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Responsibility to Implement:
Considering Civil Society’s Knowledge and Use of R2P
In 2001, the Canadian-based International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS) produced a report called The Responsibility to Protect (now often abbreviated as “R2P”). The concept of R2P — as endorsed, in modified form, by the United Nations World Summit in 2005 — centers on the belief that while each state “carries the primary responsibility for the protection of populations from genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing,” the international community also has a “responsibility to assist” states in achieving this objective. Emphasizing the contingency of state sovereignty and non-interference in a state’s internal affairs, R2P has challenged previously held norms of humanitarian intervention and persuaded the community of nations to reexamine its approach to future crises that threaten to destabilize countries around the world.
The real test of R2P’s effectiveness, however, remains its ability to be implemented in situations that fit the criteria for its application. Much of this responsibility lies with civil society and member states, which are tasked with identifying crises for which invoking R2P might be an appropriate response to conflict. The challenge in doing so is to apply R2P in a consistent manner, as the legitimacy and continued relevance of a developing norm is greatly tied to the international community’s perceptions of its use. As such, it is important that the international community also understand precisely what R2P is intended to be used for.
One way to achieve this is by continuing to educate both NGOs and other members of civil society about R2P, as well as clarifying elements of R2P that have been misconstrued or incorrectly perpetuated. In order to facilitate this, the United Nations’ Department of Public Information-Non-Governmental Organizations (DPI-NGO) held a briefing entitled “Implementing the Responsibility to Protect: The Role of Civil Society and Member States” on March 14 at the International Social Justice Commission Salvation Army. Moderated by Gail Bindley-Taylor, United Nations Information Officer at the UN Secretariat, the presentation included remarks from Gillian Kitley, Senior Officer in the UN Office on Genocide Prevention and the Responsibility to Protect; Sapna Considine, Deputy Director of the International Coalition for the Responsibility to Protect; and Naomi Kikoler, Director of Policy and Advocacy at the Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect.
Following a brief overview of how conflicts in the 1990s, including the Rwandan genocide in 1994 and the genocide in Srebrenica in 1995, prompted the international community to develop a new approach to state sovereignty as embodied in R2P, Bindley-Taylor turned the floor over to Kitley, who spoke about some of the contemporary aspects of R2P. In particular, Kitley noted a few of the recent advances in its implementation, including an increase in research being done on the topic, as well as the growing number of national focal points within member states. In addition, she cited that R2P, which “is now firmly on the international agenda,” has also “become part of [the] diplomatic language” of governments, international organizations, and commissions.
In regards to the UN’s invocation of R2P, Kitley commented on how the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) has gone through long periods of both use and non-use of the document. In doing so, she also highlighted concerns over the controversial use of R2P in Libya, as the outcome of this crisis left many international actors wondering if the goal of R2P was “regime change rather than [being] purely aimed at civilian protection.” Stating that this lack of understanding indicated the necessity of developing guidelines for use of force by the UNSC, Kitley reinforced that coercive measures under R2P are rare, and that she thus “[considers] the concerns of member states to be unnecessary.” Instead, she offered the “actual willingness of states and the international community” to promote R2P as being the primary obstacle to its effectiveness.
The second speaker, Considine, centered her commentary on the role of civil society organizations, stating that “R2P is a vital new tool for civil society to hold governments responsible” when they fail to protect their citizens. Considine divided her talk into two sections, the first of which addressed how the “existing work [of NGOs] already contributes” to the work of R2P. Here, she noted eight specific examples:
- Monitoring and documenting crimes, including identifying indicators of mass atrocities
- Sharing early-warning information and assessments with other monitoring mechanisms
- Facilitating mediation, negotiation, and dispute resolution
- Assisting in the training of civilian protection personnel, including helping civilians to recognize indicators of mass atrocities
- Helping with recovery and post-trauma
- Supporting and enhancing regional and national justice systems
- Advocating for stronger resolutions through adopting legislation and strengthening domestic policies
- Supporting local communities in building capacities to recognize threats
In the second section, Considine discussed how NGOs might do more, and focused on four areas of improvement: building understanding of R2P, so as to clarify misconceptions and promote knowledge of the document; “[advocating] for increased norm support for R2P;” strengthening an R2P constituency; and continuing to advance research and policy development initiatives.
Kikoler, the last panelist, focused on what R2P means for the people on the ground, stating that its main purpose is to “strengthen the architecture of prevention.” She began with a personal anecdote of the time she spent in Rwanda following the 1994 genocide, which she contrasted with her grandfather’s survival of Auschwitz during the Holocaust. “What on earth can ‘never again’ mean?” she asked, citing how 50 years after her grandfather’s ordeal, people in another part of the world still experienced the same horrors of genocide. She answered her own question by simply stating that our task today is to ensure that “[never again] doesn’t continue to mean nothing.”
Specifically, Kikoler posited two challenges to “never again”: the consistency of response, which she exemplified by contrasting Libya and South Kordofan; and a “failure to prioritize prevention.” Here, Kikoler focused in particular on the financial aspect, noting that it is less costly to prevent atrocities from occurring than to respond to a situation that has already turned to violence. For example, she discussed the potential of using funds to prevent hate speech, promote education, combat incitement by the media, and assist early-warning groups in an effort to prevent rather than react to conflict. “What can it look like, and how much does that cost?” she asked. Citing the 2013 elections in Kenya at the end of her presentation, Kikoler offered this instance as an example of how the international community “can develop some best practices . . . on how prevention can make a difference.”
As Kitley stated during the question-and-answer session, “We shouldn’t be looking only at imminent situations.” Indeed, if a conflict has escalated to the point of “imminence,” the opportunity for prevention has likely passed. This is yet another example of the critical role of civil society and member states in the dissemination of information on R2P, as well as in assisting the effective implementation of its parameters. While R2P remains imperfect and will likely require continual advancements in both its understanding and use, Kikoler said it best when she ended the conference by stating that “it is better to try to do something than to dismiss R2P in general.”