Responsibility while Protecting

January 29, 2012

Responsibility while Protecting

by Gareth Evans (2012-01-27)


Ten months ago, the United Nations Security Council, with no dissent, authorized the use of “all necessary measures” to protect civilians at imminent risk of massacre in Colonel Muammar el-Qaddafi’s Libya. Those lives were saved – and, if the Security Council had acted equally decisively and robustly in the 1990’s, so might those of 8,000 others in Srebrenica and 800,000 in Rwanda.

I and many others hailed the agreement to intervene in Libya as the coming of age of the responsibility to protect (“R2P”) principle, unanimously embraced by the world’s governments in 2005. Its core idea – countering centuries of treating sovereignty almost as a license to kill – is that states must protect their own people from genocide and other mass atrocity crimes. If they manifestly fail to do so, the international community has the responsibility to act – by persuasion, if possible, and by coercion, if necessary.

Now, ten months later, the Security Council is paralyzed over Syria, unable to agree not only on the extreme step of military force, but even on lesser coercive measures like targeted sanctions, an arms embargo, or referral to the International Criminal Court. That inaction comes despite a death toll of well over 5,000 and an outlook even worse than in Libya early last year.

The hesitation partly reflects the very different geopolitics of the Syrian crisis: potentially explosive regional sectarian divisions, no Arab League unanimity in favor of tough action, a long Russian commitment to the Assad regime, and a strong Syrian army, which would make any conceivable military intervention difficult and bloody.

But there is more to it than that. Security Council consensus about when and how to apply R2P, so evident in February and March 2011, has evaporated in a welter of recrimination about how the NATO-led implementation of the Council’s Libya mandate “to protect civilians and civilian populated areas under threat of attack” was carried out.

Leading the critical charge have been the “BRICS” (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa). Their complaints are not about the initial military response – destroying the Libyan air force’s infrastructure, and air attacks on ground forces advancing on Benghazi. Rather, they object to what came after, when it rapidly became apparent that the three permanent Security Council’s members driving the intervention (the United States, the United Kingdom, and France) would settle for nothing less than regime change, and do whatever it took to achieve it.

In particular, concerns have been raised that the interveners rejected ceasefire offers that may have been serious, struck fleeing personnel who posed no immediate risk to civilians, and attacked locations that had no obvious military significance (like the compound in which Qaddafi’s relatives were killed). More generally, the Western powers, along with Arab states like Qatar, comprehensively supported the rebel side in what rapidly became a civil war, ignoring an explicit arms embargo in the process.

The US, the UK, and France are quick with some answers. Protecting civilians in areas like Tripoli that were under Qaddafi’s direct control, they argue, required overturning his regime. If one side was supported in a civil war, it was because a regime’s one-sided killing sometimes leads civilians (as in Syria) to take up arms to fight back (and to recruit army defectors). Moreover, military operations cannot be micromanaged with a “1,000-mile screwdriver.” And a more limited “monitor and swoop” concept of operations would have led to a longer and messier conflict in Libya, which would have been politically impossible to sustain in the US and Europe, and likely would have produced many more civilian casualties.

These arguments all have force, but the US, the UK, and France resisted debating them in the Security Council, and other Council members were never given sufficient information to enable them to be evaluated. Maybe not all of the BRICS are to be believed when they say that more common ground could have been achieved had a better process been followed. But the Western powers’ dismissiveness during the Libyan campaign did bruise them – and those bruises will have to heal before any consensus can be expected on tough responses to such situations in the future.

The better news is that a way forward has opened up. In November, Brazil circulated a paper arguing that the R2P concept, as it has evolved so far, needs to be supplemented by a new set of principles and procedures on the theme of “responsibility while protecting” (already being labeled “RWP”). Its two key proposals are a set of criteria (including last resort, proportionality, and balance of consequences) to be taken into account before the Security Council mandates any use of military force, and a monitoring-and-review mechanism to ensure that such mandates’ implementation is seriously debated.

Initial reaction among the US, the UK, and France was almost contemptuous: one could almost hear their leaders sneering, “These countries would want all of those delaying and spoiling options, wouldn’t they.” But that attitude has begun to soften – as it must. Brazil, for its part, has indicated willingness to refine its proposals to make them more workable and broadly acceptable.

Renewed consensus on how to implement R2P in hard cases may come too late to help in Syria. But everyone understands that the alternative to Security Council cooperation is a return to the bad old days of Rwanda, Srebrenica, and Kosovo: either total inaction in the face of mass atrocity crimes, or action outlawed by the UN Charter. After all that has been achieved in the last decade, such an outcome would be heartbreaking.

Gareth Evans, former Australian Foreign Minister and President Emeritus of the International Crisis Group, is the author of The Responsibility to Protect: Ending Mass Atrocity Crimes Once and For All.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2012.

6 thoughts on “Responsibility while Protecting

  1. Mr Samdol, you are welcome to start the discussion on the concept of R2P (Responsibility to Protect). You can also ask your friends in Wisma Putra to join in. They can write in Bahasa Malaysia if that makes them comfortable. This matter is not about consular affairs. It is about genocide and humanitarianism.–Din Merican

  2. The record of the United Nations so far on PROTECTION is not one to be proud of. As for RESPONSIBILITY, the less said the better.

    If this body is really interested in affairs of its members why is there never any questionv asked on how outside countries sell weapons to those who everyone knows will almost certainly use them against their own people?. This and subsequent outside intervention are the real reasons why conflicts become so bloody and prolonged.

    Non-intervention in the internal affairs of other sovereign nations is the single most disregarded issues of the world. Unless this is tackled, there is not much point talking about PROTECTION and REPONSIBILITY.

  3. A little rich isn’t it, this article.

    When UN Peacekeepers, those whom the vulnerable and helpless look to for protection, find them as, if not more, rapacious as the enemy they seek to be protected from.

    And I am not just talking about the rapes of teens and the exchanging of food for sex by these peacekeepers, though heinous to the extreme it is.

    Folks like the Sec-Gen and other high- placed and -minded officials have been known to close an eye, or allowed the “world powers” to act as they wished to fulfill their agendas. Whether to find WMD’s that are not there or to protect their client state in the Mid east.

    And now we have the same scenario where the British pontificate that the “international” community will not allow Iran to be the new terrorist on the block.

    And I bet Mr Ban Ki Moon will bow like the gracious Asian that he is to these wishes and allow a repeat of Desert Storm. With thousands of innocent killed. Childeren and women included.

    Responsibility while protecting, indeed.

  4. It is unfortunate that Ir. Samdol did not respond to my call that he should lead the discussion on Gareth Evans’ article.

    Let us first try to understand what this international norm means. The responsibility to protect (R2P) is a United Nations initiative established in 2005. It consists of a set of principles, based on the idea that sovereignty is not a privilege, but a responsibility.

    RtoP focuses on preventing and halting four crimes: genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity, and ethnic cleansing, which it places under the generic umbrella term of Mass Atrocity Crimes.

    The Responsibility to Protect has three “pillars”:

    a) A nation state has a responsibility to protect its population from mass atrocities.

    b) The international community has a responsibility to assist the state if it is unable to protect its population on its own.

    c) If the state fails to protect its citizens from mass atrocities and peaceful measures have failed, the international community has the responsibility to intervene through coercive measures such as economic sanctions. Military intervention is considered the last resort.

    In the international community R2P is not a law. But it provides a framework for using tools that already exist, i.e. mediation, early warning mechanisms, economic sanctioning, and Chapter VII powers of the UN Charter to prevent mass atrocities. Civil society organizations, States, regional organizations, and international institutions all have a role to play in the R2P process.

    The authority to employ the last resort and intervene militarily rests solely with United Nations Security Council (with the United States, Britain, France, Russia, and China having the power to veto) and the General Assembly.

    R2P, therefore, has its limitations, but it does provide the international community with the rationale to intervene when nation states fail or unable to protect their citizens. –Din Merican

  5. Malaysia has a fair amount of respect for her Peace keeping roles under the auspices of the UN, since the Congo crisis in the 60s and most recently in Bosnia, Mogadishu and around the coast of Somalia. I have utmost respect for our troops (and even more if they were multilingual). At least they are not the Canadians who relish whores, or perhaps they just ‘buat tak tahu’. Foreign policy at it’s best – only problem is that most war-torn and shell shocked locals don’t know where Malaysia is..

    But i think with our unsinkable Scorpenes and multi-billion ringgit LCS, we won’t be able to afford the Petronas bill any longer. The R2P is certainly too rich for our sambal munching politicos, who are more concerned about lining their coffins and Birkin bags. The only secret weapon we have is Octo with his toxic tentacles and incisive beak.

    Otoh, Dato don’t expect polymath enunciation’s from an ‘engineer’ – especially one from the foreign service. Sometimes detractors keep our juices running. Cheers.

  6. CLF,

    I for one know firsthand how admirably our soldiers and police performed in Cambodia under UNTAC. To this day, especially among the people of Battambang Province and Phnom Penh, they talk fondly of our contributions to the community there. We were also involved in maintaining peace and civil order in Timor Leste, especially PDRM. I was in Dili a few years ago with the Malaysian Economic Research Institute team led by Dr. Ariff and spoke to some prominent leaders including the Foreign Minister, who were at our seminar. Our soldiers and police personnel won the hearts and minds of Cambodians and Timorees. We are in Lebanon too.

    Yes, we were involved in peace keeping and peace building efforts even before R2P became an accepted concept today at the United Nations. Some credit must go to our Government. But I only wish we can do better at home when we deal with our citizens who take to the streets to demand their rights (BERSIH2.0 comes to my mind). We should be winning the hearts and minds of our citizens instead of antagonising them.–Din Merican

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