Some of the world’s most pressing problems such as climate change, mass-migration and food insecurity transcend state borders. These issues are beyond the capacity of any single country to solve themselves, necessitating international cooperation. Former Secretary-General of the United Nations Kofi Annan labeled these challenges as “problems without passports.”
One of the issues that falls into this category is the setting of global norms. While the post-World War II environment saw liberal democracies leading the agenda, from economics to human rights, the rise of China in the 21st century has put a number of these norms into play. The Responsibility to Protect (R2P) — a global political commitment established by the United Nations in 2005 that seeks to prevent "mass atrocity crimes" such as genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity — is one such norm. This global norm emerged in response to the lack of effective response to the mass atrocities in Rwanda and former Yugoslavia in the 1990s. R2P has three main tenets, establishing that every state is responsible for protecting its populations from mass atrocity crimes, including genocide and war crimes; the international community has the responsibility to aid states in meeting the first tenet; and if a state is failing to uphold the agreement, the international community must take action in accordance to the UN Charter. In the most extreme cases, this can include international intervention. Ultimately, R2P aims to foster collaboration among the international community to avoid mass atrocities.
Though a widely respected agreement, aspects of R2P have been controversial, specifically in times when it has not been implemented. For example, many cite the lack of implementation of R2P in response to the military crackdown on Rohingya Muslims as a glaring failure of the international community. In August 2017, Myanmar’s army carried out a deadly attack on Rohingya Muslims populations, resulting in hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees fleeing to Bangladesh. According to UN Secretary-General António Guterres, the Rohingya are considered to be “one of, if not the, most discriminated people in the world.” During this period, troops in Myanmar backed by local Buddhist mobs incessantly targeted and killed Rohingya civilians.
Since this targeting, there have been extensive protests within Myanmar against the murder of the Rohingya and a reimposition of military rule in the country, responsible for much of the violence. Many signs of these protesters were in English — despite only five percent of Myanmar’s population speaking the language — and said “We Need R2P” and “R2P Save Myanmar,” a clear call to action of the international community.
This same controversy with the application of R2P is relevant when discussing the ongoing genocide of the Uyghur Muslims in China and the criticism of inaction by the international community. There are ample first-hand accounts and video footage of the “re-education camps'' to which Uyghur Muslims in China are being subjected. Even so, R2P has yet to be applied by the United Nations and international community — largely because of the relatively greater power that China has as a permanent member of the Security Council.
Both of these examples speak to the past failure of the international community to take measures — including intervention — to prevent mass atrocities, as well as to the views of countries such as China that sovereignty is the weightier principle. Hence, while R2P is a widely respected international agreement, it is still significantly flawed in terms of its implementation. This selective application of R2P speaks to the unequal distribution of power within the structure of the United Nations. Member-states with more power in the Security Council such as the United States, China and Russia, have the power to withhold implementing R2P when it is deemed unsuitable for their own national agendas. This self-serving political strategizing comes at the cost of marginalized civilians who are actively being targeted by their own government. This uneven distribution of power and accountability in the United Nations makes it impossible for the goals of R2P to be carried out in full.
Given all this, we are left with one central question: can R2P be considered a global or universal norm when it might only be applied to weaker states or states without superpower backing?
This issue among others will be discussed at the 2022 Norris and Margery Bendetson EPIIC International Symposium on Problems Without Passports from March 31–April 2.