Interview with recently appointed United Nations Special Adviser on the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) Ms. Karen Smith

9 Apr 2019 13:52

Ms. Karen Smith was appointed as United Nations Special Adviser on the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) on 7 January 2019. She is also a lecturer in International Relations at the Institute for History at Leiden University, and an Honorary Research Associate at the University of Cape Town. Prior to this role, she was an Associate Professor in the Department of Political Studies at the University of Cape Town (2011-2017) and taught at the universities of Stellenbosch (2000-2010) and Western Cape (2003-2004). She served as Secretary-General of the United Nations Association of South Africa between 2006 and 2007.

Following the start of her mandate as Special Adviser on R2P, GAAMAC carried out an interview with Ms. Smith. Please find her answers below, reflecting her views two months after joining the United Nations Office on Genocide Prevention and the Responsibility to Protect.

What do you see as the main challenge today to effectively implement atrocity prevention both at the national and international level?

The consensus that was reached on the prevention of genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity at the 2005 World Summit has, unfortunately, not led to an overall prioritization of atrocity prevention. This gap between the commitment of states in theory and the reality of implementation is only widening. We see this when states fail to take action in the face not only of the risk of atrocity crimes, but even when there are strong allegations that they have been or are being committed. We also see this when states look the other way when there are tensions within their own borders that, if not addressed, could eventually lead to dynamics conducive to the risk of R2P crimes and violations. There has been much work devoted to strengthening early warning architectures, and it seems clear that the problem is no longer a lack of information, but rather a lack of timely action. There has simply not been sufficient prioritization of atrocity prevention at the national and international level in addressing situations of concern. Often, political interests are at play. At the same time, criticisms relating to the dangers of R2P being used as a tool for military intervention and regime change, as well as concerns about its selective application are used as arguments to do nothing. While listening to these concerns, many of which are well founded, is important, we should not allow them to lead to paralysis. This is simply not good enough when the lives of people are at stake. As an international community, we need to do better to continue discussing R2P, and finding constructive solutions to issues of difference.

What are your key recommendations to national governments and civil society organizations on how they can prevent atrocities?

Atrocity prevention requires taking early warning signs seriously, designing response options that are effective, and coordinating action with those who are in a position to mitigate the risk. On the analysis of early warning signs, we already have the tools that we need. States have endorsed our Office’s Framework of Analysis for Atrocity Crimes and some of them have even created national mechanisms whose work is guided by the analysis of risk factors contained in this document. More states need to use this tool as an instrument for policy-making. On design, we have to simply get better at putting in place policy measures that can mitigate the risks. Here, taking lessons seriously from cases where atrocities have been prevented, but also where they have not, is important. What we know from studies that have been done, is that measures to prevent imminent atrocities differ on a case-by-case basis, but it is possible to identify broad guidelines that can be used in considering options.

Atrocity prevention also needs to be more explicitly connected to other agendas that the UN and other actors are pursuing, such as the SDGs, and conflict prevention more generally. Preventing the structural conditions that enable atrocities from being committed cannot be separated from all of the work that is being done in the fields of development, building resilient societies, good governance, etc. At the same time, whilst recognizing how the prevention of atrocity crimes fits into the bigger picture, we should not neglect to emphasize the very unique nature of these crimes, which may or may not be related to conflict. This includes the recognition that preventing atrocity crimes is different from, albeit related to, conflict prevention, and therefore requires specific action.

Another area that requires greater attention is the role of women not only as victims but as powerful agents in atrocity prevention. Governments and civil society organizations (CSOs) can play an important role in highlighting what women are already doing, as well as engaging in capacity building to empower women to play more active roles.

Finally, all of this is, of course, not the sole responsibility of national governments, nor of CSOs. To bring about effective prevention, everyone has a role to play, and this is where coordination becomes essential. This applies both to different institutions in government and to cooperation between governments and other partners inside and outside the country, including civil society, regional and international organizations. Moving in the same direction requires important political and operational decisions, but the potential impact of joint action warrants making this effort.

What, in your view, is the importance of GAAMAC? What recommendations do you have for the GAAMAC community of commitment?

GAAMAC constitutes a community of committed actors that has a clear aspiration to make a difference on the ground, specially where this matters the most. GAAMAC’s ‘big tent’ approach allows for frank exchanges on challenges and good practices, and facilitates an important space for those in need of assistance to connect with those who can provide it. This is not only about state-to-state interactions. My colleagues in the Joint Office have briefed me on the importance of state-CSO interactions that also take place in GAAMAC plenary meetings. This is invaluable. I also understand from my colleagues that there is still much room for growth. I am told that GAAMAC’s Steering Group is now prioritizing the possible organization of smaller scale events aimed at addressing specific themes or situations, in partnership with states concerned. I know that the Joint Office has emphasized the need to work not only ‘in’ or ‘for’ GAAMAC plenary meetings, but also ‘between’ plenary meetings. I fully concur with this approach and I encourage working in this direction.

How can GAAMAC and its partners better support your work and that of your Office?

When I mention how different actors can best advance atrocity prevention, I am of course including our Office. I only joined recently but I have already been briefed about the work the Office is conducting in partnership with a number of states in addressing concerns outside but also within their borders. GAAMAC member states can support our Office in highlighting the imperative for action in cases of international concern, when that is relevant. To this end, a number of GAAMAC members have key roles in international, regional and sub-regional organizations, and can create a space for either the Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide or myself to provide briefings on situations of concern which are relevant for those organizations. Finally, GAAMAC members can also help our work by addressing the concerns that may exist within their own borders.

4 March 2019