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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Feb 07, 2011

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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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message 1: by Lilo (last edited Nov 27, 2015 08:24PM) (new)

Lilo To intervene or not to intervene in such cases seems to me a "damned if you do and damned if you don't".

I grew up during WWII, in Hitler's Germany, and I will be forever grateful that the Americans joined in the war and rescued us from one of the most evil dictators this planet has ever seen.

It hurts me to see that whenever America intervenes where a genocide is taking place, it gets nothing but bashed and insulted. I am not saying that all interventions of the past were smart or properly planned, but I don't think that America deserves to be continuously bashed for trying to save lives and taking hot coals out of the fire of other people.


Ed Lilo wrote: "To intervene or not to intervene in such cases seems to me a "damned if you do and damned if you don't).

I grew up during WWII, in Hitler's Germany, and I will be forever grateful that the America..."


Thanks for reading and commenting the my review--it has made me revisit some important issues. You bring up the center is the center of the argument regarding "responsibility to protect" (it even has a catchy acronym, R2P) those threatened with crimes against humanity. There is and was no question about the entry of the United States into World War II--German Fascism and Japanese militarism had been given free reign in China and central Europe for years. Add the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor to our clear moral duty to stop them and our involvement can't be gainsaid.

Very little now is so clear cut in the way stopping the Nazis was. The United Nations, the United States, France and Belgium, acting alone or together could have stopped 1994 Rwandan genocide--however they couldn't have changed the hatred and fear felt on both sides, the viciously opportunistic politicians and hangers-on that whipped up the mass slaughter of Tutsis and the impunity to sanction felt by the killers.

Human rights, international law, the interplay of national and regional economics, the role of propaganda and disinformation are just a few of the strands of the tangled web of intervention. Which doesn't mean it shouldn't ever happen, just that the decision to send troops into an existing ethnic/racial/class conflict is very complicated.


message 3: by Lilo (new)

Lilo Ed wrote: "Lilo wrote: "To intervene or not to intervene in such cases seems to me a "damned if you do and damned if you don't).

I grew up during WWII, in Hitler's Germany, and I will be forever grateful tha..."


I fully agree with what you are saying. There are no easy solutions for complicated issues. Anyone who promises easy solutions for issues as, for instance, the problems with illegal immigrants or the Middle East conflict, is a scoundrel.


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