Crisis in Nigeria: A Case for RtoP’s Second Pillar

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Protesters take to the streets of Abuja to demand the release of the abducted girls. AFP/Getty Images.

In recent days, there has been unprecedented international attention on the Boko Haram threat in Nigeria. Largely spurred by the appalling kidnapping of 276 schoolgirls from Chibok and the ensuing social media campaign #BringBackOurGirls, popular pressure has forced western governments to take notice and answer the Nigerian government’s request for assistance in their efforts to combat Boko Haram and rescue the kidnapped girls.

Such action is consistent with pillar II of the responsibility to protect (RtoP), which calls on the international community to provide assistance and capacity-building to states that are under stress and unable to protect their civilian population from mass atrocity crimes. Nigeria is a strong case for RtoP’s second pillar, as numerous sources have warned the despicable acts occurring in the country can amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity.

In a United Nations Security Council (UNSC)press statement, the Council condemned the Boko Haram attacks and stressed that “all perpetrators of such acts must be held accountable at national or international levels, and that some of those acts may amount to crimes against humanity under international law.”

Amnesty International echoed these concerns, based on interviews with residents, lawyers, human rights campaigners, and hospital staff, as well as satellite imagery. Netsanet Belay, Research and Advocacy Director for Africa stated that:

The escalation of violence in north-eastern Nigeria in 2014 has developed into a situation of non-international armed conflict in which all parties are violating international humanitarian law.  We urge the international community to ensure prompt, independent investigations into acts that may constitute war crimes and crimes against humanity.”

 

International Action

The 2009 Secretary-General’s Report “Implementing the Responsibility to Protect” suggests that pillar II assistance can take any of the following forms: (a) encouraging States to meet their responsibilities under pillar one; (b) helping them to exercise this responsibility;  (c) helping them to build their capacity to protect ; and (d) assisting states “under stress before crises and conflicts break out.” The report lays out a variety of tools for delivery that range from education and training, diplomacy, and development assistance, to military support and consent-based peacekeeping.

The type of assistance that has been forthcoming so far is mostly in line with the military option. This includes intelligence, surveillance, and technical support for hostage negotiations and counter-terrorism efforts offered by the UK, US, France, and China. On April 17, France hosted a security summit gathering regional African heads of state from Nigeria, Chad, Benin, Cameroon and Niger. Here, regional cooperation and information and intelligence sharing were emphasized as crucial mechanisms in the fight against Boko Haram.

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The Paris Summit for Security in Nigeria. Thierry Chesnot/Getty Images.

While these developments are welcomed, it would be wise to heed warnings about the limitations of such action. This type of technical military assistance – while a good short-term measure for rescuing the kidnapped girls – does not address the structural weaknesses of the Nigerian state, or the dubious human rights record of their security forces.

 

The Limitations of Military Assistance in Nigeria

Sarah Margon of Human Rights Watch offered a searing indictment of the government’s military response that reveals a stark conundrum:

The tactics of the government security forces are barely more palatable than those of the militants themselves. Nigerian security forces are known for raiding local communities, executing men in front of their families, arbitrarily arresting and beating people, burning residential property and stealing money while searching homes.

Meanwhile, in writing for UN Dispatch, Mark Leone Goldberg stressed the multi-dimensional nature of the crisis:

“#StrengthenInstitutionsofGovernance doesn’t quite roll off the tongue as #BringBackOurGirls but the fact is, the inability to deliver healthcare, security, education, and other basic services fuels the instability that gives rise to militant groups like Boko Haram

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A Nigerian soldier patrolling the streets of Baga in Borno State, April 30, 2013. Pius Utomi Ekpei AFP/Getty Images.

This demonstrates the complex challenge that faces efforts to assist the Nigerian state in combating Boko Haram and bringing stability to the country. In this sense, what is required is what is referred to in the 2009 Secretary-General’s report as “conflict-sensitive” development analysis to alleviate, and not exacerbate, conditions that may lead to mass atrocity crimes. Approaching the crisis through this lens reveals a need for what the Secretary-General describes as “…assistance programmes that are carefully targeted to build specific capacities within societies that would make them less likely to travel the path to crimes relating to the responsibility to protect.

In the case of Nigeria, provision of technical military assistance without sufficient attention to the egregious conduct of the state security forces, or underlying societal issues that  create the breeding ground for radicalism, risks becoming a mere “band-aid” solution. Worse, it may intensify conditions leading to mass human rights violations.

 

Conflict-Sensitive Pillar II Assistance: Recommendations from Civil Society

For truly effective pillar II assistance that will strengthen the Nigerian state’s ability to uphold its RtoP while simultaneously addressing root causes, several ICRtoP members and civil society groups have provided useful recommendations.

In the article mentioned above, Coalition member HRW recommends that in assisting the Nigerian government, the United States should follow their own federal due diligence laws to ensure that no military personnel accused of human rights violations are involved in operational planning or initiatives, while encouraging the Nigerian government to conduct impartial investigations of any personnel that have been involved in such crimes. According to Magnon, “To do any less might make the situation worse — and make the U.S. complicit in Nigeria’s abuses.” The same can be said for other states offering assistance.

International Crisis Group has called on Nigeria’s international partners to support domestic initiatives such as a Far North Development Commission, anti-corruption campaigns, small business investment and other programs that address poverty, youth unemployment and women’s lack of empowerment. Doing so will “switch from a mainly military approach to the challenge from Boko Haram, and radicalism in general, to one more attuned to root causes.” This is essential, as it has been noted that corruption and underdevelopment motivate Boko Haram’s youth recruits more than an extreme Islamist agenda.

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A UNDP-supported Nigerian school. Bridget Ejegwa/UNDP

From a regional standpoint, African civil society group African Women’s Development and Communication’s Network called on regional organizations such as the African Union and ECOWAS to provide “…substantive support to the Nigerian Government to address the underlying systemic issues, including the climate of violence and insecurity in which groups like Boko Haram thrive,” highlighting the importance of ensuring safe spaces for education and justice for crimes committed in accordance with the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights.

A local Nigerian organization, The Network on Police Reform in Nigeria also stressed a multi-disciplinary approach to combating Boko Haram, while making specific recommendations to “engage the communities with a view to restoring/building public confidence and cooperation with the police/security forces,” emphasizing the crucial role of civil society in cultivating positive relationships.

Such recommendations are representative of a range of options that are more long-term and deep-rooted than military assistance alone.  They satisfy the different forms of second pillar assistance identified in the 2009 Secretary-General’s report, with a focus on such interconnected  issues  as socio-economic development, improving access to justice and the rule of law, and reform of the security sector. The latter was recently reaffirmed as a critical tool for conflict prevention in a UNSC resolution and linked directly to the state’s ability to uphold RtoP by Ban Ki-moon. This is particularly relevant in the Nigerian context, and in delivering appropriate second pillar assistance, context is everything.

For a detailed overview of the conflict in Nigeria within the context of the Responsibility to Protect, visit our recently updated crisis page.

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No Stability Without Accountability

On 15 December 2013, political tensions within South Sudan’s ruling party, the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM), boiled over. In Juba, members of the presidential guard loyal to President Salva Kiir fought those who supported former Vice-President Riek Machar. Violence spread quickly throughout the capital and into Unity and Jonglei states, taking on a worrying ethnic dimension as Dinka and Nuer – Kiir and Machar’s ethnic groups, respectively – targeted one another. (See our South Sudan page for more details about the crisis). 

As the Security Council prepares to meet on Friday, 2 May on the situation in South Sudan (with a briefing from UN Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide, Adama Dieng), ICRtoP releases its latest blog piece. Written by ICRtoP’s Aisling Leow, the blog examines the most recent shocking ethnic violence in the South Sudanese towns of Bentiu and Bor, the latest attempts at peace talks and mediation, and the ultimate need for accountability. 

Attacks in Bentiu and Bor, April 15-17 

While South Sudan has been consumed by violence since December, the events of two weeks ago are arguably the most shocking of the conflict. On the 15th and 16th of April, predominantly Nuer rebel forces captured the town of Bentiu in Unity state, killing at least 400 in ethnically targeted violence. The following day, a Dinka group gained entry to the UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) compound in Bor and opened fire on its mostly-Nuer inhabitants. Initial reports stated that at least 58 people were killed, and 100 wounded, including two UN peacekeepers.

Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has condemned the Bor attack as a war crime, a move followed by the Security Council and several states. UNMISS has decried the killings in Bentiu, and the use of hate speech over the radio. Civil society groups have been vocal, including Coalition member United to End Genocide, and have called for a full cessation of hostilities and an investigation into the violence.

There has also been increased activity at the UN. The Security Council has held an emergency meeting on 23 April 2014, while Navi Pillay, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, and Adama Dieng, Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide, have travelled to South Sudan on 28 April at the Secretary General’s request.

But where do we go from here? As the world wakes up to an ongoing crisis suddenly highlighted by the attacks in Bentiu and Bor, it should be aware of the possible ‘next steps’ in the international community’s response and the undeniable necessity of ensuring accountability for such atrocities.

The Immediate Need for a Ceasefire

In the short-term, everything hinges on an enforced ceasefire. Speaking in Juba on 28 April, Pillay said the ‘immediate concern’ was that both parties respected the cessation of hostilities agreement – signed on 23 January 2014, and largely ignored since.

Peace negotiations mediated by the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) – a regional organisation – are the most promising efforts toward this end. In fact, the talks have been described by Herve Ladsous, Under-Secretary-General for the Department of Peacekeeping Operations, as ‘the only game in town’. But this is worrying, given that the status of Phase II negotiations seems to have alternated between ‘delayed’ and ‘stalled’ for the past three months.

To keep parties at the table, the international community has threatened targeted sanctions against those who undermine the peace process. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry may impose unilateral American sanctions during his upcoming visit to East Africa. And the Security Council is reportedly considering sanctions too.

Along with the release of four political prisoners in Juba (a previous sticking point in negotiations) these measures are cause for cautious optimism as the third session of talks resume. But US Ambassador to South Sudan, Susan Pagesays she can’t see progress in negotiations without a ceasefire – a worrying catch-22.

One measure meant to ‘reinforce or realize the cessation of hostilities’ was the IGAD Protection and Deterrence Force (PDF) authorised on 13 March 2014. These forces would protect the IGAD teams that have been monitoring the current ‘ceasefire’ since the beginning of April.

There was talk that the force might cooperate with UNMISS on this front, but the PDF has yet to be deployed, and UNMISS has its hands full with more than 75,000 people sheltering in overcrowded UN compounds.

Critical Humanitarian Crisis

Supporting humanitarian access is vital, as ongoing fighting disrupts aid deliveries to 4.9 million people in need of assistance. According to Amnesty International, the unfolding humanitarian catastrophe in South Sudan will kill more people than the conflict.

A ceasefire is crucial to protect a population threatened not only by conflict, but also by the most devastating famine anywhere in 30 years. In light of this, on 29 April 2014 the UN Humanitarian Coordinator for South Sudan Toby Lanzer called for a month-long truce in May to allow people to plant and cultivate before the rains come.

But on 30 April, after meeting both Kiir and Machar, Pillay described the leaders’ reaction to the proposal as ‘luke-warm’.  At the press conference in Juba, Pillay’s remarks reflected the thoughts of many:

“If, in the very near future, there is no peace deal… I shudder to think where South Sudan is heading”.

The Ultimate Need for Accountability

Unfortunately, the events of April 15th – 17th are, as former BBC correspondent James Copnall puts it, ‘only one in a long series of massacres… stretching back decades’. Indeed, many in the rebel army – the force reportedly responsible for massacre in Bentiu – say they joined because of the massacre of 200-300 Nuer by the Dinka in the first days of the war.

At the heart of the problem is South Sudan’s culture of impunity. David Deng, director of the South Sudan Law Societysays it plainly: “No one in South Sudan has ever been held accountable for anything”.

This lack of accountability is – metaphorically – part of the country’s DNA; the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA)instrumental to the birth of South Sudan as the world’s youngest country, had only a ‘vague reference’ to reconciliation, and ‘nothing in terms of real accountability for past human rights’. This was in spite of a bloody fight for independence from Sudan (1983-2005), marked by its own massacre in 1991, where 2,000 people are estimated to have died.

Accountability is important not only because it brings justice to victims, but also because it acts as a deterrent to future crimes, and facilitates reconciliation for wounded communities.

As actors pursue a peace agreement in Addis Ababa, the international community has been clear about the need to end impunity this time around – in ‘marked contrast’ to roughly ten years ago, says Amnesty International.

Civil society has been at the forefront of this movement. Days after the attack, the International Centre for Policy and Conflict stressed that:

“Kiir and Machar must unequivocally renounce senseless criminal ethnic violence being committed by their militia supporters and take concrete positive steps to secure peace and stability”.

Citizens for Peace and Justice, based in Juba, called on the government and opposition to:

“Publicly denounce crimes committed by your forces and hold accountable those who directly target civilians as well as those with command responsibility over the acts”.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) said the United Nations Security Council should request a fact-finding mission, and also called on the government of South Sudan to investigate the attack in Bor. Daniel Bekele, HRW Africa Director, warned that:

“[C]ommanders and leaders responsible for abuses on both sides have been let off the hook for too long… Unless they are held accountable for their crimes, the ethnic violence will continue to engulf this young country, with UN peacekeepers left to pick up the pieces.”

On 24 April 2014, in a press statement released following their emergency meeting, the Council asked for an ‘urgent investigation’ into the attack in Bentiu. In the meantime, UNMISS has said the mission’s comprehensive report on human rights violations in South Sudan – due in ‘the coming weeks’ – will cover the attack in Bentiu.

But the most promising avenue for accountability in South Sudan may be the African Union Peace and Security Council Commission of Inquiry – the first of its kind.  Established on 30 December 2013, the commission’s first field mission is taking place between 24 April and 1 May.

The commission’s mandate is challenging, as it is expected to not only investigate the crimes, but also make recommendations on the ‘best ways and means to ensure accountability, reconciliation, and healing’.

Adama Dieng has called the commission a ‘ground-breaking development and a policy watershed’. Analysts say the commission is important not only for South Sudan, but for Africa more widely, given its unique position as a precedentAccording to Casie Copeland, an analyst at International Crisis Group, the commission is an opportunity for the AU to ‘define action in situations of mass atrocities elsewhere on the continent’.

A ceasefire will not be enough for a country where a conflict characterised by ‘tit-for-tat attacks’ has had a ‘brutalising effect’ on its population. If there is to be lasting peace in South Sudan, there is an overwhelming need to end impunity. Dieng’s remarks in Juba on 30 April are clear on this point:

“As we search for peace in this young nation, we must also ensure that those responsible for crimes committed here must be held to account. There can be no peace without justice. The current culture of impunity will only serve to undermine our efforts. We have learned this the hard way, from events in other places, including from the genocide that took place 20 years ago in Rwanda”.

South Sudan urgently needs a ceasefire, but the world’s newest country will not achieve stability without accountability.

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In the Central African Republic, Urgent Challenges Mean UN Peacekeeping no ‘Silver Bullet’ Solution

On April 10, 2014 the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) passed Resolution 2149 authorizing a United Nations peacekeeping mission in the violence-stricken country of the Central African Republic (CAR). The negotiations in the lead-up represented months of calls to strengthen the African Union and France’s existing forces – known respectively as the African-led International Support Mission to the Central African Republic (MISCA) and Operation Sangaris – from UN officials, civil society organizations and the Transitional Authorities of the CAR.

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The Security Council unanimously adopts resolution 2149 (2014), establishing  MINUSCA.UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe

The resolution authorized the transfer of authority from MISCA to the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilisation Mission in CAR (MINUSCA) effective as of September 15, 2014, while also reminding CAR’s transitional government of their primary responsibility to protect civilian populations. This has been hailed as a critical step in ending the chaos that has plagued the country since the Seleka military coup of March, 2013. The remarks of U.S. Ambassador Samantha Power immediately after its adoption were reflective of many:

“Today the Security Council took an important step toward bringing an end to the atrocities, inter-religious fighting, and humanitarian crisis in the Central African Republic by authorizing the establishment of a UN peacekeeping operation… Having just returned from CAR this morning, I can personally attest to the critical urgency of bringing more security to the Central African Republic.”

The resolution is also notable as the third reference of 2014 to the Responsibility to Protect in a Security Council mandate. However, this is no cause for premature celebration and certainly no ‘silver bullet’ solution.

At present, MISCA and French troops face a complex series of challenges that have prevented the proactive pursuit of their protection mandate and an end to the violence primarily being carried out by the Christian anti-Balaka against the Muslim population. These challenges will not vanish with the announcement of a UN peacekeeping operation, especially as its full mobilization is estimated to take several months. A close examination of parts of the new UNSC resolution reveals its robust and ambitious nature, but must also be considered through the lens of current efforts, noting that many of the same challenges facing MISCA and Sangaris will also await MINUSCA.

 

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Chadian MISCA soldiers on patrol in Bangui. Miguel Medina/AFP

Protection of Civilians

Importantly, resolution 2149 commits MINUSCA to the protection of civilians, “without prejudice to the primary responsibility of the Central African Republic authorities… from threat of physical violence, within its capabilities and areas of deployment…”

The additional 10,000 troops and 1,800 police and gendarmes authorized for MINUSCA certainly have the potential to improve protection capacities. However, joint patrols and disarmament efforts by MISCA and Operation Sangaris have so far failed to protect vulnerable civilians and prevent the further breakdown of law and order.

An Amnesty International report  released in February warned that the ethnic cleansing of Muslims was underway and highlighted the failure of international and regional peacekeepers to prevent it.  MISCA and French troops have reportedly been reluctant to engage anti-Balaka forces and have also been largely limited to Bangui in their operational reach. As of April 3, the situation was largely unchanged. Human Rights Watch observed several attacks on small village communities, prompting a researcher to state:

“Peacekeepers are providing security in the main towns, but smaller communities in the southwest are left exposed…International peacekeeping forces should redouble efforts to prevent attacks and protect people from these horrific assaults.”

The latest United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees report estimates that about 632,700 remain internally displaced while another 316,918 have fled to neighbouring countries. Insecurity and the threat to the Muslim population remain so urgent that France and the United Nations have recently agreed to help facilitate their transfer to safer areas in the North and into Chad.

Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has attributed many of these shortcomings to the fact that international peacekeepers are “under-resourced and overwhelmed”. A larger troop presence could encourage a more proactive pursuit of the civilian protection mandate, and the recent deployment of an 800-strong European Union ‘bridging force’ is welcome in this regard. However, in his six-point plan the Secretary-General has rightly called for more funding and logistical support to assist MISCA in the meantime. Likewise, Refugees International stated in a press release following the adoption of the resolution that:

“There are tens of thousands of vulnerable Central Africans who need protection and assistance…Clearly, a UN peacekeeping operation, once fully deployed, can contribute to peace and stability over the long term. But this mission will not address the atrocities, displacement, and dire humanitarian needs on the ground today.”

Accordingly, they have highlighted some priorities for assistance, including the deployment of additional police personnel to urban areas, increased logistical support in the form of air and ground mobility, the fast-tracking of civilian human rights and civil affairs officers, and increased funding for humanitarian aid.

 

Promotion and Protection of Human Rights and Support for National and International Justice and the Rule of Law

Two other important and related aspects of resolution 2149 are geared towards improving the human rights situation and ensuring justice and the rule of law. The mission seeks to do this by providing human rights monitors and support to the International Commission of Inquiry. It will also support and assist the Transitional Authorities in prosecuting those responsible for war crimes and crimes against humanity, including through cooperation with the International Criminal Court. The mandate prioritizes strengthening judicial capacities and human rights institutions, as well as building an accountable, impartial and rights-respecting criminal justice system.

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Bernard Acho Muna, Chairperson of the International Commission of Inquiry on the Central African Republic. UN Photo/Jean-Marc Ferré

These measures are necessary for ending the current environment of “total impunity” described by Ban Ki-moon. However, this has proven difficult for MISCA and Sangaris. Part of this is due to the fact that they have no reliable national partner on the ground.  There is currently no functioning justice system, and limited police and court proceedings. In a recent article for the Global Observatory, Marina Caparini outlined ways in which UN police peacekeepers can make a difference in ensuring justice and upholding the rule of law:

“International police contribute to the reform, restructuring, and rebuilding of host state police and law enforcement agencies, through the provision of material support and infrastructure such as the refurbishment of police stations, and through the transfer of knowledge via training, monitoring, mentoring, and advising…”

In the long-term, efforts such as this will be essential for developing the Central African state’s ability to carry out rule of law duties and protect the human rights of its citizens. However, Thierry Vircoulon, writing for Coalition member International Crisis Group, has identified the immediate deployment of police resources as an urgent priority, given the escalation in mob violence in Bangui and elsewhere.

 

Transfer from MISCA to MINUSCA

Lastly, it is worth highlighting issues surrounding the transfer of authority from MISCA to MINUSCA. Several obstacles regarding political frictions, the issue of vetting and due diligence, as well as funding and troop contributions have been flagged.

On the political front, Arthur Boutellis and Paul D. Williams point to past difficulties transitioning from the African-led International Support Mission in Mali (AFISMA) to the UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilisation Mission in Mali (MINUSMA). Tensions were identified surrounding insufficient UN consultations with the AU, unclear sequencing, a lack of Security Council funding commitments, disagreement over the mission leadership, and negative AU perceptions of UN operations, which they perceived as too risk averse.

Such problems led Boutellis and Williams to conclude that, in the case of the AFISMA-MINUSMA transition, it revealed “considerable mistrust between the two organizations.” Currently, there is some indication that political tensions may also be arising in CAR, both between the AU and the UN, and MISCA and Sangaris. This could hamper efforts to get the mission off of the ground in a timely manner.

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African Union troops dawn blue berets after transfer of authority from AFISMA to MINUSMA in Mali. Press TV/ File Photo.

Another noteworthy challenge will be the vetting and due diligence process to ensure that troops being folded into MINUSCA from the existing MISCA operation have not been involved in human rights abuses. Here, there is a dilemma, as the largest AU troop contributor – Chad – was recently involved in an incident in which Chadian peacekeepers opened fire indiscriminately on unarmed civilians. Chad has since withdrawn their troops, but regardless of whether Chad is part of the future UN force, ensuring that troops adhere to the highest standard of international humanitarian and human rights law according to the criteria outlined in the UN Human Rights Due Diligence Policy, is essential for the proper protection of civilians.

Lastly are the challenges of garnering sufficient funding and troop contributions. Commenting on both of these issues, Mark Leone Goldberg wrote for UN Dispatch that:

“Despite these high profile demonstrations of support, traditional donor countries have been relatively stingy when it comes to helping pay for these operations. A pledging conference for the African Union peacekeeping mission, known as MISCA, fell about $100 million short of its $420 million goal”

He goes on to note that the new UN mission will have a price tag of roughly $800 million – $1 billion.

On the issue of troop contributions, Goldberg also added that – without a standing army – gathering enough troops and police personnel could be a lengthy and uncertain process. On this he pointedly states, “If key UN member states make this mission a priority, it will get off the ground quickly. If they do not, it will languish.”

Many challenges to peace and stability remain in the Central African Republic; spite the news of a UN peacekeeping operation. However, if the international community is to successfully meet its potential “R2P moment of truth”, calls to immediately improve protection capacities must be heeded, political will must remain in abundant supply, and political, financial, and logistical challenges need to be overcome.

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Clarifying the Protection Debate in the Crimean Peninsula

Russian Intervention and Justification

Recently, the world has watched tensely as the situation in the Crimean territory of Ukraine reached a dangerous point of volatility. Upheaval that began with the EuroMaidan protests led to the ouster of Russian-backed President Yanukovych, who was swiftly replaced by an interim coalition government.  Long a strategic and symbolically important region, Russia wasted little time descending on the autonomous Crimean Peninsula.  The rhetoric of Russian authorities would suggest that the intervention was necessary for the protection of the Russian-speaking population, allegedly threatened by ultranationalist elements of the new Ukrainian government. In early March, President Vladimir Putin appealed for the use of military force in such terms:

In connection with the extraordinary situation in Ukraine, the threat to the lives of citizens of the Russian Federation, our compatriots, and the personnel of the armed forces of the Russian Federation on Ukrainian territory (in the Autonomous Republic of Crimea) … I submit a proposal on using the armed forces of the Russian Federation on the territory of Ukraine until the normalization of the socio-political situation in the that country,

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Unidentified soldiers believed to be from Russia on patrol at Simferopol Airport in the Crimea Peninsula. Elizabeth Arrott/VOA

In the opening session of the UN Human Rights Council, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov echoed the protection argument:

“I reiterate, we are talking here about protection of our citizens and compatriots, about protection of the most fundamental of the human rights – the right to live, and nothing more,”

The recent referendum paved the way for an official Russian annexation of its former territory, assured to Ukraine in the 1994 Budapest Memorandum after previously being given by Nikita  Khrushchev in 1954.

 

Russia’s Past Misuse of RtoP vs. Current Rhetoric

Commentators in various media outlets have been quick to denounce Russia’s legal justification for the intervention. Many have likened Russia’s rhetoric to the language used to justify their actions in Georgia during 2008. At that time, Russian leaders explicitly linked their motives to the Responsibility to Protect. Then, Lavrov clearly stated:

According to our Constitution there is also responsibility to protect – the term which is very widely used in the UN when people see some trouble in Africa or in any remote part of other regions…the laws of the Russian Federation make it absolutely unavoidable to us to exercise responsibility to protect.

Such articles have rightly emphasized that, as in Georgia, Russia’s actions in Ukraine do not constitute an RtoP-style intervention. For starters, the interpretation of RtoP endorsed by all countries at the 2005 World Summit pertains only to the four mass atrocity crimes of genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity. Thus far, there is no evidence that any of these crimes have occurred or are in imminent danger of occurring in relation to ethnic Russians. Furthermore, any military intervention must also be authorized by the Security Council.  In this case, Russia has acted unilaterally.

While it is important to clarify that Russia’s actions cannot be justified in RtoP terms, it is equally important to note that Russian leaders have not made specific reference to RtoP. When they attempted this rhetorical approach in 2008, they faced strong backlash from state and civil society advocates of the norm. An examination of Russian rhetoric throughout the current crisis reveals that, instead, the language has focused on preventing violence and protecting the human rights of Russians. Explicit mention of RtoP has been noticeably absent.  In its current phase – when one of the primary challenges facing RtoP is its normalization into international politics – such discursive subtleties are significant.

 

Violations of International Law and the Threat to Minorities

This is not to say that Russia’s intervention is moral or indeed legal. The intervention is a flagrant violation of an international diplomatic agreement, namely the Budapest Memorandum. This agreement committed Russia and other signatories (Ukraine, The United States and the United Kingdom) to refraining from the use of force to violate Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity in accordance with the Helsinki Final Act of 1975 and Article 2 of the United Nations Charter. Furthermore, as an occupying force Russia must abide by international humanitarian and human rights law regarding their conduct under such circumstances. Any violation committed by local authorities or proxy forces can in fact be considered Russia’s responsibility. The conditions under which the secession referendum was held has also raised questions over the validity and legitimacy of the results.

Press Conference by Permanent Representative of Ukraine, with leaders of minority groups in Ukraine.

Press Conference by Permanent Representative of Ukraine, with leaders of minority groups in Ukraine. UN Photo.

The case can certainly be made that minorities are under threat in Crimea, though not necessarily groups identified by Russian authorities. While the Ukrainian government’s decision to repeal a law ensuring Russian language rights was controversial, it has since been reinstated. However, there is a real concern that Crimea’s Muslim Tatar population – long the subject of persecution and even mass deportation under Stalin – may face backlash and discrimination for their support of the Ukrainian government, as the result of Russian annexation. ICRtoP member Minority Rights Group Internationalhas already documented incidents reminiscent of those experienced under the Soviet regime. A recent press release warned:

“Minorities and indigenous peoples, in particular the Crimean Tatars, an indigenous community of approximately 300,000 in the peninsula, are becoming more and more exposed to intimidation and violence. Recently, doors of Crimean Tatar residents were marked by X, a sign evoking memories of their 1944 deportation to Central Asia during the Stalin regime.”

The release continues to note media involvement in inciting discrimination, as well as evidence of increased militarization witnessed in the formation of Crimean self-defence groups. Human Rights Watch has also been monitoring these developments, warning of unaccountable militant groups that have been implicated in acts of torture and disappearances. Rachel Denber, deputy Europe and Central Asia director stressed:

“Crimean authorities are allowing illegal and unidentified armed units to run the show in the peninsula, and to commit crimes that go uninvestigated and unpunished, as if there is a legal vacuum.”

In such an environment of impunity, with ethnic tensions running high and the ever-present risk of Russian and Ukrainian military action, a peaceful settlement to the conflict is essential for avoiding an escalation in violence.

 

Looking Ahead: Overcoming the Security Council Impasse for Peaceful Settlement

With Russia’s involvement in the conflict, it will be difficult to pass any Security Council resolution.  A previous draft urged the protection of the sovereignty, unity, independence and territorial integrity of Ukraine, while also committing parties to protect the rights of minorities. Unsurprisingly, Russia exercised its veto to strike down the motion. ICRtoP member The World Federalist Movement – Institute of Global Policy issued a statement to General Assembly (GA) member states regarding the use of the veto as set out in Article 27 of the UN Charter, and urged action in the face of its misuse:

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A view of the electronic board displaying the votes of member states at a General Assembly Plenary Session on Ukraine. UN Photo.

The veto is not to be used when a permanent member is party to a dispute before the Security Council. The veto of 15 March 2014 is another example of permanent members using the veto contrary to the purposes and principles, letter and spirit of the UN Charter…It is imperative the larger membership instruct and confront the Security Council when it takes decisions not in accordance with the UN Charter.”

On March 27, 2014 a resolution put forward by Ukraine and 50 co-sponsors was approved by the GA, supporting Ukraine’s position and deeming the referendum that led to Russian annexation invalid.

Other measures to de-escalate the crisis have been taken by UN and Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) officials. A team of UN human rights monitors have been dispatched and the OSCE has officially announced an observer mission. Furthermore, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has reportedly reached a preliminary agreement with the Ukrainian government on the establishment of an international commission aimed at resolving the crisis. Such measures could contribute to a peaceful settlement and avoid wider human rights abuses.

 

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RtoP: Key Developments in 2013

In the following blog, the International Coalition for the Responsibility to Protect (ICRtoP) takes a look back at some key developments of the Responsibility to Protect in 2013. This is by no means a comprehensive analysis of the past year, as the protection of civilians should not be oversimplified and there are many important questions that remain on how to best operationalize RtoP. The developments included below do however demonstrate growth in RtoP, the framework for protecting populations from atrocity crimes, and it highlights opportunities for further advancements.

I. Encouraging Progress from Governments, Regional Bodies and the UN

A new Special Advisor on the Responsibility to Protect

Òthe Responsibility to Protect:  State Responsibility and PreventionÓ

Dr. Welsh, new Special Advisor on the Responsibility to Protect, addresses the UN

After a year-long absence in the Special Adviser post, the United Nations Secretary General (UNSG) announced on July 12 the appointment of Dr. Jennifer Welsh as his Special Advisor on the Responsibility to Protect. Since taking up her new role, Dr. Welsh has been swift to show that she and her office are champions of the Responsibility to Protect by diving right into addressing the tough issues facing the norm and working to develop and implement her work plan for advancing RtoP. In an interview with The Stanley Foundation, Dr. Welsh outlined that her two main priorities are going forward in 2014 are to:

 

Advance Pillar Two of the principle in terms of both clarifying how states’ capacities to protect can be enhanced through international assistance and identifying particular mechanisms that need to be created or reformed to better provide that assistance”

“Work to embed the principle more firmly within the processes and structures of the United Nations, particularly in terms of human rights, conflict prevention, and protection of civilians.”

United Nations General Assembly Holds 5th Dialogue on RtoP

The UNSG’s 2013 report on RtoP, “Responsibility to Protect: State Responsibility and Prevention,” and the UNGA dialogue itself focused on the importance of preventing atrocities at home and the primary responsibility of all member states to protect populations within their borders from RtoP crimes and violations. The report and dialogue offered a range of preventative measures, examples and policy options for member states to implement RtoP domestically to build a society’s resilience to the outbreak of atrocity crimes. The UNGA meeting, the fifth of its kind, saw the highest turn out since the first RtoP dialogue in 2009, with the participation of 68 governments, one regional body, and two civil society organizations. From its intervention delivered at the dialogue, ICRtoP concluded:

it is clear we are not debating principles of the norm but are now thinking about how best to operationalize RtoP and the prevention of atrocity crimes…the international debate on possible response options reminds us that the use of military force is only one tool within the RtoP framework.”

View the Coalition’s summary of the report and dialogue for more information. Also important to note that 23 countries directly referenced RtoP at the 68th Opening Session of the United Nations General Assembly

Member States call for P5 to Prioritize Protection over Veto Use

A heated debate was back on the agenda this year – the use of the veto by the Security Council’s five permanent members, with new proposals and continued discussion on the issue within the United Nations.

A new initiative, the Accountability, Coherence and Transparency (ACT), was launched by a group of states to partly address, within its broader work on Council reform, the much contested proposal of the use of the veto by calling on the P5 to refrain from using this power in situations where RtoP crimes and violations are imminent or ongoing.

At this year’s 68th General Assembly debate, 9 states – Chile, Costa Rica, Croatia, France, Liechtenstein, Mexico, New Zealand, the Netherlands, and Slovenia– echoed the point calling for the limiting of the veto in RtoP situations in order to, according to Liechtenstein enhance the Council’s effectiveness – and its credibility.”

Security Council meeting and voting on draft resolution on Syrian matters.

Draft Resolution on Syria Vetoed in Security Council. UN Photo/Paulo Filgueiras

French Foreign Minister Fabius offered a solution in his 4 October Op-Ed in the New York Times that in these situations: “the five permanent members of the Security Council — China, France, Russia, Britain and the United States — themselves could voluntarily regulate their right to exercise their veto…the change would be implemented through a mutual commitment from the permanent members.”

While the proposal was hit with some criticism as to what constitutes such a situation, others, like David Bosco, of Foreign Policy, were more positive at Fabuis’s novel introduction of a mechanism for “determining what constitutes such a situation.” Discussions and action on this call have continued into the New Year, something we will be following closely to see how these developments progress.

Arms Trade Treaty signed: A historic step in preventing the transfer of weapons

MONUSCO

Weapons retrieved in DRC. UN Photo

History was made in 2013 when, after a seven-year process at the UN, the Arms Trade Treaty was adopted by the UN General Assembly on 2 April 2013. Its adoption was soon followed by the signing of the treaty by 79 governments. Of particular interest for RtoP advocates was Article 6 of the treaty which seeks to prevent the transfer of conventional arms if a State Party has knowledge that the arms would be used in the commission of genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes and attacks directed against civilians. The signing represents a historical step that Human Rights First believes:

sends a strong message to those countries committing mass atrocities, like the current Syrian regime, as well as those who are arming them, like Russia. It makes clear that the arms trade status quo is no longer internationally acceptable and that nations…will no longer stand idly by as weapons are provided to countries seeking to harm civilians.”

II. Applauding Success without Turning a Blind Eye

Use of Chemical Weapons Unites UNSC on Syria

In a rare instance of unity on the crisis in Syria, 2013 saw the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) take action in response to the use of chemical weapons after investigations confirmed attacks killing a high number of civilians in rebel-held areas outside of Damascus. When responding to condemn the horrific use of such weapons and recalling the responsibility of the international community to hold perpetrators accountable, UNSG Ban Ki-moon reminded us that:

“While the use of chemical weapons is unacceptable, the mass loss of civilian life – whether due to conventional or non-conventional weapons — is also intolerable.”

Shelling in Homs, Syria

Shelling in Homs, Syria. UN Photo

In turn, the UNSC passed Resolution 2118, requiring Syria to destroy its stockpile and prohibiting future weapons use, development and transfer. Following this Resolution, the Permanent Five continued to collaborate to deter further loss of civilian life. After months of the UN, US and Russia trying to get both sides to agree on a political solution to the conflict, the UNSG announced in late 2013 that peace talks, or “Geneva II”, aimed at implementing a peace plan were set for January 22.

Despite this, we cannot ignore the horrific situation that continues for the people of Syria. Fierce clashes and infighting between rebels has led to rising deaths, and the humanitarian situation remains dire, with thousands of displaced living in abandoned buildings without enough food, clean water or medicine. While the Geneva II talks should be supported, the ongoing crisis must remain a focus of the all actors within the international community to ensure that the protection of populations from atrocity crimes is the central priority for all discussions and measures taken. This includes safeguarding the safe delivery of aid, restraining the regional spread of the conflict, denying support to armed groups who commit war crimes and upholding restrictions on arms trade.

Central African Republic: Collective Action by the International Community

First Phase Digital

Central African Republic. UN Photo/Evan Schneider

After being largely ignored by the world for decades, 2013 saw the conflict in the Central African Republic (CAR) come into the spotlight. Despite reaching a peace agreement in January of 2013, Séléka rebels again seized the capital, Bangui, in March. Since August the armed clashes have increased, reports of human rights violations and crimes against humanity have emerged, and the risk of a religious war are escalating.

When the UN Special Advisor on the Prevention of Genocide, Adama Dieng began using the words “genocide” and “risk of atrocity crimes”, it sent ripples through the international community. Regional organizations, including the African Union and the Intergovernmental Authority on Development, government and UN officials began speaking out and taking action. As tension heightened and pressure increased, the UNSC responded by passing Resolution 2127, authorising the deployment of an African-led International Support Mission to CAR.

While these actions should be applauded, the people of CAR continue to find themselves victims of gross human rights violations and atrocities. Human Rights Watch believes a full-fledged UN mission is necessary as it would: “come with civilian expertise to help rebuild the country…UN experts could monitor and report on human rights violations and help re-establish the judicial system, disarm and reintegrate combatants, and reconstitute the security forces.” To address the situation, sustained attention is needed, with the international community keeping CAR a priority on its agenda and ensuring it re-evaluates the effectiveness of the resolution to implement further appropriate action.

Post-crisis Reform Leads to Peaceful, Free and Fair Elections in Kenya

At the beginning of 2013, all eyes were on Kenya as they cast their vote in the country’s first election since 2007 when unprecedented ethnic violence, leaving over 1000 people dead and 600,000 more displaced, followed the announcement of results. As we watched Kenya avoid escalating violence ahead of and following the 2013 elections, many civil society organizations shared their analysis and recommendations on the reforms and actions undertaken by the government and international community to ensure such peace. International Crisis Group explained it as an outcome of “a general consensus between the political elite and the citizenry not to bring Kenya to the brink of civil war again. International pressure…media self-censorship, restrictions on freedom of assembly, and deployment of security forces to potential hotspots also helped avert unrest.”

Kenya, as the Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect outlined in their Occasional Paper on the elections, demonstrates “how investment in non-coercive measures like strengthening the rule of law and tackling hate speech, can help prevent atrocities when reforms are undertaken early, with sufficient resources and international support”, with the country serving as “a successful example of R2P in practice.” While such success must be applauded, the reform momentum of the Kenyan government with the support of the international community must continue well beyond the 2013 elections. More work remains to be done in a range of areas like police reform and accountability and the need to encourage the government to promote trust and reconciliation, a stronger judiciary and end impunity.

After a Turbulent 2012 M23 Rebels Sign Peace Agreement with DRC Government

MONUSCO Mission in Bunia

MONUSCO support local communities in DRC. UN Photo/Myriam Asmani

While the UN is still concerned about armed groups in Eastern Congo, according to Voice of America, the progress in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) demonstrates what a big difference a year makes and signs of hope that protecting civilians with new measures is possible: “At the start of the year people there were still reeling from the shock of the M23 rebels capturing the provincial capital, Goma, in November [2012]…By November [2013], M23 had surrendered.”

Since surrendering, the M23 have signed a peace deal with the government of the DRC agreeing that Those who are presumed to have committed criminal behavior in terms of international law, war crimes or crimes against humanity will not be reinserted into society.” Timo Muelle of the Enough Project attributes this development to new tools introduced to bring peace to the region, declaring that “the intervention brigade and MONUSCO played an essential role in helping the Congolese army to defeat the M23 in early November.”

As 2014 begins, maintaining the political will and ensuring that signatories to the Framework Agreement for Peace, Security and Cooperation in the DRC fulfill their commitments to prevent the reoccurrence of and address the crimes committed in DRC will remain crucial. This is, is especially, important in light of reports of the M23 continuing to recruit and the perennial threats of other rebel groups in the country and region.

III. Looking back to go forward

While, in 2013, the RtoP norm faced hurdles, it also encouraged more government, regional organization, and UN involvement on the ground and debate of best practices for effective prevention and response. A reflection of the past year shows that there was not only substantive discussion on RtoP, but also examples of its applicability in practice, such as in DRC, and Kenya. RtoP clearly remains high on the agenda of the international community.

Despite these developments, now is not the time for complacency. Unfortunately, the end of 2013 saw South Sudan spiral out of control. Political divisions and accusations of an attempted coup by former Vice President Machar on President Kiir exacerbated ethnic tensions and has sparked armed clashes between government forces and rebel groups. The situation has led to fears of atrocity crimes and a possible civil war as an estimated 10,000 have already died and nearly 400,000 people have been displaced by the violence. The severity of the situation in South Sudan demonstrates that we still have a long way to go in the protection of populations from atrocity crimes. If nothing else, South Sudan demonstrates exactly why we need to continue to work toward atrocity prevention and strengthening the RtoP framework.

Check out our crisis page for more on the situation in South Sudan.

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Putting Down their Cards: Limiting the Veto in RtoP Cases

 “How can we as a body allow unarmed civilians; men, women and children to be slaughtered, time and time again? (…) Will the Security Council, the body charged with maintaining peace and security, stands idle when chemical weapons or worse are deployed on the homes of those whose only crime was to be in the wrong place at the wrong time?…In the months ahead, I will reach out to my counterparts in Great Britain, France, Russia and China to begin a conversation on how we can use this paramount responsibility which we share, the veto, in a more responsible manner that can protect those who most need the United Nations to act, while preserving our national sovereignty.”

Those are the words the CEO of the non-governmental organization and ICRtoP Member, Global Solutions.org, wishes United States President Barack Obama had said at the 68th United Nations General Assembly Debate.

While the United States remained mute on this matter, other countries did not. Earlier this month, the Foreign Minister of France, Laurent Fabius reminded us that the United Nations Security Council (UNSC),“constrained by vetoes, was powerless in the face of the Syrian tragedy…For all those who expect the United Nations to shoulder its responsibilities in order to protect populations, this situation is reprehensible.”To overcome such paralysis in situations of mass atrocities, Foreign Minister Fabius offered a solution“Our suggestion is that the five permanent members of the Security Council — China, France, Russia, Britain and the United States — themselves could voluntarily regulate their right to exercise their veto. The Charter would not be amended and the change would be implemented through a mutual commitment from the permanent members.”

As you will see from our blog on this very topic last year, France’s proposal is not a new one . The International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty report, which outlined the Responsibility to Protect (RtoP, R2P), also suggested that the permanent members (P5) of the UNSC refrain from using their veto power in RtoP situations. This call was later echoed in the 2004 report of the UN Secretary-General’s High Level Panel on Threats, Challenges and Change, which included a recommendation for the P5 to refrain from the use of veto in cases of genocide and other large scale human rights violations. However, according to former Canadian Foreign Minister Lloyd Axworthy and Allan Rock, former Canadian Ambassador to the UN, the call for veto restraint was abandoned during negotiations on RtoP paragraphs within the 2005 World Summit Outcome Document because “fierce P5 opposition forced negotiators to drop the demand or risk losing approval for R2P altogether.”

The issue of refraining from the use of the veto was raised more recently in 2012, when the “Small Five” countries (S5) – Costa Rica, Jordan, Liechtenstein, Singapore and Switzerland – initiated a resolution on the working methods of the UNSC that included a recommendation calling on the P5 not to wield their veto power in cases of atrocities. However, according to Friedrich Ebert Stiftung‘s (FES) latest report, “Reforming the Working Methods of the UN Security Council: The Next ACT”, the P5 actually “undertook concerted action to prevent member states from casting a positive vote” for the S5’s initiative, which was later dropped.

While the resolution was not adopted and the S5 ultimately disbanded, a new initiative, the Accountability, Coherence and Transparency (ACT), was launched in 2013. Led by 21 governments seeking to improve the working methods of the UNSC, the ACT has followed in the footsteps of the S5 in its efforts to address the much contested proposal of the use of the veto in the UNSC. To achieve its goals, the ACT has developed a series of smaller groupings underneath the larger umbrella of Council working methods reform initiatives, with each group being led by various governments. As such, the work on the veto falls within the scope of the Accountability and Veto cluster.

Increasing and Diverse Support for Limiting the Veto

Ambassador Vitaly Churkin, Permanent Representative of the Russian Federation to the United Nations, casts his veto against a draft resolution on the situation in Syria in 04 February 2012 (UN Photo, Paulo Filgueiras)

Security Council meeting and voting on draft resolution on Syrian matters.
Russia and China vetoes. UN Photo/Paulo Filgueiras

The governments in ACT don’t stand alone on this issue. As the Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect (GCR2P) highlighted, the trend to call for such restraint at the 2012 and 2013 General Assembly Debates on RtoP continued at this year’s 68th General Assembly debate, when 9 states – Chile, Costa Rica, Croatia, France, Liechtenstein, Mexico, New Zealand, the Netherlands, and Slovenia – called for the limiting of the veto in RtoP situations. The reason is simple, as Liechtenstein clearly stated:-“our inability to respond to the crisis in Syria demonstrates a crucial weakness in the system,” so restraining the veto for actions to end or prevent atrocity crimes “would be crucial to enhance the Council’s effectiveness – and its credibility”.

Chile agrees that using the veto in such cases “prevents the Council from effectively defending the most fundamental values and principles of mankind.” Even France, a P5 member, understands that “if we do not wish to lose our legitimacy, we must learn from the recent blockages to avoid running into such difficulties in the future”.

But the discussions on the UNSC veto are not just happening within the UN. Earlier this year, in April, the European Parliament adopted a resolution which recommends to the Council “to propose…the adoption of a voluntary code of conduct which would limit the use of the right of veto in cases of genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing or crimes against humanity”.

It’s a Matter of Self-Interest

The right to veto, as Daniel Wand from the British Institute of International and Comparative Law outlines, “allows the states to safeguard their national interests…It was however only to be used in extreme circumstances where a clear and direct threat to national interest existed.” Wand continues to point out, though, that historically this power has been abused, leaving the UNSC “paralysed and unable to sanction intervention in circumstances where mass atrocities are occurring, such as occurred in Bosnia, Srebrenica and Rwanda.”FES agrees, and highlights the case of Syria to show the inability of the Council to respond, which“ has undoubtedly damaged the reputation of the Council.”

Pointing out that an overall abolition on the veto will “simply not happen,” the Foreign Minister of New Zealand, Mr. Murray McCully, called for the P5 to be more restrictive on whether a situation falls within their governments’ national interests. Challenging the P5 at the 2012 UNGA debate, he called for consideration ofa process by which they collectively and voluntarily agree to confine their use of the veto to those issues that clearly and directly affect their vital national interests, and that they voluntarily agree not to use their veto in situations involving mass atrocities.”

Argentinean President Cristina Fernandez took the opportunity during her country’s August 2013 presidency of the UNSC to state that the veto is an outdated safeguard used during the Cold War to prevent a “nuclear holocaust”. It is now unnecessary as the US and Russia both sit at the same table. Claiming “we can’t deal with the problems in this new world with old instruments,” she suggests an alternative by comparing the situation “with South American regional and subregional organizations where resolutions are taken on the basis of unanimity when there is a conflict.”

Understanding the French proposal: something new, or maintaining the status quo?

Axworthy and Rock, confident of change, assert that in the “longer term, we are going to need limitations on the use of the veto in such cases [Syria]. Perhaps adopting rules on the use of force would soften P5 resistance. And those who use the veto to deny protection…should face significant consequences.”

David Bosco, writer for Foreign Policy, highlights the problematic nature of limiting veto use, reminding that “what constitutes a ‘mass-atrocity situation’ is largely in the eye of the beholder. Almost all…conflicts feature atrocities of one sort or another.” Yet he is positive towards the French proposal, as it suggests a mechanism for determining what constitutes such a situation.

The criteria for implementation, according to Fabius, would be simple:

At the request of at least 50 member states, the United Nations Secretary General would be called upon to determine the nature of the crime. Once he had delivered his opinion, the code of conduct would immediately apply.” Bosco believes “the notion of a combined role for the General Assembly and the Secretary General is innovative.”

The ICRtoP Secretariat, in conversations with UN officials in New York, learned that additional criteria for deterring the P5 from using their veto power may also be considered, including statements by the UN Special Advisers Office on the Prevention of Genocide and RtoP as well as findings by commissions of inquiry established by the UN. A key issue would remain, however, as Bosco points out, because realistically there would still be the possibility that “Russia and China are going to be very hesitant to adopt any code of conduct that restricts the veto power.” While FES is optimistic that pressure will “mount on the US given that the incoming UN Ambassador, Samantha Power, is a prominent advocate of the mass atrocity prevention” Global Solutions.org, which has been campaigning for the “Responsibility Not to Veto” (RN2V) since 2010, disagrees that the US has made any headway, stating that “even senior figures in the Obama administration who are…supporters of the Responsibility to Protect doctrine have made no public mention of RN2V.”

It’s important to note that according to Fabius, the proposal would exclude cases where the vital national interests of a permanent member of the Council were at stake” so as to be “realistically applicable,” which very well might quell concerns of hesitant members of the P5. A key topic during ICRtoP’s discussion with UN officials was whether or not the proposal would lead to real change given that the P5 could still use their veto power if it was in the name of “vital national interests.” The point was raised that in order to counter this problem, “national interests” could be defined to be more in line with the UN Charter, which allows states the inherent right of individual or collective self-defence if an armed attack occurs against a Member of the United Nations” while simultaneously ensuring that such a definition does not jeopardize prevention and response under the RtoP framework.

A Final Push for an Effective and Legitimate Security Council

It is clear that for this proposal to become a reality and to ensure that national interests do not hold the Council hostage, as some argue is the case with responding in Syria, civil society needs to come together and push for a more effective, legitimate and accountable UNSC. If the proposals on the veto put out by the ACT initiative and the French are implemented, it could lead to substantial changes and a more effective system to ensure that the international community is able to uphold its responsibility to protect in the face of atrocities. This is something civil society should support, because as FES articulates, “what is at stake here is not just the Council’s reputation. The UN as a whole, indeed the world as a whole, could profit.”

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Clarifying the Debate: Where RtoP really stands on Syria

Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon attends donor's meeting on humanitarian aid to Syria.

Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon (centre left) addresses a meeting on the humanitarian situation in Syria. UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe

Syria’s civil war, which has resulted in more than 100,000 people killed to date and led to over 2 million refugees, has, for months, demanded an urgent response to deter further massacres. With the alleged use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government on August 21st, killing a reported 300 to 400 people and injuring several thousands, the US, UK and France have all been considering an imminent military response. After first proposing a resolution in the UN Security Council authorizing all necessary means to protect civilians, the UK held a vote in parliament which ultimately ruled out possible military action. The US Senate Foreign Relations Committee approved a resolution authorizing force against the Syrian government (which will then be voted on by the Senate). Meanwhile, Russia has argued for the need to wait for the results from UN inspectors as to whether or not chemical weapons were used. France, while first backing the US, has indicated they too now want to wait for the results of the UN inspectors before condoning any military action. Arguments attempting to justify, legalize and legitimatize a military attack have intensified, including efforts to use the Responsibility to Protect (RtoP) norm as justification for the use of force. This post draws on the discussions surrounding the latest debate; outlines some of the main issues; and clarifies how RtoP should and should not be applied to the case of Syria.

Evaluating the Motivations Behind the Use of Force

In her article “Responsibility to Protect – Or to Punish” Charli Carpenter, a professor and author on civilian protection, identifies two distinct conversations about the legitimacy of a military campaign – whether military action is an appropriate response to the use of chemical weapons and whether force is an appropriate means for protecting civilian populations from atrocities committed at the hands of their government. Questioning the motives of intervention, Carpenter concludes that “the goal of upholding the chemical weapons taboo is not the same thing as the goal of protecting civilians…If the goal were really to protect civilians, the West would have intervened long ago”.

James Kearney and Alexandra Buskie, of the UK-based organization and ICRtoP member, UNA-UK, in their article, “Responding to Protect Civilians in Syria?” agree. Rather than the intervention being about the the immediate protection of Syrian civilians from mass atrocities, it is accountability for…the use of chemical weapons that forms the basis of President Obama’s ‘red line’.

Lakhdar Brahimi, Joint Special Representative of the UN and the League of Arab States for Syria, addresses international law in the case of Syria. UN Photo/Jean-Marc Ferré

If the goal is to protect civilians, NGOs such as the UNA-UK, and former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan suggest that the US wait for the UN investigators to finalize their report so there is “no doubt”. Until then, the question of whether the Syrian government used chemical weapons against its population remains open. Even then, Annan asserts that it is the Security Council who “has moral responsibility to find a common ground after the chemical attacks.”

Does military intervention have a legal foot to stand on?

There is confusion over the legal basis for the use of force in Syria. Ian Hurd, professor and author of “Bomb Syria, Even if It is Illegal” explains Syria is party to neither the Biological Weapons Convention of 1972, which bans those who have signed the Convention from developing, producing and stockpiling of an entire category of weapons of mass destruction nor the Chemical Weapons Convention of 1993, which seeks to prohibit the production of chemical weapons and mandates their destruction. Regardless, Hurd claims that Syria has violated humanitarian principles if found guilty–specifically, the prohibition on the indiscriminate killing of civilians set out in the 1949 Geneva Conventions. Additionally, according to the United Nations Special Advisors on the Prevention of Genocide, Mr. Adama Dieng, and on the Responsibility to Protect, Dr. Jenifer Welsh, “the use of chemical weapons during armed conflict is a serious violation of international humanitarian law and a war crime.” In the 2005 World Summit Outcome document, heads of state affirmed they had a Responsibility to Protect populations from war crimes.

However, according to Gareth Evans who co-chaired the 2001 International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty, which first articulated RtoP, “The trouble is that even the most extreme breach of international law [the use of chemical weapons] does not in itself legally authorise a coercive military response.”

Professor Craig Martin says the U.S. is using the principles of the Responsibility to Protect and humanitarian intervention to provide a legal justification for intervention without UN authority. Gerard Gallucci, a retired U.S. diplomat and UN peacekeeper, expands on this in his article “R2P and International Law”, underlining that the U.S.’s tendency to cite RtoP as the authority for moving forward on military strikes without the Security Council is “a facetious argument” because RtoP is “meant to guide the international community, and particularly the Security Council in their decision on use of force.” RtoP never legitimizes the use of force unless it is approved by the UN Security Council “in line with Chapter 6, 7 and 8 of the UN Charter”. This has been confirmed by UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon and reiterated by UN Special Envoy to Syria Lahkdar Brahimi, who emphasized that “international law is clear on this. International law says that military action must be taken after a decision by the Security Council.”

RtoP: Military Action, the Last Resort and the Moral Imperative

The city of Homs in Syria faces new rounds of shelling. UN Photo/David Manyua

Despite no legal justification for the use of military force without approval through the UN Security Council, some say intervention is still a valid option. Evans believes that, while there is no legal justification under customary international law to intervene militarily, there is the moral grounds to intervene and the international community needs to “find one [a justification] in the Charter”.

John Holmes, chair of the International Rescue Committeeconcludes in his article “Does the UN’s Responsibility to Protect necessitate an intervention in Syria?” that “justification for any military response cannot be punishment, but has to be deterring further use of such weapons, and protecting civilians in particular.

If the motivation for military intervention is protecting civilians, Carpenter argues that RtoP does indeed come into play, and the Security Council must decide if the “threshold” of last resort can be applied. She adds further that the Council needs to “consider both just cause in terms of civilians lost” and “right intention”, whereby the goal would have to be protecting civilians as far as possible, rather than national interests. She acknowledges that RtoP requires policymakers to “weigh in just cause against the question of whether there is a reasonable prospect of success at reducing civilian bloodshed” andto select the best type of intervention to meet the goals”.

Benjamin Shinglers article“Does world’s ‘responsibility to protect’ civilians justify a Syria strike? echoes this conviction, saying that“R2P should be acted upon, according to the UN doctrine, only if the following provisions are met: the force used is proportionate to the threat and likely to succeed and unlikely to cause more harm than good.” It is important to note that while RtoP states that military intervention should only be taken at the last resort, there are no agreed-upon guidelines on when and how to implement that use of force.

Will Intervention Cause More Harm than Good?

While there are no hard and fast rules of when the last resort has been reached, Evans, and Human Rights Watch (HRW) draw on the Precautionary Principles of the Report of the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty to outline that military action needs to be judged by its effects in protecting all Syrian civilians” to avoid attacks that could cause disproportionate harm to civilians compared to the expected military gains. Acknowledging this argument, the conclusion by Holmes is that “however supposedly surgical the strikes, significant numbers of civilians are likely to be killed”. Genocide Alert provides an analysis on the consequences of military intervention. They conclude that while there is the chance that deterring the use of chemical weapons could increase the protection of populations against future attacks, there is no direct protection provided by any current intervention plan. Rather, they argue that unless careful planning and execution takes place to protect civilians, the Syrian government could retaliate against the population. When considering intervention, HRW shares the position of Genocide Alert that the protection of civilians must be the top priority, stating that “any armed intervention should be judged by how well it protects all Syrians civilians from further atrocities.” Should military intervention take place, HRW asserts that “feasible precautions to minimize harm to civilians and ensure that civilians are not objects of attacks” is essential.

While Gilberto Rodrigues of Coordinadora Regional de Investigaciones Economicas y Sociales agrees that civil society should not support unilateral attacks in the name of the Responsibility to Protect, he suggests that if armed intervention is endorsed by the Security Council, then this body should take into consideration Brazil’s responsibility while protecting, which sets limits on the use of force to ensure military intervention actually achieves the goal of protecting civilians.

Beyond Military Intervention: More Targeted Dialogue

Beyond debating the justification of RtoP in the case of Syria, a number of NGOs and journalists have touched on the need to explore other policy options to find a resolution. Roméo Dallaire, distinguished fellow of the Montreal Institute for Genocide and Human Rights Studies, thinks there should have been an intervention more than a year ago when the situation was ripe for civilian protection. It should’ve been on the ground and it should have been an intervention…to protect the civilians instead of having to see the civilians arm themselves and fight.” Now, Dallaire is convinced military intervention is likely to do nothing. Alex De Waal and Bridget Conley-Zilkic of the World Peace Foundation agree with this point in their article “What Sir William Would Do in Syria”, stating that it is folly to think that airstrikes can be limited: they are ill-conceived as punishment, fail to protect civilians and, most important, hinder peacemaking…the most convincing punishment would come through an international war crimes tribunal outside Syria.” Professors Oona Hathaway and Scott Shapiro extend on this in their article, “On Syria, a U.N. Vote Isn’t Optional” identifying a number of things US President Obama can do before resorting to military action, and therefore highlighting “the choice between military force or nothing is a false one.”

A number of NGOs have published statements condemning the use of chemical weapons. In a letter to the US President Obama 25 other NGOs, including the Friends Committee on National Legislation, asserted that military strikes are not the answer to the crisis in Syria and there is “no solution other than a political one.” They in turn call upon Obama to intensify diplomatic efforts to stop the bloodshed.

This point is echoed by the statement of International Crisis Group (ICG), which believes that the “debate over a possible strike…has obscured and distracted from what ought to be the overriding international preoccupation: how to revitalise the search for a political settlement.”

Convinced that US action has nothing to do with the interests of the Syrian people but rather the government’s need to reinforce its credibility, ICG asserts that any solution to the crisis can only be achieved through “a sustained ceasefire and widely accepted political transition.” ICG argues this, declaring that,

This requires a two-fold effort lacking to date: developing a realistic compromise political offer as well as genuinely reaching out to both Russia and Iran in a manner capable of eliciting their interest – rather than investing in a prolonged conflict that has a seemingly bottomless capacity to escalate.”

Genocide Alert and UNA-UK agree that this requires inclusive dialogue with a wide range of stakeholders.

There is no military solution to this conflict?

To date, RtoP has been invoked in the crisis by officially reminding Syria of its responsibility to protect its populations over 12 times through UN resolutions of the Security Council, General Assembly and Human Rights Council. The UN Secretary-General has also used his power to shape how the conflict is understood, while a number of countries have placed sanctions against Syria. In this regard, RtoP has been successful at keeping the international community engaged on the urgent need for a resolution in Syria.

The use of force is only one tool under the RtoP norm. As it is still unclear whether military intervention would ensure that Syria will uphold its responsibility to protect and would not cause more harm than good, there is an importance to continue to prioritize diplomatic measures to resolve the conflict. While some argue there is justification for military intervention under RtoP, others like Kofi Annan truly believe “there is no military solution to this conflict”. More alternative solutions need to be considered, because in the long-term, holding to account those who have committed atrocities; ensuring an inclusive political peace and reconciliation process; and upholding the protection of the human rights of all ethnic and religious groups will be needed to protect against the future commission of RtoP crimes.

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Whose side is the government on? Targeting of the Rohingya in Myanmar/Burma Leaves Civil Society Demanding Action

On 3 June 2012, the killing and reported rape of a Buddhist woman followed by the massacre of ten Muslims traveling in Rakhine state marked the beginning of a series of violent attacks against the Rohingya communities, their townships and residents in Myanmar/Burma causing widespread destruction of Muslim neighborhoods, mosques and villages and massive displacement. Human Rights Watch‘s (HRW) report All You Can Do is Pray, documents a number of violent incidences against the Rohingya, a minority Muslim population that has long been discriminated against in Myanmar/Burma and the region, since the attacks; including government backed “crimes against humanity” committed against them during a campaign of “ethnic cleansing”. Despite the government appointed Rakhine Commission’s attempt to provide recommendations for improving the ethnic tensions between the Rohingya and the Buddhist populations in Myanmar/Burma, the report failed to effectively tackle the discrimination against the Rohingya. Instead, authorities continue to reinforce the segregation of this population through discriminatory laws and practices that underpin their lack of citizenship and their mistreatment, while also ignoring the violent attacks on Muslim neighborhoods that have continued.

Civil society and UN actors point to the government’s involvement

Under the Responsibility to Protect (RtoP), it is the primary responsibility of the state to protect all populations from crimes against humanity, ethnic cleansing, genocide and war crimes, but in Myanmar/Burma, the government is not assuming this role. To alleviate this tension between the Rohingya minority and the Buddhist population, the Rahkine Commission, a 27 member body which was appointed in August 2012 to examine the causes of the violence between the groups, called for a doubling of security forces in Rakhine State. This is concerning given the number of reports pointing to the involvement of those tasked to restore order – the government, local security forces (including police, inter-agency border control and the army) – in the victimization of the Rohingya. At the United Nations (UN) level, UN Special Rapporteur for the Human Rights situation in Burma, Mr. Tomás Ojea Quintana has said Muslims were clearly targeted with brutal efficiency during attacks on property and the killing of a several Rohingyas. He went on to confirm he received reports of “state involvement in some acts of violence”, including military and police standing by while atrocities are committed as well as evidence of direct involvement of supporting well organized Buddhist gangs in their attacks. One of Burma Campaign UK‘s, latest reports concluded that the targeting of the Rohingya – which includes attacks based solely on identity and the implementation of a number of discriminatory laws, such as the 1982 Citizenship Law denying the population citizenship – violates at least eight international human rights laws and treaty obligations. The UN and a number of civil society organizations, including Amnesty International (AI) and Burma Campaign UK, have expressed concern over the lack of recommendations of the Commission to address issues related to impunity, and the discriminatory laws, as well as the state’s failure to stop “incitement of hatred and violence against Muslims.” The government has failed to address the root causes of the clashes between the groups and implement effective policies to tackle intolerance and promote religious and societal harmony, which, as the Global Center for the Responsibility to Protect (GCR2P) declares, shows that the government, is “failing their duty of the Responsibility to Protect.”

UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, Valerie Amos, visits displacement camps in Myanmar’s Rakhine State UN Photo/David Ohana

Quelling ethnic tension: Beyond the Commission’s recommendations

Civil society organizations have been at the forefront of demanding action and issuing recommendations to quell ethnic tensions, which vary from calling for the implementation of comprehensive reconciliation plans, urging the international community to pressure the government to reverse discriminatory policies, establishing an in-country office UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, and addressing the humanitarian situation with unrestrictive access for aid delivery. The most debated issues are how to end impunity and resolve the statelessness of the Rohingya population caused by the 1982 Citizenship Law, which does not recognize Rohingyas as one of the 135 legally recognized ethnic groups in Myanmar/Burma.

Calls for ensuring justice and putting an end to impunity

According to ALTSEAN-Burma, and Minority Rights Group International (MRG), the Commission has failed to hold accountable those responsible for the ethnic cleansing of the Rohingyas. Echoing this, Mr. Quintana stresses that holding to account those responsible will also be an integral part of restoring relations of trust and harmony between different ethnic and religious communities.” Group such as AI and GCR2Phave recommended impartial investigations to tackle the culture of impunity while HRW has more controversially called for “an independent international commission to investigate crimes against humanity.” At the government level, the United Kingdom is a little apprehensive to undertake such bold action, stopping short of proposing to set up an independent international investigation, but rather asking for the Myanmar/Burma government to conduct an “independent investigative work” to assess “whether ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity have been committed” - a step Burma Campaign UK believes is useless unless it is an “international” investigation. Mr. Quintana, concerned about how accountability will be ensured going forward, supports AI‘s suggestions that in addition to ending impunity a “comprehensive reform of the security forces, including the establishment of robust accountability mechanisms, adequate vetting systems and training on relevant international standards, is also essential.”

Deciding on what it means to be Burmese

While accountability for past crimes is vital, preventing further tensions requires addressing the root causes of the problem as well. At the heart of the issue is the government’s 1982 Citizenship Act, which denies the Rohingya population national citizenship. Under international human rights standards no person can be left stateless and therefore this denied access is a form of discrimination that needs to be urgently addressed. As if statelessness was not enough, there are a number of other restrictive laws and tight regulations, including restrictions on travel, birth, death, immigration, migration, marriage and land ownership, that target the Rohingya and deny them basic rights guaranteed in international law. Civil society organizations, such MRG, were hoping the Commission would call for a review of the 1982 Citizenship Law; however, the government made it clear it has no intention to do so. In fact, the authorities seem adamant to continue the policies reinforcing the Two-Child Policy that controls the growth of the Rohingya population, an action that HRW declares “could amount to crimes against humanity” and as such must be publicly revoked immediately. Burma Campaign UK‘s approach is different, believing that a cultural change is just as important as the reversal of the discriminatory laws. According to the organization, the society needs to decide what it means to be Burmese and “there needs to be an acceptance that Burma is a multi-ethnic and multi-religious country and people from different ethnic groups can live side by side.”

The Responsibility to Assist

RtoP outlines that it is also the responsibility of the international community to assist in building the capacity of states to ensure the protection of populations against any of the four crimes and violations. For the Asia-Pacific Center for the Responsibility to Protect, this should be in the way of building the capacity of Myanmar’s/Burma’s authorities to manage ethnic relations and inter-faith communal dialogue. Others, like the GCR2P, are calling for the international community to pressure the government to prioritize the development of a comprehensive reconciliation plan to engage ethnic minorities. Targeting the European Union, Burma Campaign UK, and MRG have urged the bodynot to lift sanctions against the government and have encouraged that diplomatic relations with Myanmar/Burma must remain limited. Meanwhile, the European Parliament adopted a resolution condemning the persecution and violence of the Rohingyas, and requesting the revocation of the discriminatory polices. Regardless of the action that has been taken or called for, as Burma Campaign UK points out, the international community must remind the government of their international commitment to the responsibility to protect, and to put pressure where needed to demand action to protect populations.

Going forward: Protection free of discrimination

While RtoP outlines the obligations of all governments and the international community to to protect populations from atrocities, in the case of Myanmar/Burma, amounting evidence suggests more needs to be done to ensure such protection. As UN Special Advisor on the Prevention of Genocide, Adama Dieng, said in his March 25 statement on the crisis, there is a considerable risk of further violence if measures are not put in place to prevent this escalation.” As many civil society groups have said, both the international community and the Myanmar/Burma authorities need to come together and implement measures to prevent future crimes and address the underlying issues that foster the continued discrimination against the Rohingya; however, exactly how this is to be done remains unclear and debated. As AI declares, what is certain is that “the Myanmar authorities are responsible for ensuring protection of people, their homes and livelihoods. While doing so, they must ensure protection of all communities without discrimination.”

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Spotlight Member Series: The Permanent Peace Movement

The ICRtoP is pleased to share our latest Spotlight series post, highlighting the work of Lebanon-based member, the Permanent Peace Movement (PPM) in advancing the Responsibility to Protect (RtoP, R2P) norm. The Coalition spoke with colleagues at PPM about how the organization is engaging with its constituency in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region to strengthen understanding of RtoP and overcome challenges facing the norm.

PPM created during a time of war to promote peace and reconciliation

For over 20 years, the Permanent Peace Movement has worked on building a culture of peace at the local, national and international levels to prevent and halt conflict and its reemergence, actions that directly impact atrocities prevention. PPM was established in 1989 at the height of the Lebanese civil war by a group of university students united by their determination to create a Lebanon free of conflict through promoting peaceful and non-violent resolution. To work towards achieving their vision and upholding these principles, PPM began and has continued implementing capacity building workshops for a range of audiences including students in schools and universities, civil society organizations, media personnel, political parties and civilians within local communities and refugee camps. These initiatives focus on achieving the overall goal of conflict resolution through advocating for dialogue amongst parties, promoting education and remembrance to foster healing and reconciliation, informing on the importance of arms control and how small arms and light weapons impact conflict, stopping the use of child soldiers, and so much more. Through this work, PPM has empowered individuals and institutions to play an active role in resolving crises before they reach the point where large-scale violence is committed. While their first RtoP-specific initiative began in 2012, you can see that PPM has been working to spread awareness on a number of agendas related to the Responsibility to Protect and the prevention of atrocities for many years.

First steps to advance RtoP in the MENA region

Believing in the importance of RtoP as a framework for the prevention of atrocity crimes and how the norm, if understood and operationalized, could impact the Middle East and North Africa, PPM took deliberate steps to raise awareness in the region through hosting the first-ever MENA regional workshop on RtoP in collaboration with the ICRtoP. Participants, which included civil society organizations from over 14 MENA countries and territories, a representative from Coalition member, the World Federation of United Nations Associations, staff from the UN Office on the Prevention of Genocide and the Responsibility to Protect, and representatives from the League of Arab States and Lebanese Parliament during the first day, discussed a number of topics related to RtoP – from the development of the norm to RtoP’s regional applicability through country case examinations, to how RtoP relates to other agendas and what civil society can do to engage with regional and national actors to advance the norm. During the conference, Mr. Fadi Abi Allam, the President of the Permanent Peace Movement emphasized that understanding and developing mechanisms for early warning and early response, as well as supporting dialogue to address misunderstandings between parties are essential to find peaceful solutions to conflict and prevent RtoP crimes.

Participants attend first MENA roundtable for civil society on RtoP.  Photo credit: PPM

Participants attend first MENA roundtable for civil society on RtoP. Photo credit: PPM

The hurdles facing work on RtoP

Despite the achievements of this workshop, advancing RtoP in the region is not without its challenges, especially following the military intervention in Libya in 2011 and the ongoing humanitarian crisis and civil war in Syria. Our colleagues at PPM raised the issue of the all too common misunderstanding of RtoP as a tool only for military intervention, a view held by many civil society organizations and political actors in and outside of the region. Another challenge closely linked to this is the belief that, hidden in the implementation of RtoP is a double standard whereby “superpowers” on the UN Security Council agree to act or exercise their veto power only when it’s in their best interest. PPM suggests that this latter obstacle is not helped by a general lack of trust and confidence they have found within the MENA region towards UN bodies and Member States, many of whom are largely considered biased, based on discussions about the Arab/Israel conflict. Additionally, depending on the country in question, there may be a number of more particular challenges for implementing RtoP that need to be overcome based on the political contexts.

But the hurdles won’t stop them – PPM’s next steps on RtoP

Despite challenges facing RtoP in the region, PPM is confident that through partnernships and training workshops, barriers to the advancement of the norm can be overcome.

For a long time, PPM has partnered with civil society organizations throughout the region and worked closely with policy markers at the national and regional levels. Since the Arab Spring, PPM has witnessed the creation of an opening for civil society engagement and collaboration with the League of Arab States (LAS), which could serve as an avenue to raise RtoP with the body and its Member States. While PPM has unofficially worked with the LAS since 2003, a more direct and formal partnership has begun to develop in the last year, following a regional dialogue meeting held in June 2012 between the League and civil society. Convened as a follow up to a larger meeting in 2011 hosted by the Global Partnership for the Prevention of Armed Conflict (GPPAC), the June dialogue led to the development of a longer term process for this engagement, including the League’s announcement of the creation of a body within its Secretariat to focus solely on coordination with civil society. While there is much to be excited about, our colleagues are quick to note that this process is still at the beginning and most basic stages, and initial progress has been slow. However, PPM, which is also a member of GPPAC and serves as their regional representative for the Middle East and North Africa, will be a critical partner for the LAS as it works to strengthen its engagement with civil society. They’re already working to promote some ideas for practical cooperation, including the possibility of establishing a focal point to exchange documents and information with civil society, or creating system for civil society to inform the LAS both on the continued development of this process and its work.

In addition to bringing civil society and the LAS together to not only increase general cooperation but also one day serve to advance RtoP, PPM is looking at how to strategically tackle some of the remaining obstacles facing the norm. Such work will require more than just them, as it takes actors at all levels strategically working together to truly create an environment where RtoP crimes will not be committed. Recognizing this, our colleagues at PPM said, “our region is facing real threats of mass atrocities…it is not possible for one entity to do everything on the Responsibility to Protect, but….options are available for everyone to contribute and make protection a possible alternative.” An initial and crucial step is to continue promoting a comprehensive understanding of RtoP as a norm that is based on prevention and assistance, so as to dispel the common misconception that RtoP is only intervention. To begin working to achieve this, PPM is developing a regional program and strategy to raise awareness on the norm, which will bring together a range of actors to discuss RtoP as a framework for the prevention of crimes against humanity, ethnic cleansing, war crimes and genocide and their role in preventing and responding to atrocity crimes. PPM hopes that such a program will assist in convening civil society to increase their work on the norm, and increase understanding of RtoP amongst national and regional policy makers to ultimately assist in strengthening their capacity to protect populations. We look forward to seeing this work develop!

To stay up to date on PPM’s work, be sure to like their Facebook Page, follow them on Twitter and visit their website!

 

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The Case of José Efraín Ríos Montt: Hitting the Reset Button on Justice in Guatemala

When former Guatemalan leader, José Efraín Ríos Montt, was found guilty of genocide on 10 May, it was a historical moment not only in the country, but for the world. It was the first time a former leader had been put on trial and convicted of genocide – one of the four crimes and violations within the Responsibility to Protect frameworkby a national, rather than international, court. For the Association for Justice and Reconciliation, a Guatemala-based organization founded by survivors of the state’s military campaign against indigenous villages 12 years ago, the conviction was “an opportunity to recuperate the truth that has been denied to our families and to the Guatemalan society…it was an opportunity to confront the past and address the root causes of the discrimination” they had suffered. Human Right Watch‘s Americas Director, José Miguel Vicanco, and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM) also welcomed the verdict, with USHMM stating that it “sent a powerful message…to the world that nobody, not even a former head of state, is above the law when it comes to committing genocide.” It was a victory for justice and the ongoing fight against impunity as well as another step towards healing for the victims and society – until the Guatemalan Constitutional Court overturned the conviction on 20 May . We are now left to wonder where the case stands, what this will mean for the victims and what effect this will have on justice and reconciliation in Guatemala.

Atrocities committed – the crimes and the verdict

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A woman from the Mayan population of Quiche region of Guatemala – an indigenous group in Guatemala who have felt persecuted for decades. UN Photo/John Olsson

An estimated 200,000 people were killed and over 1 million displaced during Guatemala’s 36 year-long civil war, which spanned from 1960-1996, with some 83% of the victims being indigenous Ixil Maya. Ríos Montt was sentenced by Guatemala’s top court to 80 years in prison for his role as the “intellectual author” of the killing of 1,771 people and the displacement of tens of thousands during his 17 months as president between 1982 and 1983. According to the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, the key question throughout the trial was whether Ríos Montt intentionally targeted Ixil Mayan communities while conducting the counterinsurgency campaign waged against guerillas operating in the Ixil region. Despite strong evidence against him, which included testimony by over 100 witnesses – including psychologists, military personnel, and victims -who told horrific stories of killings, sexual violence and the destruction of communities, Ríos Montt denied his role in ordering the genocide of the Mayan population, saying, “I never authorized, I never proposed, I never ordered acts against any ethnic or religious group.” Nonetheless, on 10 May, Judge Jazmin Barrios, announced that the court found Ríos Montt did plan and order the brutal campaign. In reading the summary of the verdict, Judge Barrios statedWe are completely convinced of the intent to destroy the Ixil ethnic group” which had been considered public enemies of the state and an inferior race, and concluded that the “violence against them, was not spontaneous but planned.

An imperfect trial? Prosecution challenges the Ríos Montt proceedings

With Ixil Mayan witnesses and victims testifying about massacres, torture, systematic sexual violence and the destruction of the Mayan culture, the trial, which began on 19 March, stirred up much interest and debate in Guatemala and abroad. While international human rights organizations celebrated the conviction, it was met with some controversy at home. The Constitutional Court was the target of lobbying by opponents to the verdict, including the state’s powerful business federation, Cacif, because they believed such a case tarnished the reputation of Guatemalans, equating them with the Nazis.

The trial proceedings themselves were also rife with drama and complications. From the beginning, one of Ríos Montt’s lawyers, Francisco Garcia Gudiel, challenged Judge Barrios’ legitimacy, accusing her of bias and partiality. This claim that the court was unable to deliver a fair verdict and the attempt to challenge the judges led Mr. Garcia Gudiel to be expelled on the first day, although he would be later reinstated. The issues didn’t stop there, as the rest of the defense team stormed out of the court on 18 April in protest at what they called “illegal proceedings”. The next day Mr. Garcia Gudiel was again expelled, this time for a few hours, after accusing Judge Barrios of failing to hear his legal challenges. The defense team used the second expulsion to declare to the Constitutional Court that their client was deprived of the lawyer of his choice, leading to an order that there be no sentencing until the issues had been resolved. The tribunal, however, disobeyed that order and issued their sentence of Ríos Montt’s case.According to Geoff Thale, an expert on Guatemala at the Washington Office on Latin America, as evidence presented during the trial clearly showed that Ríos Montt had ordered soldiers to burn indigenous villages and kill members of the Ixil group, his legal team’s only “tactic was to go after the judges who presided over the case.” The prosecutors consistently asserted that the defense strategy relied on constitutional challenges to delay or obstruct the trial. As the trial came to an end, defense lawyers announced that they would appeal, and appeal they did. This led to the three-to-two ruling by a panel of Constitutional judges to annul everything that had happened during the proceedings since 19 April, when Ríos Montt was briefly left without a defense lawyer and the trial should have come to a halt until the unresolved defense appeals had been resolved.

Hitting the reset button on justice?

The details of the annulment and how the trial plans to “hit the reset button” to 19 April remain unclear. The Constitutional Court has said that statements delivered in court before 19 April would stand, but all testimonies after that would be invalid, and the closing arguments would have to be given again but, as legal experts have said, repeating the final days before the same tribunal would amount to double jeopardy. As we wait to understand the possible outcomes of the Constitutional Court decision what is certain is that the decision was a blow to human rights advocates everywhere who “had called his conviction a sign that Guatemala’s courts would no longer allow impunity for the country’s powerful.” The Inter-American Court of Human Rights criticized the “abusive use of the appeal [for legal protection] as a delaying practice” to prevent human rights prosecutions. According to Minority Rights Group International, “this ruling of the Constitutional Court shows the weakness in Guatemala’s justice system,” and serves as a barrier to achieving accountability. Impunity Watch also released a critical statement on the situation, saying, “The decision of the Constitutional Court legitimizes the systematic and abusive legal procedures and formalities, widely condemned by Guatemalan society and international organizations…The politicized environment that is serving as a framework for the decision of the Constitutional Court only reinforces the country’s existing social perception that justice in Guatemala is neither independent nor impartial and that it favors those with the power and money to position themselves above the legal system.” While the attempt to seek justice is not over, the survivors and victims who gave evidence of the systematic violence may have to face a return to court, presenting a potentially serious challenge as “they may have lost their faith in the country’s legal system.”

Breakdown in trust: what does this mean for Guatemalan society?

Civil society representatives work on issues of justice and security for indigenous people in Guatemala City. UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe

Finding Ríos Montt guilty of genocide showed the Ixil Mayan population that the violence and brutal crimes committed against them would not be accepted and that perpetrators, regardless of their level of power, would be held to account. It offered hope to victims of atrocities around the world that justice can be served. Before the announcement of the annulment, Impunity Watch celebrated and declared that “this is an example of how justice should be the vehicle to generate social trust in the state. It can end violence, polarization and conflict.”

Amnesty International believes that, by overturning the historical verdict, the Constitutional Court has snatched away the rights of the Ixil Mayan people to truth, justice and reparations. According to the Association for Justice and Reconciliation, the annulment has taken place in the context where business elites and groups linked to the military, which was responsible for carrying out the violence, rejected the sentence. By rejecting the original verdict, and in turn supporting human rights perpetrators, these groups have encouraged social polarization, and present another barrier to reconciliation within the country. As Manfredo Marroquin, the President of Accion Cuidadana, a non-governmental organization committed to building democracy in Guatemala, puts it, “Impunity remains the only law of force in Guatemala” where the extreme weakness of the justice system makes the country “a major threat to regional democratic coexistence.”

The future of the Ríos Montt case

While no one knows what will happen next, we do know, as UN Special Advisor for the Prevention of Genocide, Adama Dieng, reiterated, that ”the victims of the atrocities committed during the civil war in Guatemala and their families have waited many years for justice…[and] Justice delayed is justice denied.” We have seen in far too many countries what happens when states fail to bring those responsible for serious and massive human rights violations to justice – tensions, discrimination, and continued conflict. As Mr. Dieng reminded us, only with justice and accountability for atrocity crimes “can Guatemala consolidate its peace process and build trust and confidence among its diverse population. Such trust and the credibility of its institutions are indispensable for the prevention of future abuses”.

For more information on the trial, visit the Ríos Montt Trial website.

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