When the carnage of the 1990s wound down, with more than a million people dead in massacres and brutal ethnic or political wars in and around Rwanda, the Balkans and elsewhere, nations that had failed to act to stop such tragedies began seeking ways to prevent future catastrophes. From this terrible decade, the long-postponed creation of an International Criminal Court finally happened in 1998 and, more broadly, the seeds of a new, potentially powerful international doctrine were planted at the United Nations.
By 2005, this doctrine to prevent or to stop large-scale atrocities gained universal support and a name: the “responsibility to protect,” or R2P, in shorthand.
The concept is now the center of sometimes furious debate within the UN, where it has been invoked, explicitly or not, in dealing with crises in such places as Guinea, Kenya and Côte d’Ivoire. The big problem is Libya. The question at the center of the debate is whether NATO, using the Security Council resolution passed last March authorizing “all necessary measures” to protect the Libyan people, went beyond that intent and actively helped overthrow the government of Muammar el-Qaddafi.
Some council members argue vehemently that regime change was never the intention of the resolution, and that NATO’s overreach in Libya will make any Security Council action on Syria or other situations much more difficult. The council is already sharply divided over how to deal with Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, whose severe repression of political protests has killed several thousand civilians.
Has the Libya case significantly set back the high hopes for a wider use of the responsibility to protect?
“Syria could be the collateral victim of Libya, as Rwanda was the collateral victim of Somalia,” said Jean-Marie Guéhenno, the head of UN peacekeeping from 2000 to 2008 and now professor of professional practice at the Arnold A. Saltzman Institute for War and Peace Studies at Columbia University.
Speaking at a conference of international experts in New York on Jan. 18, Guéhenno, who is French, was referring to the failure of the United States and others in 1994 to support military action and instead forestall tough Security Council measures to try to save hundreds of thousands of Rwandans facing annihilation. Only months earlier, US troops had been killed and humiliated in the Somali capital, Mogadishu.
The New York conference, titled “R2P: The Next Decade,” brought together dozens of diplomatic, academic and nongovernmental leaders and experts from around the world, with Gareth Evans — a former Australian foreign minister, the first president of the International Crisis Group and current chancellor of the Australian National University — playing a large role in discussions. Evans was a co-chair of the commission that drafted the responsibility to protect doctrine; the other chairman, also present, was Mohamed Sahnoun, an Algerian diplomat who was an adviser and special envoy of secretaries-general from 1992 to 2008.
The event was sponsored by the Stanley Foundation, with assistance from the Carnegie Corporation and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.
Fatou Bensouda of the Gambia, who will become prosecutor of the International Criminal Court in July – she is now deputy prosecutor – took the opportunity at the New York meeting to talk about her intentions to align the work of the court with the concept of the responsibility to protect. Countering criticisms that the court has seemed too focused on Africa, she said that the court followed evidence, often presented by African governments themselves, wherever it led.
‘Intervention’: The Wrong Word
The idea of holding governments, however fragile and ineffectual, directly responsible for the safety of citizens within their territories, grew from the 1990s concept of “humanitarian intervention,” promoting the right of outsiders to intervene to stop mass violence. It was a phrase used by Secretary-General Kofi Annan, who had directed the UN peacekeeping department during some of its grimmest years.
Intervention, however, turned out to be the wrong word because it provoked negative reactions from governments of the global South, which saw it as an invitation to neocolonial meddling. Annan, acknowledging this, called in 2000 for a panel to reframe the issue to gain wider support. Under Canadian patronage, the panel was formed as the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty. By turning the emphasis from intervention by outsiders to the responsibility of sovereign governments, the proposals won the support of a General Assembly summit in 2005.
As adopted in 2005, R2P covers cases of possible genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity. Responses are calibrated in three stages, or built on three pillars, in the commission’s choice of words. First and foremost, every government has the responsibility to protect its population. Second, other nations acting together have the responsibility to encourage and assist troubled countries in meeting their obligations. (Both early stages hold out the hope of prevention.) Third, if governments fail to protect populations and prevent abuses, collective intervention (both nonmilitary and military) can and should be taken by the international community when other avenues are exhausted — but always in accordance with the UN Charter.
India, which holds a nonpermanent Security Council seat, has been extremely critical of council action in recent months as Libya became a test case for R2P. India’s ambassador to the UN, Hardeep Singh Puri, excoriated what he described as the supplying of arms to the Libyan rebels in violation of the council’s understanding of what was allowed by a resolution passed as a measure of protection. He also criticized NATO’s bombing raids on certain targets that he said were not justified. He called for more discussion in the council before resolutions of this nature are passed again, and also demanded that nonmilitary steps be exhausted before armed force is authorized. His comments reflect a contentious atmosphere prevailing in the council as several crises currently loom in the Middle East, most profoundly in Syria.
Focus on NATO’s Role
While Gareth Evans told journalists at a media briefing before the conference that he believed that Libya was “an absolutely textbook case” for carrying out the R2P doctrine, he acknowledged that controversy had been generated by NATO actions, and said that more effort was needed to get wider support for future missions. With that in mind, Brazil, which was a council member in 2010-2011, introduced proposals that would demand clearer definitions of what actions are included in council mandates. The Brazilians also suggested developing methods to monitor actions on the ground.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon welcomed the Brazilian proposals in a speech to the conference, but backed NATO’s activities in Libya as falling within the current parameters of “all necessary measures.” He added that the “next test of our common humanity” will be Syria.
Ban pointed to other problems still ahead for the responsibility to protect. Among them is the troubling violence in South Sudan, a new country that gained independence last July. There, he said, the UN was fully aware of impending conflict, but could not step in to prevent it because it lacked enough of the necessary equipment and intelligence information to field an effective prevention mission. For the UN, unfortunately, this is an old story from Bosnia and several African conflicts in the 1990s being replayed once again in Africa.
“We saw it coming weeks before,” Ban said of the continuing violence in South Sudan. “Yet we were not able to stop it. Nor was the government. The reason was painfully simple: we were denied the use of necessary resources — in particular, helicopters that would have given us mobility and reach in a vast region without roads. At the critical moment, I was reduced to begging for replacements from neighboring countries and missions.
“So, a key challenge in putting the responsibility to protect into practice is this,” he said: “How do we do our job, how do we deliver on Security Council mandates, when the very members of the Council do not give us the support we need?”
“The world has embraced the responsibility to protect,” Ban said, “not because it is easy, but because it is right.”
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Barbara Crossette is the senior consulting editor and writer for PassBlue and the United Nations correspondent for The Nation. She is also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. She has also contributed to the Oxford Handbook on the United Nations.
Previously, Crossette was the UN bureau chief for The New York Times from 1994 to 2001 and previously its chief correspondent in Southeast Asia and South Asia. She is the author of “So Close to Heaven: The Vanishing Buddhist Kingdoms of the Himalayas,” “The Great Hill Stations of Asia” and a Foreign Policy Association study, “India Changes Course,” in the Foreign Policy Association’s “Great Decisions 2015.”
Crossette won the George Polk award for her coverage in India of the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 and the 2010 Shorenstein Prize for her writing on Asia.
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Unfortunately political and vested interests of the P5 in the UN Security Council always will be an obstacle to the proper implementation and selective application of R2P as is the case with Syria.