Today Camila Asano, foreign policy coordinator at Conectas, a Brazilian human rights NGO, participated in the debate on Brazil and the responsibility to protect (R2P) in my international relations class. Conectas very much symbolizes not only a growing engagement of Brazil’s civil society in foreign policy, but also plays a key role in an ever more sophisticated and heated debate about what role Brazil should play vis-à-vis human rights in the world. Brazil’s decision to promote the idea of the ‘Responsibility while Protecting’ (RwP) has turned Brazil into a potential agenda-setter in the debate about R2P, no doubt one of the most important questions of our time.
Brazil's stance on intervention is in flux. While traditional Westphalian thinking is still strong, "many in Brasília already regard as legitimate the suspension of the sovereign rights of governments that are unwilling or unable to care for their own citizens", as Matias Spektor argues in a recent column. This would have been unthinkable only a few years ago.
I have witnessed this remarkable change when debating the issue with my students over the past years. Three years ago, when asked to write a memo to the Brazilian government about how to deal with a civil war in Haiti, the vast majority of students advised then-President Lula against any type of intervention. Human suffering in distant lands was tragic, the students conceded, but it was not Brazil's responsibility to do anything about it. Since then, upon receiving a similar assignment, a growing percentage of students adopts a more interventionist stance.
Asano's presentation, however, still led several students to question how far Brazil should adopt leadership on the matter. The idea of the 'Responsability while Protecting' (RwP) certainly puts Brazil on the map of the debate, but applying the concept remains fiendishly difficult - as seen in Syria, where the international community seems unable to articulate a clear position.
Next month, Brazil's President Dilma Rousseff will once more give the opening speech at the UN General Assembly. Whether she will take the opportunity to explain the importance of RwP to the global community will largely define the future of the idea. This will inevitably influence the debate about R2P.