The adoption of the principle of the Responsibility to Protect (RtoP) in 2005 is an achievement of the liberal world order. In paying distinct attention to the protection of human rights and populations, including minorities, it is a triumph of multilateralism. It represents an important milestone on the road to “never again”.
Instead of preparing an inventory, in my reflection below I would like to draw attention to some international phenomena and trends which we have seen over the last five years, and which will most likely continue in the coming years. These will heavily influence further progress towards implementation of the principle.
I assess these trends not only from the aspect that “not a single country is immune to the risk of genocide” which entails that tragedies can take place at any place even in the far future. I also look into the challenges from the perspective that, as history shows, tragedies can also happen at unexpected pace in the foreseeable future.
1. Shift toward identity politics
The last ten years has been significantly marked by shifts toward political discourse based on an identity ideology which addresses emerging global and societal challenges through the lens of nationality, religion, ethnicity and gender. Among the root causes of the shift, the growing feeling of inequality and the diminishing respect of dignity experienced by some peoples are on the top of the list. Doing-away with these sentiments which have been embedded in identities for decades will take long years too.
The agents of identity politics are mainly – but not only – populists and autocrats. They promise to give back the “lost” dignity, pride and eliminate the shame the people whom they represent feel. They refuse pluralism and diversity, and strive for superiority and homogeneity. By claiming to be “the sole representatives of the people” they anchor their power, legitimize their activities and even overwrite rules of law by “moral” considerations of the “people” who voted for them.
As a matter of fact, identity politics polarizes and divides societies, constitutes the basis for the construction of “us vs. them” camps within the population. In the vast majority of cases, this discourse leads to nationalism, exclusion, and ethnic, racial and religious discrimination all of which can lead to the doorstep of extremism, including mass atrocities.
For the last ten years, the political will and cohesion of the international community including the “West” has regressed in both speaking up for protection of universal rights and minorities and intervening in situations at risk of mass atrocities.
The trend implies that in several cases the West shuts eyes to the oppressive measures, the attacks against dissent and rule of law, and the violations of human rights. For different reasons though, in many cases neither the USA nor the European Union Member States are willing or able to apply coercive measures, the “hard power”, or military intervention necessary as the last resort to prevent or halt mass atrocities.
In many countries, the freedom of action for civil society, which traditionally works as a key ally of governments for the promotion of human rights, has shrunk; and ruling parties often use methods of intimidation to silence them.
“Westlessness” results in a weakening of the important parts of the international community dedicated to the cause of mass atrocities prevention, it reduces mechanisms of deterrence and emboldens perpetrators by allowing impunity for RtoP-crimes.
3. Shift toward a multipolar world
After the Cold War, the unipolar world was dominated by Western civilization, the liberal world order, universal human rights regimes and an unfolding presumption of multilateralism. During this period, some countries and peoples of other civilizations might have felt that they were not treated equally, that they were disregarded, disrespected, even neglected. These resentments generated the reemergence of nationalism and an assault on international institutions and multilateral cooperation.
The unipolar world is moving toward a multipolar set up, which will be characterized by the diminishing dominance of Western values. Competition, sometimes even rivalry, grows between the actors trying to influence this new order. Geopolitical considerations which are increasingly manifested in “value-
free foreign policy” and “principled pragmatism” prevail over competing policies intended to promote universal values including human rights in many cases.
This trend blocks interaction between international players, including the permanent members of the UN Security Council, paralyzes multilateral “win-win” decision making mechanisms and encourages “zero-sum” bilateralism.
4. Spread of “taboo-free speech”
Under the slogans of “breaking political correctness and taboos” and “supporting moral considerations”, growing number of mainstream politicians over-emphasize the cultural, national, ethnic, religious and gender specificities of people and groups. In doing so, they advocate for keeping distance from “those others” as “alien” members of the society.
Through that, they sow the seeds of exclusion, discrimination and hostility, move hatred into the public discourse and shift mainstream parties toward extremism.
The risk is exacerbated by the accelerating spread of the internet and social media, filter bubbles and echo chambers which amplify these messages, create and embolden in-group and out-group set ups and group enmity.
5. Youth becomes subject of political fight
The pursuit of identity politics has long-term impact on the awareness of society. The massive influence of social media intensifies the effects of identity politics on the outlook of young generations as the main consumers of digital information and main users of digital tools.
On the one side, extreme organizations enhance their recruitment activities and focus on youth by misusing the loneliness and isolation of many young people. On the other side, many activists work enthusiastically on improving the capabilities of youth to resist extremism. Hence, youth will increasingly be caught in the crossfire of identity politics.
Hitherto, the measures aimed at banning extreme activities and isolating extreme organizations have proven insufficient. Similarly, education about fundamental human rights, despite its progress, has not been widespread to effectively counter adverse trends.
6. New challenges: climate change and digitalization
Climate change and digitalization are enduring global challenges having a substantial impact on both awareness and identity.
Climate change and its implications such as food-, water-, energy security per se is a risk multiplier. Its negative effects could be exaggerated and misused for discrimination and as a fuel of hatred.
The progress of digitalization generates new inequalities, hostilities and enmity. Furthermore, the products of artificial intelligence could be weaponized and exploited for inducing conflicts, intimidation and even mass extermination.
These challenges need to be addressed from the perspective of mass atrocities, too.
Current “headwind” generated by the trends outlined above will impede implementation of the Responsibility to Protect, in particular in its application of coercive measures even in cases of ongoing atrocities in the next few years.
The anniversary of the adoption of RtoP provides a chance to re-engage the international community and invite the global actors, particularly the permanent members of the UN Security Council to find new consensus for the implementation of the principle including its third pillar.
The failure to evidently advance the cause of mass atrocities prevention will erode the credibility and position of the human rights community including the West, the main drivers of RtoP. That will further slowdown the operationalization of the principle.
Due to the regression in collaboration between global actors, the implementation of RtoP will increasingly depend on the activities and capabilities of regional organizations and local actors including civil societies. That may not mean, however, that efforts to engage global actors in order to prevent and halt mass atrocities should be abandoned.
It is a historical challenge to prevent the young generation from being raised in the spirit of discrimination, exclusion and hostility fueled by identity politics. New, pro-active measures are necessary for countering the adverse effects of identity politics on youth.
It is key that through dialogue processes and a narrative approach, the root causes of extremism, challenges and hostile sentiments which polarize and push youth toward extremism will be explored and addressed.