As reports continue of massacres in Syria (at least 3 500 deaths so far), the good and great of the United Nations community recently gathered in New York, sponsored by the Stanley Foundation, to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty report of 2001.
The commission was established by former UN secretary general Kofi Annan and its principle of “responsibility to protect”, or “R2P”, stated that if governments were unwilling or unable to protect populations at risk then the international community had a duty to intervene. It was adopted at a UN summit in 2005.
The acknowledged father of R2P, Sudanese scholar-diplomat Francis Deng, addressed the meeting on his 1996 idea of “sovereignty as responsibility”, which proposed that, in conflict situations, countries were often so divided that the validity of sovereignty must be judged by the views of local populations rather than just those of governments and warlords.
Deng noted that the best way for governments to protect their sovereignty was to discharge their responsibility to protect their people.
Gareth Evans, the Australian co-chairperson of the commission, noted that R2P was a political response to a political need. He expressed optimism at the consolidation of the principle, citing the recent cases of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Sudan, Libya and Côte d’Ivoire. But he noted the potential backlash of its implementation, as happened with Libya last year, where France, Britain and the United States could be perceived as having converted an R2P mandate into “regime change”.
The pugnacious Hardeep Singh Puri, UN ambassador of India, a non-permanent member of the Security Council, criticised France’s publicly announced breach of a UN arms embargo for which it had earlier voted.
Last year Maria Luiza Viotti, UN ambassador of Brazil, also a nonpermanent member of the council, also forcefully argued that Nato’s military action in Libya had transformed a rebellion into a civil war. The implication was that Nato bombings led to thousands of innocent fatalities while purportedly seeking to save lives.
The Brazilian diplomat reiterated her country’s idea of “responsibility while protecting”, which would make interveners more accountable to the council during interventions.
But Ed Luck, the United States special adviser to the UN secretary general on R2P, cautioned that this approach could deter quick and flexible responses to atrocities.
There was some criticism of double standards, citing a disproportionate international focus on Syria in contrast to that on Bahrain and Yemen.
Louise Arbour, Canada’s former UN high commissioner for human rights, also set a cat among the diplomatic pigeons by noting the deafening silence by powerful members of the Security Council and its Human Rights Council to the killing of an estimated 30 000 civilians in Sri Lanka at the end of its civil war in 2009.
She also condemned the anomaly of three permanent members of the council — the US, Russia and China — sitting in judgment over referrals to the International Criminal Court without having joined the body themselves.
There was also criticism of attaching the R2P label to cases in which international peacekeepers had failed spectacularly to protect civilians. Côte d’Ivoire was highlighted: there, at least 1 500 civilians died while 7 500 UN peacekeepers and 900 French troops largely stood aside, focusing instead on ending Laurent Gbagbo’s attempt to steal the presidential election.
More positively, Africa’s conceptual contribution to R2P was acknowledged, including Nigeria’s practical peacekeeping operations in Liberia and Sierra Leone and South Africa’s in Burundi and the DRC.
UN secretary general Ban ki-Moon said the principle of R2P was here to stay and had come of age in 2011, even if the results were uneven.
He cautioned against making the best the enemy of the good and argued that more lives were saved than lost in Libya and Côte d’Ivoire.
Ban declared 2012 the “year of prevention” and praised the UN’s efforts to forestall atrocities in Kenya, Kyrgyzstan and Guinea.
He promised a report on the implementation of R2P in terms of mediation, peacekeeping and peace enforcement.
Ban condemned the killings in Syria and promised to prioritise R2P during his second term as secretary general, helping, in particular, to strengthen the powers of war crimes tribunals and the International Criminal Court and using the Human Rights Council more effectively.
At the end of these debates, I could not help but feeling that the high priests of R2P, led by Ban, have adopted the concept as a quasi-religion and that they hope to convert non-believers. But, as with most forms of religion, it is important to advance with caution.
Dr Adekeye Adebajo is executive director of the Centre for Conflict Resolution in Cape Town and author of UN Peacekeeping in Africa