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Why Responsibility to Protect is more important than ever: Tina Park

PhD candidate heads Canadian group in support of R2P

“When we look around the world today we are confronted with millions of ordinary people who fear for the freedom and security of their lives." (photo by IHH Humanitarian Relief Foundation via Flickr)

Responsibility to Protect – R2P for short – was endorsed by the United Nations more than a decade ago. R2P maintains that when a government or a state fails to protect its people from genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes and ethnic cleansing, the international community has the responsibility to do so.

The doctrine has its skeptics. Janice Stein, founding director of the Munk School of Global Affairs and senior advisor to U of T President Meric Gertler on international initiatives, said on TVO’s The Agenda recently that “If R2P isn’t dead, it’s certainly on life support.” Stein argued that R2P has rarely been invoked and that there is no international political will to do so, despite many situations that would seem to call for its use, including atrocities by governments against their own people, civil wars and genocide.

U of T PhD candidate and lecturer in history Tina Park is co-founder and executive director of the Canadian Centre for the Responsibility to Protect, based at the Munk School of Global Affairs. U of T News spoke to her about R2P.

Why is R2P important?

When we look around the world today, from Syria to Yemen to the Central African Republic to North Korea, we are confronted with millions of ordinary people who fear for the freedom and security of their lives every day.

This week marks five years of devastating and deadly conflict in Syria. Since 2011, more than 260,000 people have been killed, over 11 million displaced from their homes and 13.5 million people are in dire need of humanitarian assistance. The rise of non-state terror groups like ISIL and rapid advancements in technology complicate matters even more, as we struggle to respond to such a grave humanitarian call with competing geostrategic interests.

Though it is easy to be cynical in the face of these challenges, R2P serves as a powerful reminder that we cannot remain as bystanders. It argues that while the state or the government has the primary responsibility for protecting its own people from mass-atrocity crimes, the international community also has a shared responsibility if the state is unable or unwilling.

R2P has a narrow but deep approach. It is confined to four specific crimes: genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing. But it offers a wide range of tools, such as diplomatic, economic, political and humanitarian measures at multiple levels (local, national, regional and international) that allow us to prevent and respond to mass atrocities in a timely and decisive manner.

R2P also has a proud Canadian intellectual legacy, which is what prompted us to start the Canadian Centre for R2P. Not only did the Canadian government sponsor the ICISS board in 2001, many prominent Canadians were directly involved in drafting the initial R2P report, advocating for adoption in 2005, and further developing the normative consensus on R2P. R2P, in many ways, reflects Canada’s historic commitment to punching above our weight in the fight for human dignity, freedom and equality.

Would you agree with Professor Stein that R2P is either dead or on life support?

I think it’s important to remember that R2P, by the standards of new norms in international relations, is still very young. I have tremendous respect for Professor Stein and her view is certainly echoed in the minds of many people who are frustrated and concerned about the state of the world we live in. The Libyan intervention, which did invoke R2P, became very controversial because of the regime change, but this is not to say that R2P has not had some notable successes since its birth.

What are some examples?

The past decade has witnessed a growing commitment to transform R2P from principle into practice. International engagements in cases like Kenya, Côte d'Ivoire, Guinea and Kyrgyzstan successfully mitigated the risks of R2P crimes.

At the moment, there is a growing global momentum on the initiative by France and Mexico on the restraint on the use of veto power for situations involving R2P crimes. Today, 51 countries and the EU have appointed national focal points on R2P to build institutional capacity at the national level. The Inter-Parliamentary Union has adopted a landmark resolution in 2013 on the role of parliamentarians in enforcing R2P.  

Here at U of T, we have more than 150 student analysts joining us at the CCR2P every year, some of the brightest young students I have ever met. They work on research and advocacy efforts to turn R2P into a living reality. Precisely because R2P offers a powerful alternative to the politics of indifference and ignorance, I remain optimistic about its potential, especially with hundreds and thousands of young people around the world who are dedicated to the cause.

What can Canada do to strengthen R2P?

There is so much that Canada can do. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has sent a clear message that “Canada is back” on the world stage. Already, Canada’s approach towards the Syrian refugees is generating a lot of buzz and the new era of optimism is very refreshing. The time is ripe for Canada to reassert its leadership on R2P by appointing a senior level civil servant to coordinate R2P-related coordination efforts, by working closely with the global Friends of R2P Group and by developing concrete policy measures for the political implementation of R2P. Whenever I am abroad for the UN or the Inter-Parliamentary Union, I am reminded of how delegations naturally see R2P as a uniquely Canadian initiative. With our track record of success in global humanitarianism, we have such a rich history of expertise and a reputation that we must capitalize on. 

(Visit Flickr to see the original of the photo at top of story)