Ed 's Reviews > The Responsibility to Protect: Ending Mass Atrocity Crimes Once and for All

The Responsibility to Protect by Gareth Evans
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's review
Feb 08, 11

bookshelves: africa
Read from February 07 to 09, 2011

Gareth Evans makes a gallant and sometimes successful effort in trying to convince his readers that mass atrocities, genocide or ethnic cleansing can be stopped by intervention into and against the countries where they are happening or about to happen. While I disagree with many of his conclusions there is no question that he is sincere in thinking that crimes against humanity can be stopped or kept from starting and his commitment to bringing the story to the world must be applauded. He has long experience: foreign minister of Australia, high level UN official, CEO of the International Crisis Group. Evans thinks the nations of the world can act in concert when faced with mass slaughter and that they have already created the framework to do so, lacking only the political will and ability to see beyond their own narrow interests.

His--and everyone’s--example is the Rwandan genocide of 1994, the unfortunate signature event in the history of humanitarian crises since the end of World War II. Every nation and international body that didn’t intervene had their reasons although none of the reasons stand up against the fact of the massacre of 800,000 Tutsi and moderate Hutu men, women and children during a three month rampage of blood lust. The United Nations had international troops already on the scene—and they were reporting to Kofi Annan, later Secretary General, at that time in charge of peacekeeping operations. The United States abdicated its role at the world’s sole superpower—the memory of the disastrous mission to Somalia was too fresh in the minds of Bill Clinton and his advisors. Belgium, the former colonial power, turned its back on Rwanda.

Evans’s premise is that such horrors can be halted before they start by a combination of political, legal, economic and diplomatic pressure and that military intervention would only be necessary if they fail. It involves international action before the killing starts in order to minimize horrors of mass atrocity and to keep military incursion as a last and rarely used resort. Again Rwanda is the example; only the ferocity and efficiency of the killing took anyone by surprise.

The difficulties in establishing a true responsibility to protect citizens of a country not one’s own are significant—I would argue they are overwhelming—and Evans doesn’t try to diminish them. The first issue is state sovereignty. Evans thinks a system of limited sovereignty would be acceptable in the case of mass atrocity although there is little to support this idea, particularly when sovereignty and independence are among the only attributes that a state engaged in ethnic cleansing has. He thinks that the political leadership of countries in a position to intervene will do so even though they have refused in almost every case. Charges of neo-colonialism and neo-imperialism carry a great deal of weight when made by former colonies in Africa and Asia and have been effective in delaying initiatives particularly by their former colonial masters.

Evans writes well—he can even make the history of changes in UN resolutions sound interesting (or at least not dull)—and makes his arguments with every bit of moral and political persuasion he can muster which is quite a lot. But I disagree that the world has changed fundamentally in the past 25 years, that political leaders with myriad constituencies have become more altruistic and that we have decided to become our brother’s keeper.

Many of the principals of the responsibility to protect (R2P in jargon) seem derived from the Roman philosophical doctrine of jus ad bellum or just war. A key part of Catholic social teachings for centuries, the idea of just war has been accepted by most states and is ignored by just as many when it comes time to apply it.

This is an impassioned and well-presented book that ultimately fails to convince.
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