Madeleine Albright with Tina Jiwon Park, PhD student, co-founder and executive director of the Canadian Centre for the Responsibility to Protect (all photos by Nicolett Jakab Photography)

Madeleine Albright, Lloyd Axworthy on R2P: Responsibility to Protect

Former diplomats discuss sovereignty with international relations students

Sovereignty implies the inalienable right of a country to protect itself, former U.S. secretary of state Madeleine Albright and former Canadian foreign affairs minister Lloyd Axworthy told University of Toronto students and staff at an international relations panel April 1.

But this concept becomes challenging when sovereignty protects the perpetrators in the demise of its own people, such as during the Rwandan genocide 20 years ago and ethnic cleansing during the Bosnian war in the late 1990s.

When sovereign states are unable or are unwilling to protect their own citizens, Responsibility to Protect, or R2P, states that the international community has the responsibility to step in. However, R2P, a moral principle dealing with the sovereignty of individual countries and their duty to protect the lives of their residents, is a complex, multi-layered policy that might well be up to today’s graduates to resolve, speakers said.

“I think that’s the trick pony in R2P – a challenge to sovereignty per se,” said Axworthy, who is credited with helping to develop the R2P concept. “Sovereignty is earned by protecting its citizens. And if it doesn’t protect its citizens -- or itself becomes the predator -- then its right to sovereign protection is problematic.

“These are the kinds of issues that you [students] … are going to have to put to bed in the next 10 to 15 years as academics, international relations specialists and foreign-service personnel.”

Albright, who often met and talked with Axworthy on cross-border issues when both were cabinet ministers and later sat on an R2P task force, classified R2P as a “moving target,” noting that Russian President Vladimir Putin tried to justify its recent invasion of Ukraine by saying Russia needed to protect civilians at risk from political violence and human rights abuses.

“I think you will find that this is going to be your issue and the fact that you are studying it is essential because it is a very complicated concept,” said Albright. “We have argued that when you see people dying and you have the capability of doing something about it then you should do it. But, when is it an invasion? When is it actually protecting somebody? I don’t think we’ve sorted anything out yet.”

The panel was hosted by the Bill Graham Centre for Contemporary International History – a collaborative program of U of T's Trinity College and Munk School of Global Affairs – and the Canadian Centre for the Responsibility to Protect (CCR2P) at the Munk School of Global Affairs. Student participants included Hope Caldi, Misha Boutilier, Rachel Gunn and Patrick Quinton-Brown (pictured left).

Angelo Mateo, a third-year International Relations (IR) student at the University of Toronto, said the discussion shed some light on the American perspective of R2P and the need for students to better develop the concept in the future.

“The fact that more needs to be done with R2P is frustrating but … patience is a virtue in these sorts of issues,” said Mateo. “While we may be frustrated at the lack of progress, it is our duty as students to solve this issue in the future.”

Patrick Quinton-Brown, a fourth-year IR student and one of the student questioners, said it’s difficult to maintain optimism in light of what has been going on in the world, but he acknowledged that the reins of responsibility have now been passed on to his generation.

“We have a responsibility as the next generation of scholars and activists and commentators and writers. A lot of us want to become foreign-service officers and I suppose R2P is going to be one of our tasks in the future.”

Albright also said the so-called “CNN effect” of televising horrendous acts of violence inside a country means people can no longer use the excuse that they don’t know what’s going on, as people did during the Second World War in Germany. 

"And now that we have information about everything, that’s where the concept of human security and responsibility comes into play. But now, once you have the images and the facts, then what do you do?” 


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