Should democratic governments step into the sovereign affairs of other states in order to prevent genocide or mass killings?

During World War II, German cleric Dietrich Bonhoeffer actively conspired against Hitler to resist the persecution of Europe's Jews. Bonhoeffer spent years subverting Nazi policy at the highest level and was even involved in the plot to kill Hitler. When Bonhoeffer, a Lutheran pastor, was caught by Nazi officials, he was first held in military detention, then in a Gestapo prison, then at Buchenwald concentration camp, and finally at Flossenbürg concentration camp. As Allied forces approached Flossenbürg in 1945, the SS received orders to hang Bonhoeffer. Before he died, he explained his resistance to the Nazi regime: "If I see a madman driving a car into a group of innocent bystanders, then I can't, as a Christian, simply wait for the catastrophe and then comfort the wounded and bury the dead. I must try and wrestle the steering wheel out of the hands of the driver." In Bonhoeffer's mind those in a position to act have a responsibility to protect.

In the aftermath of the Third Reich, whose horrors were a grave wake-up call for the world's democratic nations, open societies began to recognize a responsibility to prevent despotic regimes from killing their own people on a massive scale. Almost 65 years after the Holocaust and decades after genocides and mass murders in Cambodia, Darfur, Ethiopia, and Srebrenica, a principle of government policy by the name "Responsibility to Protect" took form.

Also known as R2P, the doctrine was adopted in 2005 by the United Nations in the wake of genocides in Rwanda and Bosnia. The policy obligates the international community to use diplomatic and humanitarian means to support governments in exercising the responsibility to protect their citizens, as well as coercive tactics - diplomatic, legal, economic, and as a last resort, military - in order to stop mass atrocities. R2P became the legal basis invoked to prevent crimes against humanity and war crimes last spring in Libya by NATO forces under the mandate of the UN Security Council.


Libya's Benghazi last April, where citizens draped city walls with pictures of Gaddafi's carnage.

Critics brand R2P an inconsistent policy, activated in the case of oil-rich and isolated Libya, but not in the case of Syria, which lacks oil and sits as a fragile flashpoint between Lebanon, Iraq, Israel and Turkey.

If something like Srebrenica were to happen today within Europe, R2P action might be trigged immediately. But when massacres occurred in Burma or the Congo, for instance, NATO turned a blind eye. Some critics conclude that R2P is led solely by economics; others believe it is racist. The truth is that democratic processes like R2P are imperfect - driven by competing self-interests - and messy. But authoritarianism is infinitely messier.

Indeed, the major challenge to R2P moving forward is represented by China and Russia. You will never see the UN address the repression of the Uyghur people in China, or the Tibetan population in the R2P discussion. You will never see the R2P doctrine implemented in Chechnya, a country that has been ravaged for two decades by Russia. The Russian and Chinese governments, members of the UN Security Council, are the two major obstacles that stand in the way.

According to Freedom House (PDF), 45% of today's governments, such as Chile, Japan, or Sweden, are fully democratic or "free"; 24% such as Burma, Cuba, or Zimbabwe are authoritarian or "not free"; and 31% such as Malaysia, Sri Lanka, and Venezuela are elected authoritarian or "partly free". It is then quite remarkable that R2P was realized this year in Libya when you consider that 55% of the governments that sit at the United Nations aren't really interested in protecting their citizens. In fact, governments of nations that are partly free or not free often do great harm to their own people, especially to those individuals who criticize the government, point out corruption or human rights violations, or those who wish to participate in government through elections.

In a recent Oxford University Press bookr2p book - The Responsibility To Protect: The Promise Of Stopping Mass Atrocities In Our Time - human rights lawyers Jared Genser and Irwin Cotler edit a volume of essays that range from endorsement to skeptical views of the doctrine. With an introduction by Desmond Tutu and the late Václav Havel, the assembled contributors have produced the most informed discussion on how best to apply R2P to current and future humanitarian crises (full disclosure: Václav Havel was Chairman of the Human Rights Foundation at the time of his death and HRF partly financed the publishing of this book). Without a thoughtful dialogue, R2P could easily be dismissed as a toothless measure or be stereotyped as an imperialist tool for regime change and occupation.

Throughout history, governments have proven that they are - at best - late to address crises of this sort and - at worst - unconcerned. It has taken a very special set of circumstances for the UN to act on R2P given the nature of its member states, as well as the fact that free nations are too often driven by economic concerns (the number of former Western government officials and public intellectuals on Gaddafi's payroll is staggering). What made the difference in Libya - and will make the difference in the future of R2P - is civil society. R2P will only become a consistent and honest policy that saves lives in future crises if civil societies take the lead in monitoring global human rights violations and calling for appropriate action.

By "civil society", I refer to the billions of people living in the free world: men and women who can speak out and bear witness. Those who saw that the images of slaughter in Benghazi contrasted with the rantings of Gaddafi and his son Saif al-Islam, who threatened to crush protestors with tanks and raved that "anybody who undermines the sovereignty of the state shall be punished by death".

Fifty years ago, people would read such pronouncements and learn of the tragic aftermath days or even weeks after the fact. News is no longer subject to the monopoly of mass media or the whims of editors who think too many stories about one region or one country are excessive. Twitter, YouTube and Facebook have changed all that, empowering the citizenry with more access to information.

People in democratic countries can cry out for their leaders to take action, to stop obvious atrocities. And those of us who can speak out have a responsibility to do so, to ensure that our elected leaders respond to mass killings before they unfold, rather than cover them up with euphemisms. This is exactly what happened in Libya, when we heard those voices uploaded by mobile phone, crying out for help. People were outraged and governments made decisions knowing that their citizens and media knew the truth. Empathy plays a key role and culture has become central to promote the universality of human rights.

Whether it is due to Elie Wiesel's "Night" on the Holocaust, Gilbert Tuhabonye's "This Voice in My Heart" about the genocide in Burundi, the films "Hotel Rwanda" or "Schindler's List", or the PBS documentary "The Armenian Genocide", people in free countries have never before been more sensitive to the reality of mass killings and the need to do something to stop them. Consider that in the first half of the twentieth century there was no organized civil society effort to stop atrocities and, today, there is a formidable growing network of institutions and non-governmental bodies.

For R2P to work, civil society must play the leading role in pressuring governments. They won't act unless we force them to do so - consistently, and with integrity.

Thor Halvorssen is president of the New York-based Human Rights Foundation and founder and CEO of the Oslo Freedom Forum. Follow him on Twitter and on Facebook.


(Photo © DR)