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New York Times, US Holocaust Memorial Museum: Who Will Stand Up for the Responsibility to Protect?
By Mike Abramowitz
1 August 2013
Mike Abramowitz is the director of the Center for the Prevention of Genocide at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. Together with the U.S. Institute of Peace and the Brookings Institute, the Center recently co-sponsored the Working Group on the Responsibility to Protect.  
Last month, during her confirmation hearing to be our next Ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power was asked about a concept most Americans have never heard of, let alone understand—the Responsibility to Protect. Her cautious response spoke volumes about the ambivalence in the United States government towards a new idea that has gained traction as a tool for addressing conscience-shocking atrocities.
The Responsibility to Protect, she said “is less important than U.S. practice and U.S. policy, which is that when civilians are being murdered by their governments or by non-state actors, it is incumbent on us to look to see” if there are ways to limit the atrocities. But, she added, “there is no one size fits all solution, no algorithm, nor should there be. If confirmed to this position, I will act in the interests of the American people and in accordance with our values.”
Power’s reluctance to associate the U.S. government with a UN concept was understandable. Anything related to the United Nations can prove politically radioactive these days, especially if it appears the U.S. is ceding political authority to the UN Security Council. (…)
But the Responsibility to Protect, or R2P, is one means of addressing the most frustrating and durable failures of international relations (…).
The Responsibility to Protect had its origins in the early part of the last decade, as policymakers sifted over their failures to prevent genocides in Rwanda and Bosnia. The idea was to get around the long-held notion that what happens inside a state’s borders is nobody else’s business. R2P puts the onus on state leaders to protect their own people from mass slaughter, but if they are unwilling or unable—or if they are perpetrating the slaughter themselves—the responsibility falls on the broader international community to provide that protection.
Despite criticism in some quarters, R2P is not just another abbreviation for military intervention, nor does it require the United States to do anything the president or Congress do not see as in our national interests. If it is working right, it should prompt early, preventive action before things get out of hand and genocide starts. Sending in the Marines is not always the right answer; R2P contemplates a whole range of other actions—diplomacy, financial sanctions, prosecutions at international tribunals, intelligence collection and other actions aimed at deterring would-be perpetrators.
There is no question that Syria today represents perhaps the most glaring failure to protect civilians from the worst, an R2P failure of the first order; with 100,000 deaths and clear cases of massacres and other crimes against humanity. (…)
But in other cases, the recognition of R2P obligations has motivated a range of countries, not only the US, to step in to prevent mass killing and egregious human rights violations in places like Burma, Libya, the Ivory Coast, and Mali. That some atrocities took place does not indict the whole R2P enterprise. While it is not a great political bumper sticker, the cold truth is that it could have been much, much worse in all these places.
Every country in the world, including Russia and China and the United States and even perpetrator countries like Sudan, have said they recognize the Responsibility to Protect. Our job now and in the future is to hold them up to this promise.

Read the full editorial.
Read the Working Group on the Responsibility to Protect's full report.

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