Do states have a moral duty to protect foreigners from mass atrocity crimes? At the turn of the millennium – and with the 2005 global political agreement to the “Responsibility to Protect” (R2P) – the positive answer to this question seemed obvious. Yet, almost 15 years after that commitment, the world’s vow to protect civilians from tyranny is faltering.
A painful indicator of this trend has been the failure of the international community to effectively protect the Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar. The minority group has been persecuted for generations and, in 2017, these attacks resulted in thousands of dead and forced more than 700,000 to flee the country. The UN fact-finding report, released last year, said that the attacks against the Rohingya had been orchestrated with “genocidal intent” and recommended that Myanmar’s army chief and five other generals be charged with the “gravest crimes under international law”.
At present, more Rohingya Muslims live outside Myanmar than inside it, and there are no guarantees that those forced to return will not face the same violence and persecution that drove them away to begin with.
In light of the cruelty plaguing the Rohingya Muslims, it’s almost awkward to recall the triumphalism that surrounded the commitment to R2P in 2005. Articulated in the aftermath of the large-scale humanitarian catastrophes in the Balkans and Rwanda, R2P was an attempt to prevent these types of crises from happening again. Central to the agreement was the understanding that, today, interventions to stop mass killings are not only permissible – they are morally required. Unsurprisingly, it was hoped the agreement would eradicate mass atrocities for good.
For a brief moment, it looked like R2P would live up to its promise. In 2011, six years after the political commitment to R2P, it prompted an intervention in Libya. The NATO-led military campaign, aimed at saving civilians from an imminent massacre, was seen as a textbook case for R2P working as envisioned. But the enthusiasm was transient. The mission creep, leading to the killing of the then-leader Muammar Gaddafi, tainted R2P’s reputation and the intervention was accused of promoting Western interests.
It’s no wonder, then, that R2P has come under fire. Writer and policy analyst, David Rieff, for one, has made particularly negative comments. In his 2018 article, The End of Human Rights?, Rieff writes about R2P’s failure in the context of the crisis facing the broader human rights movement. Having recounted the controversial Libya intervention – and the lack of political resolve to take action in Syria, Myanmar and Yemen – he argues that, in retrospect, R2P was a “completely outlandish expectation” for what it could achieve. Rieff sees no place for an agreement in the “world we live in, one in which authoritarianism is growing stronger”, and concludes that if the human rights movement is to survive it needs, for the time being, not to strive for expansion.
Rieff isn’t alone in his scepticism, and many analysts share similar views. Indeed, the shift in the global power balance – towards countries such as Russia, China and the Global South – has stirred up disbelief of R2P’s ability to prompt any discernible change in state behaviour. Along the same lines, the emergence of powers that are ambivalent of human rights does, according to some, make frameworks rooted in the liberal human rights narrative appear lacking in universal legitimacy.
But while it’s easy to be supportive of the argument that stopping mass atrocities for good was – to say the least – an unrealistic aspiration, now is time to pause for deeper reflection. Indeed, in a period of rising authoritarianism and systematic mass killings, critiquing frameworks meant to protect populations from tyranny is particularly dangerous.
Is the hostility towards R2P restricted to its failure to prompt consistent and uncontroversial solutions to mass atrocities? If so, that would seem like a constructive reaction. R2P isn’t flawless. The problematic outcome of the Libya intervention, and the political deadlock that followed, stifling responses to massacres occurring elsewhere in the world, is a real cause of concern.
Or, is the criticism more extensive and directed towards the moral value that lies at the heart of R2P – the idea that states have a collective responsibility to protect all humans from genocide and mass atrocity crimes? If this is the case, the world undoubtedly is on a dangerous path. If anything, the global shift in power towards countries that are unsympathetic to human rights, combined with regular mass killings, has sharpened – not weakened – the need to refine the frameworks that enable the international community to intervene when populations are being massacred.
There ought to be no doubt that states’ collective moral duty to protect all humans from genocide and mass atrocity crimes isn’t contingent on a political agreement such as R2P. In an interdependent world where trade, technology, and globalisation has tied us all closer together, it’s a fiction that states – especially those with capabilities to do something – can be morally neutral when civilians are being massacred. The duty to protect exists – with or without a formal pledge to do so – and states’ blatant failure to protect the Rohingya Muslims from violence and persecution calls for moral blame.
Of course, the existence of a duty to protect civilians from mass atrocities doesn’t automatically solve the complex problem of how to execute successful interventions. But these lingering challenges must not result in the world discarding the frameworks that remind states of their responsibility to take action when the most shocking crimes occur. On the contrary, protecting the political framework that endorses a duty of protection is central to safeguarding the moral value that inspired its formation.
After all, the equal right of all humans not be subjected to the crimes that have been inflicted on the Rohingya isn’t a value that recedes in universal legitimacy. Surely, this must be something that even the most ardent critics of R2P can agree with.