The Responsibility to Protect: Ending Mass Atrocity Crimes Once and for All
Brookings Institution Press
Review by Wolfgang Schmidt, April 22, 2011
This clearly written book is a must-read if you believe in our common humanity and are interested in human rights and international affairs. The author takes the reader on a journey to the cutting edge of contemporary human-rights thinking and into the evolution of a new concept that, if realized, will save countless lives by preventing or ending mass atrocity crimes.
He lays out the case why governments share in a Responsibility to Protect (R2P), and how they all came to accept it - at least in principle - during the 2005 United Nations World Summit. This accomplishment is nothing short of miraculous given the relatively brief period of incubation during which the concept matured and managed to gain acceptance. It is all the more astounding since it adds an interpretation to the notion of national sovereignty, the most sacred of sacred cows behind which governments like to hide in order to shield themselves from accountability for actions and inaction alike.
In the past, turning a blind eye in the event of impending or ongoing mass atrocities seemed to be the default answer of the international community more often than not. This attitude was based, among other things, on a not so tacit consensus that sovereignty ultimately always trumps humanity. Now, however, by affirming their agreement with this new concept, the international community seems to be accepting that this solemn responsibility shifts from the national to the international plane in the event of a government's incapacity or unwillingness to meet its inherent responsibility to protect its own citizens.
The book is more than just the inside story, fascinating as it is, of how this all came about. In this sense it could only have been written by someone like Gareth Evans, who himself played a leading role in formulating and promoting the concept of the Responsibility to Protect. His book provides a comprehensive framework of strategies and tools to choose from before, during and after a crisis. It discusses a wide range of measures from the cooperative to the coercive that may be taken to enable or induce a government to change a situation.
Apart from being an excellent overview of the history, content and status of R2P and a veritable gold mine of information about the institutions and individuals involved, "The Responsibility to Protect" is a book of hope. It leaves the reader hopeful that R2P, while taking its due place in the history of ideas, will evolve into a strong international norm, despite the formidable obstacles its implementation will continue to encounter.
Hope also springs from the fact that a few determined individuals, dedicated to the cause of humanity and supported by a few sympathetic institutions, can have a huge impact and make an invaluable contribution to saving humankind from the insanity of repeating its most blood-soaked history. In this respect the book is a wake-up call and rallying cry for the rest of us to support those valiant efforts with all the means at our disposal.