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‘Responsibility to Protect’ Remains Worthy, yet Elusive, Concept in Decade after World Leaders Pledge to End Atrocities, General Assembly Hears

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GA/11764

Seventieth Session, Thematic Panel
AM & PM Meetings
GENERAL ASSEMBLY
MEETINGS COVERAGE

Speakers Call Syria, Burundi Glaring Examples of International Community’s Failure to Implement Principle

A decade after world leaders agreed on the responsibility to protect at a Headquarters world summit, the principle remained a worthy yet elusive concept, with success seen in some places, but with Syria standing out as a glaring example of the international community’s failure to put it into practice, delegates said during a General Assembly thematic panel discussion today.

Delegates joined expert panellists involved in the creation, development and implementation of the responsibility to protect in the discussion, titled “From Commitment to Implementation: Ten Years of the Responsibility to Protect”. Together, they took stock of past efforts and looked ahead to future challenges — with many agreeing that the concept had yet to achieve its goal of safeguarding civilian populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity.

The product of the 2005 World Summit, the responsibility to protect was a milestone in international efforts to ensure that such mass atrocities that had taken place in Rwanda and Srebrenica would never be repeated. As stated in the World Summit Outcome Document, while each individual State had the responsibility to protect its populations from mass atrocities, the international community asserted its readiness to take timely and decisive collective action, through the Security Council, to respond to any such crises on a case-by-case basis.

In opening remarks, Jan Eliasson, Deputy-Secretary-General, who had been President of the General Assembly during the 2005 Summit, said there were a number of situations today in which populations had been suffering horrendous abuses, some of which could well constitute genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity. Individual States and the international community had continued to fail in their responsibility to protect, he said, adding that “too often, there is no responsibility and there is no protection”.

Still, there had been some progress, he said. Through successive General Assembly dialogues, Member States had agreed that prevention was at the core of the United Nations agenda, while several international and regional organizations were meanwhile engaged in preventing downward spirals towards systematic violence. Success had been seen in Côte d’Ivoire, Guinea and Kenya, “but our collective response to the Syrian crisis has been a catastrophic failure and the situation in South Sudan is deeply troubling”.

More needed to be done with regard to prevention, he stated, with a genuine and wider political commitment to early action from all sides. When crimes against humanity did occur, the response had to be faster and more decisive. More should also be done, financially and politically, in peacebuilding. It was imperative for the international community to unequivocally reaffirm the responsibility to protect and to work collectively to make protection from atrocities a living reality.

General Assembly President Mogens Lykketoft (Denmark) said the inability to always protect civilians against atrocities was perhaps the greatest failure of the United Nations since its founding 70 years ago. Over the past decade, results had been mixed, with some atrocities averted but others continuing.

“The protection of populations, in my view, constitutes one of the main challenges facing our world and the United Nations today,” he stressed. Recalling the “three pillars” set out by the Secretary-General in his framework for implementation of the responsibility to protect, he said States had an individual responsibility to lay the foundations for the protection of populations and an obligation to help and encourage each other by building systems of resilience and directly engaging States in crisis. Moreover, States had to consider all available tools to prevent grave crimes and violations. Experience had shown that a timely and decisive response was essential and that such a response could discourage potential perpetrators of atrocities.

Non-military tools — including mediation, preventative diplomacy, special envoys, referrals to the International Criminal Court, targeted sanctions, and action by the General Assembly and Human Rights Council — had made a tangible difference, he continued. Such tools had to be sharpened and their impact better understood. The case for speeding up implementation of the responsibility to protect could not be stronger and the returns on investment could not be higher. But, hard questions had to be asked, he said, including what needed to be done to address fundamental weaknesses in international action that had allowed genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity to occur over the past decade.

Before moderating the panel discussion, Adama Dieng, Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide, said that now, more than ever before, there was a duty to turn concept into reality. With the world now facing the “hateful” ideology of renewed xenophobia, he said, there was a need to fully operationalize the responsibility to protect.

The panel included Gareth Evans, Co-Chair of the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty; Navi Pillay, former United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights; Jennifer Welsh, Special Adviser to the Secretary-General on the Responsibility to Protect; and Edward C. Luck, former Special Adviser to the Secretary-General on the Responsibility to Protect.

Following the panellists’ presentations, delegates took the floor with comments, criticisms and suggestions. Many expressed alarm that far too many atrocities were still being perpetrated. The representative of Rwanda, on behalf of the Group of Friends of the Responsibility to Protect, said important strides had been made, but he shared concerns with a number of delegates about the international community’s collective failure to fully and effectively uphold the principle. His counterpart from the European Union supported initiatives for preventive action and called for the responsibility to protect to be mainstreamed into United Nations peacekeeping operations.

Some delegates questioned the potential for the concept to be exploited as a Trojan horse for interventionism. The representative of the Russian Federation noted that military intervention in Libya five years ago, approved by the Security Council, had only provoked chaos in that country. His counterpart from Syria said the responsibility to protect was being abused to interfere in the affairs of sovereign States, including his own.

Also speaking today were the representatives of Sudan, Kyrgyzstan, Mexico, Slovenia, United Kingdom, Romania, Cuba, United Republic of Tanzania, China, Denmark (on behalf of the Nordic countries), Brazil, Armenia, Ghana, Australia, Philippines, Switzerland, Nicaragua, Canada, Morocco, Nigeria, Spain, Burundi, Costa Rica, Belgium, Georgia, Belarus, Argentina, Egypt, Venezuela, Turkey, India, Iran, Japan and Ecuador.

A representative of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime also participated, as did a number of civil society representatives.

Panel Discussion

Moderated by Adama Dieng, Special Adviser to the Secretary-General for the Prevention of Genocide, the panel featured: Gareth Evans, Co-Chair of the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty; Navi Pillay, former United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights; Jennifer Welsh, Special Adviser to the Secretary-General on the Responsibility to Protect; and Edward C. Luck, former Special Adviser to the Secretary-General on the Responsibility to Protect.

Mr. DIENG said today, more than ever before, there was a duty to translate into reality the responsibility to protect. In 2005, world leaders and citizens had been shocked by events that had taken place in the second half of the twentieth century, including the genocides in Rwanda and Srebrenica. He went on to introduce the panellists, who had helped to conceptualize the responsibility to protect. Today, as the world was facing the “hateful” ideology of renewed xenophobia, there was a need to fully operationalize that concept.

Mr. EVANS said the responsibility to protect was designed for pragmatists, not purists. Those who had created it wanted to do better than the international community had done in the 1990s and the decades before that. Asking how well the world had succeeded, he said it would be easy to be cynical and answer no. However, the concept of the responsibility to protect had succeeded in many of its aims. Those included becoming a normative force capable of building a North-South coalition for change, an institutional catalyst to deliver protection in practice and a framework for effective reaction when prevention failed. The responsibility to protect had been a change agent in the areas of civilian and military response capabilities, yet more needed to be done.

The credibility of the framework hinged on prevention, he continued. Responsibility to protect-driven strategies had worked in many settings, including in Kenya in 2008 and Kyrgyzstan in 2010. On the critical challenge of stopping crimes against humanity that were already under way, however, the record of the responsibility to protect had been “mixed at best”. Notable failures included Sudan and Syria, where the situation had continued to deteriorate. The international community was also not doing enough to end crimes committed by non-State actors. Today, Brazil’s Responsibility while Protecting proposal remained the most viable, he said, expressing hope that it would continue to be considered. Embracing the Accountability, Coherence and Transparency (ACT) Group Code of Conduct and other veto restraint proposals should also be considered, he said.

Ms. PILLAY said States had the primary responsibility to protect their populations. However, the international community had a responsibility to assist States in that mandate or to intervene in cases where States had failed in that respect. The responsibility to protect had been implemented “selectively” in the past, she said, noting that international law and international human rights law should be respected in all interventions. Over the past ten years, extensive consideration of the responsibility to protect had occurred at the international level and within States, and had resulted in an overall consensus on the principle. “We have come a long way,” she said, adding that global, regional and subregional mechanisms were now devoted to the prevention of mass atrocity crimes. For example, the idea of an international responsibility to protect had been incorporated in the work of the African Union Peace and Security Council.

Continuing, she said complex crises around the world presented grave challenges for the responsibility to protect. In facing past or ongoing atrocities, the international community had already failed to protect populations. The crimes and violations covered by the responsibility to protect never happened without warning; they occurred because of a lack of action to address warning indicators, such as the persecution of minorities, hate speech and patterns of discrimination. The Secretary-General’s Human Rights Up Front initiative was among a number of important steps needed towards the proactive implementation of the responsibility to protect.

Mr. LUCK highlighted a number of innovative elements of the responsibility to protect that deserved further attention in the years ahead. Those included the assertion that all populations had to be protected, he said, adding that armed groups — whether State or non-State in nature — must be held accountable. Second was the commitment to preventing the “incitement” of mass atrocity crimes, he said, stressing that defeating violent extremism demanded the retention of, not the retreat from, the human rights standards enshrined in the Charter. Third, “we need to resist the temptation to assume that when the [2005 World Summit] outcome document refers to the responsibilities of the ‘international community’ it was referring to someone else”.

Where the responsibility to protect had made a quiet a difference — in places such as Côte d’Ivoire, Guinea, Kenya and Kyrgyzstan — regional and subregional actors had been key players in shaping effective and timely responses. The international community’s common strategy should be based on early and flexible responses tailored to the circumstances of each situation. Unlike many advocates, he welcomed the outcome document’s call for the Assembly to continue its consideration of the responsibility to protect, as it was an opportunity to refine and strengthen the principle, as well as to enhance Member State ownership of the concept.

Ms. WELSH said the outcome document had not been designed to be a “comfortable rhetorical restatement of common values”. With the failures of collective action represented by both Rwanda and Srebrenica in the background, it aspired to be something more — to close the gap between the existing legal responsibilities of States and the reality of populations threatened with large-scale and systematic violence. A decade on, any evaluation of the responsibility to protect needed to assess its progress not only in terms of how close the world was to meeting the aspiration, but also regarding how its expectations had changed. Moreover, that assessment should take place in connection with other related normative frameworks.

Today, it was difficult not to begin with the obvious fact that atrocity crimes remained a feature of the twenty-first century landscape. Acts that might constitute war crimes were occurring in the Central African Republic, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Iraq, Libya, South Sudan and other countries. The majority of those acts had been perpetrated by Governments or by factions supported by Governments. However, the overall sense of crisis was heightened by the emergence of violent extremists who brazenly flouted international humanitarian law and glorified their crimes. While it would be tempting to view those trends as proof of the failure of the responsibility to protect, to do so would be to blame the principle rather than those charged with upholding it. “We should not shy away from a principle because it is demanding,” she stressed in that regard.

The panellists then responded to the Moderator’s questions on a range of issues, including on the role of the Security Council in implementing the responsibility to protect.

Mr. EVANS said the 15-member body could institutionalize the principle by hearing regular briefings by the Special Advisers, considering the creation of a permanent working group on the issue and ensuring that the next United Nations Secretary-General took that principle seriously. Moreover, the body should focus squarely on what had gone wrong in Libya in 2011 and try to provide a basis for consensus when such situations arose in the future, as well as “raising the political cost” for States who ignored the responsibility to protect.

Ms. PILLAY welcomed a change in the Security Council’s culture, recalling that her predecessor had been asked to leave the Council and was told that “this is no place for human rights”. The Office of the High Commissioner worked very closely with civil society and possessed important on-the-ground information. She asked for a broadening of the democratic space, expressing concern that some States were moving away from democracy and restricting civil society activities.

Mr. LUCK said the initial conception of the responsibility to protect had been too State-centric. The international community should be listening to those who were vulnerable, which had nothing to do with State sovereignty. Ms. WELSH agreed, but also noted that, looking a decade ahead, the change that was needed was at the policy level. States needed to examine how they assisted each other. In addition, legislators and parliamentarians had a major role to play in implementing the principle.

In the ensuing dialogue, delegates took the floor to share comments on current crises, challenges ahead and suggestions for improving the implementation of the responsibility to protect in hotspots. The representative of Rwanda, speaking on behalf of the Group of Friends of the Responsibility to Protect, agreed with the panellists that important strides had been made over the last decade. However, he shared concerns with a number of delegates about the international community’s collective failure to fully and effectively uphold the principle. In his national capacity, he likewise echoed another common question heard during the discussion, asking when the world would raise the responsibility to protect in Burundi.

Similarly, many delegates expressed alarm that, while the principle had been in place for more than a decade, far too many atrocities were still being perpetrated around the world. Some highlighted the situation in Syria in that regard, calling for the international community to generate the political will necessary to end human rights violations related to that conflict. The representative of the United Kingdom, noting how the concept was at the centre of his country’s recent Strategic Defence and Security Review, said it was a moment to take stock, look forward and consider ways to strengthen available mechanisms. Going forward, he described Syria as “the biggest protection issue facing us” and welcomed the agreement on a cessation of hostilities that was being discussed by the Security Council today.

As some speakers supported the initiative to draft a General Assembly resolution on the principle, several delegations underscored the challenges faced in implementing the responsibility to protect. The speaker from Mexico said the five permanent members of the Security Council bore responsibility for those occasions that had paralyzed the United Nations system and did not allow for an intervention under the Charter.

Speakers said frustrations and disappointments were inevitable, with some saying it was hard to understand why the Security Council had decided to intervene in Libya when the imperative to act elsewhere was equally without doubt. The delegate from the United Republic of Tanzania — who noted that State sovereignty implied responsibility, “not a license to kill” — said that, 10 years on, the simplest idea no longer appeared to be so simple.

Many representatives pledged their support for the responsibility to protect — especially its increased institutionalization and implementation — as well as for the principle of prevention and the development of better early warning capabilities. In that regard, the representative of the European Union supported the Human Rights Up Front initiative and others involved in preventive action, and called for the mainstreaming of the principle in related activities of the United Nations such as peacekeeping operations.

A number of speakers disagreed with many of the panellists’ statements, with some delegates noting that dissenting voices had not been given space to be heard. The representative of Sudan called the panel discussion a “monologue” and not a dialogue. His counterpart from the Russian Federation noted that 2016 marked the fifth anniversary of the bombing of Libya, an action which many had called the first practical application of the responsibility to protect. However, he said, that action had in fact plunged Libya into chaos and there had been no attempt by the Secretariat or by States since then to analyse what had happened.

Several speakers agreed to disagree, with the representative of China saying it was clear that different opinions remained on the concept and its application. The responsibility to protect, he said, was still a concept, not a norm of international law, and the views of Member States must be taken into account when considering its application. He warned against “expansion or wilful interpretations” of the concept and especially against its abuse as a pretext for intervention in the affairs of any State.

In a similar vein, several delegates, including the representative of Ghana, stressed that a “consistent and balanced” implementation of the responsibility to protect that fully respected the purposes and principles of the United Nations Charter would go a long way towards helping the concept to gain wider acceptance among Member States.

Responding to some of the questions and comments raised, Mr. LUCK said the situation in Burundi raised questions about whether there was a step missing between early warning and early action. Meanwhile, Ms. WELSH said that 25 years ago the world would have approached the situation in a very different way. Efforts, including regional ones, were currently under way to address the situation from a responsibility to protect perspective.

Ms. PILLAY said legitimate concerns had been raised during the discussion, including about the selective application of the responsibility to protect. A proper code of conduct was needed for intervention, as well as for follow-up by the Security Council, she said.

Mr. EVANS said today’s discussion was indeed a sensitive one. While not everyone agreed in full, no speaker had suggested that the four mass atrocity crimes were not, in fact, crimes. Similarly, no one had argued against assisting States who requested assistance and no one had expressed comfort with the current situation in Syria.

For information media. Not an official record.