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The Reduction of Mass Atrocity Crimes in Southeast Asia, the Responsibility to Protect (R2P), and the Individual Responsibility to Protect (IR2P)

Jan 22, 2016

Based on a paper presented to the Carnegie Council's Global Ethics Fellows Fifth Annual Conference in New York City "An Ethical Dialogue between Asia and the West: Philosophical Traditions, Moral Contentions, and the Future of US-Asia Relations." I wish to thank Edward Luck, Dana Luck, and Alex Bellamy for the assistance they provided.


Southeast Asia has experienced a significant reduction in mass atrocity crimes in the last 30 years due to rising incomes, an increase in the number of democracies, the emergence of the responsibility to protect doctrine (R2P), and the choice by military and government leaders in the region to avoid the use of mass atrocity and genocide as a strategy. I suggest that R2P and the new doctrine advanced by Edward Luck and Dana Luck, the individual responsibility to protect (IR2P), when yoked, can help entrench, sustain, and strengthen norms that help prevent mass atrocity crimes.

"East Asia's recent past is littered with examples of conscience shocking inhumanity against civilian populations," writes Alex Bellamy. "Indeed, for much of the Cold War, people in East Asia were arguably at greater risk of death by genocide and mass atrocities than anyone else in the world," Bellamy observes.1 Yet, Bellamy continues: "Almost unnoticed, however, the region has been transformed. There are fewer cases of genocide and mass atrocities in East Asia today than at any point in history for which we have reliable records. This change has coincided with, and been informed by, a quiet revolution in the region's understanding of the rights and responsibilities of sovereignty."2 This is good news, which clashes with the general media-generated perception that the world is falling apart, that mass atrocities are rampant, that the human species is doomed, and that East Asia remains a hospitable place for mass atrocity crime.

The reduction of mass atrocity crimes is due, in part, to an unfolding commitment to what Steven Pinker has called the human rights revolution that took hold in the wake of World War II.3 The codification of this revolution in 2005 with the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) doctrine, passed unanimously by the United Nations General Assembly, helped to establish human rights norms in East Asia. These norms contributed to the reduction of mass atrocity crimes in the region.4 This good news suggests that the cultivation of such norms is an effective means of promoting human rights and should be extended. Toward this end, I suggest that the good news in East Asia about the reduction of mass atrocity crimes should highlight the progress the global community has made in combating what Samantha Power calls the "problem from hell" and invites creative thinking about how norms of human rights might be developed to lock in this progress and extend it.5 I will suggest that the reduction of mass atrocity crimes in East Asia can be attributed to the global human rights revolution, the powers of R2P, and drawing from the recent suggestion offered by Edward and Dana Luck, I propose that R2P should be extended to include the Individual Responsibility to Protect (IR2P).

Pinker has assembled in his book, The Better Angels of Our Nature, compelling "big data," drawn from a host of sources, that since 1945 the world community has experienced a significant reduction in the number of genocides and mass atrocities.6 While it is a controversial thesis that seems to be defied by current events, including President Bashar al-Assad's barrel bombing of Syrian civilians and the rise of ISIS, Pinker has effectively answered his critics and has updated his argument. In comparative terms, "The world's civilians are several thousand times less likely to be targeted today than they were 70 years ago," argue Pinker and Mack.7 The reduction in mass atrocity crimes, Pinker suggests, is due to an outbreak of concern for human rights prompted by a better use of human empathy and reason in the wake of World War II. "The faculty of reason," Pinker argues, "allows us to extricate ourselves from our parochial vantage points, to reflect on the ways in which we live our lives, to deduce ways in which we could be better off, and to guide the application of the other better angels of our nature."8 Upon reflection, using reason and empathy, the global community created the UN (1945), held 13 trials holding the Nazis responsible for crimes against humanity (1947–1948), and endorsed the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (1948), and more recently, the Responsibility to Protect (2005). These actions reversed a historic presumption that the losers in wars did not deserve protection and that the global community did not have a responsibility to intervene in the affairs of a sovereign state.

In the aftermath of World War II, the value of universal human rights became a norm (defined broadly as shared expectations), forming the basis for judgment and action. R2P extended this norm by assigning the international community a responsibility to protect the individual from acts of violence carried out in the name of the nation-state. Beginning in 2005, the norms of R2P have inspired international activism, have been invoked in 25 UN Security Council resolutions, have been used to justify successful efforts to prevent or mitigate atrocity violence in Africa (Kenya, 2008, Burundi, 2008, Cote d'Ivoire, 2010, Libya, 2011) and have contributed to the reduction of mass atrocities in East Asia. Bellamy is careful to note three other factors that contribute to this reduction, which include rising incomes, the emergence of democracy, and the choice made by governments to avoid using mass atrocity as a political tool. Yet, it is clear as well that the establishment of human rights norms and the values codified in R2P have also played a significant role. Scholars have corroborated Bellamy's conclusions: Okere, Aning, and Nelson find that the countries of ASEAN "have become increasingly involved in moving the [R2P] norm from rhetoric to practice."9

As one of the first efforts to embed R2P norms in Southeast Asia, the Asia Pacific Centre for the Responsibility to Protect (APCR2P), founded in 2008, promotes the norms of universal human rights and R2P through research and policy dialogue and illustrates the importance of such centers and of the Carnegie Council's effort to sound the voice of ethics in international affairs. The Centre was launched in February 2008 with the help of Assistant Secretary-General of the United Nations Edward Luck and former Foreign Minister of Canada Lloyd Axworthy. The aspiration of the Centre, observes Noel Morada, one of the Centre's directors, is to build "domestic constituencies around" the R2P norm with its various programs. To build the R2P norm, the APCR2P uses a "bottom-up" approach through use of seminars and workshops at the local level in the Asia-Pacific region on R2P and offers scholars the opportunity to conduct policy-relevant, peer-reviewed academic research.

The efforts of the Centre and the more general and gradual acceptance in the region of the responsibilities of the state to protect its citizens, and when it doesn't, the responsibility of outside bodies to assist or to intervene to protect human beings, irrespective of their geographical location, has borne fruit in Southeast Asia. Bellamy is careful to acknowledge that the acceptance of the R2P norm is but one of four factors in the reduction of mass atrocities in Southeast Asia:

The dramatic and sustained decline of genocide and mass atrocities in East Asia was not produced by any single factor, but by the combined effects of at least four important ones: a reduction in the deliberate targeting of civilians in war, growing incomes across the region, creeping democratization, and changing ideas about the nature of sovereignty and the responsibilities for protection incumbent on states.10

While R2P has had a modest and positive influence on human rights norms in Southeast Asia, it is now time to consider its limitations. R2P turns on the international community and nation-states as primary agents. The new embellishment of R2P, the Individual Responsibility to Protect (IR2P), which Edward and Dana Luck have recently developed, is meant to complement R2P. It does so by extending the responsibility to protect to the individual.11

Luck and Luck correctly argue that R2P has been a success; it has been called one of the fastest-developing international norms in history. To address its limitation, that it limits agency to international and national governments, Luck and Luck argue that individuals need to take on the obligation to prevent genocide and mass atrocity. The obligation would complement and not compete with the responsibility the international community has accepted to protect. Luck and Luck note that R2P has been applied inconsistently, and that it depends on the political will of those in power. As such, the individual and individuals will need to place pressure on governments and decision makers to take action when foreign lives are at risk. When R2P is not invoked for bad reasons, individuals must rise up, they write, to take on the responsibility.

Luck and Luck suggest that R2P and IR2P are yoked to the same set of values and principles developed by the human rights movement: The vulnerable should be protected, and governments and individuals have the same responsibility to act. The implication is clear; in the absence of government action to stop mass atrocities, individuals should act. They, individuals, are held responsible for their actions under international law in their roles as government officials. As important, they argue, is holding individuals who are not government officials responsible for the protection of others. Individuals should press governments to do the right thing. As Samantha Power has demonstrated, the failure of individuals in the United States to press their government to act in Rwanda provides one explanation of the Clinton administration’s failure to prevent the Rwandan genocide.12 IR2P also targets bystanders to mass atrocity, extending to them accountability for their inaction in the face of mass atrocity.

Kenya in 2008, Luck and Luck write, provides a concrete example of R2P and IR2P working in collaboration. R2P was invoked at the international level, and that spurred the international and African governments to prevent the outbreak of mass violence. Individual Kenyans and the civil organizations to which they belonged also acted to cultivate conflict management strategies that allowed differences of opinion to remain in the realm of the symbol. The APCR2P is a second example, as it is dedicated to providing individuals with the education and training they need to implement both R2P and IR2P. The Kenyan illustration suggests that it is possible to pair R2P and IR2P in service to the larger aspiration of protecting individuals and citizens of sovereign states from the horrors of mass atrocity. While the Kenyan illustration provides but one case study, it does draw from a more general global acceptance of an ethic of responsibility, one that deserves recognition, support, and extension.


The success in combatting mass atrocity crimes in Southeast Asia is one reflection of an admirable global effort after 1945 to change the values and ethics of war and mass atrocity. This decline is on display in Southeast Asia, giving us concrete and empirical grounds for hope that through a properly calibrated approach that joins R2P and IR2P, mass atrocities will become a barbaric relic of the past.

1 Alex J. Bellamy, "The Other Asian Miracle? The Decline of Mass Atrocities in East Asia," Global Change, Peace & Security 26, no. 1 (2014): 1
2 Ibid.
3 Steven Pinker, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined (New York: Viking, 2011).
4 Bellamy, "The Other Asian Miracle? The Decline of Mass Atrocities in East Asia."
5 Samantha Power, A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide (New York: Basic Books, 2002).
6 Pinker, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined.
7 Steven Pinker and Andrew Mack, "The World Is Not Falling Apart," 2015
8 Pinker, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, xxv.
9 Frank Okere, Kwesi Aning, and Susan Nelson, "Article 4(H) of the African Union Constitutive Act," in Africa and the Responsibility to Protect: Article 4(H) of the African Union Constitutive Act, ed. Dan Kuwali and Frans Viljoen (Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge, 2014), 279.
10 Bellamy, "The Other Asian Miracle? The Decline of Mass Atrocities in East Asia," 19.
11 Edward C. Luck and Dana Luck, "The Individual Responsibility to Protect," in Reconstructing Atrocity Prevention, ed. Sheri P. Rosenberg, Tiberiu Galis, and Alex Zucker (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2015), 207–48.
12Power, A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide, Chapter 10.

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