The Need for R2P: Why Today's Conflicts Aren't Like Yesterday's

Horn of Africa – 1980s: Countless civilians are denied food by their government and die from starvation on the screens of American televisions. Sierra Leone – Late 1990s: Warring militias comprised mostly of child soldiers wander from village to village attacking civilian communities. Main weapon: amputation and mutilation. Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo – Present: Government and rebel militias alike target women and sexually assault them; sometimes gang raping hundreds at a time.

Circumstances like these true events do not help the stereotype of modern developing countries. The current stereotype of such nations today (especially those in Africa) are war-torn no-man’s-lands filled with warlords, rebels, child soldiers with AK47s, and famine-ravaged populations with swollen bellies and flies in their eyes. This is obviously not the case for all of Africa nor for all developing nations; however, stereotypes tend to be founded upon some sort of truth and this stereotype is still certainly the case in several developing countries. Where did this perception of the developing world (and particularly of Africa) begin?

My answer is that it came from the media that now is able to cover the atrocities and conflicts that are now becoming more bloody and dangerous for civilians. The end of the twenty-first century saw a rise in the number of intrastate, or civil, wars and a decline in the number of interstate wars. During World War Two, “Civilians had become military targets; they were bombed in their cities and towns, persecuted, and made the target of extermination programs.” The Second World War claimed roughly equal numbers of military and civilian victims”1, while in earlier wars the number of soldiers who died far outweighed the civilian casualties. In today’s conflicts, however, roughly 90% of all deaths are civilians.1 Warring militias discovered that civilians could be used as a weapon of war through manipulation and control. For current militia’s, winning a war is largely about control, and to gain control they use rape, mutilation, and murder to scare civilian populations into supporting them. This can be seen in conflicts from Sierra Leone, to the Democratic of the Congo, to Sudan.

Why is it the case that so many innocent people die worldwide from day to day as the majority of the international community looks on? Why does is this allowed to occur when The Declaration of Human Rights attests in article 1 that every human being is “…endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood”2? How much of the world’s problems are our responsibility? With the all the crises occurring around the world at any given time, it is unreasonable to think that we can save everyone? As idyllic and noble as it may be, it is unrealistic. The question begs to be asked though – if “everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person”2, then why is it that so many civilians die every day in conflicts and their killers continue with impunity?

This question, after being asked enough times throughout history, led to the creation of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) that aims to prevent conflicts from occurring, and if they do, then protecting the innocent populations who are so often targeted in modern crises. The need for R2P is evident when you look at the severity of contemporary conflicts in the developing world; however, for every staunch supporter of R2P there is a dissident. In the coming sections I aim to highlight the need for and creation of R2P and define the terms that are most important to understanding the document as a whole. Following that, I will discuss the pitfalls of the ambiguity of R2P and use Sudan as an example of its ineffectiveness. I will then briefly discuss a functional problem in R2P, which is the threat that Russia and China pose for the document’s effectiveness, before concluding with my final recommendations for the future of R2P which I argue should be a reform from its current state to a more concrete and universal statute.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights
In international law, declarations are non-binding; therefore, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is broken into two binding documents: The International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant of Social, Economic, and Cultural Rights.3

1Polman, Linda. The Crisis Caravan: What’s Wrong with Humanitarian Aid? New York: Metropolitan, 2010. Print.

2United Nations. Universal Declaration of Human Rights. By John P. Humphrey, Rene Cassin, P. C. Chang, Charles Malik, and Eleanor Roosevelt. Paris, 1948. Print.

3Day, Christopher. "Human Rights, Humanitarian Law, and Human Security." Chicago. 15 Feb. 2011. Lecture.


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