Canada News & Politics

Canada and The Future of the Responsibility to Protect

Today’s geopolitical landscape is plagued with radical ideologies and violent extremism from all corners of the world.  From North Korea’s inhumane treatment of citizens in East Asia to the 200,000 civilian death toll of the Syrian civil war, a pervasive pattern of totalitarian states is reminiscent of the horrors of Rwanda and Srebrenica.  The sight of 3-year-old Aylan Kurdi’s lifeless body on the shores of Turkey should have been enough to galvanize the international community to action which pledged “never again” in the aftermath of countless genocides.  Yet (and as the Secretary-general points out), there has been little concrete action to match the copious rhetoric from the United Nations.  To put it aptly, the silence is deafening.

3-year-old Aylan Kurdi

The doctrine of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) is a global political commitment to end the worst forms of violence and persecution.  R2P has already helped to avert mass atrocity crimes in Côte d’Ivoire, Guinea, Kenya, and Kyrgyzstan.  A principal sponsor since its inception, Canada has a significant role to play as it leads the normative trajectory and seeks to build the requisite political infrastructure for R2P should its implementation be necessary again. It can shape the future of R2P by giving rise to greater private-sector involvement, supporting the doctrine of the Responsibility while Protecting (RwP) and leading UN Security Council reforms.

Often an overlooked actor in international discourse on atrocity prevention, the private sector is a pivotal element in the implementation of R2P.  With the right tools, businesses can leverage their economic influence and interdependence with civil society to hold states accountable and prevent and resolve conflicts.  The case of Kenya is perhaps the most striking example.  When Kenya was overcome by radical post-election violence which killed 1300 people and displaced 600,000 in 2007-08, the government turned to the Kenyan Private Sector Alliance (KEPSA) to conciliate in the dispute.  In response, KEPSA launched a four-phase plan with the support of local businesses and large corporations that reduced violence and played a key role in fostering peaceful elections in 2013.  KEPSA is just one of many examples of effective private-sector involvement in subduing large-scale conflicts.

Kenyan post-election violence

Until now, states have had a concerning lack of interest towards the private sector.  In fact, even the 108-page 2005 ICISS report which authorized the creation of R2P had only a single fleeting reference to the “business community.”  This posture represents a clear misalignment of R2P’s goals and the mechanisms required to achieve them. As a principal architect of R2P, Canada has an obligation to lead the debate on greater private-sector involvement in the existing atrocity prevention framework.  Domestically, Canada has already set the foundation by establishing and implementing the Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) principle. The framework surrounding this idea encourages and incentivizes businesses “to assume a greater societal responsibility that goes beyond merely seeking profit…[such as] greater cognizance of human rights.”  

According to Seyle (2013), if business leaders can be presented with the opportunity to act in line with their moral beliefs, in a way that does not undermine their fiduciary duty to their shareholders, then it can be expected that they will actively choose to do so (a finding supported by Aguinis & Glavas’(2012) research). Further, Canada should coordinate directly with developing countries to ensure the CSR principle is established and implemented abroad, mandating a greater role for the business community.  Moreover, Canadian trade policy should be anchored in the belief that only states and businesses that play a productive role in securing human rights and make an active effort to prevent humanitarian violations are worthy of economic activity with (and in) Canada.

According to Liss (2012), the crux of the ICISS report is a shift in the perception of sovereignty from ‘control to responsibility’.  Although achieved in theory, some states argue that this paradigm shift hasn’t translated to real-world situations. The controversial NATO-led intervention in Libya in 2011, therefore, largely spurred the impetus to debate the Responsibility while Protecting (RwP).  Originally proposed by Brazil in September 2011 (during the Libyan operation), RwP proposes a set of criteria for military intervention, a monitoring-and-review mechanism to assess the implementation of Security Council mandates, and a renewed emphasis on capacity building to avert crises before they happen.  In essence, therefore, RwP stresses three major ideas: accountability, assessment, and prevention.

In many ways, Brazil and other supporters of RwP seek to reinforce potential applications of R2P with principles of jus in bello (rules for conduct once war has broken out; accountability) to the existing framework of jus ad bellum (right to enter conflict).  Amidst growing concerns of NATO violations of the Security Council mandate for the Libyan intervention, measures such as RwP are imperative to end the culture of impunity. A year after its inception, however, many diplomats could discern (what they termed as) Brazil’s “enigmatic retreat”.  While RwP is occasionally broached during UN debates, it no longer carries the precedence it did in 2012.  

Canada should be compelled to act as a catalyst for RwP’s powerful resurgence into international discourse. While R2P has widespread support on paper, there is a large degree of uncertainty whether it has sufficient political capital to expend should its implementation be necessary. That’s where RwP plays a vital role to “bridge the gap between an overly trigger-happy NATO and excessively resistant China and Russia.” Most importantly, RwP presents concrete solutions to the most pervasive challenges facing R2P today. The fundamental tenets of RwP address precisely the concerns raised by the Secretary-General’s 2017 report wherein he outlines three major priorities: “prevention”, “accountability for implementation” and “evidence-based assessment”.

As Canada campaigns on a platform of humanitarianism to seek election to the United Nations Security Council in 2020, its commitment to R2P continues to be one of paramount significance.  Should Canada win a rotating seat on the council, it should use its authority to channel international proposals for Security Council reform aimed at reinforcing effective engagement with R2P. As the sole mechanism for its implementation, the Security Council carries the prerogative to authorize collective action on the basis of R2P.   Any decisions the rest of the Council takes, however, can be overturned by the P5 members.  This presents significant impediments to preventing mass atrocity crimes and punishing their perpetrators especially when states place their national interests above the immediate need to tackle geopolitical conflicts.

Security Council

Canada has already taken the first steps to elicit decisive security council operation by supporting the France-Mexico Political Declaration on suspension of the veto in situations involving mass atrocity crimes. The UNSG’s 2017 report, in addition, underpins a myriad of other reforms for the council to deal with its “fail[ure] to generate solutions.” This includes greater accountability for its actions, issuing mandates that include a time limitation, and progress reports written by states authorized in implementation.  Thus, Canada must prioritize reforms of the Security Council in the aforementioned ways to ensure major decisions taken on the grounds of  R2P are unbiased and in the collective interest of the international community. As Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau eloquently addressed the situation in Syria, “UN members have a collective responsibility to protect the world’s vulnerable and weak when others cannot or will not.” Canada should continue its humanitarian-oriented foreign policy and lead the international community to shape the future of R2P in a way that does justice to the pledge of “never again”. No longer can the cries of the persecuted be met with deafening silence.

Works Cited

1.“World Report 2018: Rights Trends in North Korea.” 2018. Human Rights Watch. January 18.
2 Campoy, Ana. 2018. “Syria’s Civilian Deaths and Refugees since 2011.” Quartz. Quartz. April 11.
3 Withnall, Adam. 2015. “Aylan Kurdi’s Story: How a Small Syrian Child Came to Be Washed up on a Beach in
Turkey.” The Independent. Independent Digital News and Media. September 3.

4 Justin Forsyth, CEO of Save the Children. 2014. “After the Rwandan Genocide 20 Years Ago, We Said ‘Never
Again’. Did We Mean It?” The Telegraph. Telegraph Media Group. April

5 “Implementing the Responsibility to Protect: Accountability for Prevention .” 2017. United Nations. United
Nations . August 10. SG report on RtoP Advanced
6 “United Nations Office on Genocide Prevention and the Responsibility to Protect.” 2018. United Nations. United
Nations. Accessed April 30.
7 “From Promise to Practice, UN Marks 10 Years of R2P.” 2018. OpenCanada. Accessed April 30.

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