The RSIS Centre for Non-Traditional Security (NTS) Studies' Blog


Operationalisation of the ‘RtoP’ in Southeast Asia

Posted in Internal Conflicts and Human Security by NTSblog on December 10, 2010
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At a recent seminar at the NTS Centre, Mr.Francis Deng, Special Advisor to the UN Secretary-General on the Prevention of Genocide, presented a ‘road map’ for the prevention of genocide outside of a crisis context.

Mr. Deng suggested that genocide is essentially an extreme form of identity-based conflict. However, it is horizontal inequalities – vis-a-vis access to power, resources and the rights of citizenship – that catalyse the transformation of diversity into violent inter-group relations. As such, Deng argued that the best avenue for preventing genocidal crimes is through a structural approach, emphasising good governance, the promotion of democratic ideals, broad respect for the dignity of the human person, and the establishment of legal norms and rule of law institutions. Ultimately, prevention necessitates putting in place structures for institutionalising equality among different groups.

It was Mr. Deng’s view that the most propitious way forward for implementing (but perhaps more conceivably localising) this broad preventive agenda – vis-à-vis both genocide and the RtoP norm more generally – is through the normative and institutional frameworks particular to different regions. Indeed, while it is almost inconceivable that consensus beyond a superficial level will be reached at the global level on the operationalisation of this nascent norm, it is feasible that regions may be able to capitalise on a shared sense of solidarity and common purpose (although perhaps tenuous).

Deng insisted that contrary to perceptions that the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) still fundamentally subordinates people-centred concerns to the imperatives of the ASEAN way – specifically non-interference – there is a surprising level of receptiveness to his approach in the region. Indeed, the lofty goals that ASEAN has set for itself through its vision for an ASEAN Community, particularly the ASEAN Political-Security Community indicate that ASEAN’s core values are evolving from a severely state-centric conceptualisation to increasingly encompass the rights of individuals and communities. While conceding that progress is likely to be gradual (and observers of ASEAN would well agree), Deng insisted that recent ASEAN initiatives nonetheless highlight the promise of pursuing this agenda at the sub-regional level.

Mr. Deng’s insights and strategy resonate strongly with the experience in Southeast Asia. ASEAN countries have been quite vocal supporters of the RtoP in UN fora, albeit with some strong reservations regarding its implications for intervention. At the 2009 UNGA debate on the RtoP, the Asia-Pacific region was attributed with undergoing the greatest positive shift in favour of the RtoP since 2005, with particular mention going to the Philippines and Vietnam. Specifically, Southeast Asian states offered their overwhelming support for the first two pillars of the RtoP during the debate, including the international community’s responsibility to provide assistance and capacity building to ensure state’s can uphold their obligations.

Deng’s insights and preventive strategy are therefore extremely compatible with the ASEAN context. However, Deng’s position diverged significantly from the nature of the region’s support in his insistence on a fundamental acceptance of the third pillar (the responsibility of the international community to be more assertive when confronted with mass atrocity crimes). Nonetheless, at the end of the day, is it even necessary for states to resolve their inherent hesitations concerning the third pillar before they implement the ‘RtoP’? Rather than RtoP per se, states have already expressed their willingness to assist neighbouring states to build their capacities. Perhaps the more critical question at this point is therefore how to push this agenda forward.

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