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Policy Brief: Building State Capacity to Prevent Atrocity Crimes: Implementing Pillars One and Two of the R2P Framework
David J. Simon
The Stanley Foundation
September 2012
(…) The Responsibility to Protect (R2P) doctrine rests on two basic premises: (1) sovereignty entails a commitment to protect one’s own populations from mass atrocities, including a proactive responsibility to prevent their commission or incitement, and (2) given the gravity of atrocity crimes, the international community bears a concurrent responsibility to prevent their occurrence. The UN secretary-general’s 2009 report on implementing R2P elaborates the nature of the second component: (a) the international community should assist states in their prevention and protection efforts, and (b) the international community bears a collective responsibility to ensure protection from mass atrocities when a state’s commitment to do so is abrogated or neglected. These premises have been conceived as the three pillars in what now stands as the doctrine’s seminal interpretation.
The international community’s varied approaches to potential and escalating atrocities over the last several years have demonstrated the degree to which R2P has reframed the language, if not always the outcome, of global political engagement. Failures to prevent lead to questions of response, and attention is invariably drawn to the debates over potential interventions. Yet the realm of activity that will make the greatest difference in preventing atrocities occupies the space between the uncontroversial embrace of state and international responsibility, on the one hand, and the controversies that inevitably surround international intervention, on the other. It lies in the operationalization of the first and second pillars.
The first pillar of the secretary-general’s report on implementing the R2P stipulates that states shoulder the primary responsibility to protect their populations from mass atrocities. Given that the acts enumerated under the rubric of mass atrocity are internationally and/or universally codified crimes, one can hardly imagine it any other way.
Yet what states and the regimes that inhabit them need do to fulfill this responsibility most effectively is not necessarily clear. Institution building plays a major role, since the best-case scenario involves enduring structures that prevent mass atrocities from occurring—or better yet, that prevent serious threats from arising. However, the implications do not stop at stronger institutions. First, while strong institutions are necessary for the protection of populations, strong institutions in the wrong hands— those of a mass-atrocity-inclined regime—obviously undermine the prospects of atrocity prevention. The right set and combination of institutional reforms is thus required. Second, institutions, at least in the formal sense, are not the only thing that matters. The regimes that inhabit the apparatus of the state must continuously dedicate themselves to the principle of protection and to their responsibility to ensure it.
The second pillar, meanwhile, commits the international community to help sovereign states acquire the capacity they need to protect their populations from mass atrocity crimes. In so doing, it offers a welcome bridge between sovereign and international concern. However, it nonetheless raises several questions: What does that commitment actually entail? How can states and other interested international actors (i.e., the global community) help states realize their responsibilities? What strategies for building capacity are most promising?
This policy brief lays out the most basic principles of building states’ pillar one and pillar two capacities.
It does so by first proposing a model of how mass atrocity crimes occur in order to isolate what types of institutions and measures might be most effective in preventing them. It concludes with a proposal for how a concerted international effort to build capacity to prevent mass atrocity crimes might also include a regime to analyze and monitor the protective capacities of states and societies. (…)


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