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Report Responsibility to Protect

The last briefing of our UN Study Tour was held by Mr. Axel Wennmann, who is currently working for the UN Department of Political Affairs and is – in this context – dealing with the question of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P).

Although the issue of the Responsibility to Protect is relatively new on the international agenda, it challenges traditional values and assumptions of the United Nations in that it represents a shift in the conception of state sovereignty. While sovereignty had for a very long time been a sacred, untouchable norm in international politics, this perception has begun to change since the 1990s and especially after the genocides in Rwanda and Serbia. Now, state sovereignty is increasingly seen as the duty of a state to protect its citizens and to prevent massive human rights violations, such as ethnic cleansing, genocide or crimes against humanity, objectives that are also enshrined in the UN Charter.

In fact, the heads of state and government of UN member states agreed in the Outcome Document of the World Summit in September 2005 on a definition of the Responsibility to Protect which can be resumed as follows:

“Each individual state has the responsibility to protect its citizens from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing, and crimes against humanity and at the same time, the international community has to support the states in fulfilling that task, but if a state manifestly fails to do so, the international community, through the United Nations, has, in accordance with the UN Charter, especially Chapter VI and VII, the responsibility to take collective action through peaceful, diplomatic, humanitarian or even coercive means in order to protect civilians in armed conflict.” (Articles 138 and 139 of the Outcome Document of the High-level Plenary Meeting of the General Assembly in September 2005).

During his briefing, Mr. Wennmann explained the concept of R2P in detail and also specified what it implied and why it was disputed. With the concept of the Responsibility to Protect, so Mr. Wennmann, the international community strived to broaden the concept of collective security in order to intervene when a state was perpetrating Human Rights violations against its own citizens on a large scale. The concept comprises a three-step-approach. On the first level, each state is responsible to prevent Human Rights violations. Secondly, the concept envisages that the international community helps states to protect their citizens. In the third place, if a state lacks the will or the capacity to accomplish this task, the international community should step in, if necessary with military measures.

It is exactly this intervention in internal affairs of a state and its territorial sovereignty that causes debate and dissent among UN member states, as some argue that the UN Charter provides no legal ground for such action. In Article 2,7, the Charter states that

nothing contained in the present Charter shall authorize the United Nations to intervene in matters which are essentially within the domestic jurisdiction of any state or shall require the Members to submit such matters to settlement under the present Charter; but this principle shall not prejudice the application of enforcement measures under Chapter VII.

However, all UN Member States now generally agree that notwithstanding Art. 2,7, the UN may – and should – act in order to prevent genocide and large scale human rights violations. Yet, in principle, an intervention in the internal affairs and state sovereignty as asked for by the concept of R2P may only take place if mandated by the Security Council in accordance with Chapter VII of the UN Charter, as only the Security Council is entitled to decide on Action with Respect to Threats to the Peace, Breaches of the Peace and Acts of Aggression, i.e. sanctions or military action against regimes in breach of international law and Human Rights standards.

While the most controversial part of the R2P concept is a possible military intervention of the international community, Mr. Wennmann stated that the main focus of the R2P was conflict prevention. In this sense, we have to understand the Responsibility to Protect as a multidimensional concept which includes a responsibility to prevent (the outbreak of conflict, for example by tackling the root causes of conflicts), a responsibility to react (by intervening when large scale human rights violations occur) and a responsibility to rebuild (i.e. providing assistance after a possible intervention).

We only have to open a newspaper and read about the ongoing conflict in Darfur to get an idea of how important the discussion of the R2P is. Still, until now, it is only a theoretical concept and it is not sure yet whether it provides a long-term strategy to avoid or to counter massive human rights violations in future. At least, due to the discussion of the R2P, conflicts such as the one in Sudan are no longer regarded only as domestic problems but prevention and the solution of armed conflicts are increasingly seen as our shared responsibility.

Leonie Lorenz