The ongoing international operation in Libya has set in motion a global debate about the rationale for that operation: The notion of the Responsibility to Protect (RtoP), and the idea that the international community must respond when national governments threaten their own people with egregious violence. This debate has underscored areas of certainty, but also areas of great ambiguity.
One key point is that the international community has now committed itself to an overriding principle: when populations are at risk of being massacred by their governments, it will no longer remain idle the way it did for instance in Rwanda.
Abiding questions remain, though, about how an international response to such events should unfold, and the criteria through which its success should be measured.
Another crucial element underscored by this debate is the need for both global and regional actors to endorse RtoP operations if they are to be seen as legitimate and valid.
In all these debates, Asia’s voice must be heard. It is in that spirit that the Council for Security Cooperation in the Asia Pacific (CSCAP) recently set up a study group on these issues. Its final report underscores some of the crucial points which should be part of any regional discussion about the RtoP. (The full report can be found at www.cscap.org)
Two fundamental realities should frame these discussions. Plainly, debates about the RtoP must conform to the principles of the UN Charter and to the established practices of regional diplomacy.
In clear, any understanding of the RtoP which undermines national sovereignty, any application of the concept which serves as a cover for neo-imperialism, is a non-starter. In counterpoint, though, regional actors must recognize that the core of the RtoP lies elsewhere, in prevention rather than intervention.
This is what the concept aims to underscore: the need to address acts of widespread violence exists well before these acts occur, in the responsibility of all states to prevent violence against their own citizens and also in the responsibility of regional and global actors to assist in that process.
If this is the point of entry into the discussion, then current debates about the RtoP connect much more closely to ongoing efforts in the region to develop more efficient mechanisms of conflict prevention and conflict resolution.
Indeed, the unfolding global debate about the RtoP should spur these efforts on, and give them a clearer sense of direction.
In particular, the region should establish a risk reduction center charged with developing an early warning and response capability regarding the different crimes addressed by the RtoP: Genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing, and crimes against humanity.
At the moment, regional state and non-state actors do not have a mechanism allowing them to conduct early warning analysis of impending mass violence and to then alert decision-makers in order to prevent that violence. Such a mechanism should be created immediately. The ASEAN Regional Forum should take the lead on this issue and develop this proposed risk reduction center under its auspices.
This focus on early warning and response regarding the type of mass atrocities meant to be addressed by the RtoP should also entail the development of tighter functional relations between the region and the UN agencies dealing with these issues.
Most notably, the UN has now established the Joint Office of the Special Advisors to the Secretary-General on the Prevention of Genocide and the RtoP. There should be a sustained dialogue between regional governments and this Office, with the goal of setting up the frameworks of consultation and cooperation which could kick in if the risk of mass violence flares up in the region.
Such recommendations are modest and realistic. And yet, moving in that direction would place Asia at the center of debates about the RtoP which the region cannot bypass. If only for that, the time to act is now.
The writer is a Canadian academic. He co-chaired the CSCAP Study Group on Asia and the Responsibility to Protect