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A Living Reality? The Responsibility to Protect and the Prevention of Genocide and Mass Atrocities
Building Peace
Alex Bellamy
December 2014
At the 2005 World Summit, the UN General Assembly unanimously adopted the concept of responsibility to protect (R2P). World leaders agreed that they each had to protect their own populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing, and crimes against humanity; that they should encourage and assist others to fulfill their own responsibilities; and that they should respond in a timely and decisive fashion. In the annals of international diplomacy it was a rare moment of unity and clarity in setting out the responsibilities of governments and the international community to protect people from these crimes. Member States agreed to continue considering measures to implement R2P, and the concept has been the subject of four informal dialogues in the UN General Assembly. The Security Council has referred to R2P in two thematic resolutions on protecting civilians in armed conflict and a presidential statement on preventive diplomacy. The principle has also appeared in Security Council resolutions on the situations in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Burundi, Darfur, Libya, Cote d’Ivoire, Yemen, South Sudan, and Mali. Given this track record, it is easy to agree with Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon that R2P is a concept “whose time has come.”
Preventing genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing, and crimes against humanity—that is, genocide and mass atrocities—lies at the heart of R2P. With the global fixation on questions of armed intervention, it is often forgotten that R2P includes a specific commitment to prevent these crimes and their incitement. In the long term, the principal measure of the concept’s success should not be evidence of more effective armed interventions (though that is certainly part of the equation) but rather the overall reduction of crises involving the crimes or their imminent risk.
Implementing R2P to prevent genocide and mass atrocities involves a comprehensive range of efforts to reduce underlying sources of risk, build national resilience to these risks, and prevent the escalation of crises and conflicts into violence against civilian populations. The strategies required for prevention are, in many respects, similar to those associated with peacebuilding, human rights action, and conflict resolution. Addressing underlying risk involves challenging discrimination in all its forms, addressing inequalities, and dealing with past crimes and injustices. Building national resilience involves establishing and maintaining the rule of law, reforming national security, establishing accountable institutions that can resolve disputes legitimately, and ensuring human rights. Preventing the escalation of crises can involve mediation, preventive diplomacy, and even targeted sanctions to deter would-be perpetrators. The prevention of genocide and mass atrocities is thus complex and multifaceted, involving partnerships between local actors and international agencies, and there is no one-size-fits-all approach to it.

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