It is rightly assumed that preventing violent conflict is preferable to responding to a conflict after it occurs. This is true in terms of reducing potential casualties and the huge financial and political costs of military interventions. Unfortunately, the focus on conflict prevention in the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) doctrine is overshadowed by political debate around the various options available after a conflict has begun, thus eliminating the often atrocity-avoiding precautions the international community could have taken in advance.
The Responsibility to Protect (R2P) is a global political commitment to prevent genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity, endorsed by all member states of the United Nations at the 2005 World Summit.
In this article, the authors engage in the debate surrounding the focus and efficacy of the Responsibility to Protect doctrine and its role in preventing the escalation and recurrence of violence. The research presents a clear picture of the challenges involved in prioritizing prevention over protection and provide real-world examples of the failure of protect and prevent conflict through the UN Security Council’s inability to address the violent turn of Arab Spring and Syrian civil war in an effective manner.
Prevention can take many forms, from the long-term focus on political and social institutions needed to resist violence, to more short-term, preemptive action designed to stop an impending catastrophe. In an effort to analyze and improve past methods of intervention, the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS) report lists the three conditions of effective prevention as (1) knowledge of the situation at risk (via more effective early warning systems); (2) understanding of policy options available (a preventative ‘toolbox’); and, (3) sufficient political will. The most common roadblocks to these conditions of effective prevention are (1) lack of funds available for preventative efforts; (2) dangers of exacerbating domestic tensions through international involvement; and, (3) difficulty of mobilizing political will before a crisis becomes apparent.
Although the authors highlight various political and institutional barriers, they still argue prevention over protection is more effective and affordable considering the political barriers and high social and economic costs of reacting to a conflict already underway. The list of cases where preventative action slowed or stopped the outbreak of violence is growing. However, there is still a major need to improve the analysis of successful preventative measures and the conditions under which they are effective.
The continued failure of UN Security Council members to create effective and cooperative action in Syria and the failed intervention in Libya caused many to question the motivations and efficacy of the Responsibility to Protect doctrine. Labeling protection as a responsibility provides the opportunity for powerful states to frame their military intervention as the responsible humanitarian thing to do. Yet we know that there always are numerous viable nonviolent alternatives that are more responsible and effective means of protection. However, as this research lays out, prevention is still the most effective approach. Resources and political will needs to follow the already existing knowledge on violence prevention.
- Shifting focus from post-conflict protection to pre-conflict prevention is more effective and less costly.
- Once violent conflict is underway, political barriers and high social and economic costs limit constructive options of violence prevention.
Even in cases of successful prevention as in Kenya and Guinea, there are limits to what outside states and organizations can do prevent certain conflicts or influence certain leaders. The real opportunity provided by this research lays in the role of local civil society and organizations of preventing violent conflict before it happens. Tania Paffenholz, for example, presents case studies of civil society peacebuilding efforts at different stages in conflict zones such as Northern Ireland, Cyprus, Israel and Palestine, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, and Somalia. A framework for analysis and action contains for elements: (1) full understanding of conflict context; (2) protection, monitoring, advocacy and public communication, in-group socialization, social cohesion, intermediation and facilitation, and service delivery are main peacebuilding functions; (3) functions of context and effectiveness of civil society activities need to be examined; and (4) importance of civil society functions, the relations between them and their causations. (see more at Paffenholz, Thania, ed. 2010. Civil Society & Peacebuilding: A Critical Assessment. Boulder, Co: Lynne Rienner Publishers).
- The Responsibility to Protect (http://www.un.org/en/preventgenocide/adviser/responsibility.shtml)
- Fulfilling our collective responsibility: international assistance and the responsibility to protect (UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon)
- The Responsibility to Protect. Report of the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereigntyhttp://www.un.org/en/ga/search/view_doc.asp?symbol=A/68/947&referer=/english/&Lang=E
- In the Aftermath of Libya: A Chance to Define “Responsibility to Protect”. http://fpif.org/in_the_aftermath_of_libya_a_chance_to_define_responsibility_to_protect/
- Syria, Libya, and the Responsibility to https://politicalviolenceataglance.org/2012/06/28/syria-libya-and-the-responsibility-to-protect/
Citation: Welsh, J. (2016). The responsibility to prevent: Assessing the gap between rhetoric and reality. Cooperation and Conflict, 51(2), 216-232.