On Friday, 3 April 2009, we had the pleasure to be briefed on the topic of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) by Ms Rafaela Fernandes who works at the United Nations (UN)Secretariat.
Ms Fernandes began by saying that the concept of the Responsibility to Protect has its origin in the concept of Human Security, which is a holistic approach that places the individual at the centre instead of the state. Some say that the Responsibility to Protect is a cousin to the concept of humanitarian intervention. Humanitarian Intervention involves a usually military intervention of one state into another one for the purpose of forcing the latter state to stop committing gross violations of human rights, e.g. regarding minority groups. This concept was used to prevent or at least mitigate genocide and other human rights violations, but this it has been widely criticised. Legal scholars and many politicians argue that this principle is open for abuse for instance in circumstances when stronger states want to intervene in smaller states under the pretence of human rights protection.
Ms Fernandes went on to say that the Responsibility to Protect rests on three pillars: firstly, the responsibility of each Member State to protect its citizens; secondly, the responsibility of the international community to assist countries in discharging their duties; and thirdly, the timely and decisive response by the international community, if a state does not fulfil its duty.
Concerning the first pillar, she stated that sovereignty was not only a privilege, but it also entails a certain number of obligations. The second pillar can be considered as the first pillar’s corollary: it places an obligation to help a state on the other countries. She emphasised that most states are not unwilling to protect their citizens but are unable to do so.
Underlining the importance of sovereignty, the concept of the Responsibility to Protect is limited to four types of crimes: genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes and ethnic cleansing. It is not meant to be applied in case of a natural disaster.
Ms Fernandes pointed at the 2005 World Summit Outcome (A/RES/60/1) that defines the Responsibility to Protect in its paragraphs 138 and 139. She noted that it was the best possible outcome given certain divisions among Member States on the question.
The divisions concerned mostly the third pillar, the timely and decisive action. Paragraph 139 provides that it is up to the Security Council to decide on each case, thus ruling out any unilateral action and providing for several caveats. The case-by-case basis will lead to a discussion every time a situation is submitted to the Security Council. The decision will need consensus and support by the Members of the Council.
According to Ms Fernandes, instead of focussing on the military aspect, the discussions should rather concentrate on the preventive and co-operation aspects, the concept of the Responsibility to Protect encompasses. However, whenever discussions are led on the concept, many other topics are woven into it, such as the topic of Security Council reform or development assistance, which sours the debate.
Yet, Ms Fernades views the main problem the United Nations are facing today in the operationalisation of the Responsibility to Protect, translating it from theory into practice, so that it can help people around the world.
It was a very interesting briefing on one of the of the most intriguing debates in international foreign policy and law and we are very thankful to Ms Fernandes for being open to all kinds of questions and thereby given us a lot of insight on how the UN functions.