The Rohingya Crisis and R2P’s Shortcomings

The Rohingya Crisis and R2P’s Shortcomings

For more than a year now, state security forces in Myanmar have targeted and slaughtered thousands of Rohingya Muslims, claiming the lives of 10,000 and displacing some 700,000 more into neighboring Bangladesh. As part of this brutal campaign of terror and violence, security forces have burned and razed entire villages, and subjected untold numbers of women and girls to horrific acts of sexual violence.

At the end of the summer, the U.N.’s Independent Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar accused the commander of Myanmar’s army and other high-ranking generals of committing genocide against the Rohingya and crimes against humanity against other ethnic minorities. While the U.S. refrained from issuing similar formal charges, the State Department confirmed the “well-planned and coordinated” nature of the violence against the Rohingya; last November, then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson described the state-sponsored brutality as a concerted campaign of “ethnic cleansing.”

As the crisis has unfolded and the plight of the Rohingya has worsened, numerous commentators have argued that Myanmar’s targeted slaughter of its Muslim minority marks another case of the failure of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P), the U.N. doctrine designed to protect populations from genocide, ethnic cleansing, and other forms of targeted mass violence. R2P asserts that states have a solemn responsibility to protect their people from mass slaughter. The doctrine notes that this responsibility to protect is transmitted to the international community when a state is either unable or unwilling to protect its people from such violence. Because the government of Myanmar is clearly unwilling to protect the Rohingya from mass violence, and because the international community has failed to discharge the responsibility to protect that has been transmitted to it by dint of Myanmar’s unwillingness to protect its people, the Rohingya crisis—like the crises in Darfur, Syria, Yemen, and the Central African Republic before it—marks yet another consummate failure of the international community to mobilize a robust, multilateral response to unfolding atrocities through R2P.

This decrying of the international community’s failure to react to the Rohingya crisis through R2P has appeared in various forms. Asma Saad, writing for the McGill Journal of Politics, criticized the international community’s inaction and R2P’s consequent loss of credibility. Professors Sara Davies and Susan Harris Rimmer, writing for the Australian Institute of International Studies, argued that the scope of the crisis in Myanmar exceeded the threshold for action described in R2P; the pair called on Australia to fulfill its duty as a signatory to the doctrine and a regional leader to act. John Feffer, underscoring the Trump administration’s failure to prioritize the promotion of human rights in The Huffington Post, lamented that the “West will shy away from a forceful intervention on humanitarian grounds,” adding that “the lack of action from the international community does not bode well for the responsibility-to-protect doctrine.”

While the critiques these individuals advance are justified—the international community has indeed failed to react to the Rohingya crisis through R2P—they miss the more important problem: that R2P was initially and intentionally created to prioritize the prevention of mass violence, not military intervention to stop it, and thus the more fundamental problem with R2P implicated by the Rohingya crisis is the doctrine’s failure to realize this primary objective.

Although some argue that R2P was borne principally out of the international community’s collective sense of guilt over the failure to respond adequately to the genocides in Rwanda and Srebrenica, the doctrine was also borne out of former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan’s call to transition the international community from a “culture of reaction” to mass violence to a “culture of prevention.” Thus, the first iteration of R2P, published by the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS) in 2001, described R2P’s prevention framework as “the single most important dimension” of the nascent doctrine (see page XI of the document).

Despite the plethora of commentators who bemoan the international community’s ongoing failure to react to the Rohingya crisis through R2P, only Carrie Hulse, an analyst and writer for the blog Foreign Policy in Focus, decried the international community’s failure to work to prevent the crisis through R2P. Hulse observes that “[m]ost people...only hear of R2P in the context of military intervention, but its creators meant for it to be used as a tool in the prevention of” genocide, ethnic cleansing, and other forms of mass violence.

That only Hulse seems to recall the very reason that R2P exists—to assist the international community’s transition from a “culture of reaction” to a “culture of prevention”—has two disquieting implications. First, that if R2P is more commonly remembered as a blueprint guiding the reaction to mass violence rather than the prevention of it, future attempts to craft multilateral agreements aimed at preventing genocide, ethnic cleansing, and other forms of targeted violence might not think to examine and learn from the shortcomings in R2P’s initial prevention framework (proposed by the ICISS in 2001), the prevention framework ultimately adopted in 2005, and states’ subsequent engagement with (or more properly, infidelity to) that framework.

Second, the very idea of R2P as a frameshift in the norms guiding the international community, as the doctrine is often understood, may be deeply flawed or even inaccurate. Because there are almost no examples of R2P succeeding in preventing or halting mass violence, scholars and supporters of the doctrine point to R2P’s success in establishing a culture of accountability for states, or to the fact that powerful countries like the U.S. can be ‘named and shamed’ because they have signed onto R2P and have failed to discharge their duties under it. In other words, these countries can be held responsible for failing to stop mass atrocities, such as those that occurred in Darfur, and those that continue to occur in Syria, Yemen, the Central African Republic, and Myanmar. This understanding of the doctrine’s significance is one that conceives of the doctrine as primarily a blueprint guiding proper responses to unfolding crises, and an aspirational norm to which activists can point when countries that signed on to R2P fail to respond adequately to ongoing violence through it. This is how Asma Saad, Sara Davies, Susan Rimmer, John Feffer, and the majority of commentators seem to conceptualize R2P.

But R2P was designed to institutionalize the norm of prevention, not the norm of reaction. The doctrine’s intended contribution, then, was to create a widespread understanding that countries should cooperate to prevent conflict, and could subsequently be held to account for failing to do so. This is how R2P would, in theory, help the international community transition from the “culture of reaction” that Annan decried to the “culture of prevention” he pursued. But because the international community consistently fails to use R2P as a tool to advance the prevention of mass violence—and, as my analysis above suggests, seems even to have forgotten that R2P was primarily intended to function as a preventive doctrine, not a reactive one—the international community remains mired in the same “culture of reaction” from which the creators of R2P quixotically sought to free it. Thus, R2P has not institutionalized the importance of prevention or the practice of it, meaning that the doctrine has been of little use to the proponents of multilateral efforts to prevent the onset of mass violence.

In light of the above observations, if the Rohingya crisis reveals anything new about R2P, it is not that states fail to use the doctrine’s framework to respond to unfolding violence. This much was apparent prior to the onset of the crisis in Myanmar. Rather, what the plight of the Rohingya demonstrates is that R2P’s foundational goal, to prevent mass violence by bringing states together in a multilateral cooperative agreement, has been forgotten almost entirely.  

(The overhead photo pictures a group of Rohingya refugees. Credit: Adam Dean/The New York Times)

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