Press Conference on Informal Interactive Dialogue on Responsibility to Protect

22 July 2009

Press Conference on Informal Interactive Dialogue on Responsibility to Protect

22 July 2009
Press Conference
Department of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York

press conference on informal interactive dialogue on responsibility to protect

The responsibility to protect was focused on non-indifference and making it everyone’s responsibility to ensure that no one would ever again have to look back with the mixture of emotions that had greeted the Holocaust, Cambodia, Rwanda, and Darfur, asking, “How did we let this happen?”, Gareth Evans, Co-Chair of the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty, said at a Headquarters press conference today.

Noting that consensus had been elusive on several items at the 2005 World Summit, Mr. Evans said there had been a very widely-shared sense that “for God’s sake, at least we can get this one right”.  The mood had shifted to the extent that Member States no longer felt comfortable opposing that consensus, he added.

Joining Mr. Evans, a former Foreign Minister of Australia and President Emeritus of the International Crisis Group, were Jacqueline Murekatete, a human rights activist and survivor of the Rwanda genocide; and Thelma Ekiyor, Executive Director of the West Africa Civil Society Institute.  Jan Egeland, former Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and United Nations Emergency Relief Coordinator, and Romeo Dallaire, former Force Commander of the United Nations Mission in Rwanda, were available for telephone interviews through the Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect (website:

By the end of the 1990s, Mr. Evans explained, more people were looking back at past atrocities with a mixture of incomprehension, anger and shame while asking how to avoid that in future.  The result of that examination was an extraordinary shift in international norms.  People were prepared to sign up to the notion that the wider international community had a responsibility in a “purely internal situation”, including in the toughest possible way, if circumstances demanded it.  “There’s a legion of sceptics out there, but that’s what this debate is all about,” he added, referring to the General Assembly’s special session on the responsibility to protect, opening tomorrow.

In that vein, the debate was about looking forward and not backwards, he said, adding that the Secretary-General’s report was an excellent foundation (document A/63/677).  The debate was not about recasting or renegotiating the 2005 consensus, but about building on it and exploring ways to put the responsibility to protect into practice.  It was important this week to re-articulate some of the fundamentals about the concept.

First among those principles was to bear in mind that the responsibility to protect –- or “R2P” -– was about dealing with a very specific subset of problems involving mass-atrocity crimes.  So R2P was not opening up an extraordinarily wide vista or focus.  Rather, it was a way to get one particular problem solved once and for all.  A second point was the critical need for the international community to develop a consensus about how to tackle mass-atrocity crimes, bearing in mind that the issue had been neglected completely for centuries and had been very divisive for decades.

A third point revolved around defining the elements of that consensus, now that the fundamental division that had been so stark and strident through the 1990s had been overcome, he said.  The R2P concept defined mass-atrocity crimes as genocide, crimes against humanity, ethnic cleansing and war crimes.  It held that the responsibility to protect lay with the sovereign States themselves, but also with the international community to assist sovereign States, and to step in and engage in other necessary ways if a State was failing to protect its own people.  In those cases, there was a need to consider an array of options, including military options, as a last resort and with the Security Council’s support.

He said this week’s debate was an opportunity to ensure that the conceptual misunderstandings about the scope and limit of the concept were swept away, once and for all, and to clarify which were and which were not responsibility to protect cases; to explore in detail the range of policy options available to States and international organizations, and the institutional and resource challenges; and to build the foundations for political will, which was the ultimate ingredient.  In the end, the responsibility to protect was not about competing national interests and ideologies, but about common humanity, about the obligation not to stand by as fellow human beings suffered unthinkable horrors.

“As a victim and a survivor of the ’94 [Rwanda] genocide, I believe very strongly in R2P,” said Ms. Murekatete.  Everyone was well aware of the international community’s past and present failures to prevent those crimes which R2P sought to address, she added, describing her experience of six years ago.  When the genocide had begun, the people had been betrayed on many levels:  by their own Government, which had encouraged neighbours to burn neighbours’ homes and pick up machetes and other murderous instruments; and by the international community, which had been well aware of the nature of the crimes being committed from April to July 1994.  Because of that “virtual abandonment”, more than a million people had been murdered.

She said she had been nine years old when the genocide had began.  Forced to flee her home, she had heard the calls of her own Government for her family’s extermination and watched men, women and children hacked to death in an environment where, for 100 days, women were raped and mutilated en masse, as infants and toddlers were smashed alive against brick walls and thrown into latrines –- simply because of their ethnicity.  During 100 days of killing, Rwandans had hoped that if their own Government did not come to its senses, surely the international community would.  But that hope had been dashed because, at the end of the day, the international community had remained largely indifferent and inactive.

Ms. Ekiyor said that prior to the 2005 World Summit, African Governments had already given thought to addressing such atrocities.  The African Union constitutive act of 2000 had been a significant shift from its pervious adherence to non-interference to what the act called “non-indifference” in the face of mass atrocities.  That trend had permeated thinking throughout the continent, and at a recent Great Lakes conference, a protocol on non-aggression had used R2P language and talked about setting sovereignty aside in situations of genocide.  In January 2008, the Heads of State of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) had adopted a conflict-prevention framework, which “used R2P lingo verbatim”.

R2P was about Member States “supra-nationally” intervening in the affairs of other States in the face of mass atrocities, she said, adding that African Governments had shown a willingness to deploy troops when needed.  Liberia was a case in point.  Africans wanted to “put boots on the ground” in other African States, if needed, to prevent mass killings.  The ECOWAS Council of the Wise had intervened in several West African situations, and the hope was now for the African Union’s Panel of the Wise similarly to enable continent-wide intervention.  However, the concept of responsibility to protect was often characterized as a Western norm, to be used in the case of weaker States.  That idea must be refocused.  Everything else had been globalized; now it was time to “globalize” the responsibility to protect.  It was up to world leaders to promote non-indifference.

“Moderate persuasion is the appropriate style,” Mr. Evans said in response to a question about how to convince the sceptics.  Those passionate about the responsibility to protect musts acknowledge the extent of the prevailing global mindset -– and for good reason.  Many newly independent countries were proud of that and conscious of their fragility.  They had a strong memory of the way in which “civilized” operations had been applied in the past, and were naturally suspicious.  All that should be acknowledged.

The responsibility to protect was not about going back to the “old language” of the 1990s debate –- “send in the Marines” –- with the only competing concept being absolute sovereign independence.  That debate needed to be bridged, and the breakthrough had come in 2005, with the World Summit consensus.  While it was true that a dozen or so countries were expressing anxiety about misuse of the concept, he did not sense any real willingness to avoid tackling the issue head-on or to call the concept counterproductive or wrong-headed.  The proof of the pudding would be in the actual debate.

Responding to questions aimed at further fleshing out the concept, Mr. Evans said many policy options were available other than “sending in the Marines”, and the Secretary-General’s report very clearly spelled them out.  For example, there was economic, policy and security support.  Even in cases where there was no enthusiastic commitment by the State in question, and when it became a question of exerting pressure on it, there were still policy options.  Such had been the case in Kenya, where the responsibility to protect had been well-articulated in diplomatic rather than military means.  Diplomacy had also had a significant effect on the Sri Lankan Government earlier this year when the world had seen a halt in the shelling of vulnerable civilians.  So while there were a number of strategies, short of full-scale prosecution or military intervention, the responsibility to protect retained the option of the use of force.  In Rwanda, for example, only the use of effective military force would have made a difference, he pointed out.

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For information media • not an official record
For information media. Not an official record.