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What follows is the introduction to When We Let People Die: The Failure of the Responsibility to Protect, published by The Mantle in 2018. This collection of essays, by longtime iACT volunteer Corrie Hulse, examines the shortcomings in the implementation of the doctrine of the Responsibility to Protect, and what might be done to remedy international complacence in the face of mass atrocities. 

What we seek to protect reflects what we value. – Kofi Annan

In the wake of World War II, came the establishment of the United Nations (1945), the establishment of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948), and the signing of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (1948). Adolf Hitler’s horrific crimes instigated a movement within the international community to create some sort of structure—a set of laws—to keep such atrocities from happening again. It was an audacious movement, but one necessary if we ever hoped to move beyond these abominations.

While clearly this atrocity left an indelible mark on the country of Rwanda, it also left a lasting impression on the world community as a whole. Citizens around the globe were horrified by the violence, but also by their own governments’ failure to act to prevent the genocide, or stop it once it had begun. What had gone wrong? Why was the United Nations unable to stop this genocide? Would the world be able to stop it if it happened again?

After Rwanda, the phrase “Never Again” became a rallying cry for those focused on matters of genocide and massive human rights violations. The failure in Rwanda was a catalyst for a newly focused movement toward creating new structures for atrocity prevention, leading to the creation of the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS).² This international coalition, led by Canada, released a report in 2001 entitled “The Responsibility to Protect.” Here the coalition offered a response to what they believed was the need for the “internationalization of the human conscience.” No longer would the action or inaction of individual states suffice when it came to matters of the protection of civilians. While it was not the ultimate goal of this commission to solve the complex issues of genocide and crimes against humanity, it was their intent to set into motion a new dialogue, promoting new and innovative ways to respond to civilians around the world in need of help.³

In keeping with this vision, the report argues the pressing need to respond to human rights violations at a global level. At the heart of this document is the assertion that each sovereign state ought to be responsible for the protection of its citizens against major human rights violations, such as ethnic cleansing, crimes against humanity, war crimes, and genocide. Further, if states are unable or unwilling to protect their citizens, it becomes the responsibility of the international community to step in and do so.

Many states have had qualms with various aspects of R2P, as the doctrine of Responsibility to Protect became known, most specifically related to matters of sovereignty and whether such interventions would impinge on that of states involved. Despite the questions around R2P, 191 countries adopted an outcome document at the 2005 World Summit that includes two key paragraphs:

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 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 manifestly fail to protect their populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity. We stress the need for the General Assembly to continue consideration of the responsibility to protect populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity and its implications, bearing in mind the principles of the Charter and international law. We also intend to commit ourselves, as necessary and appropriate, to helping States build capacity to protect their populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity and to assisting those which are under stress before crises and conflicts break out. ?

These sequential paragraphs, even more so than the R2P report as a whole, establish the framework for how the international community has sought to respond to matters of civilian protection.

What follows is a collection of essays, published on The Mantle between 2010—2017, that examines situations in which R2P was implemented—or perhaps ought to have been implemented. The essays also suggest ways the international community might begin to think differently about the various aspects of the principle.

My hope is that those who read this book might find themselves ever more curious about how governments discuss and act on matters related to civilian protection. That they might learn a bit about R2P, and question why it was never fully implemented in cases such as Syria. That they might question why the Permanent 5 members of the United Nations Security Council cannot come to an agreement in dire cases such as Syria and Darfur. And perhaps even question how you, a global citizen, might push your government toward more effective implementation of the Responsibility to Protect.

1. The genocide in Rwanda stands as one of the international community’s greatest failures in atrocity prevention. Lieutenant-General Roméo Dallaire of the Canadian Forces, who led the UN Mission to Rwanda, has spoken and written extensively on the topic. His book, Shake Hands With the Devil: The Failure of Humanity in Rwanda is a good place to start if you are looking to learn more.

2. One of the challenges for the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS) was to answer the question of when or if it is appropriate for states to intervene in another sovereign state on humanitarian grounds. What the Commission came up with was the Responsibility to Protect (R2P), the principle that is the focus of this book. Essentially, the Commission agreed, “sovereign states have a responsibility to protect their own citizens from avoidable catastrophe—from mass murder and rape, from starvation—but that when they are unwilling or unable to do so, that responsibility must be borne by the broader community of states.”

3. The Responsibility Protect is most well known as a means for military intervention, but is actually based on three pillars: the responsibility to prevent, the responsibility to respond, and the responsibility to rebuild. The most important, and most consistently overlooked of these is of course the responsibility to prevent. The hope of the Commission was for R2P to become a way to prevent atrocities, rather than simply how we respond to them.

4. These two paragraphs, which were finally agreed to as a part of the World Summit, do not encompass the entirety of R2P. In truth, they really just scratch the surface, giving us the spirit of the principle without many of the specifics. They are still a great start: UN General Assembly. 2005 World Summit Outcome: Resolution / Adopted by the General Assembly A/RES/60/1 (October 24, 2005):


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