the question: Did R2P ever exist? R2P is an idea that goes back to “just war” theory – an attempt in the aftermath of the Rwandan genocide and the conflict in Yugoslavia and Kosovo to come to terms with how the international community would respond to these kinds of atrocities. So, narrowly... you're correct. Syria has occurred, Yemen, Tigray, many conflicts around the world, even those that get less attention. At the same time, I think we can find successes if we think of R2P as a framework that creates a set of norms – and norms supported by things like public naming and shaming, by sanctions, by training, and capacity-building by various states.

TNH: But wasn't most of that diplomatic toolkit already available without R2P?

Mamiya: R2P takes the tools that we have. It doesn't create new tools. Force is used only with the authorisation of the Security Council. We are all very familiar with the shortcomings the Security Council has in finding agreement when intervening in situations of mass atrocity. At the same time, it gives us a framework for thinking about the tools we have, and leveraging them to try to prevent, and try to disincentivise states from taking those measures.

The UN Charter essentially prohibits war, except in cases of self-defence, or when the Security Council has authorised it as a threat to international peace and security. We saw in Kosovo… a diplomatic campaign that eventually became a military campaign. Security Council approval could not be obtained, for political reasons. [However], many scholars and commentators said that NATO's actions there were legitimate, but not legal. And that poses the question of what should we do when the Security Council cannot agree, if we, as citizens of the world, see mass atrocities being committed, and want our governments to do something about them?

TNH: So, the law is wrong?

Mamiya: That's certainly one way of looking at it.

TNH: And R2P makes it less wrong?

Mamiya: R2P is an attempt, as any “just war” theory [is], to accept that politics and ethics shouldn't be separated. I think R2P also recognises that that is very difficult to do – to keep politics and ethics on the same track.

TNH: So let's say that the name – the acronym – has a mixed reputation. Is the idea still alive?

Mamiya: Very much. When we think about the future of R2P, and it's very easy these days, to presage its demise. Given Syria, given Yemen, many conflicts – and there will likely be many more that do not generate the political will required to stop atrocities. Given all of that, it's very easy to be pessimistic. With the rise of a multipolar world, there are also reasons to be concerned that multilateral action will be more difficult to achieve… and you need agreement within the Security Council. At the same time, the suffering of civilians is only more present in our lives. It is very difficult to ignore what is going on in Syria or Yemen, or even Tigray, despite efforts to keep international eyes out of a situation.

TNH: So you think a public conscience is still alive?

Mamiya: I do. And... even if the politics become more complicated, which they likely will, then the presence of civilian suffering is going to be harder to ignore, because of technology, because of social media. And I don't think that we as human beings will become less empathetic to that suffering, [but] the solutions are going to be more complicated. And I think there will always be a kind of an arms race between, you know, those who are seeking creative solutions, politically, to break these deadlocks, and those who, you know, would rather see the situations unaddressed.

What should we do when the Security Council cannot agree, if we, as citizens of the world, see mass atrocities being committed, and want our governments to do something about them?

TNH: What does this say about the UN and whether or not the UN Security Council is a healthy forum?

Mamiya: It doesn't say much good. It is certainly one among many criticisms, that is levelled at the UN architecture in general. There is a proposal from France for Security Council members, particularly permanent members like France, that they would not use the veto on resolutions that address war crimes, crimes against humanity, or genocide. But there are certainly major powers out there who have not signed up yet. I don't think anyone is thinking that it will come to fruition soon.

TNH: R2P seems like a good thing. But those who hold the key are the permanent members of the Security Council who are currently stalemated and don't reflect the world population?

Mamiya: Where we have seen R2P used is often places where either the interests align or [where] one side simply has no interest, so is happy to ignore the situation.

TNH: So the people in countries that are less “important”, may get a better level of protection?

Mamiya: I guess there are certain advantages to being off everyone's radar. But I think that the net gain there is pretty questionable, overall.

TNH: Is there a Geneva community working on this?

Mamiya: There are many organisations in Geneva that are key actors. The Human Rights Council and the Office for the High Commissioner of Human Rights are important, [because of] the spotlight that they can shine on situations, the facts that they can collect: We need commissions of inquiry, and to have fact-finding missions that are able to deliver agreed-upon facts about what is going on. As well as we, of course, have organisations like ICRC and Geneva Call. They're much less public in their work, but I think they are important. There are a number of very important mediation and Special Envoy presences here in Geneva. That really is part of R2P as well, that the prevention of conflict and the actions that the UN takes and other actors take that don't involve guns at all – they involve talking, they involve mediation and negotiation – are vitally important.

TNH: Certain segments of American opinion regard “humanitarian intervention” as imperialism in sheep's clothing. What's the difference between humanitarian intervention and R2P?

Mamiya: There is certainly a part of the left as well as the right, at least in the US, that considers humanitarian intervention to be a wolf in sheep's clothing, or at least a false premise upon which to wage war. Countries have always sought as many justifications as possible to make their war sound as noble and important as possible. At the same time, there is an agreed-upon legal framework for those reasons to go to war, and that is the UN Charter. Notably, R2P is not, or at least not purely, a Western idea. The phrase "Responsibility to Protect" was coined by South Sudanese scholar and diplomat Francis Deng, and its charter permits the African Union to intervene to stop war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide.

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