The Kigali Conference on the Protection of Civilians: Lives are riding on it

This week Kigali will be host to an international conference that will discuss a subject that is near and dear to Rwandans: the protection of civilians. Rwandans are sensitive when it comes to this subject. And rightly so. Millions were abandoned, left to die. As the Genocide against the Tutsi began in 1994, the United Nations decided that the right thing to do was to withdraw its troops, the United Nations Assistance Mission for Rwanda (UNAMIR).

This week Kigali will be host to an international conference that will discuss a subject that is near and dear to Rwandans: the protection of civilians. Rwandans are sensitive when it comes to this subject. And rightly so. Millions were abandoned, left to die. As the Genocide against the Tutsi began in 1994, the United Nations decided that the right thing to do was to withdraw its troops, the United Nations Assistance Mission for Rwanda (UNAMIR).

Soldiers were withdrawn as civilians were being killed. Why? The soldiers were in danger. I know what you are thinking: It doesn’t make sense because soldiers – at least UN soldiers – are supposed to protect civilians.

But Kofi Annan, the man who headed the Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO) of the United Nations at the time, one who would go on to win the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize, tried to explain the danger that his soldiers faced.

“When you’re operating in that sort of context with limited troops and facilities,” he told the CNN in 2008, “you have to be careful what sort of risks they take.”

The insistence of Romeo Dallaire, the Force’s Commander, did not persuade, either. Dallaire was reminded, in not so uncertain terms, the provisions of the mandate of the UNAMIR mission.

“We could have actually saved hundreds of thousands,” Dallaire has since stated.

The United Nations has the mandates to protect civilians. These are found in chapters six through eight of its Charter. Something must be amiss, however. That is because systematic atrocities continue to occur in places where its forces are deployed to protect civilians –they are not doing this job very well.

The starting point is to understand that the United Nations considers itself as a peacekeeping rather than a peace enforcing entity. This is why most of its interventions fall under chapter six, the tamest of the three chapters, which calls for the ‘pacific settlement of disputes.’

The mandates under this chapter bind the forces thus deployed to passive observers (bystanders) between the belligerents who are assumed to be in the process of working towards a resolution of a dispute.

It’s all too rational. The problem is that belligerents aren’t always driven by a desire to resolve a dispute and the idea that a clearly articulated dispute exists is not always true.

In fact, sometimes the situation is so murky that the peacekeepers are unable to determine who the belligerents are let alone what the cause of the belligerence is. Moreover, it is often from such confusion that trouble-makers thrive, which means that they have interest in maintaining disorder. Therefore, there is usually no peace to keep and the attendant conditions make it impossible to protect civilians– under chapter six.

During his lecture at the Rwanda Peace Academy in April this year Romeo Dallaire called for a new approach to peace keeping pointing out that interventions under chapter six were simply intended for ‘feel good reasons’ so that the international community can claim to have ‘done something.’

Further, the United Nations remains reluctant to authorise chapter seven interventions. This chapter provides mandates that assume that aggression has escalated beyond the ability of the belligerents to contain and that there is no longer peace to keep.

Moreover, chapter seven resolutions often find themselves in the graveyards of the politics of veto-wielding powers. Indeed, the diplomacy required to get such a mandate is damn near impossible. Think Syria.

In New York recently to rally support for the African Capacity for Immediate Response to Crises (ACIRC), Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni had this to say about the subject:

“The process from initial consultations to a final resolution authorising any form of action can take agonisingly long to come through. That is if one or more of the permanent members with veto power does not use it to block the process.”

The safer bet is to draft a chapter six resolution. After that you cross your fingers and pray that that damage does not cause collective amnesia of the kind that brings about the refrain that ‘we didn’t know the magnitude of the threat,’ as many continue to insist about the Genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda.

A lot is at stake. As a result, many around the world will be tuning in to follow the Kigali Conference this week, which promises to ‘reflect on how peacekeepers can effectively implement the Protection of Civilians mandate.’ But more than reflect, they will.  The other outcome of the conference is to “propose a set of principles to effectively enhance the protection of civilians.”

This is good news. It brings hope to millions of people in Sudan (north and south), Mali, the DR Congo, the CAR, and elsewhere where United Nations troops are deployed to protect civilians.

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