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

Civil Society Groups – Regional Champions of the RtoP in the Asia-Pacific?

Posted in Internal Conflicts and Human Security by NTSblog on May 23, 2011

As the commission of mass atrocities in Rwanda and Srebrenica had shocked the world in the 1990s, the urgent need to prevent the (re)occurrence of such crimes was widely recognized. At the behest of the UN Secretary-General, the ICISS advanced the concept of “the Responsibility to Protect” (RtoP) in the report – The Responsibility to Protect, which was released in 2001. The RtoP claims that each state has the primary responsibility to protect its people from four mass atrocities – genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity, and ethnic cleansing, and if it is unable or unwilling to do so, the wider international community has the responsibility to assist. At the 2005 World Summit, world leaders agreed on this spirit and incorporated it into the Summit Outcome. In 2009, the UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon submitted the report on implementing the RtoP to the General Assembly, which outlined the three-pillar strategy and highlighted the importance of regional arrangements in implementing and diffusing the emerging principle.

Against this backdrop, the RSIS NTS Centre launched a research project to identify potential avenues to advance the RtoP in the Asia-Pacific which has the highest incidence of armed conflicts since 2002. According to Amitav Acharya, strong regional champions are crucial for the diffusion of a new norm in the region. The findings of the project concur with Acharya’s argument. The discussions at the two dissemination meetings in January and March of 2011 converged at the point that civil society engagement is crucial for diffusion of the RtoP and its operationalisation. As states in this region are strong upholder of the principle of non-intervention, national governments are not likely to champion the diffusion and operationalisation of the RtoP. Compared to state actors, civil society organizations (CSO) are in a better position to be regional champions as they are more flexible.

However, in contrast to the expectations of the meeting participants on the role of CSOs, not many CSOs were present at the two dissemination meetings, particularly the one in Bangkok. Moreover, my interviews with NGOs which operate at the Thai-Myanmar border reveal that few people from these groups understand the accurate definition and scope of the RtoP. Even if they are playing the assisting role in operationalising the RtoP, they are not aware of it. Hence, there is a gap between the awareness of the RtoP and the expectations on civil society organizations. It is thus important to disseminate the RtoP among these groups before they could assume the role as the regional champions in the Asia-Pacific.

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