NATO and the Responsibility to Protect
The NATO summit in Chicago provides a unique opportunity to take action and advance the consequential emerging international norm “The Responsibility to Protect,” writes Senior Fellow Ambassador Richard S. Williamson.
U.S. Navy Flickr
Combating atrocity crimes is a matter toward which President Obama has expressed a deep commitment and an area in which he has taken some meaningful steps. There are critical lessons to learn from the NATO military action in Libya taken under the authority of United Nations Security Resolutions 1770 and 1773, which invoked the international community’s Responsibility to Protect. And in Syria, innocents continue to be brutalized and slaughtered by the bloody crackdown of President Bashar al-Assad’s regime. All of these considerations argue for a meaningful discussion among NATO leaders and further progress to strengthen the capacity to prevent atrocity crimes and to respond to tragedies where innocents are victims of murder, mayhem, and misery—especially when atrocities are committed by governments against their own people.
NATO summits have increasingly become pre-cooked photo opportunities in which incremental pre-negotiated statements are issued of little moment and of even less lasting impact. They are very expensive pageants that lack a comparable degree of seriousness and consequence. Yes, it is good for world leaders to gather and meet periodically. Yes, there are bilateral discussions on the sidelines of the summit that can prove useful. And yes, there is value in members of the club getting together and developing stronger personal bonds. But often the all too serious challenges confronting the Alliance are swept under the rug during these events, and the opportunity for progress on critical issues is lost.
Next month in Chicago, NATO leaders could make a meaningful contribution to ending atrocities, ethnic cleansing, and genocide. It is past time to give meaning to the pledge “Never Again.” The death, destruction, and despair of atrocity crimes and their threat to international peace and security should be on the NATO summit agenda.
After the full horrors of the World War II Holocaust became known, the civilized world pledged “Never Again.” Then the world witnessed the Killing Fields of Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia, Kosovo, the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), and Darfur. The suffering was horrific and the response anemic. Rivers of blood stained our conscience, and calls for action rose.
Over the past dozen years a consequential emerging norm has arisen: The Responsibility to Protect (R2P). It is a simple yet profound idea. It sets forth the very sensible standard that governments have a responsibility to protect their own people from atrocity crimes. And if, for whatever reason, a government lacks the capacity to do so, the international community has a responsibility to help that government develop that capacity. In the event that a government fails in this responsibility, the international community has an obligation to intervene to protect innocent people from atrocity crimes.
At the 2005 Millennium Summit—the largest gathering of world leaders in human history—President George W. Bush joined with other world leaders in agreeing to a consensus outcomes document in which every nation committed itself to R2P. Since then this new norm has begun to take root. Regional organizations have adopted resolutions and developed mechanisms to meet this responsibility. There have been a progeny of UN resolutions in the General Assembly and in the Security Council embracing this norm and giving it meaning. The United Nations dispatched former Secretary-General Kofi Annan on a diplomatic mission to Kenya in 2008 and peacekeepers to Cote d’Ivoire in 2011 to stop ethnic killing at early stages of violence.
President Obama has expressed a deep interest in preventing atrocity crimes, and he has taken some meaningful steps. Even while atrocity crimes against innocents are ongoing in Sudan and the eastern DRC—and, still, the Syrian carnage continues—the President has developed improved mechanisms to predict outbreaks of atrocity crimes; developed coordination machinery within the U.S. Government to react to outbreaks of atrocity crimes; and pushed the U.S. Department of Defense to develop military doctrine, training, and mainstreaming of the ways and means to address this threat to international peace and security. While there are significant disappointments in dealing with specific difficult situations where innocents are being victimized, President Obama’s positive efforts in this area should be acknowledged and supported.
On August 4, 2011, President Obama directed new steps to prevent mass atrocities and impose new restrictions on serious human rights violators. He created a standing interagency Atrocity Prevention Board to develop prevention strategies and to ensure gathering storms in this area are elevated for senior decision-making. This should help identify places of growing concern and provide more time to work with allies and partners to respond and prevent atrocities. He also issued a proclamation explicitly barring entry into the United States of any persons who organize or participate in war crimes, crimes against humanity, and other serious violations of human rights.
And on April 23, President Obama delivered a major speech at the Holocaust Museum in Washington in which he detailed protocols for the Atrocity Prevention Board and its operational effectiveness. He also directed that, going forward, the Director of National Intelligence (DNI) will include an assessment of mass atrocities as part of his annual report to Congress of global risks. The Pentagon has been directed to develop doctrines to deal with mass atrocities, and U.S. peacekeeping training and the training of other countries’ peacekeepers will have more focus on atrocity prevention. The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) has been instructed to improve their rapid response and surge capacity to deal with mass atrocity crisis situations. The Department of the Treasury has been tasked to study whether it makes sense to develop a global anti-atrocity sanctions regime like the anti-terror sanctions regime that emerged over the past decade. And the Department of Justice has been asked to review and make recommendations on more effective immigration laws for victims of atrocities, where hybrid-tribunals should be developed to hold wrongdoers accountable, and how the United States might provide technical assistance to improve accountability both as a deterrent and to end impunity.
These are significant steps in the campaign to prevent atrocity crimes, and President Obama’s efforts are to be commended. Dealing with atrocity crimes properly should be a collective effort of the international community, such as combating Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi’s horrific violence against his own people. Therefore, while activity within the U.S. Government is important, we must work with others to improve our collective capacity to stop these horrific events.
In early 2011, Gaddafi unleashed terrible violence against the Libyan people. He had begun a brutal crackdown, possessed firepower far superior to opposition elements, and made direct threats to exterminate the protesters like “rats.” All this created a clear and present danger to innocents. As the body count rose, the Arab League sought action to stop the vicious violence. Then, in Resolution 1970 and 1973, the United Nations Security Council invoked R2P in authorizing NATO to take military action to stop the carnage. The air campaign took longer than anticipated, but eventually Gaddafi’s government fell, and the dictator was captured and killed.
The NATO campaign was a success on many levels. Today the Libyan people are working at the difficult challenges of reconstruction, reconciliation, and political renewal. While Libya’s final chapter is far from written, Gaddafi’s atrocities were stopped. In any military engagement there are lessons to be learned. But in a new type of assignment with coalition complications and mission creep, the lessons are especially important to tease out, ponder, and absorb.
A recent NATO assessment of the air campaign in Libya provides a sober analysis with disturbing revelations. As reported in the New York Times, the assessment “concluded that the allies struggled to share crucial target information, lacked specialized planners and analysts, and overly relied on the United States for reconnaissance and refueling aircraft.” This and other news reports outline a long litany of problems in the NATO air campaign. These matters need to be discussed and a work program developed to improve NATO’s capabilities, procedures, and practices to deal with atrocity crimes.
Furthermore, we now have the ongoing atrocities in Syria where over 10,000 have died—far more than were lost in Libya. Again the Arab League has demanded the violence end, called for peacekeepers, and sought regime change. President Obama has condemned the violence, called for its end, and also called for regime change. The UN Security Council, stopped by Russia and China from taking more robust action, has dispatched Kofi Annan as a special envoy to try to negotiate a settlement and deployment of peacekeepers that, so far, have proven inadequate to the challenge. When will the pledge “Never Again” be given real meaning?
The upcoming NATO summit in Chicago provides a platform for world leaders to advance the R2P norm to which all have committed. It provides an opportunity for President Obama to build globally on his initiatives at home to stop atrocity crimes. It is a chance for NATO at the highest level to discuss and deliberate on a path forward from the imperfect performance in Libya. And it is an opportunity for NATO leaders to address their responsibility to stop the atrocities and crimes against humanity in Syria.
The NATO summit will have pageantry. It will have statements issued with great ceremony. These declarations may even reflect some incremental progress on Afghanistan, targets for defense budgets, and recommitments to secure and reduce nuclear arsenals. But it will be an opportunity lost—a betrayal of innocents suffering in Syria, Sudan, and the eastern DRC—if the NATO leaders do not have a sober discussion about and seek meaningful progress on our collective pledge, “Never Again.”