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For New Human Rights Direction, Try North

USC College sophomore travels to her homeland through a Summer Undergraduate Research Fund (SURF) grant to study the Canadian Responsibility to Protect initiative.

Rebecca Wertman, a sophomore in the School of International Relations in USC College, conducted interviews at the University of Waterloo in Canada this past summer for her research on the country's Responsibility to Protect (R2P) initiative. Photo courtesy of Rebecca Wertman.
Rebecca Wertman, a sophomore in the School of International Relations in USC College, conducted interviews at the University of Waterloo in Canada this past summer for her research on the country's Responsibility to Protect (R2P) initiative. Photo courtesy of Rebecca Wertman.

As the granddaughter of Holocaust survivors, Rebecca Wertman feels a deep connection to the study of human rights policy. As a Canadian, she was proud to discover that a country famous for its hockey, snow and maple syrup initiated a foreign policy for the right of humanitarian intervention.

Called Responsibility to Protect (R2P), the international effort aims to protect civilians and prevent genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes and “ethnic cleansing.” Presented in 2001, it emphasizes economic sanctions and diplomacy to achieve peaceful goals and stresses the involvement of multiple states.

This past summer, Wertman returned home to Vancouver, and through a Summer Undergraduate Research Fund (SURF) grant, began her studies on R2P.

“Responsibility to Protect is a redefinition of the idea that countries have a responsibility to intervene when other countries violate human rights,” said Wertman, a sophomore in the School of International Relations in USC College, adding that she believes in exhausting all other options before resorting to military action.

Her grant allowed her to travel to Toronto and interview Ramesh Thakur, a professor at the University of Waterloo and a commissioner in charge of the research behind the initiative. Among other policies, R2P promotes the use of Non-Government Organizations (NGOs) to monitor “flashpoints” or areas of unrest. In the event that a flashpoint becomes the site of human rights violations, the NGO would bring it to the attention of the United Nations.

R2P is what the U.N. calls a policy norm — an idea that has been widely agreed upon in theory, but not written into law. The unofficial status of the coalition, Wertman believes, is due to its potential interference with the sovereignty of nations.

“One of the things that makes this so controversial is the possibility of using military force to protect human lives,” Wertman said. “R2P changes the definition of sovereignty to mean if one country fails in their responsibility to their state, other countries can intercede.”

She admits that many of her friends and family are skeptical about her research.

“My family told me R2P would never work,” she said. “They told me there’s no way countries would send troops abroad to save other people.’”

It was difficult for Wertman to hear people shoot down the doctrine, but it increased her determination to raise awareness of the document and its ideas. She even wrote to the editor of the Vancouver Sun after reading an article suggesting Canada had not made international relations policies worth noting. Her letter was printed.

“While at times it seems as if our government doesn’t do much,” Wertman wrote, “it is at the forefront in fighting for multilateral intervention when countries violate human rights.”

Wertman will be applying for a Student Opportunities for Academic Research (SOAR) grant through the College to further her research. She hopes her paper from her summer trip will be a good source of information for others.

“People don’t know about the Responsibility to Protect. We need to make them aware that this new norm exists so they can pressure their governments to implement it.”