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How to Prevent Atrocities

There’s no substitute for presidential leadership

Mar 11, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 25 • By TOD LINDBERG
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The creation of the Atrocities Prevention Board followed more than a decade’s worth of international consciousness-raising on the need for concerted action (by whom is always a question) to prevent or halt genocide and mass slaughter. At the 2005 United Nations World Summit, member states formally embraced the “responsibility to protect,” a principle of humanitarian intervention aimed at stopping atrocities. Briefly, the principle holds that states have a responsibility to protect populations residing on their territory from genocide and lesser atrocities; if they cannot or will not act in fulfillment of this responsibility, the international community may intervene to provide protection. The intention of the principle, known colloquially as R2P, is to defeat claims that states might make about their sovereign right to noninterference in their internal affairs in order to shield their own acts of mass atrocity or their failure to stop atrocities.

R2P, though it is often described as an emerging norm in international politics and international law, has always been controversial. Needless to say, authoritarian states complicit in atrocities will never do more than pay lip service to any such responsibility toward the people they rule. Other states have expressed concerns that R2P is indistinguishable from neocolonialism and amounts to a “right of intervention” by strong states in pursuit of their national interests against weaker states. Critics have also noted the potential unevenness of the application of R2P: Powerful states with the ability to deter military intervention will be able to disregard the asserted responsibility. That’s the Chechen and Tibetan problem.

There is, moreover, the vexing question of how the “international community” decides to act to fulfill the responsibility to protect when a state is failing to fulfill it. The “World Summit Outcome” document vests this authority with the Security Council:


138. Each individual State has the responsibility to protect its populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity. This responsibility entails the prevention of such crimes, including their incitement, through appropriate and necessary means. We accept that responsibility and will act in accordance with it. The international community should, as appropriate, encourage and help States to exercise this responsibility and support the United Nations in establishing an early warning capability.

139. The international community, through the United Nations, also has the responsibility to use appropriate diplomatic, humanitarian and other peaceful means, in accordance with Chapters VI and VIII of the Charter, to help to protect populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity. In this context, we are prepared to take collective action, in a timely and decisive manner, through the Security Council, in accordance with the Charter, including Chapter VII, on a case-by-case basis and in cooperation with relevant regional organizations as appropriate, should peaceful means be inadequate and national authorities are manifestly failing to protect their populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity.

It’s doubtful that all states genuinely supporting the principle of the responsibility to protect would take the view that international action and intervention always require a Security Council resolution. The NATO military intervention in Kosovo, though it predated the adoption of R2P, was clearly a humanitarian intervention to protect civilians. Thanks to Russia, it lacked a Security Council resolution of authorization, leading some to conclude that the intervention was illegal (although some embracing this conclusion nonetheless viewed the intervention as morally justifiable). The United States, to pick one great power, has often preferred to try to work through the Security Council, but has generally reserved the option of acting on its own authority. It is perhaps telling that in taking military action against Georgia in 2008, the Russian Federation ludicrously cited its supposed “responsibility to protect” ethnic Russians residing in Georgia.

The 2011 NATO intervention in Libya is, to date, the most conspicuous example of the application of R2P. Security Council Resolutions 1970 and 1973 refer directly to the Libyan government’s responsibility to protect its people and its failure to do so. The first of these demanded a halt to violence against civilians; the second authorized member states “to take all necessary measures” to protect civilians.

The case of Libya was therefore R2P at its most pristine—military action to protect civilians under the authority of the Security Council. Except that the NATO mission in Libya also had the unstated goal of toppling the regime of Muammar Qaddafi, at which it succeeded, and this was in no way authorized by the Security Council resolutions (which would certainly have fallen to Russian and Chinese vetoes had they been put forward with any such authorization).

The use of R2P to topple Qaddafi did not go over well, to put it mildly. A substantial part of the reason Russia and China have blocked any meaningful Security Council resolution on Syria is their view that the authority the Security Council granted in the case of Libya was abused. Perhaps the blatant use of the chemical weapons the Assad regime reportedly has at its disposal would fundamentally alter the debate at the Security Council. But as things stand, the likelihood of a resolution authorizing “all necessary measures” to protect civilians in Syria is zero.

Given the dimensions of the loss of life in Syria, one could be forgiven for wondering whether R2P is now as dead a letter at the United Nations as President Obama’s declaration that preventing mass atrocities is “a core national security interest and a core moral responsibility of the United States.”

But that would be to misunderstand both the responsibility to protect and the impetus behind the creation of the APB. The notion that R2P would somehow harden into customary international law that binds states, or even into a norm of international politics that would dictate the course of action of the “international community” in difficult cases, was surely misguided. Similarly, the APB is not going to be running U.S. government policy when atrocities loom, let alone when they break out.

R2P is, at its best, a tool in the hands of states and statesmen willing to hold perpetrators of atrocities to account. It provides a legitimate basis for rejecting, in cases of mass atrocity, the principle of noninterference in the affairs of sovereign states. It will never be a substitute for political will, but rather can be an instrument of political will.

The same is true of the APB. Properly managed, it can be an effective tool in building awareness inside the government of potential trouble spots. It can assess what resources might be available to try to nip problems in the bud and guide those assets to the task. It can do so not only in specific cases, but also in promoting the drafting of guidance and planning documents to deal with various contingencies as they arise. It can perform a government-wide “lessons learned” function, long sorely missing, following outbreaks of atrocities, as well as in the more epistemologically challenging cases of the successful prevention of atrocities (you can’t really prove you prevented an atrocity, since there was no atrocity). In a better world, its chairman would stand somberly alongside as the president explains what the United States will do to stop the loss of tens of thousands more lives.

What the APB cannot do is compel U.S. government action to prevent atrocities. That’s where political will comes in. It cannot be generated by a committee or a principle of action, and there is nothing that can take its place.

The Obama administration’s extensive engagement at the United Nations over Syria is in effect substituting the pursuit of procedural compliance with R2P in the form adopted by the United Nations for the pursuit of the actual protection of Syrian civilians. Consciously or not, that may be the point. Samantha Power’s book presses the case that modern genocides have not represented failures of U.S. government policy or of the “international community,” but rather the success of policies of inaction and nonintervention. Such a policy dare not speak its name. It travels instead under a false flag—the inability of the Security Council to take action, say, or the insistent propagation of the view that taking action of any kind would be both reckless and ineffectual.

To judge by news reports, President Obama is now being pressed to revisit his decisions on Syria. If he is serious about doing anything to protect Syrians and vindicating his own claims with regard to a core American interest and responsibility, he will bypass the procedural bottleneck at the United Nations. He should have done so long ago. And if he doesn’t, it will be entirely plausible for critics to suggest that the impasse at the United Nations is actually serving the ends of a deliberate U.S. policy of inaction.

And here, perhaps, is the ultimate utility of the establishment of the Atrocities Prevention Board and the adoption of the principle of the responsibility to protect. Given Syria and any future such instances in which action is possible but the possibility denied, they serve to shame.

Tod Lindberg is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford, and a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard.

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