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Briefing on the Responsibility to Protect

During our three day Study Tour, we received the pleasure of being briefed on the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) by Mr Sebastian von Einsiedel who works at the Policy Planning Unit in the Department of Political Affairs. This was a talk many of us were looking forward to mainly because of the controversy surrounding the topic, therefore, making it all the more interesting to learn about.

Mr Einsiedel gave us an introduction to the topic explaining exactly what R2P is and what it aims to achieve. Characterising it as an ‘emerging doctrine’, he explained that the R2P concept was meant to reframe the debate around the question of humanitarian intervention. Rather than focusing on the ‘right to intervene’, R2P states that all states have the responsibility to prevent genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing, and crimes against humanity within their borders. Only if a State is unwilling or unable to fulfil this responsibility does it shift to the international community.

Successive humanitarian disasters in the 1990s (Somalia, Rwanda, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Kosovo) have increasingly called into question an absolute understanding of sovereignty, which Mr Einsiedel pointed out was never quite as absolute as its most ardent supporters like to claim - after all, the Genocide Convention calls for international intervention in the face of genocide. The question how the international community should respond when confronted with ethnic cleansing and war crimes came to a head in the context of the 1999 Kosovo crisis, where permanent members of the UN Security Council failed to reach agreement on whether international intervention was warranted. In the aftermath of the Kosovo crisis, then-Secretary-General Kofi Annan challenged Member States, telling them the UN could not stand by idly in such situation and would need to rise to the challenge.

Against this background, the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty developed the R2P concept in a major report, which appeared in December 2001. The importance of this sovereign right and the extent of human suffering and violation of human rights would therefore need to be weighed up against one another in order to deduce which should take priority.

The timing of the release of the report was unfortunate in that it came out in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, initially shifting international attention away from the question of humanitarian intervention. Shortly thereafter, the 2003 US invasion into Iraq was partly justified by the US government as a humanitarian intervention, making the R2P concept even more suspect in the eyes of ‘sovereignty hawks’. Some members of the Non-aligned movement criticised R2P as being an imperialistic ploy of western powers to empower them to invade developing nations under the pretext of acting in the interest of human security when in reality they were acting to advance their own interests.

Yet, in spite of such scepticism, most Member States understood that sovereignty could not be absolute in the context of genocide and crimes against humanity. Starting in 2003, the unfolding atrocities in Darfur once again challenged the international community to find an adequate response.

The former Secretary-General Kofi Annan continued to promote R2P and increase awareness of its importance and necessity. In his report ‘In Larger Freedom: Towards Development, Security and Human rights for All’ he urged all governments to acknowledge their responsibility to protect where grave human rights violations were taking place. He emphasised that it was only up to the international community to intervene when the individual government fails or is unable to take action against the violence and cannot protect its civilians. Then and only then must the international community take it upon themselves to act by utilising different measures to achieve this and only resorting to military action as a last resort once all other peaceful methods have been exhausted. Military action may only be taken if authorised by the Security Council. The R2P concept was endorsed by all 192 Member States at the 2005 World Summit, where they declared that ‘we are prepared to take collective action, in a timely and decisive manner, through the Security Council, in accordance with the Charter, including Chapter VII, on a case-by-case basis and in co-operation with relevant regional organisations as appropriate, should peaceful means be inadequate and national authorities manifestly fail to protect their populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity.’

Mr Einsiedel then went on to discuss that although R2P is now recognised as concept by the UN and its Member States, situations have still arisen where its application in certain cases has been controversial. For instance, in January 2007, China and Russia vetoed a resolution on the situation in Burma, arguing that Burma did not pose a threat to peace and security in the region, and that the internal affairs of the state did not have a place within the Security Council. This conflict of opinion demonstrates the sensitivity of the issue and how a continued divergence of opinion among Member States can make it very difficult to address serious problems such as war crimes and implement measures collectively.

In order to build consensus around the R2P concept and making it more operational, Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon outlined a ‘Three Pillar Approach.’ Pillar one states that states have the primary responsibility for protecting their populations from war crimes, genocide, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity. The second pillar addresses the commitment of the international community to provide states with the necessary support to enable them to protect their citizens mainly by ‘capacity-building’ before crises and conflicts break out. The third and final pillar focuses on the responsibility of the international community to take timely and decisive action when a state is unable to or refuses to protect its civilians.

Mr Einsiedel concluded on the note that R2P continues to evoke mixed opinions and still attracts an array of criticisms and so it will continue to be a topical issue for the UN for years to come.

The entire Spanish Delegation found Mr Einsiedel’s talk immensely interesting and is very thankful to him for taking the time to speak with us and answer our numerous and sometimes difficult questions!

Sheena Purohit