The Responsibility to Protect: a mandate for international action

Monica Serrano

International silence in the face of atrocities committed by governments against their own citizens is no longer an option. This has been demonstrated during the disturbing events that have unfolded this year in Ivory Coast, Libya and Syria. Despite this, agreement on specific action to prevent and halt such crimes cannot be guaranteed, as each of these cases shows. 

Since the 2005 World Summit, the international community has taken on a specific responsibility to protect populations. The agreement adopted restricted the responsibility to the four most heinous offences: genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing. This commitment grew out of earlier attempts to lay the foundation for a general doctrine to protect human life, although the specific aspirations of the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty – reporting in the aftermath of the failure to prevent genocide in Rwanda in 1994 and Srebrenica in 1995 – were left untested in the years following 9/11 and the launch of the war on terror.

If there is one clear message that emerged from the new understanding of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P), it is the recognition of international human rights standards as the immediate foundation of this principle. Viewed from the standpoint of the four crimes, the lineage of R2P is thus clearly associated with a broader and more significant trend by which international instruments on human rights, international humanitarian law and refugee law had made sovereignty conditional and contingent upon the respect of fundamental human rights throughout the world. 

Between 2007 and 2011, under the leadership of UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and his two Special Advisors, Francis Deng and Edward C. Luck, R2P was debated and discussed in the UN General Assembly. In particular, two constructive and forward-looking debates – one formal in 2009 and one informal in 2010 – helped broaden the understanding of R2P and the consensus behind the emerging norm. 

Some have argued that it was not until the advent of R2P that the international community accepted, for the first time, the ‘collective responsibility’ to act should a state fail to protect its population from these crimes. However, the reality is that human rights activists had long been calling on the international community to uphold human rights and to hold governments to account. 

It might have been expected therefore, that after the intense and constructive debates at the UN General Assemby, the new understanding of R2P could offer credible guidance as to how to respond to real-time crises. Yet, many such questions remained too abstract. The debates no doubt showed that concern for mass atrocities among member states was genuine, but real-time events soon forced states to accept that responding to human rights violations remains, by and large, a deeply uncertain enterprise. 

In the same way as concerned actors in the 1990s learned that protecting people at risk often involves taking sides, the efforts to respond to the actual and threatened atrocities in Libya and elsewhere have been surrounded by messy realities. And, as in the 1990s, recent moves to protect vulnerable populations have been met with the hard fact that protection often requires a “capacity and willingness to strike at those who threaten that population”. 

Yet, an important difference between the efforts of the 1990s and ongoing efforts is that the latter have taken place within the framework of the 2005 agreement on R2P. This means that they embody a distinct mandate: to prevent and halt mass atrocities. 

If in its first iteration, R2P was expected to prompt states and international organisations to undertake efforts to “protect and assist war victims”, it was by no means ready to relinquish the aspiration of impartiality that has long accompanied efforts at conflict prevention. Since 2005, R2P has been charged with the explicit and clear task of preventing and halting mass human rights violations. To the extent that the threat and occurrence of these crimes involve perpetrators, the expectation of impartiality could not easily hold. Those engaged in R2P efforts are expected to identify and target perpetrators and to relinquish even-handed approaches. The acrimony that accompanied the intervention in Libya has tested the strength and quality of the consensus around R2P, and reminded us all that behind every consensus lie many disagreements. 

It would be difficult to understand the unanimous condemnation of the international community to ongoing and threatened atrocities in Libya in the absence of the dialogues in the General Assembly. These positive and vigorous debates provided a key background to the decisions taken by the Security Council on both Ivory Coast and Libya. Indeed, in the spring of 2011, the UN Security Council adopted a number of resolutions that evoked or explicitly referred to R2P. Although from a legal standpoint neither Security Council Resolution 1973 on Libya nor Resolution 1975 on Ivory Coast have altered the standing prohibition on the use of force outside self-defence and Security Council-authorised enforcement action, some observers have considered these as landmark resolutions, signalling the readiness of the Council to take action in the face of mass atrocities. According to this view, the politics of humanitarian intervention has shifted to the point where it is harder to do nothing in the face of atrocities. 

For others, the challenges that resulted from the actions authorised by the Security Council, particularly in Libya, could constrain future action. While the excruciating paralysis of the Security Council in the face of the violence in Syria seemed to confirm this judgement – after a long period of silence, a presidential statement was finally issued on 3 August calling for an immediate end to all violence. This seems to suggest that, despite deep disagreements, Council members have come to the conclusion that silence is no longer an option. 

Perhaps the apparent readiness to publicly condemn gross human rights violations could also suggest that the political cost of failing to react in the face of mass atrocities has risen since 2005. 

About the author:

Monica Serrano was Executive Director of the Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect between 2008 and 2011


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Game Changer
December 28, 2011 10:40 pm

There is an old adage which states words to the effect that ‘Evil reigns when good men do nothing’. This is a trueism … as long as good people do not do not fight effectively or rise up to stamp out wrong-doing, then it will continue to exist; just like weeds in a garden, if left unattended will grow and eventually cover the entire garden – that is the nature of weeds and likewise the nature of evil.

We need world “gardeners” who are not afraid to pull up and destroy the dastardly weeds, especially when they present themselves in the form of power-hungry “Governments” who instead of looking out for the best interests of its citizens as any Government should, instead seeks to hurt the very citizens they should protect.

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