The Role of Civil Society in R2P

February 17, 2009

Amidst the international debate on humanitarian intervention in Darfur, civil society movements have proliferated and pressurized state actors to better respond to the cause of “Responsibility to Protect”(R2P).  However, such movements do not come without their own problems.

On one hand, a state’s political will to intervene for humanitarian causes is greatly affected by its domestic politics. Thus, the involvement of civil society is capable of making R2P more effective by pressurizing and eliciting political will from hesitant state actors. The traumatic failures of the US in Vietnam War and in Somalia, for example, have rendered it reluctant in intervening in subsequent conflicts. In the Darfur crisis, however, vibrant US-based social movements have helped the US government incrementally recognize and act against the genocide along with the international community.

The US-based “Save Darfur” Coalition comprises more than 180 religious and human rights NGOs, gaining the support of politicians and celebrities alike, among them are George Clooney and the then Senator Obama. It has carried out a number of campaigns to urge the US government to increase its support to civilians in Darfur and has helped pressure China to review its own Darfur policy through the “Genocide Olympics” campaign. The peril in Darfur has also spurred the use of disinvestment campaigns (not without controversy) as a general strategy to pressure corporations to divest in Chinese oil companies, which are seen as funding the genocide in Darfur.

On the other hand, such social activism has its shortcomings. For all the momentum and scale of various campaigns calling for humanitarian intervention, these campaigns often lack balanced policy discussions and multi-actor political agreements in order to work out long-term outcomes to the underlying issues in Darfur. On a more radical note, the ‘Save Darfur” Coalition has been criticized as a tool used by the US government to prevent the consolidation of Chinese influence in Africa and gain control over Sudan’s oil reserves. What’s more, whilst humanitarian intervention through the deployment of UN troops has been repeatedly called for, little emphasis is put on the need to fund and strengthen the African Union forces in Darfur, which brings up questions of Western biases.

Despite the success of civil movements in garnering public awareness, we cannot turn a blind eye to the hidden stakes involved. If the huge international attention on Darfur is purely out of humanitarian concern, why has the crisis in Congo over the same period—which has left 10-20 times as many as Africans dead plus massive sexual violence—not received as much domestic and international attention as Darfur? Ultimately, how effective is civil society in changing foreign policy with respect to humanitarian intervention under R2P?

By Marianna Ho and Rebecca Lau


9 Responses to “The Role of Civil Society in R2P”

  1. Paul-F. Says:

    Hey!! I really like your blog and I just mde a comment about the public in the previous blog so I’m not gonna repeat myself too much.

    Nevertheless, I wanted to point out what you said about ‘te western bias’. It is true that an attempt in stop the crisis Darfur can be seen as the West trying to stop China but we should not accept that as a valid argument to prevent us from saving lives or doing what is right.

    To go further using your examples I think Darfur got a lot more attention than the crisis in Congo precisely because it is followed by massive public figures such as George Clooney. But in my view we should not stop helping in Darfur just because it is biased by Hollywood stars trying to look good [or being sincere, that’s not the point]. We should just fix Darfur because it is the moral thing to do using stars to attract support and then move on to Congo.

    I think the problem with R2P is that it is too easy to get out of it. We spend too much time, and I mean scholars, politicians, journalists, etc. trying to find a way not to intervene or to justfiy our lack of intervention. If we dedicated half the time we spend on finding excuses not to intervene on effectvely finding solutions we would have a hell of a lot less corpses in Darfur, Somalia, Congo, Rwanda, Cambodia…

  2. thirru Says:

    I think you raise a valid point here. Intervention and support on a case by case basis will always be biased. Loud and especially tragic emergencies gain usually far easier media attention than slow and silent emergencies where the death toll is slowing cimbing up due to extreme poverty and malnutrition, simply because it is better business for them to report on mass murder and rape, especially if the occasional foreigner is involved in the mix.
    This would not be a problem if we had one single supranational agent that would coordinate intervention and also aid on a real needs basis and not on a who-has-gained-the-most-public-attention basis. You mentioned rightly the disastrous second Congo war. But if we take a closer look on how many conflict partners there are involved then we can’t simply go in and say there is one white and one black group, the issue is far more complicated than that. Let’s face it, we do not need just a strategy for Darfur, but also one for Sudan, and really, we can’t have one for Sudan if there isn’t one for the region and those 7 countries that neighbour Sudan and actually what we are talking about then is a grand strategy for that failed continent of Africa. For that however we do not have the capabilities nor the political will.

  3. dmitces Says:

    There is no doubt that the emerging notion of internationally linked civil society and the multitude of currently existing social movements have substantial influence that governments are obliged to take into consideration. However, despite periodically occurring debates over the shrinking capacities of central governments, I would consider them extensively pre-mature, as the world we all live in is largely dominated by state-actors with public agency repeatedly being exercised as a complimentary rather than fundamental tool in a state’s decision-making and policy-constructing process. One of the factors that reduces the potential of the civil society actors to influence the respective government is time: although modern technologies have significantly increased the speed and quality of communication, raise of considerably wide awareness as the primary source of public support remains a time-consuming procedure that evolves much slower than the normally exponentially escalating local conflicts which restricts the ability to address conflicts on their initial stages and prevent further aggression before they gather momentum. It is a positive sign though to observe perhaps tardy and by no means ideal but nevertheless real campaign that aims at eradication of inhuman sufferings in many war-torn states of Africa and in this context, choosing between slow reaction and none, without a moment’s hesitation I would choose the former.

    On the ground, however, there also exists a question of quality of international assistance, as even in case a state is pushed to the corner by its citizens, there are variations to what real support (quantity of troops, their professional level, amount and kind of aid etc.) it will agree to provide. The UNAMID forces currently deployed in Darfur are demonstrative in this sense, as they are criticized not only and not primarily for being comprised predominantly of the African Union soldiers (which indicates passive attitude outside the continent) but also for their low level of involvement that is often simply limited to paperwork and their recurring hesitation to carry out their main duty: to protect the civilian population in warfare via personal involvement into it in case of necessity ( Therefore, I join thirru in his demand for a solid supranational institution that could adequately respond to the crises occurring within modern fragile states and manage international assistance on the basis of realities on the ground zero and provide the international society with reliable images of local turbulence.

    -Dmitrij Cesniuk

  4. Paul-F. Says:

    First I’d like to say that I agree with you Thirru on that a Grand Statretegy is a)a unavhievable option for the enormous effort it would require stratgically, politically, publically, logistically and in every other -ly can think of. Neverheless, that is precisey what I wanted to do, to move on to the HOW to fix the problem and not IF we should do something about it. A Grand Strategy for Africa as regard Human security is clearly not achievable. But that shouldn’t stop us from helping in Darfur and other places. ‘There are too many places to be helped so let’s not help any’ is not a valid argument to me. So what do we do to help and how do we do it?

    As for the Supranational authority or hegemon I can’t see that happenning. I don’t even think it is necessary to help people. It would take me too long to write it all but I really don’t think a supranational body is even realistic. From a soioconstructivist point of view thereare different cultures, ‘truths’ and ‘realities’ for any supranational body to agree on anything.

  5. dmitces Says:

    Yes, I agree that construction of multi-party bodies is a problematic issue per se, as lack of shared ideals among its members easily transcripts into impotence of collective action. I also believe in multiculturalism and multitudes of various perceptions. However, I cannot fit R2P or broader ( some say narrower) concept of Right to Assist into this framework, as I cannot identify any critical difference in basic human needs that could depend on any of these factors. Yes, they can vary in scale as such parameters as geography, national affiliation, etc can prioritize certain concerns over others but the list of factors minimally required for existence of an individual remains largely constant. As N. Mandela put it, it involves ‘the simple opportunity to live a decent life, to have a proper shelter and food to eat, to be able to care for their children and to live with dignity, to have good education for their charges, their health needs cared for and to have access to paid employment’. I do not ask to view this proposal as proof that a supranational body can be created in the area where people’s needs collide – it is certainly not sufficient for that – I would rather recommend it as illustration that in this particular case cultural difference on the grass-root level is not an obstacle in contrast to the state-centric view that might appeal to its sovereign cultural identity but there is a potential that the aim of such an appeal will be not cultural survival but an attempt to justify its actions (that in our case are non-tolerable) within the domain.

    -Dmitrij Cesniuk

  6. Marianne Says:

    Dear Rebecca and Marianna,

    I enjoyed reading our blog, which is somewhat related to what Rebecca and I have discussed in this weeks discussion.

    I am a supporter of (global) civil society and I do believe that it has some (limited) influence on the political scene. Furthermore, civil society implements a sense of belonging and encourages citizens to get involved in whatever case they find more important, may it be football for children in wheelchairs, animal rights or Darfur. Hopefully, this will lead to a world with fewer borders, broader personal sphere and more compassion. This is my IDEAL world. And eventhough I know we have a long way to go I will stay optimistic as I think we do see some imporvement in citizens’ involvement in society. At least we do not live in a society full of indifferent people.

    However, it is clear that the current civil society has only done very little in a broader picture. As you point out, civil society does indeed have shortcomings. First of all, you identified the problem of lacking ability to create ‘long term outcomes’. It seems plausible to suggest closer cooperation with governments to deal with this issue. However, that will easily lead to ‘questions of Western biases’ as the government might take over the agenda. One critique of NGO’s is that they are not all that ‘non-govermental’ as many of them receives founding from their local government. As Paul-F points out, maybe it does not matter where the help comes from as long as it comes!

    My main concern is how we can get more citizen involved in the civil society and how it can be more efficient. Is it even possible to pressure governments into something they do not want to do? Before the Iraqi war, large demonstrations took place in both Denmark and UK to pressure the government to NOT enter the war. However, both governments enter Iraq regardless. Clearly, the civil society do not have any ‘real’ negociation or bargaining remedies to use in their battle for governmental action or ‘non-action’ in the case of Iraq. Furthermore, it seems that people tend to forget atrocities or wrong-doings rather fast as in the case of Rwanda where the 10 years day come and went without much recoignition.

    What to do? What to do?

    The suggestion of a Supranational authority seems far to unrealistic at this point, but it is suggestions like this that one day will lead to a bettering of the world as only a few, brave persons are ready to suggest or do something non-traditional and innovative. So just keep them coming!

    All the best,

  7. Marianna Ho Says:

    Dear Marianne,

    Thanks for your comment!

    We share the same cosmopolitan ideal with you. Such a cosmopolitan ideal, we think, is actually consistent with the objectives of Human Security. After all, Human Security is about focusing on individual plights instead of states’ interests—that’s the world with “fewer borders” and “broader personal sphere” as you have suggested!

    Getting back to your point on civil society. Though proliferating and expanding, it is true that the civil society lacks real bargaining power in pressing for governmental action. We believe this is a question of how we can translate the demands of civil society into a moral obligation on the part of the state. One way is for civil society to increase their engagement with the political process. At national level, civil society can be involved in policy-making and implementation processes. For example, civil society representatives may run for congressmen, think-tanks and research institutes and NGOs can also offer their expertise to state governments. At the international level, civil society may co-operate with other NGOs and IGOs such as the UN and the Word Bank to increase their bargaining power. At both levels, civil society organizations(CSO) working for the same cause can ally with one another to create greater bargaining power. An example would be the Responsibility to Protect-Engaging Civil Society(R2PCS) project launched in 2003 to collaborate the strengths of various CSO in the promotion of the R2P. The project is now organizing a series of consultative roundtables worldwide with the initiative to build a global civil society Coalition for R2P. (

    Having more citizens involved in the civil society is another way to make state leaders. As leaders of democratic states have to give attention to their citizens’ interests in order to be re-elected, the greater the civil society is, the easier can their demands be put into deeds. To increase public interest in humanitarian crises, we think education and the media have a crucial role to play because popular attitudes are often affected by awareness through media exposure and education.

    We think we still have a long way to make the level of public interest in humanitarian crises sufficient to affect states’ policy. But YES, we have to stay optimistic and we believe the introduction of Human Security and R2P doctrines are proof that changes are taking place!

    Rebecca and Marianna

  8. rebeccalau Says:

    Dear Paul-F,

    Thanks for your lively comment about the role of public opinion in influencing state actors to adhere to the R2P principle.

    What you said about how government should ‘lead instead of follow’ public opinion (in the previous blog entry) is valid to a certain extent. On one hand, governments have the responsibility to exercise moral leadership in times of crises, particularly in the international context for the purpose of our discussion of humanitarian intervention under R2P. On the other side of the coin, we think moral leadership does not necessarily stream in a top-down manner, civil society actors, given the capacity, could generate the necessary moral guidance and policy direction, as well as pushing for the requisite political will necessary for a state’s commitment to R2P.

    Public opinion is indeed a double-edged sword in any policy-making, not lest in the quest of R2P. It could sway governments to take up international obligations, yet it could also give pressure to refrain or withdraw from such responsibilities, if not owing to national self-interests than from the direct threat to compatriots in the peacekeeping process.

    As for your point on ‘western bias’ – Whilst we definitely concur that any economic or strategic rivalries between the States and China should take back seat to the protection of civilians in cases of massive atrocities, by ‘western bias’ in terms of the deployment of peacekeeping troops we meant that whilst most of the focus is on the ‘western’ or global deployment of peace troops, the ‘Save Darfur’ social movements have devoted insufficient attention to the needs and effectiveness of the African Union troops already present in Darfur (although the situation has improved recently in terms of manpower).

    Rebecca and Marianna

  9. rebeccalau Says:

    Dear Thirru, Dmitrij and Paul-F,

    We appreciate your thoughts on the wide array of issues regarding international action under R2P and beyond. On the limitations of civil society, it was particularly fitting that Dmitrij pointed out the time factor as a hindrance to the effectiveness of the global civil society in rallying public pressure on state actors to take action in humanitarian crises. We would also add that public sentiment and opinion, no matter how well-intentioned, may not reflect the appropriateness or far-sightedness of their state’s foreign policy towards autocratic regimes. (Take the example of US’ sanctions on Myanmar:

    Yet, it appears that we have a general consensus that albeit its shortcomings, potential hidden agendas and personal stakes involved (e.g. public figures taking advantage of the limelight), such social-awareness and campaigns are a positive force in guiding the international community towards the R2P principle and the broader notion of cosmopolitanism in our increasingly connected ‘global village’.

    On the idea of a ‘supranational agent’ first suggested by Thirru and elaborated by Dmitrij, we would have to side with Paul-F that it is quite unlikely for such an authority to emerge in the foreseeable future. Since the question of humanitarian intervention under R2P already poses an ideological gulf between countries with varying concepts of sovereignty, the assumption of the pooling of sovereignty in a supranational agency is very hard to conceive. How would decisions be made? Would it be based on a consensus model like the WTO (look how far it has gotten)? Regional rivalries, such as those in Asia between China and Japan, and those between African countries, pose immense hurdles to the decision-making processes and the pooling of resources.

    We think Paul-F’s socio-constructivist doubts are also legitimate. The nearest to a supranational body we currently have is the EU, the existence of which is largely made possible by the cultural similarities and historical ties between member states, whereby Turkey’s application for full membership is fraught with controversies of whether the gist of the matter laid in cultural differences.

    Lastly, Paul-F, we appropriate your point that perhaps too much is dwell on the debate of whether to intervene in times of humanitarian crises, while the solutions – the questions of “how” – are just as challenging, if not even more, an issue. If the conflicting notions of sovereignty and foreign intervention amongst nations are already posing such obstacles to the adoption of R2P, the formulation of any peace settlements is foreseeable to be another debate with countries at loggerheads. Not to mention Dmitrij’s excellent point on the quality of international assistance, whereby the effective implementation of peacekeeping warrant as much attention and scrutiny from the international community as well as the R2P principle itself.

    Thanks again for all your thoughtful inputs.

    Rebecca and Marianna

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