Preventing Mass Atrocities

Nov 1, 2018

Tyranny is not restricted to any particular religion, culture, civilisation or gender. Political rule based in terror rather than citizen’s welfare, safety and security is a universal moral failing. The Westphalian system of sovereign states spread from Europe to cover the whole world after decolonisation. Because it was seen to have sanctified the ability of tyrants to rule by terror – free from external restraints and counter-measures – the need arose for a matching universal norm to ban and stop atrocities.

One of the most important developments in world politics in recent decades has been the spread of the idea that there exists a responsibility to protect (R2P) people threatened by mass-atrocity crimes – vested in individual states at the national level and in the UN Security Council at the global level.

R2P was articulated by the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS) in 2001 and unanimously endorsed by world leaders at the UN in 2005. For advocates, it is a poster child of liberal internationalism, summoning forth the better angels of human nature to save strangers in distant lands within a rules-based global order. For critics, it is the enabler of choice for powerful coun­tries to appropriate the language of humanitarian­ism when violating the sovereignty of weak nations.

The notion that R2P is an updated version of the old “white man’s burden” can itself be racist. It denies agency to developing countries, insisting they can only be victims. It suggests their citizens should either be left to the mercies of thuggish leaders, or to the ad hoc geopolitical calculations of powerful Western countries, rather than to globally validated norms and due process.

It ignores the origins of R2P, agreed in the aftermath of the 1994 Rwanda genocide, 1995 Srebrenica massacre and 1999 Kosovo interven­tion, and driven by African and European victims. It also ignores the indigenous traditions in many parts of Asia and Africa that hold rulers owe duties for the safety, welfare and protection of their sub­jects. For instance, the Hindu concept of rajdharma means duty of rulers – a point that was made by then-Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee to the then-state Chief Minister Narendra Modi, of the same political party, in relation to his failure to protect 2,000 Muslims killed in targeted violence in Gujarat in 2002.

The Genocide Convention converted the moral revulsion of the Holocaust – a failure of Western civilisation – into a binding universal norm. The two humanitarian crises that most drove the push for R2P were the Rwanda genocide in 1994, and the Balkans atrocities bookended by the Srebrenica massacre in 1995 and the Kosovo intervention in 1999. One of these crises was African, the other European.

R2P is a global norm that, in the allocation of sol­emn responsibilities of protection, does not discrimi­nate on grounds of nationality, race or religion, but applies equally to all. As such it speaks eloquently to the highest UN ideals of international solidarity. Just as the UN is the symbol and site of the full family of nations, so R2P is an acceptance of the duty of care by all of us fortunate enough to live in zones of safety towards our fellow human beings trapped in zones of extreme danger.

RAMESH THAKUR Former UN Assistant Secretary-General who served as a Commissioner of the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty and was one of the key authors of the Commission’s 2001 report on the responsibility to protect

“This article first appeared in an issue of UNA-UK magazine, the flagship publication of the United Nations Association – UK”:

An abridged version of this article ran in the print version






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