Interview with Edward Luck, Special Advisor to the Secretary-General

Edward Luck, Special Advisor to the Secretary-General

1 August 2011 – With the principle of the responsibility to protect, also known as R2P, garnering more attention in light of events in Africa and the Middle East, Edward Luck has been a busy man of late.

As Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s Special Advisor, with a particular focus on R2P, he is charged with its conceptual, political, and institutional development. The consensus building process has included annual reports from the Secretary-General and debates in the General Assembly, as it continues its consideration of the issue.

Dr. Luck has served as a consultant and advisor to the UN on various issues over the past three decades, including as an advisor to the President of the General Assembly.

He has served as a Professor at Columbia University and as President and Chief Executive Officer of the United Nations Association of the USA (UNA-USA).

UN News Centre: What is the “responsibility to protect” or R2P as it is commonly referred to? How did it come into existence as a principle in international relations?

Edward Luck: It was something agreed to by all the heads of state and government at the World Summit in 2005. They pledged that they would prevent genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity for all the populations on their territory and that they also would prevent the incitement of those crimes. That was quite a big step and, beyond that, the international community undertook to assist the state in meeting those responsibilities. And if the state fails, iIt’s not a radical idea… this is why states were born: states were born to protect people.n a manifest way, to protect populations, then the international community is to take timely and decisive action in response to try to offer protection to the threatened populations.

UN News Centre: What’s your background in the United Nations system and how did you become involved with the issue of R2P?

Edward Luck: I’ve been involved in and out of the UN for many years – in fact my first internship was in 1971, so it goes back a couple of years! I’ve been a college professor at Columbia University for many years, as well as the head of the United Nations Association of the USA for many years. So I’ve gone in and out of the UN, working on counter-terrorism, on UN reform, on peacekeeping, peace and security issues, many things through the years but always with a strong interest in humanitarian issues, and human rights issues as well.

When the current Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon, was first campaigning to become Secretary-General I was asked to offer advice and help him on speeches and other things. And one of the things we wanted to focus on was the need to implement much of the promise, many of the high ideas voiced at the UN.

This Secretary-General was going to be one who was going to work not only on building important norms but also on actually implementing them on the ground. And one of the things that we focussed on in the campaign was the responsibility to protect.

I think very much to his credit, even though now he’s close to beginning a second term, he still remembers that way back in 2006 he promised, as a candidate, to implement the responsibility to protect so that it wouldn’t just be one of those great flight of words that the UN is so famous for but something that would actually make a difference in people’s lives.

Children who fled the fighting in Rwanda rest in a camp in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Many of the children had witnessed the killings of their parents. (July 1994)

UN News Centre: What led to R2P becoming such an issue in international affairs?

Edward Luck: Rwanda in 1994, the genocide, was a very important piece of this. Before that, there were the killing fields in Cambodia, after Rwanda there was the slaughter in the forests of Srebrenica. There was a whole series of such scars on the 20th century, going really all the way back to the Holocaust, which created a terrible stain on human history: mass violence targeted against one part of the population or another.

Breaking that cycle of violence is something that everyone has talked about for years and years but now it’s an effort to have a comprehensive systematic programme to try to do something about it. It’s not easy but it’s well worth trying.

UN News Centre: Who decides whether R2P needs to be acted on or not?

Edward Luck: The role of the Secretary-General, the role of myself and Francis Deng who works on the prevention of genocide – we work very closely together – is to warn the international community, in particularly the Security Council, if we think a particular conflict or a particular society is going down a road that could lead to these kinds of mass atrocity crimes.

So we really try to exercise warning. We try to talk to the governments, often very quietly to say “You’re inciting violence; don’t say these kinds of things; you are trying to de-humanize one part of the population or another.” But ultimately, when it comes to really trying to push back – for example through economic sanctions, or military action or other things – that’s up to the Member States, and first and foremost up to the Security Council.

The one thing we have insisted on from the very beginning is that it all has to be under the UN Charter, it has to be through the UN, it has to be done properly. Because some of these slogans, like the responsibility to protect, you can imagine some big powers misusing them for their own purposes, and we’re trying to avoid this. So we have the mechanism in the UN, in the Security Council; in some cases, the General Assembly or other bodies could act, and it’s really up to the governments themselves to make this determination.

Many Ivorians fled the violence that followed the recent disputed election in their country. (March 2011)

But we will often say “Look, we think that in this country or that country, the situation is such that it looks like there may be some evidence here that crimes against humanity or ethnic cleansing or some of these things may be happening and investigations should be undertaken. It might be through the International Criminal Court, it might be through the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, it might be under the Secretary-General’s auspices directly, but we need to know more.”

And in many of these societies, when these things occur, the governments try to close borders, cut back the media, cut off the Internet, one thing or another – because they want deniability, they don’t want the world to see what they’re doing.

So at the very least we’re trying to make clear that there is a moral requirement here. There is a principle involved that’s extremely important, that part of sovereignty is protecting your populations and if you fail to do that then your neighbours, the international community, may feel the responsibility to react.

UN News Centre: With Libya in the world’s glare, why do you think the Security Council explicitly cited the principle in relation to what is happening there?

Edward Luck: I think it was quite an important precedent, both in resolution 1970 that talked about sanctions and referring [Libyan leader Muammar] al-Qadhafi and some of his people to the International Criminal Court and then in resolution 1973, that talked about all necessary measures to protect populations – both of those invoked the responsibility to protect.

What I think was important was that the members of the Council didn’t find that to be the controversial piece. In other words, the principle was agreed upon. There were some differences on the tactics on how to go about it, but it was clear that a government that seems to be virtually at war with its people, that attacks peaceful protesters with aircraft, with advanced weaponry, with military force, with mercenaries; clearly this is not part of normal governance. That, simply, is not acceptable.

So the principle, it seems to me, was very clear in this case. And all the Member States agreed on that. And very importantly, the Arab League, the African Union, the Gulf Cooperation Council, all acted before the Security Council did. Even the Human Rights Council in Geneva recommended to the General Assembly that Libya be suspended from its participation in that body.

The General Assembly debating the concept of the responsibility to protect. (July 2009)

So others acted first. In this case it was really the way the Charter had meant it to be: the parties and then the regional bodies first try to resolve the differences; if they can’t, then they refer them to the Security Council, so in some ways it’s a bottom up process. It’s not the Security Council or the permanent members sitting around and dictating to the world. They were, in many ways, reacting to what the neighbours in Africa, in the Middle East, were saying about al-Qadhafi’s behaviour.

And something that I think people sometimes miss, but to us was very important, were the kinds of words that al-Qadhafi used to characterize the protesters. At the very beginning he called them “cockroaches,” which is exactly the word that was used in Rwanda against the Tutsis. For Francis Deng and myself, hearing such a word is worrisome. I immediately said, “Now wait a minute, we’ve been down this road before and the results weren’t very pretty. So we have to immediately say something about this.” Later, he stopped using “cockroaches,” he started calling them rats and vermin, saying they had to be eliminated, there’d be blood flowing from the streets. So it looked like the possibility of quite a major bloodbath. We listen to what leaders say as well as watch what they do.

UN News Centre: If the other international bodies had not reacted first, do you think the Security Council would have acted otherwise?

Edward Luck: Certainly, the Secretary-General, the [UN] High Commissioner for Human Rights, Francis [Deng] and I would have made comments, we certainly would have used diplomacy. The Secretary-General was on the phone to al-Qadhafi for 40 minutes at the very beginning, leaving the diplomatic door open – those things certainly would have happened.

But I think if you compare what has happened or hasn’t happened with Syria, for example, in the Security Council, and Libya, clearly the members of the Security Council listen to what regional organizations are saying. Regional organizations have not reacted the same way to the violence in Syria as they did to the violence in Libya.

 UN News Centre: Why is that?

A crowd of people anxious to leave Libya for Tunisia in the wake of violence there. (March 2011)

Edward Luck: I think partly the standing of the two countries and the two leaders were different. I think Syria is in a particularly sensitive geopolitical position in terms of the politics of the Middle East. I think they have some friends that perhaps Libya didn’t have. These are distinct situations. They also didn’t use the kind of rhetoric – there wasn’t this talk about cockroaches and rats and the rest of it – they were more careful in what they said.

Now we’ve made very clear that we consider the way they have been treating their citizens and peaceful protesters as if they’re enemy combatants and using the military against them is totally inappropriate. It simply is wrong.

But the question of principle on the one hand, and the question of how you react to it and what tactics, what tools do you use, are really two different questions. Concerning his strategy for advancing the responsibility to protect, the Secretary-General has said from the very beginning that he wants an early and flexible response, based on the circumstances of each case – no template that you apply automatically to every situation, because every situation is different.

If you actually look at the last several years, we’ve invoked the responsibility to protect, at least on the [UN] Secretariat side, eight or nine times. Only in one of those cases, with Libya, was it tied to the use of sanctions or military force.

All the other cases were quiet diplomacy of one sort of another, or in some cases a little louder kind of diplomacy in terms of reminding the national leadership that there are standards that they have to meet and reminding the world that they’re not living up to them.

UN News Centre: In those cases, was R2P successfully applied? 

Edward Luck: I think in some cases it’s made a difference. For example, in Kyrgyzstan, just over a year ago, there was something that looked a lot like ethnic cleansing. People may debate exactly what it was, but there was violence and it seemed to be aimed towards the Uzbek community, and there were over 100,000 refugees, enormous displacement, and some real problems with the rule of law and other things.

Edward Luck speaks with Francis Deng, Special Advisor on the Prevention of Genocide, at a joint press conference on Côte d'Ivoire. (January 2011)

That was a case where perhaps the central government wasn’t in total control. There were some problems. We’ve since sent a group of trainers to work with the people there: what do you look for, what are the standards, what is the law, how can you try to prevent this kind of violence. We recently had a letter from the foreign minister saying “This is very helpful, send some more, we want more training, more education, more work.” So I think yes, it’s still a troubled society but they’re coming to grips with it. I think that’s very important.

In Guinea, quiet diplomacy made a difference. Again, it was the UN working with regional and sub-regional organizations, but the new government was very aware of  its responsibility to protect, they didn’t need to be reminded of this.

Cote d’Ivoire was more of a mixed situation, it didn’t work quite as well as had hoped. But there, very early on, some of Gbagbo’s supporters – the fellow who had been president and didn’t want to accept the results of the election – were going around and marking houses by ethnicity, which tribes they were from. That again is a very dangerous sign. Why are you doing it by ethnicity? If you play up the politics of race, the politics of religion, the politics of ethnicity, then that can be a very dangerous combination.

So when we see these things coming together with military force, we get very worried. In those cases we acted relatively early and, I think in some cases, were able to make some difference. You never know what the hypothetical might have been: what would have happened if you didn’t do anything? But we do know is that it’s a lot better to stand up and say something and to try to stop these things than to after the fact say “Gee, well maybe it was more than what we thought it was.”

For us the job isn’t response, the job is prevention. Many people think that responsibility to protect is all about the use of military force after the bodies start piling up. For us, that isn’t morally acceptable. The Secretary-General has said this. It simply is not morally acceptable to base your strategy on the fact that there will be these crimes. The strategy should be based on helping the state succeed in preventing these crimes.

UN News Centre: So R2P begins with dialogue?

A UN peacekeeper speaks with locals in Cote d'Ivoire. (May 2011)

Edward Luck: Dialogue is very important. Education is very important. To me, values matter a lot in foreign policy and domestic policy and people have to understand that this kind of behaviour simply is not acceptable in the 21st century. Enormous slaughter may have been acceptable in previous centuries. It simply isn’t acceptable anymore. The world is watching and the world cares. And we think it’s very important that there be an individual responsibility to protect, maybe not a legal responsibility but people should listen for this kind of hate speech or singling out of a certain part of the population to suggest somehow they are sub-human. People should shelter those who are threatened, assist them, and speak out against those who would commit those kinds of crimes. It’s very important because if we’re simply bystanders, we’re part of the problem – we want to be part of the solution.

UN News Centre: Some observers have said that the doctrine of R2P will “either triumph or die” in Libya. What are your thoughts on that?

Edward Luck: I’ve heard that said, but of course I don’t agree with it. To me, if you think of the practice of the UN that has developed in the last few years on R2P, Libya is, at best, the tip of the iceberg. Most of all, it is these other cases that we’ve been working on but that don’t get the same kind of publicity.

Libya, because of the use of force, because of the drama, people say “Ha, this is R2P!” It is a piece of R2P, certainly. But it’s only one piece of it. R2P didn’t begin with Libya. R2P isn’t going to end with Libya. Obviously, the use of force and the way it’s being used is controversial, it always is. But it does seem to me that the fundamental principle remains the same.

The Security Council decided to try to protect populations from the air, which is a difficult thing to do. It didn’t work all that well in Bosnia, it didn’t work all that well in Kosovo and they’re trying it again. But they didn’t have a lot of other tools to choose from, there was very little time. And they wanted to stop what they thought was going to be a bloodbath in Benghazi. This was the only tool readily available and the resolution [1973] says very clearly that the international community is not going to put forces on the ground.

It’s not a perfect solution, it’s a tactic. What better solution was there at that point? Is the question of protecting people from the air being tested in Libya? Yes, it is being tested there. But the responsibility to protect remains whether or not that particular tactic succeeds.

UN News Centre: Sceptics say R2P is too open to misuse – for example, as a cover for imperialist aims or even as an incentive to kill in order to spur outside intervention. What are your thoughts on that?

Special Adviser Edward Luck addresses the 63rd General Assembly during an informal interactive dialogue entitled “Responsibility to Protect: to end global paralysis in face of atrocities.” (July 2009)

Edward Luck: There have been those who have tried to cast this in a sort of north/south narrative, that this is an idea from the north that is being thrust on developing countries in the south and would be misused by would-be imperialists, etc. We simply don’t buy that.

The responsibility to protect really came from Africa and the African experience. The concept was first developed in West Africa, and used by ECOWAS in Liberia and Sierra Leone. It was then adopted by the African Union (AU) itself. The Organization of African Unity, the former [pan-African] organization, stressed non-interference. Non-interference with sovereignty.

The African Union, when it was created ten years ago, was based on non-indifference: we’re not going to be indifferent to what happens to our neighbours. And they have a clause which is very much like responsibility to protect in the AU constitutive act. Article 4H says that in grave circumstances the AU as a whole can in fact involve itself, engage itself, within a country and including by the use of force if necessary, in those grave circumstances such as genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity. Now the only difference is that R2P added ethnic cleansing as a fourth crime or violation. It’s really very similar.

So they came out with this first, then there was an international commission the next year which coined the phrase “responsibility to protect.” The idea was already there, based very much on the African experience.

What we found was that while some countries tried to caricature this as some sort of north-south dynamic, there was an enormous amount of south-south dialogue. That in fact countries that had faced these kinds of atrocities in the past or came close to it, or their neighbours had, knew how damaging they could be.

Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon addresses a thematic debate on “The Role of Regional and Sub-regional Arrangements in Implementing the Responsibility to Protect.” He cautioned that “for those facing mass rape and violence, the slow pace of global deliberations offers no relief.” (July 2011)

It’s a question of the whole economic and social development of a country, maybe even of a region, when these kinds of things occur. They set things way back for a society. So we found very small states making very eloquent pleas, saying “We needed international help, we needed international engagement and we didn’t get it” because the history of the Security Council and the history of the big powers isn’t that they want to rush in, in these humanitarian situations –  it’s that they want to look the other way. And that’s what usually happens, you get a lot of resolutions, you get a lot of pious rhetoric – “This has to happen, that has to happen” – but they don’t actually want to get involved.

So yes, it could be a danger. This could be misused. Many different principles could be misused. So that’s why it is based so clearly on the [UN] Charter, under the rules, through multi-lateral mechanisms under international law.

There’s nothing new here in terms of international law. It’s all based on existing international law. It’s not a radical idea, unless you think expecting national leaders to take responsibility for the way they treat their people is a radical idea. We think this is why states were born: states were born to protect people. This is not a new, radical idea but some people of course want to twist it in other ways.

UN News Centre: What do you see as the relationship between R2P and humanitarian intervention?

Edward Luck: I’m glad you asked that because back in the latter part of the 20th century, in the 1990s, there was a big debate about humanitarian intervention. Kofi Annan, the former Secretary-General, made several quite eloquent speeches about it and he put forward some ideas to the General Assembly in September 1999 – [which were] not well received by the Member States because they thought this could be misused. And again, the premise was reacting after the fact with military force.

Now, there may be times that military force is the answer. But most times, prevention or other kinds of engagement is much more likely to work and much more likely to be acceptable. Besides that, the UN isn’t especially good at military intervention, while it’s relatively good at some of these other tools. So I think what the responsibility to protect did was change the thinking.  You needed to look not only at the response. You needed to begin with the responsibility of the state.

This Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon, has taken it a step further saying “Look, the heads of state and government, they agreed that they would be responsible, they would prevent these kinds of crimes – but we have to recognize there are non-state actors, armed groups, who also sometimes commit these crimes.”

Military personnel of the United Nations Operation in Côte d'Ivoire gather weapons collected during the disarmament of militia groups. (May 2007)

Think of the Lord’s Resistance Army now, which makes mass rape almost an identifying characteristic, or look earlier at the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) in Sierra Leone which was busy cutting off limbs. In both cases, governments have had a hard time dealing with these armed groups. In the case of Sierra Leone, the country was divided and in the part controlled by the RUF, there were mass atrocity crimes, just like more recently in parts of the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo, with massive rapes and other atrocities. These are places where the government doesn’t have very good control. So under the Secretary-General’s approach you can, for example, have military assistance to the government to put down the rebels or the armed groups who are committing the mass atrocities. Originally the idea was that the onus rested on the government and it is their responsibility. There are times, however, when the government doesn’t control its territory, so in those times they may need international assistance.

Or you might have, for example, a preventive deployment of peacekeepers, as they had in [the Former Yugoslav Republic of] Macedonia: the UN Preventive Deployment Force. There, in the 1990s, the rest of the Balkans were going up in flames, and the president of Macedonia said “Wait a minute, I don’t want this here.” It’s a society divided to some extent by ethnic and religious distinctions. Everywhere around him there was this kind of problem. And he said “No, let’s have an international force here, not to use military force, [but] as a presence, a calming presence.”
And it helped. In fact, they didn’t have the kind of violence that most of their neighbours did. It was before responsibility to protect had been officially sanctified as a UN idea, but it was really very much the same concept.

UN News Centre: Where do you see R2P in five year’s time?

Edward Luck: That’s a very important question because this is a relatively new norm or principle. The idea of R2P was first voiced ten years ago, in 2001. It was only six years ago, in 2005, that the World Summit agreed on this as an essential part of UN doctrine and state responsibility. So another five years seems like a long time to us. But we do think there are some things that can happen in that period.

First and foremost, we hope that states around the world will absorb this into the way they think of their own responsibilities, into their legislation, into their educational curriculum, into their media; that it becomes really part of the way people think about the state and the state’s relationship to its people and its responsibilities to its people.

Edward Luck addresses reporters at a press conference. (January 2011)

Second of all, we very much expect that civil society – we’re seeing this around the world – will continue to be very, very interested in working with us on this; and that there will be more trans-regional learning processes, comparing notes from different parts of the world about what works and doesn’t work and new ideas that might be adopted in different places.

We also think that on the prevention side, which is 90 per cent of the effort, the whole UN system needs to be involved. That’s a question of mainstreaming R2P in dozens of agencies and field operations around the world. We see positive interest from the rest of the UN system, but we have to figure out in each case how to move forward.

And finally, we very much hope that the prevention side will be successful enough that we don’t have to rely on the other side so much – the response side. Because, quite frankly, over the past year I had sort of naively thought that “Well, maybe two, three times we’ll end up using this concept.” Instead it’s been probably seven or eight times in one year alone because there have been so many crises in so many places.

So I’d be very happy, maybe not in five but ten years from now, if we simply could go out of business – that this becomes so much a part of international and national behaviour that there is no need anymore for the UN to keep pushing it.