Because it provides a framework for the prevention of impending humanitarian disaster or for the arrest of a crisis underway, the United Nation’s doctrine on the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) is a notable step forward for the international system. Passing R2P is a move in a right and cooperative direction, one that seeks to further elevate international law and justice. But what’s next? Despite UN Security Council approval in 2006, R2P has yet to be invoked to improve areas currently inundated by natural and manmade suffering. The bottleneck lies in translating concepts into deeds. R2P, it seems, passed on a faulty premise — that there are and will be individual and groups of states with the physical means and political will to invoke and act on their responsibilities to protect.

R2P affirms the international community’s obligation to protect populations from genocide and other mass atrocities. When individual states fail to protect their own people from such horrors (because the government is unwilling or unable to do so), the global community has the responsibility to intervene, first peacefully and then by force if necessary, to protect civilians from further suffering.

Detractors claim R2P infringes on the primacy of state sovereignty in the international system —an arrangement with roots in the 1648 Treaty of Westphalia. At the end of the 20th century, this state-centric principle allowed then-U.S. Secretary of State James Baker to infamously claim “we have no dog in this fight” in reference to preventing ethnic cleansing in the former Yugoslavia. Kowtowing to the supremacy of state sovereignty also prevented outside intervention in the genocides in Cambodia in the 1970s and in Rwanda 20 years later. The same arrangement provides nominal justification for many actors refusing to stem the continued slaughter of innocents in Sudan.

Much of what actually affects day-to-day life, however, transcends state centrism; indeed, these elements were always above such compartmentalization. Globalization is comprised of, is the result of, and gives life to many peculiarities of international relations, including im/migration, disease, global warming, the drug market, arms and human trafficking, the internet, global news and entertainment outlets, finance, transnational corporations, trade, famine, poverty, global NGOs, and so on. Because these aspects easily transcend invisible, abstract, political boundaries, the phenomena are not foreign to any country. The contingencies of 21st century existence are global in the truest sense of the word.

From Sudan to Haiti

Thus, the terrors suffered by millions of people today in forgotten corners are problems for the rest of the world too. In Darfur, despite International Criminal Court (ICC) war crime charges against Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir, genocide persists. We mark time while the numbers of slain (400,000+) and displaced (2.7 million) Africans grow. Massacres continue unabated in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), where five million have perished and millions more have been displaced in the ongoing civil war. Former rebel commander Bosco Ntaganda, a.k.a. “The Terminator,” is also wanted by the ICC for war crimes, but remains at large in the DRC. Apparently even charging those in power with the world’s most heinous crime — for not only failing to protect their own citizens from atrocities but actually committing the vile deeds — isn’t enough to warrant humanitarian intervention on behalf of the powerless.

Meanwhile, the crisis in Zimbabwe feverishly boils. On average, 3,500 perish each week from HIV/AIDS; nearly 4,000 people have died from the recent cholera outbreak, and tens of thousands of more cases are reported. The collapse of health care and sanitation systems in Zimbabwe comes on the heels of a controversial election in which the inveterate President Robert Mugabe effectively manhandled democracy to maintain his high office, and who is now imprisoning political dissidents.

Such horror stories are unfolding across the globe. Somalia is in near chaos, if not already there. In Burma, 240,000 suffer with HIV/AIDS as the ruling junta looks on impassively. Parts of Mexico are approaching civil war. Children are dying of starvation and malnutrition in Haiti. And so on.

Persistent unwillingness to act in the face of such bald criminal activity by powerful, corrupt officialdom (e.g. Burma, Zimbabwe) or in reaction to misery forced upon a people by economic or natural disaster (e.g. Haiti) erodes the relevancy of the UN and the very principles on which the international body was founded. In the face of massive human suffering, its very credibility is at stake, and so is that of the powerful states agreeing to R2P principles.

American critics of R2P are hesitant to interfere in states where there is little or no strategic reason for doing so — a morally hazardous contention. Callous geopolitics and national interests in a state-centric (versus human-centric) international system prevails. Still, if one can only support R2P interventions using geopolitical or strategic justifications, one need only look to international terrorism as a prime example of how every state is affected — no matter how geographically separated — by the tumultuous affairs of other countries. Where else do terrorist networks thrive but in the chaos in places like Sudan and Afghanistan? Osama bin Laden, after all, arranged the toppling of the Twin Towers from an Afghan base on the other side of the world. If hesitant about invoking R2P to ease suffering in a place like Haiti, American R2P critics need only imagine what havoc an al-Qaeda cell could wreak from an island a mere 680 miles off the Florida coast. Terror begets terror. R2P can and should be a preventative tool for a number of reasons, one of which is the healing of would-be terrorist environments — a cause U.S. politicians on both sides of the aisle can agree on.

In short, a traditional realist, state-bias approach toward global affairs does not comport with the complexities of the 21st century. R2P is a significant attempt by the UN to match this reality. At the very least, R2P attempts to establish a new, rational norm for international relations. It’s an elevating framework that could, if consistently and justly invoked, help the international system evolve through the 21st century.

Obama and R2P

The failed humanitarian intervention in Somalia in 1993, the current Iraqi debacle, and an escalation of violence in Afghanistan cause Washington to hesitate when it comes to humanitarian undertakings. What is unfortunate, however, is that the shameful failure to intervene in the Rwandan genocide (where 800,000 perished) hasn’t had an equal impact on the psyche of Americans.

President Barack Obama has a lot on his foreign policy agenda, not least of which is restoring American standing in the eyes of the world. If the United States wants to regain a leadership role, it must seek to correct perceptions held worldwide by critics like the late playwright Harold Pinter. In his 2005 Nobel Prize acceptance speech Pinter asserted that the United States “quite simply doesn’t give a damn about the United Nations, international law or critical dissent,” and called the invasion of Iraq a “bandit act” demonstrating “absolute contempt for the concept of international law.” Obama will no doubt seek to recapture stature lost by George Bush’s abysmal eight-year rule, but he should not stop there.

Americans have all too often intervened in the politics of others for the wrong reasons. Obama, therefore, can begin to make amends for the less-than-altruistic American support of right-wing regimes in places as varied as Brazil, Chile, El Salvador, Greece, Guatemala, Haiti, Indonesia, Nicaragua, Paraguay, the Philippines, Turkey, and Uruguay (to say nothing of parallel antics today). One way to do so is to start intervening for the right reasons, namely to save lives.

For now, the United States is tied down in Iraq and Afghanistan, making the lending of peacekeeping troops and materiel, for example, impractical. Diplomatic and financial muscle, however, can be flexed to great effect where R2P is demanded. At the very least, nonviolent measures must be invoked to stem the tides of death and despair overcoming many countries. Immediately Obama can invoke R2P at the Security Council, request UN envoys to pressure culpable leaders and gather evidence of wrongdoings, and introduce targeted diplomatic and economic sanctions against the leadership in places like Burma, Sudan, and Zimbabwe, where the lives of millions are at stake.

Non-military humanitarian assistance like air lifts to stricken places in Darfur or the DRC, for example, commenced under R2P auspices must be very seriously considered as well, if not outright acted upon. Former President Jimmy Carter, for one, warned last year that an armed intervention in Zimbabwe may trigger a massive slaughter. Would an airlift of medical, food, and other necessary supplies cause such catastrophe?

Politically speaking, some interventions will likely stir the pot at the Security Council. China, for instance, would likely veto such actions in Sudan (where Beijing has heavy investments) or Burma (which is in its “sphere of influence”). While R2P intrusions in some places will require significant diplomatic muscle, other interventions may be less divisive. Would any Security Council member object to humanitarian assistance to Haiti, for example? Haiti is of no strategic importance to the realist leaders in the Security Council. Who then would object? The Haitian government? Where there may be little disagreement in invoking R2P, such as in Haiti, humanitarian assistance should commence immediately.

Sixty years ago, the world cried “never again” when the UN passed the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. Since then, however, the international community failed to intervene in Cambodia, Rwanda, and now Sudan to prevent genocide. If states fail to implement R2P in today’s life-or-death situations, tomorrow’s entreaty may be, “Holocaust, Cambodia, Rwanda, Darfur, Haiti, Zimbabwe, DRC, Burma, Uganda, Gaza — never again!” Millions hope otherwise.

As someone once said, “every time history repeats itself the price goes up.” At what price does Obama — or the world — set that of a population at risk of dying a terrifying and unnecessary death? We should be ashamed of offering only token admonishments of corrupt governments and half-hearted humanitarian assistance. Those with the capacity to act but stand idly by while millions die needlessly are, in some way, culpable in these unfortunate deaths. Such inaction borders on the threshold of committing the very crimes against humanity we decry.

Shaun Randol, a Foreign Policy In Focus contributor, is an independent research consultant and an associate fellow at the World Policy Institute, where he writes for the World Policy Journal blog.

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