The Oped below is in this morning’s Toronto Star. It was written with my new colleague Anouk Dey, with whom I am in the process of building something pretty exciting with the Canada International Council. Many more details to follow in the coming weeks.
R2P: More than a Slogan
For many commentators, the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) is becoming the Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) of Libya: the suspect acronym behind a misbegotten military effort. Before placing the blame on what was once a symbol of Canada’s international leadership, it is important to remember what R2P is and what it is not.
Emerging from a Canadian-funded commission in 2001 into how the international community should react in the face of crimes against humanity and genocide, the concept is meant to put a degree of conditionality on the notion of sovereignty. The sovereign rights of states, R2P argues, are conditional on the protection of civilians against large-scale slaughter. If this protection is not provided, the international community can legitimately breech sovereignty in order to protect the civilians in harm.
What R2P is not, is a blank cheque to invade. It is a threshold that can be used to guide Security Council endorsement for humanitarian interventions. It is a principle that was adopted by the UN General Assembly, not an idea unleashed from the ivory tower. It did not apply to either Iraq or Afghanistan. It would have applied to Rwanda. It applies in Libya, and likely in the Ivory Coast.
There are three reasons why Canada should actively promote R2P.
First, it is our best hope of realizing the proclamations of “never again” that followed the Rwandan genocide. This massive failure on the part of the international community demonstrated that something is grossly wrong with a system of absolute sovereignty that protects the right of a state to murder its citizens. R2P is far from perfect, but it does begin to address the two major flaws of the status quo, that sovereignty is a powerful trump card against action, and that it is very difficult to pass humanitarian intervention authorization through the Security Council.
Second, R2P deals with a core dilemma of humanitarian intervention, that protective interventions are preventative rather than punitive. In the past, we have deliberated and delayed intervention until it was too late. The challenge is that to stop atrocities, we have to act on the perception of intent (Gadhafi’s articulated goal to “cleanse Libya house by house”) rather than evidence of action (him having done so). R2P therefore seeks to engage policy-makers in the short window of time when atrocities are imminent and inevitable, but have not yet occurred.
Finally, the intention of an intervention can shape its outcomes. Whether an intervention is justified according to R2P or allegations of WMD matters. Take Iraq — the U.S. invasion would likely have employed different tactics if the primary intention had been civilian protection rather than the removal of WMD. Libya is not Iraq in part because our motives are different.
For these three reasons, R2P is good for the world as a whole. But supporting R2P and, by extension, the military action in Libya, is also in Canada’s self-interest.
For one, by taking part in the mission in Libya — endorsed by both the Security Council and the Arab League — Canada is rightfully engaging as a key multilateral partner. This is a crucial step in Canada’s effort to redeem its strategic international position after its failure to secure a seat on the Security Council this fall.
More important, in the deployment of an R2P-based mission such as Libya, Canada has a rare opportunity to shape global action. Through the beginning of this decade, Canada’s role in clarifying and championing R2P represented a significant foreign policy success. Without extensive lobbying by the Canadian delegation, it is unlikely that the UN would have taken the substantial step forward in approving R2P in 2005.
In spite of this accomplishment, 18 months ago the Harper government banned the use by government departments of the term R2P (along with human security, gender equality and child soldiers). With that, Canada lost a primary vehicle through which to assert its international leadership.
Ironically, just as we have abandoned its use, the world has embraced a concept that is, at its heart, Canadian. And yet, as Canadian troops engage in an operation explicitly justified according to R2P, Defence Minister Peter MacKay suggests that R2P has “lost its lustre” and his government has not used the term to describe Canada’s involvement in the Libyan mission.
With a Canadian in charge of the NATO mission, Canada is receiving deserved international attention.
Despite this, Canada is missing a rare opportunity to push an important concept that would not exist without our hard work.