Time and again, the world has failed to prevent or halt the worst forms of human rights abuses — genocide, crimes against humanity, ethnic cleansing, and war crimes. The Holocaust, the killing fields of Kampuchea, and the genocide in Rwanda are just a few examples where a host government has failed to protect its citizens or been complicit in committing massacres. In most cases, these massacres occurred in the context of ongoing war or conflict, often behind the curtain of state sovereignty, with the international community turning a blind eye or intervening only to witness the evidence of mass killing.

The Responsibility to Protect (R2P) concept is the latest attempt by the international community to turn the promise of “never again” into a political reality. Often criticized as another form of humanitarian intervention, R2P is far more constructive and deals with more than establishing the conditions for a military response. While coercive military intervention may be a necessary component of R2P, according to the initial R2P report issued by the Canadian sponsored International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS), “prevention is the single most important dimension of the responsibility to protect.”

R2P affirms that with sovereignty comes responsibility. At the 2005 UN World Summit, member states endorsed the responsibility of each individual state to “protect its population from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity.” Building on this language, the UN Secretary General’s new report Implementing the Responsibility to Protect outlined a three-pillar strategy to understand how to move R2P from a concept to reality.

As noted by the 2005 World Summit Language, the first pillar stresses that each individual state has a responsibility to protect civilians from mass atrocity crimes. The international community has a responsibility to assist states in meeting their protection responsibilities through capacity-building measures, according to the second pillar. If prevention fails, the international community has a responsibility to react with a “timely and decisive response,” according to the third pillar.

By placing the responsibility to protect firmly on each state, the focus is on protecting civilians from harm rather than on the rights of foreign powers to intervene. By committing to help states “build capacity to protect their populations,” wealthy states have the responsibility to provide assistance to reduce inequities along ethnic lines, support good governance, and assist countries in creating professional and law-abiding security forces. As such, R2P is just as much, if not more, about increasing capacity-building assistance to war-ravaged states like Sierra Leone, Burundi, or the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), as it is a framework for diplomatic, economic, legal or military intervention to prevent imminent or ongoing atrocities in places like Kenya (during the post-election crisis last year) or Darfur.

Given the strong focus on prevention and a response tailored to each occasion — rather than jumping to military intervention — R2P is a step forward for the international system. The Obama administration should endorse this doctrine, increase capacity-building assistance to states facing crises or under stress, and strengthen alliances to manage conflicts peacefully before they reach the point of potential mass violence. If prevention fails, the response — whether non-military or military — to an emerging genocide should be collective and authorized by the UN Security Council.

The How-To of R2P

There are three key challenges toward moving R2P from a concept to reality. As noted above, the first is keeping policymakers focused on improving U.S. prevention capacity rather than narrowly focusing on eleventh-hour military intervention. Advocating concrete steps the United States and international community can take to peacefully prevent mass atrocities is the second challenge. Assuaging concerns that R2P will pave the way for increased military interventions by great powers rather than facilitate collective efforts to protect civilians from mass violence is the third challenge.

Last fall, Friends Committee on National Legislation (FCNL) published The Responsibility to Prevent, which provides a blueprint for improving U.S. preventive efforts. Last December, the Genocide Prevention Task Force released a report entitled Preventing Genocide: A Blueprint for U.S. Policymakers, which also provides concrete steps the President and Congress should take to bolster U.S. genocide prevention capacity. The UN Secretary General’s report, issued in January 2009, provides guidance to the international communities’ efforts to prevent mass atrocity crimes. All of these reports provide substantive measures the United States and international community should take to prevent latent conflicts from turning to genocidal crises.

FCNL’s report focuses on bolstering U.S. diplomatic, civilian stabilization, and foreign assistance tools, supporting multilateral peace operations and halting the migration of authorities and resources to the Department of Defense. During the past eight years, U.S. military spending has grown exponentially to more than $700 billion last year. As a result, U.S. military spending totals more than the military expenditures for the next 45 countries combined and comprises just under half of total global military spending. Meanwhile, spending on U.S. nonmilitary foreign engagement has never surpassed $40 billion. The State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development are chronically under-resourced and understaffed, and as a result are incapable of tackling pressing 21st-century security challenges.

Last year, the Bush administration requested funding to hire 1,100 new diplomats and stand up a corps of deployable civilian experts to help prevent states from collapsing into violence or to rebuild countries torn by war. In an outline budget released in late February, President Obama requested a 10% increase in funding for diplomacy and foreign assistance, noting that the “2010 Budget includes funding for the first year of a multi-year effort to significantly increase the size of the Foreign Service at both the Department of State and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID).”

While the Pentagon has an abundance of people to plan for future wars, State and USAID are so short-staffed that staff can’t leave their posts to undergo training in new languages and critical skills. Increasing staffing for diplomacy and the administration of foreign aid is thus critical to a better trained and expanded civilian presence to respond to crises and provide focused assistance to prevent latent conflicts from turning violent.

Reconfiguring U.S. Diplomacy

Along with increased civilian staff and training in new skills, the United States needs to dramatically reconfigure its diplomatic posture. Why are there nearly 40 full-time political officers staffing the embassy in Paris and only six working out of the embassy in Nairobi to stabilize war-ravaged Somalia? Why are there two dozen staff at the embassy in Berlin and just four in Bangui, the capital of the Central African Republic, despite the enormous refugee population stemming from the conflict in Darfur, massive poverty, and remnants of a civil war?

By and large, there is a huge U.S. diplomatic presence in the embassies in Europe, and far fewer in Central and East Africa, South Asia, the Middle East, and Latin America — where the needs and challenges are far greater. Places like Somalia, Kenya, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Sudan, Central African Republic, Afghanistan, and Pakistan are far more susceptible to mass violence than countries like France and Germany. While the Cold War is over, the United States is still postured for countering the Soviets. Repositioning U.S. diplomats away from Western Europe and into lesser-developed countries is critical to ensuring the United States has capacity to support conflict resolution efforts and foster development — critical elements to preventing mass violence.

The United States also needs a permanent cadre of deployable civilian experts to help shore up states with weak institutions, where mass violence occurs most often. Last year, Congress authorized and substantially increased funding for the State Department’s Office of the Coordinator for Reconstruction and Stabilization (S/CRS) and the civilian response corps — an interagency corps of civilian experts in policing, law, health care, education, economics, agriculture, and other areas critical to support institution-building in war-torn states. While initially created as “a partner to the military,” S/CRS has increasingly provided assistance to help stabilize countries like Somalia, Haiti, and Sudan, which could prevent the future use of force to quell instability in these countries. Robust funding for this initiative is critical to ensuring that the United States meets its responsibility to build the capacity of weak states and prevent latent conflicts from erupting into mass violence.

While increased poverty reduction assistance is crucial to mass atrocity prevention, assistance must be focused and conflict sensitive so as not to exacerbate existing tensions. The Office of Conflict Management and Mitigation (CMM) and Office of Transition Initiatives (OTI) in USAID are critical to ensuring that U.S. foreign aid is more effective at ending the conflict cycle. Through small grants, OTI encourages good governance, democracy, and civil society participation in transition countries. Leadership training workshops in Burundi and the DRC, which are facilitated by the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, are part of one specifically peace-building-focused program funded by OTI. CMM works to integrate conflict analysis and peacebuilding into U.S. assistance, ensuring that development builds peace rather than creates conflict. Given that 60% of countries receiving U.S. assistance are in conflict, these offices are critical to peacebuilding.

But some states are more susceptible to mass violence than others. Violence in places like Kenya, Sudan, Bosnia, and Rwanda has proven that states with marginalized groups and deep inequalities along ethnic, political and social lines are good candidates for genocidal violence. To address such conditions, the Genocide Prevention Task Force urged the Obama administration to create a high level interagency “Atrocities Prevention Committee,” which would focus $200 million of U.S. development aid on genocide prevention projects in states most at risk. Increasing assistance focused on projects to address minority grievances and resolve conflicts across ethnic, political, and social lines is vital to preventing catastrophic violence down the road.

International coordination is critical to assuaging concerns from R2P skeptics, as coordination with other states adds legitimacy to preventive and international response efforts. To support international coordination, the United States must restore financial solvency at the UN by paying down back dues and meeting future obligations on time and in full. Providing additional support for UN peacebuilding efforts, genocide prevention initiatives as well as efforts to strengthen the UN’s preventive diplomacy capacity are all critical to improving multilateral prevention efforts. Given that the African Union (AU) lacks resources but has demonstrated impressive resolve in confronting atrocities in places like Darfur and Kenya, the United States should provide assistance to strengthen the AU’s diplomatic and peacekeeping capacity.

With a military budget that comprises nearly half of global military expenditures, the United States is well-equipped for war. Unfortunately, the United States is underequipped for undertaking early initiatives to prevent mass violence. Enhancing civilian-led diplomacy, bolstering focused, conflict-sensitive assistance and supporting multilateral efforts to prevent conflicts from turning lethal are critical to fulfilling R2P. If the Obama administration is serious about fulfilling the U.S. responsibility to protect, it should shift the focus on R2P toward early prevention by substantially increasing funding for civilian-led efforts to prevent mass violence before it occurs, while strengthening international institutions and partnerships to better respond if prevention fails.

Foreign Policy In Focus contributors Trevor Keck and Bridget Moix lead the peaceful prevention of deadly conflict program of the Friends Committee on National Legislation.

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