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On R2P: How the NGO and tech sectors can help protect communities

When states are ineffective, civil society groups become key to bridging the 'responsibility gap'

By David Carment, Joe Landry, and Sean Winchester

Canada’s Hub for International Affairs

7 April 2015


With the number of displaced peoples reaching a record high globally, and the continuation of genocidal acts — not in the least being those committed currently by Islamic State militants — we would expect the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) doctrine to be in great demand by today’s international community.

 

Unfortunately, our current conflict-management approach is not creating the results we want or what the world needs. By some accounts, the prospects for a reinvigorated R2P appear to be diminishing with time. Even Louise Arbour, one of the key architects behind R2P, reportedly has her doubts about its future.

 

For others there remains a faint glimmer of hope. Well before R2P found a home in the capitals of western states, civil society developed its own platforms for generating effective preventive responses to mass atrocities and genocide. On the advice of the United Nations’ Brahimi report, investments were made by civil society organisations to strengthen their capacity for preventive action. Organisations such as The Forum on Early Warning and Early Response, International Alert and Safer World emerged as key players in operational prevention in failed and fragile state environments. It was their engagement in Africa after the Rwanda genocide that spurred on the need for more effective state and regional-level responses on a global scale. In a nutshell, R2P would not exist, were it not for motivated and engaged civilian action “on the ground.”

 

Today, NGOs need to take the lead again. It is not just because we are seeing more and more instances where states are not engaging effectively to prevent mass atrocities and genocide. It is because there is a looming and increasingly large “responsibility gap” where no single state appears to be advocating for the R2P agendas.

 

NGOs cannot fill that gap by themselves but they can be vehicles for change. They can be the ‘thin edge of the wedge’ when it comes to reinvigorating R2P. They have advocated on behalf of R2P since the term was first coined in 2001 and continue to promote greater awareness, and understanding of its core tenets today. Many of these NGOs operate at relatively high levels of engagement, where they primarily lobby international and regional organizations, but a growing number have begun to make themselves heard at the local level.

One of the most effective initiatives in this regard has been the International Coalition for the Responsibility to Protect (ICR2P). Founded in 2009, this coalition of 82 local, regional and international NGOs has members that operate in every major region of the globe. Its ability to connect local norm entrepreneurs with transnational activists, as well as its provision of workshops and training sessions, has done much to support the diffusion of R2P around the world. Other methods of engagement include the development and dissemination of R2P toolkits, the promotion of NGO/CSO coalition and network structures, and coordination with national R2P focal points.

 

In addition to their role as transnational advocates, NGOs are also directly involved in the implementation of preventive initiatives. Their activities include strengthening rule of law conflict mediation and human rights monitoring. One of the most promising initiatives is the development of a new generation of early warning technologies. In common use since 2008, these new early warning systems focus on two-way communication via mobile technologies to ensure that information can be used by civilians in a timely manner. The open source platform developed by Ushahidi, for example, allows individuals to upload violent incidents to online crisis-maps within moments of their occurrence. This information can help civilians to avoid conflict zones during their day-to-day activities or to flee from an area before trouble has arrived.

 

Similarly, the emergence of new SMS-based applications, such as Kenya’s PeaceTXT, has facilitated near-instantaneous communication between networks of mobile phone users. Conflict-affected areas can now be blanketed in messages urging peace and restraint prior to the outbreak of violence or in messages of warning once it has begun. These technologies are still undergoing a process of refinement, and may possess risks of abuse due to the lack of centralized vetting systems, but they represent a crucial step forward in the area of conflict early warning.

 

An additional element underlying the global advancement and implementation of R2P has been the growing amount of research conducted by NGOs. Individual research projects address the full range of prevention, reaction and rebuilding activities associated with R2P and typically focus on topics that are policy relevant. The reports of NGOs like Local to Global Protection, for example, have highlighted why it is important to understand the strategies that civilians use to protect themselves in conflict zones. For the Nuba people of Sudan, who were forced to flee their homes and seek refuge in nearby mountains, something as simple as encouraging families to store the seeds of mountain-friendly crops in a ‘run bag’ would have helped to reduce the amount of deaths attributed to starvation and the consumption of poisonous plants. Learning more about this conflict, and others like it, should prove invaluable to regional organizations and NGOs interested in bolstering the resilience of vulnerable communities prior to the outbreak of atrocities.

 

Efforts at linking civil society initiatives with the larger R2P agenda are still in their infancy but they have produced some positive results which should be heeded. These results are most notable in areas of operational prevention, where the recent explosion of early warning technologies has allowed regional organizations to strengthen existing top-down systems with an infusion of bottom-up processes.

 

We believe the success of R2P hinges not on further developing the capacities and mandates of regional organizations and states but from building a hybrid of interdependencies, between states, regional organizations and non-governmental organizations. Only then will we see the R2P responsibility gap properly bridged.

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