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The Responsibility to Protect: From Words to Action

Madeleine K. Albright and Richard S. Williamson, co-chairs of the Working Group on the Responsibility to Protect, speak at a July 2013 symposium. US Holocaust Memorial Museum

As a policymaker, “you need to think about the unintended consequences of the decisions you make—and the ones you don’t.” Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and former Presidential Special Envoy to Sudan Richard Williamson should know. In the course of their public service, both confronted situations of genocide and mass atrocities, and had to wrestle with the complex challenges involved in stopping violence once it started.

Their experience in dealing with these issues inspired them to co-chair the Working Group on the Responsibility to Protect (R2P), a joint project of the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, the Brookings Institution and United States Institute of Peace. R2P is an international norm—a standard agreed to by every country in the world, including the United States—recognizing that every state has the responsibility to protect its people from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity. If a state is failing to fulfill this pledge or killing its own people, the responsibility then falls to the international community to take appropriate action.

How to realize the promise of the Responsibility to Protect and more effectively use this tool to prevent genocide and mass atrocities is a subject of a new report authored by Secretary Albright and Ambassador Williamson. During a recent symposium at the Museum, The United States and R2P: From Words to Action, they discussed the report, their reflections on the time they spent in government, and ways to prevent these situations from escalating to the point of mass killing. As they pointed out, confronting these challenges is incredibly complicated. However, there is a wide range of tools available to policymakers before taking military action—such as preventive diplomacy, sanctions, travel bans, development aid, communications jamming, military to military training, and more—and that the difficulty of matching the right tool to a particular crisis should not discourage the effort.

Watch video of the symposium:

The United States and R2P: From Words to Action symposium, July 23, 2013

The co-chairs were joined at the symposium by one of the architects of R2P—the Honorable Lloyd Axworthy. While serving as the Canadian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Dr. Axworthy was a leading proponent of R2P, and helped elevate the concept in foreign policy circles around the world. During his keynote address, he described the origins and evolution of R2P as well as evaluated the application of the concept in contemporary situations. The final panel brought together a bipartisan group of former senior government officials to discuss how R2P may or may not have been a useful to them when they were in government. The conversation included: Michael Gerson, former advisor and chief speechwriter for President George W. Bush; Heather Hurlburt, former official in the Clinton White House and State Department; Nicholas Burns, 27-year veteran of the State Department and former Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs. The panel was moderated by Susan Glasser, editor at POLITICO.

In the wide ranging discussion, the panelists drew on their experience in Bosnia, Rwanda, Darfur and other conflicts to examine how they evaluated competing priorities on the always crowded foreign policy agenda, and the difficulty of attempting to focus on prevention when so much day to day energy is consumed in responding to crises. This conversation highlighted the need to further strengthen the preventive aspects of R2P, and the vital challenge US policymakers face when taking action to stop the world’s worst crimes.

To read more about the challenges policymakers face in applying the R2P principle, and some of the media coverage of the report and symposium (external links):

  • OpEd by co-chairs Albright and Williamson in POLITICO

  • New York Times article by Mark Landler

  • Guest Blog Post by Michael Abramowitz on Nicholas Kristof’s New York Times blog