The US appears poised to finally act militarily in Syria after purported use of chemical weapons on civilians, while the conflict in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo continues to fester in the region despite heavy UN peacekeeping presence.
In the meantime, the UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon this month published his fifth Report since 2009 on the Responsibility to Protect titled, The Responsibility to Protect: State Responsibility and Prevention.
To what avail is the report?
The phrase “responsibility to protect” was first presented in the report of the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS) in 2001 in response to the then UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan’s challenge to Member States:
“If humanitarian intervention is, indeed, an unacceptable assault on sovereignty, how should we respond to a Rwanda, to a Srebrenica, to gross and systematic violation of human rights that offend every precept of our common humanity?”
This was following the International Community’s failure to act in the 1994 Genocide Against the Tutsi and the crimes against humanity in the former Yugoslavia.
The ICISS report found that sovereignty not only gave a State the right to “control” its affairs, it also conferred on the State primary “responsibility” for protecting the people within its borders.
The report proposed that when a State fails to protect its people, either through lack of ability or a lack of willingness, the responsibility shifts to the broader international community.
Clearly things have not worked as envisaged, if one takes the heinous and ongoing atrocities in the Syria conflict, or the continued UN and regional inability to protect civilians in the DRC.
Ban Ki-Moon’s 2013 report will inform dialogue in the UN General Assembly to be held in September this year on responsibility to protect
What good will it do?
It boils down to the core principle, which scholars have pointed out many flaws in whole, otherwise noble, endeavour.
They have argued, for instance, that the foundational principle of the Responsibility to Protect is based on morality, rather than international laws.
The core concept is that of responsibility, not duty. The legal, political and moral status of the concept of responsibility is not clear.
The ICISS, on the other hand, envisages three stages of conflict situations within the responsibility to protect in a single conflict zone.
The first stage is before crisis as the Responsibility to Prevent; the second, during crisis as the Responsibility to React, and the third stage, after the crisis as the Responsibility to Rebuild.
The ICISS stipulates a humanitarian motive for intervention. The intervention could be called for in a humanitarian crisis, such as: (A) large scale loss of life, actual or apprehended, with genocidal intent or not, which is the product either of deliberate state action, or state neglect or inability to act, or a failed state situation.
Or, (B) large scale “ethnic cleansing”, actual or apprehended, whether carried out by killing, forced expulsion, acts of terror or rape.
The definition of the said humanitarian crisis is vague. “Large-scale” is not quantified, while the description of “actual or apprehended” does not say who will apprehend.
In the real world, it has proved almost impossible for the international community to share a view on how to “apprehend” a humanitarian crisis before it actually occurs (responsibility to prevent).
And after it has occurred the responsibility to react.
Yesterday, after years of hard-line international stands and divided opinion amid incomprehensible human toll, the British government drafted a resolution to be put the UN Security Council authorising necessary measures to protect civilians in Syria.
Let’s just say it remains to be seen how it will pan out.
If it comes to pass, however doubtfully, it is possible that each intervening state will have a purely humanitarian reason to prevent escalation or react to the crisis.
It will also be true that each state will have political and other national interests to intervene in Syria or any other country, especially taking into consideration the risk and cost in blood.
We will bear witness to how it will play out. In the meantime, eastern DRC will continue to burn.