10 years later, ‘R2P’ remains elusive: Cotler

Irwin Cotler

MONTREAL — It’s hardly a household name, but the Responsibility to Protect doctrine is, in the opinion of Mount Royal MP Irwin Cotler, “arguably the most significant development in the defence of human rights since the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights.”

Cotler, the Liberal justice and human rights critic, was the closing keynote speaker at a two-day conference organized by Concordia University’s Montreal Institute for Genocide and Human Rights Studies (MIGS) last month.

R2P, as it is abbreviated, remains little known 10 years after the term was first coined by an international commission established by the Canadian government. The reason is that it has rarely, if ever, been explicitly put into practice.

R2P isn’t a law but a norm that holds that a state has the responsibility to protect its population from mass atrocity crimes. If a state is unable or unwilling to fulfil that role, the international community has the responsibility to step in.

If diplomatic or humanitarian intervention doesn’t work, the international community should use more forceful measures and, as a last resort, intervene militarily.

Or as MIGS co-founder (in 1986) Frank Chalk put it: “We should not sit on our hands when a government decides to kill its own people.” A history professor, Chalk has devoted his long academic career to the study of genocide, an interest that stemmed from the loss of European relatives in the Holocaust.

The R2P principle was formulated in the wake of the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. It also attempts to belatedly put some teeth into the Genocide Convention adopted by the United Nations after the Holocaust.

But critics have called it “the new imperialism,” unless it’s universally applied, including against the West’s allies.

“Ten years later, R2P’s implementation remains far from a reality,” said Cotler, one of its advocates from the start. “Its promise of stopping mass atrocities remains elusive… We have to ensure it is not just a concept on the books, but the means to save the lives of people.”

Countries are reluctant to interfere in the traditional sovereignty of states, but Cotler said it’s often states that incite or perpetrate the hate that leads to genocide and ethnic cleansing.

He raised particular alarm over Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as “a leading threat to world peace and his own citizens” because of the dictatorship’s being on the verge of nuclear power and its “systematic violation of human rights.”

Cotler believes the Iranian regime has already violated the genocide convention’s prohibition on incitement to hatred for its threats against Israel and sponsorship of international terrorism.

The MIGS conference specifically explored the role the media, both conventional and new, in halting mass atrocities.

Cotler indicated that his experience in getting the press interested in the Iranian threat has been disappointing. Not one word was reported on a press conference he held in Ottawa in June of last year where he presented his remedies for reining in Ahmadinejad, nor when he released documentation of Iran’s violations last December.

Indifference isn’t limited to the media. Cotler recalled that in the fall of 2003, when he was justice minister and the situation in Sudan’s Darfur region was worsening, he wanted to attend an international conference in Stockholm about the crisis.

He was told by his government “that there are more important things to do in Ottawa, namely a rollout for the press on the same-sex legislation about to be tabled.

“I said, ‘I think this is more important’, and was asked, ‘How many votes are there in Stockholm?’”

He got to Sweden only after then-prime minister Paul Martin authorized the trip, but with the proviso that Cotler not refer to the killing in Darfur as a genocide, because the government had not yet taken a position on whether to use that designation.

Cotler reminded Martin that he, Cotler, had already labelled it that in the House of Commons and would continue to call it what he believed it was.

Martin suggested that he use “crime against humanity,” but relented when Cotler received the backing of Gen. Roméo Dallaire, who commanded the UN forces in Rwanda.