ON NOV. 4, students piled into Desmarais to listen to a panel discussion on the Responsibility to Protect
(R2P), which included former United Nations (UN) secretary general Kofi Annan, former Canadian foreign
affairs minister Lloyd Axworthy, and Conservative parliamentarian and first Canadian ambassador of
Afghanistan, Chris Alexander. Moderated by BBC foreign correspondent and Canadian native Lyse Doucet, the panel
discussed this key concept in international relations.
The panel, hosted by the Centre for International Policy Studies and the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs, honoured the 10th anniversary of the Responsibility to Protect principle, born from the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS) that was established by the Canadian government in 2000. Following the genocide in Rwanda and the international community’s failure to intervene, the commission sought to determine when a country should override the sovereignty of another for the sake of protecting its populations.
In 2001, the commission released its report, The Responsibility to Protect. Since its reception at the 2005 World Summit, the principle has been a guideline for military and humanitarian intervention. R2P focuses on the prevention of four major crimes: Genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing, and crimes against humanity.
Crime prevention was the focus of the discussion—with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) intervention in Libya, how can the success of the Responsibility to Protect be judged? The discussion began with the origins of the R2P, with Annan describing it as his personal journey.
“I was involved in Somalia, Rwanda … and Kosovo,” he said. “All were brutal, and that was where I felt the international community should do something. Kosovo wasn’t going to be the last.”
Annan explained how difficult it was to get the international community to act in these instances, saying although the UN is not a pacifist organization, they take the use of force very seriously. That’s why it was important when Axworthy created ICISS and coined the term the “Responsibility to Protect.”
“The breakdown of the Cold War left a vacuum in the war,” Axworthy said in his introduction. “This paradigm we had lived didn’t exist. It was moving away from classic human rights. Group rights had to be recognized. If the state didn’t, who would?”
Both Axworthy and Annan said the adoption of the R2P principle does not focus exclusively on conflict, but includes natural disasters and famine. They both agreed the role of R2P is still in its developing stages.
“As we move forward, I think the jury is still out,” said Annan about R2P’s progress. “How we describe R2P will depend on the next year or so.”
Alexander discussed the idea of legitimate intervention through an organization other than the United Nations, much like NATO under Canadian command in Libya.
“The legitimacy of our intervention was strong, as citizen casualties were low,” he explained. “We were acting under the UN mandate … and even in the final chapters, there were civilians in danger. If we didn’t finish there would have been a bloodbath.”
While Annan and Axworthy agreed the original intervention was the right thing to do, Annan questioned whether it was right to get involved in the civil war afterward. Axworthy added he didn’t like the idea of NATO taking military control over such situations and spoke about the UN needing their own resources to respond to crises quickly.
Doucet put forth the controversial topic of R2P holding double standards during her introduction, mentioning the willingness to intervene in some countries but not others.
“I was in Libya when Tripoli fell,” she said. “What did we hear on the streets? ‘Freedom … Thank you.’ I was in Syria in October and what did I hear? ‘Where is the world? Where is the world for us?’”
“We live in a messy world,” explained Annan. “We don’t have the military capacity to intervene everywhere. We are always going to be accused of double standards, but we are doing what we can.”
Annan and Axworthy stood side by side with their principles of cost analysis, ensuring if there’s intervention in a conflict, it won’t make the situation worse for citizens. If a decision to intervene is made, it has to be done through the UN to ensure there is a leader and a process to follow.
“I believe we have made progress, but still have a long way to go,” said Annan at the end of his speech. “What is important is that we have put human life in the centre. We are in this together. We should speak up, we should resist.”