Remarks from Former Australian Minister for Foreign Affairs Gareth Evans: Responding to Mass Atrocity Crimes: The “Responsibility to Protect” After Libya
6 October 2011
Abstract: This is a transcript of a speech made by Gareth Evans, Australian Minister for Foreign Affairs (1988-96) on 6 October 2011 at Chatham House. He discussed the future of the 'responsibility to protect' norm, arguing that the principle is now firmly established, but that its effective implementation will continue to be a work-in-progress for a long time to come.
(…) Martin Gilbert has described the responsibility to protect as the most significant adjustment to sovereignty in 360 years. That’s a pretty big call but there’s actually a good argument to be made that he was right. (…)
The core elements of responsibility to protect and the crucial differences between this and humanitarian intervention I think need to be reiterated on occasions like this because the differences do get constantly blurred by those with short memories or a cynical or sceptical disposition.
Whereas humanitarian intervention was all about coercive military responses to extreme threat situations and only about that, responsibility to protect is much more nuanced, much more multi-dimensional. The first thing about R2P for short – responsibility to protect – is that it involves a presentational shift from the language of the right to intervene to the language of responsibility to protect; so you no longer talk about the right of the big guys or anyone else to throw their weight around but the responsibility of everyone to prevent these atrocities occurring; you talk not in terms of intervention as the key idea but protection, so you shift the paradigm, the way of looking at this away from the interveners to the victims, those who suffer – death, rape, displacement, violence, horror – in these situations.
And that’s not just a linguistic device to shift the focus in this way. It does require a fundamental mindset change and the reason for inventing this language, utilising this language, is that we did want to produce a new mindset among those debating this issue so that we could get away from that horrifically divisive debate.
The second thing about the responsibility concept is that it involves the idea of a sequence of responsibility, starting with the spotlight on the sovereign state itself and its responsibilities and only then shifting to the responsibility of the wider international community. Humanitarian intervention by contrast is focused entirely on the external players. If there’s a problem with actual or impending mass atrocity crimes it’s the responsibility of the international community to fix it.
The third thing about responsibility to protect, characteristic of this new concept, is that it involves a sequence of responses. Whereas again humanitarian intervention was one dimension – the military – with responsibility to protect there are multiple dimensions in the response continuum. You start conceptually with the idea of prevention, long-term structural as well short-term operational prevention. (…)
The best proof of acceptance of responsibility to protect in international discourse actually lies in a series of debates almost wholly unreported in the media that have taken place in the UN General Assembly now in 2009, 2010 and again post Libya in July 2011, in which it’s become apparent that the basic responsibility to protect doctrine is alive and well, whatever the caution may be that’s still widely evident about how it should be applied, particularly in really extreme cases when all other options except the coercive military one seem to have been exhausted or appear unachievable. (…)
But of course getting this kind of agreement in general principle is only the beginnings, not the end, of the story. What matters is effective implementation of the principle in practise and here there remain, as has been the case from the beginning, three big challenges – conceptual, institutional and political. (…)
I’ve long thought, and the Syrian situation to me reinforces this, that the most pressing unfinished business with respect to R2P is the need to get started the really serious debate we haven’t yet had on the criteria for coercive military intervention, criteria of legitimacy – not the criteria of legality, that’s clear; Security Council support – criteria of legitimacy. If we can get a larger measure of agreement than we have at the moment as to what are the conditions, and there are a number of them, not just the last resort one, that would in principle justify this most extreme response. If we can get the Security Council to embrace, endorse and accept those guidelines as guidelines for their own decision making in the future and if we can ensure that those criteria are applied with some rigor and consistency to new situations as they arise, I suspect it will be a lot easier to avoid the kind of inevitable escalator, or to vary the metaphor, slippery slide argument, which has paralysed the Security Council response on Syria making, as we know, some countries unwilling to even foreshadow non-military measures like targeted sanctions or ICC investigation because of the concern that any inch conceded will indeed be driven a mile. (…)
Read the full transcript