Donald Steinberg serves as Deputy President for Policy at International Crisis Group. He previously served as special assistant for African affairs to President Clinton and as U.S. Ambassador to Angola. He is a member of the board of the Women's Refugee Commission.
As each new conflict appears in the in-boxes of policymakers, the first question is whether this particular crisis warrants international engagement. The answer is a measure of "political will," (…)
But there is one set of issues where engagement is - at least in principle - pre-ordained. Under the concept of "responsibility to protect," unanimously adopted by the UN General Assembly following the World Summit in 2005, world leaders pledged to take national and collective action to prevent and stop genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes, and ethnic cleansing. Responsibility to protect commits national leaders to safeguard their population from mass atrocities, and if they are unable or unwilling to do so, it commits the international community to assume the burden.
The year 2008 saw increased application of this concept to conflict prevention and resolution. Not only were structures for early warning, preventative diplomacy and early response adopted within the United Nations, governments and regional organizations, but the concept was increasingly used as a lens for viewing emerging crises. Its application - or in some cases, misapplication - in Kenya, Burma, Georgia, and Zimbabwe provided fascinating, although not entirely consistent, lessons.
When failed elections in Kenya in December 2007 were followed by vicious inter-ethnic riots in January, international actors asked if we were seeing the first stages of Rwanda-style genocide, and took pre-emptive action. (…) Then-African Union (AU) chairperson John Kufuor, Desmond Tutu, former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan and others soon descended on Nairobi. (…) team adopted a sophisticated approach to stop the escalating violence and create a framework and a national dialogue to address the underlying roots of the conflict (…). A power-sharing government was established and disaster averted. Those suggesting that responsibility to protect is a tool of the West should note that the intervention was designed and negotiated by Ghanaians, South Africans, Mozambicans and Tanzanians.(…)
Subsequently, in Myanmar, the military junta's first reaction in May 2008 to the worst natural disaster in the country's recorded history - Cyclone Nargis - was to keep out desperately needed foreign aid. It failed to launch a substantial relief operation and selectively blocked international access to the worst affected areas. (…) Quickly, many asked if these actions constituted a crime against humanity, justifying coercive international action. French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner, the father of "humanitarian intervention," argued that if deaths resulted from the junta's refusal to allow aid, this could invoke intervention. While his proposal for a UN Security Council resolution was rejected by China, Russia, and others, the debate gave clarity to international outrage.(…)
A third case occurred involving responsibility to protect occurred when Russian troops crossed into South Ossetia and then Georgia proper in August 2008 and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin invoked the concept, arguing that the actions were designed to prevent genocide against South Ossetians. Almost in unison, the international community rejected this assertion as a diplomatic shell game. (…)In sum, the broad rejection of Russia's claims helped set the strict parameters for the concept's application.
Finally, as Zimbabwe descended into humanitarian, economic, and political crisis during 2008, Kenyan Prime Minister Raila Odinga, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and other African figures called for forceful international action in responsibility-to-protect terms. (…) But Zimbabwe displays disturbing limits on the use of responsibility to protect, especially in the absence of common support from regional actors. (…) Further, they admitted that coercive military action can do little to stop cholera, feed starving populations, return displaced persons, and rebuild hospitals, especially if faced with local armed resistance. (…)
While these four cases might be judged simplistically as three steps forward, one step back, the more important message is that fundamental steps are still required to translate responsibility to protect into effective action against mass atrocities. Advocates must seek global consensus, resist backsliding, and enshrine its principles in relevant international, regional and national institutions. They must view the concept neither too narrowly as only about military intervention, nor too widely as about all human security issues. They must build capacity in international institutions, regional organizations, governments, and civil society: civilian and military, preventive and reactive. And they must generate stronger political will to address new threats of mass atrocities. The agenda is daunting, but the stakes are too high to let it pass.