Policy brief

Effective and Responsible Protection from Atrocity Crimes: Toward Global Action

Benner et al. 2015 Effective and Responsible
Source: US Department of State / Flickr
Thorsten Benner, Sarah Brockmeier, Erna Burai, C.S.R. Murthy
07 Apr 2015, 
published in
Global Norm Evolution & The Responsibility to Protect
Other Languages

Executive Summary

A decade after the United Nations adopted the concept of a Responsibility to Protect (R2P) people from atrocity crimes, the world’s record of protection remains grim. But those who point to a global deadlock between Western” interventionists and non-Western” stalwarts of sovereignty as a cause for this lack of progress misidentify the core of the political conflict, and fail to engage seriously with the practical challenges of protection from atrocity crimes.

As a team of academics and think tankers in Beijing, Berlin, Budapest, Delhi, Frankfurt, Oxford, Rio de Janeiro and São Paolo, we analyzed global debates about protection from atrocities over the past decade, with a focus on R2P. In more than 250 interviews with politicians, diplomats, academics and civil society actors in 20 countries, we asked how and why Brazil, China, Europe, India, Russia, South Africa and the United States engaged with these ideas in light of their history, culture and domestic politics.

We found that beyond the occasional rhetorical grandstanding, the core of the global political conflict over protection from atrocities has moved on. Most relevant actors around the globe accept the idea that the protection of populations from atrocitycrimes is both a national and international responsibility. There is much greater and more widespread readiness to support what is seen as necessary to protect populations from atrocity crimes, and even to make active contributions when there is an overlap with other strategic interests.This readiness goes beyond individual groupings of states and far beyond the West,” liberal interventionists” or the members of the Group of Friends of the Responsibility to Protect. In analyzing the politics of protection, we found that none of the neat splits between North” and South,” Western” and non-Western,” emerging” and established,” democratic” and authoritarian” are helpful.

Of course, major conflicts over protection persist. They focus primarily on two interrelated challenges of putting protection in practice: how to protect responsibly (ie, to prevent the abuse of humanitarian arguments by great powers) and how to protect effectively. Following the use of force in Libya in 2011, military intervention will only be found legitimate if undertaken in a way that prevents further abuses by the great powers. Effectiveness is no easier to ensure than responsibility. The record is marked more often by failure than by limited success. More effective protection is as much about developing policy instruments as it is about assessing risks and trying to identify the lesser of several evils in every particular situation.

Both responsible and effective protection require serious engagement with the many difficulties and dilemmas they pose, beyond the simplistic and misleading stereotypes that have long dominated the discussion about R2P. In addition, rather than avoiding the debate on the military component of R2P, stakeholders should have a more constructive and self-critical dialogue on global peace and security governance to enable effective and responsible protection in the future; that debate should be over the effectiveness of the use of force in protecting people from atrocity crimes, its chances of doing more good than harm, and its successes and failures in the past.

To help make progress in these debates, we outline policy options in five key areas:

Reduce the vulnerability of information sources to accusations of bias.

One crucial challenge for protection from atrocity crimes has been the accusation of bias regarding the type and interpretation of information about atrocities that is provided by governments, by the media or by civil society groups. It is up to media corporations and philanthropists, particularly in emerging powers, to invest in independent and credible sources of information and analysis about conflicts and human rights. At the same time, member states, civil society and regional organizations should enhance the UN’s independent capacities for fact-finding and information-gathering.

Deploy diplomatic and civilian tools early, fairly, strategically.

Despite widespread international agreement that atrocities should be prevented by the sustained and early use of a range of civilian tools, the international community has failed again and again in deploying these tools early and decisively. To make progress on effective protection, UN member states and particularly emerging powers need to match their rhetorical commitment with the required political will and investment into capacities and ideas. In their efforts on atrocity prevention, policymakers should hold all actors in a conflict to the same standards of behavior. Governments should prioritize the deterrence and prosecution of perpetrators of atrocity crimes within their jurisdictions and, just as civil society advocates for R2P, tread carefully when calling for Security Council consideration of an emerging crisis.

Enable UN peacekeeping to provide credible protection.

Living up to even a moderate level of ambition for peacekeepers to protect populations from atrocity crimes requires additional investments in capacities, doctrine and training. It will also require a hard look at how to use peacekeeping more effectively together with political instruments. To maintain the fragile balance between troop contributors (mostly from Africa and Asia), funders (mostly from Europe and North America) and the permanent members of the UN Security Council issuing mandates, the system requires a boost in the quality of contributions to blue helmet operations, including a fairer and more balanced division of labor.

Work towards more inclusive decision-making on military action.

A council that is both able to mandate and mobilize effective protection and to limit the fear over abuse of humanitarian arguments would need to draw on the voices of all major political players in today’s world, troop contributing countries and major financial contributors. The five permanent members of the UN Security Council should therefore support a reform of the council’s working methods towards more inclusive and participatory decision-making. In addition, all member states should engage in further discussions on a monitoring and reporting system for states that implement UN-mandated missions, accommodating concerns raised during the Libya intervention and in the Responsibility while Protecting proposal.

Build constant reflection and learning into every policy tool.

While there is a great deal of experience with grim failures and a few qualified successes, there is no reliable knowledge base on how to protect people from atrocity crimes. Under such great uncertainty, responsible policymaking requires governments, international organizations, civil society and academia to design policies that are more adaptable to evolving knowledge and risk assessments, based on in-built opportunities for continuous and collaborative reflection and learning.

The full policy paper is available for download.

This policy paper is also available in Portuguese and Chinese.