(Editor’s note: This is the first installment in a symposium on “The Future of Atrocity Prevention,” organized in collaboration with the Programme on International Peace and Security at the Oxford Institute for Ethics, Law and Armed Conflict. An introduction to the symposium and links to future installments can be found here.)

It has become fashionable in some circles to use the term “atrocity prevention” instead of “the responsibility to protect” (R2P). Adopted unanimously by the United Nations General Assembly in 2005, R2P affirms States’ primary responsibility to protect their populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing, and crimes against humanity, or “atrocity crimes” (pillar 1); commits the international community to assisting States to fulfill this responsibility (pillar 2); and signals the U.N. Security Council’s preparedness to take timely and decisive action to protect populations should the host state be manifestly failing to do so (pillar 3).

Today, R2P is widely considered too controversial to be used as a vehicle for either activism, practice, or institutional reform aimed at protecting vulnerable populations from atrocity crimes. In fact, R2P has been controversial from the start – and that is by design. It was brought into being precisely because States and other actors routinely violated international legal prohibitions on perpetrating mass, identity-based violence against civilians, while multilateral institutions established to maintain international peace and security and protect and promote human rights – most notably the U.N. Security Council – routinely failed to stop them or protect their victims.

R2P was intended to be both a sharp rebuke of States’ conduct and a clear standard for them to reach for, necessary precisely because practice fell far short of aspiration. It was meant to make political leaders uncomfortable by exposing either their culpability in the commission of egregious crimes and their abandonment of responsibility to their own people or their complicity by neglect. Only the State that protects its own and contributes its fair share to the protection of others is not discomforted by R2P. There are very few of those.

Controversy, therefore, is baked into the R2P principle. It is unsurprising that governments that routinely perpetrate atrocity crimes – be it Sudan, Myanmar, Syria, or permanent members of the Security Council such as Russia and China – find the principle controversial. Nor is it surprising that the States they cooperate and trade with – such as South Africa, Brazil, and India – express discomfort with a principle that exposes both the crimes of their allies and their own hypocrisies. Governments whose power and authority rest on force, not the ballot box, eye with suspicion a principle that threatens to bring down the collective will of the U.N. membership onto their heads should they turn their guns on their own citizens to retain power. Viewed from this lens, it becomes clear that R2P’s controversial character is not surprising, but the fact that the U.N. membership endorsed it at all is.

R2P Without Teeth?

In what sense, then, is “atrocity prevention” a more consensus-inducing alternative? Some claim that unlike R2P, “prevention” does not imply the use of military force and that it is this – R2P’s controversial “third pillar” – that makes it so toxic and atrocity prevention so appealing. But this is a false binary in at least two respects.

First, because nothing in R2P either expands the Security Council’s authority (rooted in Chapter VII of the U.N. Charter) with respect to the use of force, or grants authority to States or groups of States acting outside the Security Council. In fact, upon closely examining Security Council Resolution 1973 on Libya – the most controversial resolution invoking R2P – it becomes clear that R2P plays no formal role whatsoever in the authorization of force. The R2P language appears only in a brief reaffirmation of the principle contained in a non-operational preambular paragraph. When the Security Council turns to authorizing force, it references not “R2P,” but the “protection of civilians” – a purpose for which the Security Council was willingness to authorize force well before the advent of R2P. Furthermore, besides Russia’s 2008 invasion of Georgia, in not a single case after 2005 did States use R2P to justify a use of force not authorized by the Security Council.

For many years, advocates of R2P (myself included) pursued consensus by showing how that the principle was an ally to sovereignty. We did so because we took concerns about sovereignty at face value. But in hindsight, the sovereignty problem was misdiagnosed. It was not that a plurality of U.N. member States were concerned with protecting the principle of State sovereignty generally; rather, they were primarily animated by concerns about their own sovereignty.

Thus, on the one hand, the debate over R2P was not about sovereignty versus intervention at all. Many of the so-called “pro-sovereignty” States were quite happy to tolerate the violation of sovereignty when it suited them. Russia, for example, often vetoes collective action citing sovereignty, yet it has invaded two of its neighbors, Georgia and Ukraine, and annexed territory from the latter. Hardly a sign of principled commitment to sovereignty. Others among the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) loudly proclaim their commitment to sovereignty when it comes to blocking U.N. action on atrocities, but their commitment to Ukraine’s sovereignty has been much less pronounced.

On the other hand, it was equally incorrect to think there was a group of highly motivated liberal States committed to intervening to promote human rights globally. In fact, Western States have never been consistent proponents of this. The stories of Rwanda and Bosnia were of non-intervention, not intervention; interventionism in the twenty-first century was dominated by the War on Terror, not global humanitarianism. On both sides, it was politics not principle that mattered most.

The second reason to doubt the binary of R2P and atrocity prevention is that atrocity prevention without the potential to use force if needed is not atrocity prevention at all. Analysts search in vain for examples of situations where determined would-be perpetrators are diverted from their course of action by external actors who insist that under no circumstances would they use force. Conversely, there are numerous cases where either the use or threat of force – or sometimes even uncertainty about possible future uses of force – successfully halted mass atrocities or caused the perpetrators to change course, from East Timor to Bosnia, Côte d’Ivoire, and Iraq. There is a simple reason for that: States and non-State armed groups are political actors pursuing objectives. Atrocity crimes are employed as strategic or tactical weapons to help them achieve their goals. The best way to stay their hand, then, is to convince them that they cannot achieve their objective by perpetrating atrocities, something best done when would-be perpetrators have reason to believe their actions will provoke an armed response. Where they are confident it will not, they are unlikely to be deterred from their course of action.

Politics: The Only Way Out Is Through

Yet, the deeper problem with this line of reasoning is that any approach to protection that seeks to avoid controversy sidesteps the very thing that ultimately determines the fates of States, societies, communities, and civilians: politics. Put differently, it bequeaths a way of thinking about atrocities and how to stop them that downplays the role of agency and amplifies the role of structure. That, in turn, almost assumes that atrocities are “accidents” caused by misunderstanding, insufficient warning, or inadequate institutions. One example of this logic is a training toolkit produced by Global Action Against Mass Atrocity Crimes, a network of States, civil society, and academic institutions that are “committed to preventing atrocities worldwide.” The U.N.’s Framework of Analysis for Atrocity Crimes is another. This approach to atrocity prevention tricks us into thinking that atrocities are driven by anonymous structures, and that they occur without specific actor having to make specific choices. It is “the banality of evil” writ large. In this view, States contribute to the occurrence of atrocities only through failing to take the correct preventive action, not by willfully instigating atrocities to achieve their political goals.

This is not to say that the impressive range of toolkits, frameworks, and guidance documents that proliferated alongside the rise of R2P and the atrocity prevention field are not valuable. They are immensely valuable and, combined with the research underlying them, represent a significant advance in global understanding of the drivers of atrocity crimes, pathways of escalation, and range of possible responses. However, problems arise when we treat these as ends in themselves rather than simply as tools; when we regard them as substitutes for politics. In fact, the specific indicators they highlight are ciphers for political change. States and societies may establish the rule of law and effective human rights institutions, or reduce hate speech – yet these steps are significant not because any one of them (or indeed all of them together) can ultimately put the brake on atrocities, but because of what they indicate about deeper political and social change in a State. Without that deeper political change, the accoutrements of atrocity prevention will have little restraining effect. No amount of institution-building, hate speech prevention, or early warning would have stopped Syrian President Bashar al-Assad or former Cambodian dictator Pol Pot in their tracks. Atrocity prevention is, ultimately, messy, interfering, and intensely political.

And this is where it collides with the two overriding concerns that first animated the campaign for R2P. The first was the problem of political will. We might all agree that atrocity crimes are bad, but whose responsibility is it to protect when the host State cannot or will not? In Rwanda, the problem was neither that reverence for the principle of State sovereignty inhibited intervention, that concerns about international law stopped States from acting, nor that great powers disagreed on the merits of intervention, but quite simply that no State or group of States assumed responsibility.

The same problem remains today. Responsibility is shared so widely that it falls on no one actor. R2P attempted to remedy this by allocating final responsibility to the Security Council, building on the fact that the U.N. Charter already does just that. But in the past decade, a consensus of sorts has emerged. Some States don’t want Security Council activism because they prefer to protect authoritarians at the price of tolerating atrocity crimes, or consciously doing little to prevent them. Other States do not want Security Council activism because it is controversial, the political rewards are low, the national interests at stake are few, and activism is both politically and financially expensive. Either way, no one perceives Security Council activism to serve their interests.

Drift or Stay the Course

Ultimately, it is only through accountability that States can close the gap between principle and practice. That involves identifying who is responsible for what, scrutinizing what those actors do, and holding them to account in a meaningful way. For example, using human rights institutions to hold a mirror up to government policy; using political activism to persuade elected leaders to fulfill their obligations; and using the laws of armed conflict to socialize armed groups and prosecute violations. Just to name a few.

States, of course, will vote with their feet. In Europe, most have realized that they cannot rely on the United Nations to protect them from armed aggression and atrocities. That only NATO can do; which is why new members clamor to join. Likewise, East Asia, Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan all know they cannot rely on the multilateral system to protect them. If they also come to assume they cannot rely on U.S. extended deterrence either, the temptation – or dire necessity – to develop their own nuclear capabilities may become too powerful to resist. In this scenario, the U.N. system will become less central and the possibilities for atrocity prevention shaped even more by regional configurations than global institutions.

Whether the United Nations responds by reforming itself to better meet the above-mentioned challenges, or (as seems more likely) continues its drift to the periphery of world politics, remains to be seen. What matters most is what like-minded States – that is, States with a genuine interest in atrocity prevention and commitment to R2P – do next. This is an invitation for them to think more boldly about what they are committed to doing when push comes to shove, what resources they are prepared to sacrifice, and how these can best be employed. In this conversation, nothing should be taken off the table from the start; that is, nothing except for the one thing many governments are indeed eager to take off the table: their responsibility to protect populations from atrocity crimes.

Image: Members of the U.N. Security Council vote on a U.S. draft resolution to create a new inquiry to find blame for the chemical weapons attack the previous week in Douma, Syria, during a United Nations Security Council meeting regarding the situation in Syria, April 10, 2018 in New York City. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)