happy adolescence, r2p!

This week, the international human rights community celebrated R2P’s tenth anniversary in style, with programs, discussions, and a fair share of online space devoted to discussing R2P best practices, lessons-learned, and prospects for the future. I had the fortunate opportunity to “attend” two of the events: the first, “R2P: The Next Decade,” was organized in New York by the Stanley Foundation, an excellent peacebuilding NGO in the noble corn-town of Muscatine, Iowa*; the second, “The ‘Responsibility to Protect’ after the Arab Spring,” which STAND organized and I moderated, was held in DC, on Georgetown’s campus. While the events fell short of the International Debutante Ball, they (especially the Stanley Foundation conference) represented a who’s-who of international human rights advocacy: a solid half of the original International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty, which developed the first fully-articulated R2P framework; Francis Deng and Edward Luck, the UN’s genprev/R2P tag-team; and a host of prominent civil society leadership.

Both events centered on the lessons-learned from R2P’s past decade of normative evolution and operational implementation, as well as case-based best practices for the doctrine’s future. As with any adolescent experience, R2P’s coming decade will be contentious, dynamic, and exciting. International politics will challenge the doctrine’s moral framework; doctrinal and operational norms, similarly, will shape a core component of multilateral diplomacy. In the spirit of the R2P’s shift towards maturity, I composed a list of the doctrine’s top five dilemmas for the coming decade, sparked by yesterday’s discussions:

The Cosmopolitan Temptation: Yesterday’s events underlined the doctrine’s philosophical nascency, much due to the seemingly irreconcilable tension between rights-based cosmopolitanism and community-based cultural, national, political, and religious diversity. This isn’t anything new; the transcendence vs. prediction debate on communal identities figures centrally in liberalism’s evolution since the Enlightenment. The cosmopolitan vision appears to occupy the upper-hand in contemporary human rights discourse, likely as a result of the perceived prevalence of identity-based conflicts in the Cold War’s aftermath (for example, see Steven Pinker’s emphasis on the pacifying character of the modern, cosmopolitan ideology). To a significant degree, however, the identity-based approach undergirds R2P’s intellectual origins–before he consolidated his proto-R2P vision of “sovereignty as responsibility,” Francis Deng’s IDP-and-human-rights research emphasized the need to accommodate, manage, and pacify, rather than transcend, identity-based conflict.

R2P’s normative dilemma plays an important role in the doctrine’s operationalization–Deng’s emphasis on communal identities and inclusive governance has led the UN SG’s genprev adviser to focus on R2P’s first, nationally-oriented pillar, while ICISS chair and former Australian FM Gareth Evans’ emphasis on the doctrine’s cosmopolitan character has led the former ICG chair to focus on the politics of international response. There’s a place for both, but we’re fooling ourselves if we see them as easily resolved.

Building a Moral Framework for Unintended Consequences: At the DC event, former Virginia Congressman and current CAP Advocacy Director Tom Perriello chided R2P’s critics for dismissing out-of-hand the “cost of action vs. cost of inaction” dilemma. If the doctrine’s critics tend to over-emphasize the moral shortcomings of coercive international intervention, R2P supporters’ unwillingness to engage competing high-grounds represents a similar moral failure. As I’ve stated before, the Hippocratic nature of human rights advocacy renders “collateral damage” a morally specious and intellectually irresponsible argument. If R2P is, in earnest, a doctrine focused on the promotion and establishment of common human dignity, coercive actions that infringe, even ever so slightly, on said dignity pose a profound challenge to the moral framework.

As Perriello noted at the DC event, the international community’s coercive technology has made sweeping improvements, strengthening the precision capacity of targeted financial sanctions, weapons systems, and intelligence platforms. At some point, though, technological improvements are going to reach a point of diminishing marginal returns, and the moral dilemma of unintended consequences will remain. The original ICISS document articulates a just-war-theory-based notion of legitimate, timely, and last-resort use of military force; however, there have been few indications of a credible commitment to the existing framework. Brazil’s “responsibility while protecting” may not be far off the mark, but the moral enterprise should be expanded to the full spectrum of coercive civilian protection initiatives, including economic sanctions and, more controversially, various forms of kinetic, covert warfighting.

Collaborative Responsibility, Collective Action: In the direct aftermath of the Libya intervention’s successful conclusion, Anne-Marie Slaughter published a controversial analysis of military intervention, heralding an R2P-inspired re-definition of state sovereignty and international responsibility. As the subsequent blogosphere uproar indicated, normative and functional definitions of sovereignty have remained constant throughout the era of internationalization; territorial and domestic control continue to define the terms of international legitimacy and political authority. Late last week, I offered my thoughts on the political dynamics of military intervention, observing a necessary intersection between a third-party intervention’s civilian protection mandate and the disputed goal of regime change. In a Twitter exchange yesterday, Hayes Brown offered an important rejoinder, observing the prospect of second-pillar force deployment, which supports, rather than supplants, state-based civilian protection authority.

At yesterday’s New York event, Gareth Evans observed the palpable consolidation of international R2P consensus throughout the five-year period between the 2005 World Summit and last year’s MENA upheavals. What Evans didn’t mention, however, is the remarkable imbalance in international capacity-building–the international community has invested significant resources in emboldening third-pillar policy interventions, both coercive (Libya, Cote d’Ivoire, and UN peacekeeping operations in the DRC, Sudan, and elsewhere) and non-coercive (Kenya, Kyrgyzstan, Guinea), while the second-pillar component of international civilian protection support lies fallow. Liberia’s nascent early warning and response initiative, an extension of its peacebuilding office, is a valuable case study in effective second-pillar implementation: the Liberian government has benefited from robust international civil society investment and technical support. In order to build an effective path towards collaborative, second-pillar responsibility and collective action, the international community will need to transfer its systemic best practices to governments and sub-state actors.

The Austerity Politics of Civilian Protection: R2P was conceived in the early years of the last decade, during a period of relative international prosperity, particularly among North American and West European governments. Even in spite of the relatively anti-UN orientation of the previous U.S. administration, U.S. and European actors were more flexible in their support for international peacebuilding, conflict prevention, and civilian protection initiatives. However, the politics of international funding have shifted, especially as a result of the renewal of austerity politics in the United States, Canada, the UK, and Germany. Fiscal spending tends to move in cycles, but it’s entirely feasible that heightened restrictions on “peace spending” will limit the reach, depth, and effectiveness of civilian protection initiatives.

Accordingly, R2P advocates must learn to make the fiscal case for mass atrocities prevention. The U.S. human rights community, alarmed by the Republican Congress’ aggressive opposition to U.S. peacebuilding support, has increased its focus on the preventive essentials, including the State Department’s stabilization operations, flexible crisis-response funding, and preventive diplomacy capacity-building. As Deng observed during the New York event, “prevention is always better than cure.” It’s also cheaper, and human rights advocates would do well to bring that to the attention of international policymakers.

Emerging Powers and the Status Quo: As I noted in a prior post on Brazil’s “responsibility while protecting” principle, emerging powers will play an increasingly prominent role in the international politics of civilian protection. According to ICRtoP’s Evan Cinq-Mars, the UN is teeing up for a critical public debate on the RwP concept in 2012, likely comparable to the General Assembly’s Summer 2009 discussions. Since the 2005 World Summit, emerging powers–Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa, especially–have generally adopted a cynical perspective towards R2P. Brazil’s principle appears to be the first sincere attempt to shift the discursive terms of R2P operationalization. Judging from yesterday’s New York event, the UN leadership’s perception of RwP is mixed; SG Ban sees RwP as a valuable mechanism to engage the global South, while his R2P adviser, Edward Luck, is more skeptical of the doctrine’s phased approach to R2P implementation.

The global North’s response to RwP is not yet clear. For governments supportive of R2P’s evolution and implementation, RwP and related global South initiatives pose two challenges. The first relies on a normative differentiation in foreign policies. North American and Western European foreign policies tend towards the transformative, focused on the piece-meal facilitation of social and political change. Emerging powers, in contrast, have tended towards the status quo, preferring to emphasize regional stability and border security. As an anecdotal example, China’s engagement in Burma demonstrates the prioritization of the status quo: China has done little to promote human rights and political transition in Burma, preferring to selectively mitigate domestically relevant crises (see, for example, China’s diplomatic intervention in the 2009 Kokang incident). In order to facilitate the progressive operationalization of the R2P doctrine, Western diplomacy needs to combine an empathetic acceptance of RwP’s relevance with substantive capacity- and political will-building initiatives.

The second challenge relies on the shifting international dynamics of policy leverage. Questions of military force aside, third-party actors’ ability to incentivize and coerce shifts in regime behavior determine the effectiveness of civilian protection initiatives. As controversial as their engagement remains, emerging powers possess relatively increasing levels of credibility and leverage with conflict-affected states. Even if R2P-minded governments cannot mobilize international consensus on coercive policy interventions (see Syria), emerging powers can play a critical role in developing governments’ capacities for mass atrocities prevention.

*While not present at the Stanley Foundation event, I was able to follow the program on a FORAtv livestream, as well as the #R2P10 Twitter stream.

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