Guest Post by LGen (Ret’d) the Honourable Roméo Dallaire and Jeffrey Bernstein
We live in turbulent times. A quick scan of international headlines suggests serious pressure being applied to regimes across Africa and the Middle East—regimes whose authoritarian elites have been contented for years to strong-arm a status quo no longer tenable for democracy and human rights activists in these countries nor, indeed, for their supporters across the world.
Case in point: Sudan. With just a few weeks until the much-publicized July 9th southern secession from the North, Sudan appears on the verge of unravelling. While the January referendum over secession—mandated by the successfully negotiated Comprehensive Peace Agreement in 2005 and a still-sticky subject for Omar Hassan al-Bashir’s northern regime—went overwhelmingly freely, fairly and peacefully, Abyei, the site of renewed fighting between North and South and a deeply contested and fertile border region, was long predicted to be a flashpoint between the two sides.
That prediction now looks like a self-fulfilling prophesy, with over 110,000 people estimated displaced from Abyei, while the undermanned UN Mission in Sudan (UNMIS) has remained largely a hapless witness to violations committed by both sides, including against the UN’s own mission personnel. In South Kordofan, where an additional 60,000 have been displaced, reports increasingly describe an emerging campaign of systematic ethnic cleansing by Khartoum, which paints its enemies using the brushstroke of “SPLA” (Sudan People’s Liberation Army) to justify its attacks against civilians. All this against the backdrop of Darfur—whose hundreds of thousand displaced continue to suffer their indignations and degradations at Khartoum’s hand, including widespread rape, looting, destruction and the denial of lifesaving humanitarian relief, while the international community remains distracted by events du jour.
The Responsibility to Protect (RtoP) doctrine —the nascent tool largely absent while advocates pleaded with policy makers to “save Darfur” in the early years of Bashir’s genocidal campaign—has emerged in 2011 as a norm with real potential, and a powerful concept that prioritizes prevention over reaction. R2P, which requires the UN Security Council to take action when a country fails to protect its citizens, was unanimously adopted in 2005 by world leaders committed to preventing future Darfurs. Though our record has since been mixed when it comes to implementation, Colonel Qaddafi’s crimes against the Libyan people presented the international community with a true test of its commitment to protecting innocent lives.
And while rhetoric has never been in short supply, world leaders’ failure to unanimously invoke RtoP against Qaddafi emerged as a tragic missed opportunity to crystallize the potential of this still-fragile norm. Nonetheless the Security Council’s resolve in passing Resolution 1973, and thus averting a potential tragedy of human loss estimated by the White House at 100,000, represents the most timely action in the Council’s history—timeliness that was absent entirely during Rwanda and Darfur.
The current quagmire in Libya has, in some ways, highlighted the challenges for proponents of a more expansive human rights regime in securing such future protection for civilians. Whereas NATO first embarked on its mission to support the Libyan people with cautious optimism, it currently presides over an attritive stalemate against Qaddafi’s forces. Much confusion relates to the original resolution and the subsequent interpretation of the mission’s mandate: namely, whether or not Qaddafi can be removed by force and, perhaps more important, whether the international community can live with a possibly-partitioned Libya—one ruled by its rebels-cum-politicians and the other by Qaddafi, the war criminal.
Fudged and mired in these conundrums are some fundamental truths about RtoP. The norm should rightly be likened to a “toolbox” containing several actions on a sliding scale, from prevention to reaction. Although numerous scholars have pointed out the costs of preventive actions being substantially lower than reactive ones—the interventions most-often and wrongly assigned to R2P advocates, and the prime source of derision from “humanitarian”-skeptics—it is our failure to respond to potential mass atrocities in a timely fashion that reduces the number of tools available in response, while further lessening the effectiveness of those very tactics.
Perhaps most threatening to the norm’s fruition, however, is the stench of hypocrisy. This is nowhere more apparent than in our collective failure to invoke RtoP’s preventive power in Syria. We have issued platitudes of concern, at best, while encouraging President Bashar al-Assad’s moderation as a potential “reformer.” Meanwhile, Assad’s forces have murdered over 1,300 civilians and forced thousands to flee since protests against the regime began in mid-March, while the government continues to fail to uphold its primary responsibility to avert and halt the commission of atrocities. As the humanitarian situation deteriorates into catastrophe, the UN and humanitarian relief organizations have been denied access to civilians and cities affected by the protests and violence.
As noted by the Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect in its Open Letter to the Security Council of June 9th, “Security Council action on Syria should not be held hostage to concerns about the military operation in Libya. That a healthy and open debate about ongoing efforts in Libya is warranted is clear, but this should not prevent the Council from attending to the grave threats to populations in Syria. Nor should the Council’s preventive action in Syria be further delayed by concerns that a resolution condemning the repressive tactics of the regime will lead to military intervention.” The people of Syria deserve as much protection as that taken for granted by Westerners. There is simply no more time for delay.
Lt. General Roméo Dallaire was force commander of the U.N. peacekeeping mission for Rwanda (UNAMIR) in 1994. He is currently a senator in the Canadian Parliament and co-director of the Will to Intervene project at the Montreal Institute for Genocide and Human Rights Studies (MIGS). Jeffrey Bernstein is project director for genocide prevention and human rights abuses to LGen Dallaire. Follow Jeffrey on Twitter: @JeffMBernstein.