The Responsibility to Protect Comes of Age

NEW YORK – Good news not only sells less well than bad news, but also often seems harder to believe. Reaction to Harvard psychologist Stephen Pinker’s majestic new book, The Better Angels of Our Nature, is a case in point.

In 800 meticulously argued and documented pages, Pinker shows that, over the course of history, there has been a dramatic decline in violence, both domestically and internationally – and that this downward trend is continuing through the post-Cold War years. But the response of many reviewers to Pinker’s work has been incomprehension, denial, or a tenacious focus on individual horror stories, as though they somehow change the larger picture.

Many will be similarly slow to accept that when it comes to the most conscience-shocking classes of violence – genocide, ethnic cleansing, and other mass atrocities – dramatic progress has been made recently. Those gains culminated in the interventions, unthinkable a decade ago, that the United Nations Security Council authorized this year to stop unfolding human-rights catastrophes in Côte d’Ivoire and Libya. With progress like this, it is no longer fanciful to hope that never again will there be another Holocaust, Cambodia, Rwanda, or Srebrenica.

It is ten years since an international commission that I co-chaired gave birth to the concept of the Responsibility to Protect (“RtoP”), and six years since more than 150 heads of state and government endorsed it unanimously at the UN’s World Summit in 2005. The core idea was simple: stop arguing for a “right to intervene,” which inevitably generates a backlash, and talk instead about “responsibility” – that of every state to protect its own citizens from atrocities, but also that of the wider international community to act if a state is unable or unwilling to do so.