End of the Argument

How we won the debate over stopping genocide.

Just 10 years ago, the international response to mass-atrocity crimes -- genocide, ethnic cleansing, and other large-scale crimes against humanity -- was a consensus-free zone. For all the "never again" rhetoric and human rights conventions launched with fanfare and sincerity after World War II, an unholy mess was made of dealing with every major man-made human catastrophe from Cambodia in the 1970s to Rwanda and the Balkans in the 1990s.

Today, the "responsibility to protect" doctrine, or R2P, has become a commonplace of international diplomacy, invoked in crises from the Congo to Kenya to, most notably, this year's struggle in Libya. So how did we go from complete ideological division on the response to mass-atrocity crimes to the current overwhelming consensus, at least on basic principles?

The problem had always been the bitter conceptual divide between those, largely in the global North, who rallied to the banner of "humanitarian intervention" or the "right to intervene," and those, largely in the global South, who -- conscious of their fragility and remembering too well the "civilizing missions" of the former colonial powers -- argued that state sovereignty was absolute and internal events none of the rest of the world's business.

To bridge that gulf, in 2001 my colleagues on the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty and I launched the "responsibility to protect" concept. Four years later it was endorsed unanimously by more than 150 heads of state and government at the 2005 U.N. World Summit.

There were three basic reasons the new idea caught on so quickly. First, we used language that was inherently less confrontational -- emphasizing no one's "right" but everyone's "responsibility," and placing the focus on action "to protect" rather than "to intervene." Second, it was made clear that the primary responsibility to protect people at risk lies with the state itself, not outsiders. And third, it was emphasized that R2P was about a lot more than coercive military intervention. Whereas the choices under "humanitarian intervention" boiled down to either sending in the Marines or doing nothing, those under R2P are nuanced and multidimensional: Start with preventive activity of all kinds; if that fails, move to diplomatic persuasion, then to nonmilitary forms of coercion like sanctions, and only as an absolute last resort to military action.

Since 2005, moving from rhetoric to effective practice has had its difficulties, and plenty remain. But step by step, R2P has been gaining traction, and 2011 was when it really came of age: institutionally, conceptually, and on the ground.

Better institutional machinery is rapidly evolving. The United Nations, regional organizations, and national governments have been establishing "focal points": officials whose day job it is to monitor emerging crises and energize responses. In the United States, President Barack Obama recently directed the establishment of an interagency Atrocities Prevention Board designed to coordinate government responses to these situations, taking those responses to a new level of effectiveness.

Conceptually, we have seen an end to most of the confused debates that plagued earlier crises in places such as Burma, Sri Lanka, and Georgia about what are and are not R2P situations. There was no argument about the events in Kenya in early 2008, those in Ivory Coast early this year, or those in Libya in the context of Benghazi, where Muammar al-Qaddafi talked -- in language eerily reminiscent of the Rwandan genocidaires -- of showing "no mercy and no pity" for the "cockroaches" who had risen against him.

Most dramatically, the U.N. Security Council has now not only expressly invoked R2P but given it effective sharp-end military application in Ivory Coast and Libya. The Libya intervention was much more prolonged and the interpretation by the NATO-led forces of the scope of its mandate much more controversial, but it unquestionably worked -- certainly in preventing a major massacre in Benghazi and arguably in preventing many more civilian casualties elsewhere than would otherwise have been the case. If the response had been as effective in 1994 in Rwanda, 800,000 victims of the worst modern genocide would still be alive.

Major U.N. General Assembly debates, most recently and importantly in the aftermath of the Libya controversy in July, have shown overwhelming commitment to the fundamental principles of R2P. As Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said in September, "Our debates are now about how, not whether, to implement the responsibility to protect."

True, there remains an ever-present political challenge to get key governments to overcome their inertia and their sometimes cynical self-interest. In October, the Russian and Chinese veto of a very cautiously drafted Security Council resolution threatening sanctions against the Syrian regime was an unhappy demonstration that for every two steps forward on R2P there is usually a step back.

But by any measurement, the achievement of the past decade -- universal agreement that state sovereignty is not a license to kill -- has been tremendous.

ALI DIA/AFP/Getty Images


Life in a Glass House

A glimpse behind the closely watched door to Ai Weiwei’s studio.

Two government security cameras mounted on lampposts are trained on a bright teal-blue door that stands out on a sleepy suburban road in northeast Beijing, the front entrance of artist Ai Weiwei's studio. Recently, the 54-year-old Ai strolled down his quiet, tree-lined street and hung red lanterns on both lampposts. "Like National Day every day," he told me, with more than a touch of irony in his voice. (National Day is the Oct. 1 patriotic holiday marking the founding of the People's Republic of China.) It's a safe bet that Ai, who this spring was detained by the police for 81 days and recently was slapped with a jaw-dropping $2.4 million bill for alleged unpaid taxes and penalties (in the midst of the largest crackdown on Chinese dissidents in two decades), does not feel these are celebratory times.

I had come on a smoggy fall morning with photographer Matthew Niederhauser to shoot still portraits of Ai for Foreign Policy's "Top 100 Global Thinkers" issue, in which he ranks No. 18. By the conditions of his release from detention, Ai was not then allowed to give formal interviews or make public political statements. He was not allowed to discuss censorship or human rights in China, what happened to him during his detention, or broader questions about China's future. So instead, we chatted about art and cats.

Ai's studio complex, built in 1999 in northeast Beijing's tranquil Caochangdi village, consists of a brick courtyard enclosing a garden with bamboo stalks and an orange tree, as well as two main buildings. One is his studio; the other, less than 10 yards away, is his home. He spends most of his days padding quietly between these two buildings. On the interior side of one wall of the courtyard, four letters hang: F, U, C, K.

In the small room outside the main studio, several young assistants sit at computers examining photos and updating files. Mounted behind them is a giant black-and-white poster, filling nearly an entire wall, printed with some 5,300 names and birth dates: a memorial to the children who died in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, many of them trapped inside collapsed school buildings. Ai has described the poorly constructed buildings as "tofu-skin schools."

Ai's work, veering from abrasive to compassionate, resonates with the old American journalistic credo, "Comfort the afflicted, and afflict the comfortable." Fundamentally, it is a matter of temperament, not ideology; yet in China, it's difficult to hold such convictions and remain apolitical. Perhaps not surprisingly, during our conversation Ai appears to restrain himself from political comment with some difficulty.

Inside the main studio -- a long, high-ceiled room with a skylight -- a slightly grainy black-and-white photograph tucked in a corner shows a fist raised in front of the White House, middle finger extended. "Is that your hand?" I ask.

He nods. "From 1995."

"More hopeful times," I muse.

He nods more vigorously.  

Ai is wearing a loose blue shirt and olive pants, a version of his everyday uniform. He moves languidly and stands with feet planted firmly apart. His surname sounds like the Chinese word for "love," and he is nicknamed "god of love" by his fans. Quite often, media coverage emphasizes Ai's daring or outraged side, but in person, he comes across as humble and tender.

While he is talking, one of his many cats, a large, white fur ball with a long tail, comes and rubs its back against his pant leg. There are at least 20 cats prowling around the studio. All are refugees. "We have too many wild cats," he tells me. "We feed them and give them medicine, and it attracts more." The white cat, which he scoops up to scratch behind its ears, is 12 or 13 years old -- well into feline middle age; it moves with a slight jerk in its step, but Ai says it is one of his favorites.

As Ai poses next to a porcelain "pedestal of tofu" in the courtyard (the photographer debates having him stand on it, but decides it's too fragile), I notice that he is regularly slipping out his iPhone to take his own photos. Later, Ai explains that he takes informal portraits of the steady stream of people who come from around the world to take portraits of him.

"Do they all the portraits look the same?"

"No," he says pensively. "All very different."

In October, ArtReview magazine named Ai 2011's most powerful artist in the world. When I brought that up, he simply shrugged. His life today -- working in confined quarters, surrounded by wild cats -- hardly drips with glamour or obvious accoutrements of authority. Under these circumstances, he clearly does not feel especially powerful. It is only the two security cameras trained on his doorstep that testify to the fact that others think otherwise.