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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RtoP and Rebuilding: Preventing atrocities through post-conflict reconstruction

In the lead up to the World Summit, then Secretary-General of the United Nations, Kofi Annan, noted that “roughly half of the countries that emerge from war lapse back into violence within five years.” RtoP was first put forward in the report of the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty, with advocates embracing it as a full spectrum of responsibilities from prevention, to reaction and rebuilding. When governments unanimously endorsed RtoP in the 2005 World Summit Outcome Document, the “responsibility to rebuild” was not included (presumably because rebuilding was to be the focus of the newly created Peacebuilding Commission), but rebuilding obviously plays a large part in preventing a return to conflict and the commission of atrocity crimes. This leaves us asking – What is the responsibility of actors in post-atrocity situations? With a number of states – Libya, te d’Ivoire, Sri Lanka, and Kenya – emerging from bloodshed in recent years, it is important to understand how actors can effectively contribute to the rebuilding process.

What does post-crisis reconstruction after mass atrocities entail? 

Mass atrocities – genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing – are the most extreme forms of violence and often literally destroy a country by leaving it with collapsing infrastructure and destabilized political, judicial and legal systems. These institutions often need to be rebuilt from scratch and on top of this, the social fabric – how members of a society interact with each other – breaks down, and mistrust and suspicion predominate between the fractured communities.  As can be expected then, rebuilding is a complicated and multi-faceted process, and includes a range of measures that can be taken by actors at all levels to assist in reconstruction. Such measures may include fostering political inclusiveness and promoting national unity, reforming legislation, ratifying relevant treaties, promoting human rights, monitoring elections, improving judicial processes, reintegrating ex-combatants and others into productive society, curtailing the availability of small arms, providing psychological support and reparations to victims, and establishing truth and reconciliation commissions. It is critical that these efforts not only serve to bring security to a country or region, but also address the causes of the conflict and mistrust between communities.  Without this complete approach, it is likely that continued suspicion could fester, risking a return to the deadly cycle of violence. What this demonstrates is that no single measure in the rebuilding process stands alone, but rather that all action must be linked to ensure a holistic approach that achieves long-term stability.

Responsibility to Rebuild in Practice

But what does rebuilding look like in practice?  As the cases of Libya, Côte d’Ivoire and Sri Lanka show, post-conflict countries are fragile and the tasks before them complex, as each state faces unique challenges based on its past, the causes of the conflict, and the level of destruction experienced.

Libya: Weapons continue to destabilize a nation and the region

The international community upheld its responsibility to protect populations in Libya by taking swift and coordinated efforts to halt the bloodshed and imminent threat to the people of Benghazi at the hands of the Gaddafi government, which had resorted to force against what began as a peaceful popular uprising. However, rebuilding remains an ongoing challenge as the countless weapons, which flooded the nation during the crisis following the arming of the opposition by outside states, continues to destabilize security in Libya and surrounding countries. While measures were taken to secure anti-aircraft missiles, nearly every adult male carries a weapon, and countless more arms that went missing have turned up in the hands of rebel forces in Mali. This is not to say the government and international community have done nothing since the crisis – both have remained engaged in the justice process by attempting to eliminate impunity through the national judiciary and the International Criminal Court, and have provided economic support, with the European Union giving an economic package to combat post-crisis challenges and the United States unfreezing assets worth US $32 billion. Yet as Ramesh Thakur argues, the challenges we see today demonstrate that more needs to be done to prevent revenge killings, reprisal attacks and the return to mass violence by establishing security and law and order and disarming the country.

Côte d’Ivoire: The struggle for justice and reconciliation 

Meanwhile, Côte d’Ivoire continues to struggle to rebuild by holding perpetrators accountable following the disputed 2010 presidential election between former President Laurent Gbagbo and recognized election winner Alassane Ouattara that left hundreds dead, thousands displaced and descended the country into war. Since the crisis, claims of one-sided justice have emerged – further perpetuating divisions between communities and causing an increase in attacks. Pro-Ouattara forces were quick to seek justice by arresting Gbagbo on 11 April 2011. They re-established key institutions such as courthouses and prisons, and assured that all responsible for atrocities would be held accountable. Yet, as Human Rights Watch (HRW) points out, tensions remain as the special unit established to investigate crimes has charged more than 150 people, but all only from Gbagbo’s supporters. If continued, this would ignore the risks associated with giving one side of the conflict a free pass for committing atrocities, which could have devastating outcomes for the people and the country. As HRW states, “the impunity of today leads to the crimes tomorrow”.

Sri Lanka: “Exclusive development” renews tensions

Following the 30-year civil war that arose out of ethnic tensions between the majority Sinhalese and the Tamil minority and ultimately destroyed the country’s infrastructure, halted development, and resulted in the commission of RtoP crimes – including 40,000 killed in the last months of the conflict – the Sri Lankan government began to rebuild. The government has driven development by addressing housing needs and providing safe drinking water and electricity. With the building of highways and airports, the government has begun to extend transportation and develop the tourism industry. These efforts, however, have not been without their challenges.  Firstly is the fact that some areas of the country remain devastated and uncultivated, leading, as International Crisis Group (ICG) points out, to renewed tensions between communities as some Tamils believe the development process has been selective and the government has undertaken efforts to impose Sinhala culture on Tamil communities across the country.  Then there’s the issue of accountability, with HRW noting that the government has resisted taking meaningful steps to investigate and prosecute government forces for alleged war crimes and failed to implement most of the accountability-related recommendations of its own Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission. ICG recommends that the international community increase pressure on the government to make it more accountable and to expand the democratic political role for the Tamil minority. The failure to address these social aspects of rebuilding may risk reviving Sri Lanka’s violent past.

Preventing atrocities in the long-term

Just as every crisis is unique, so is every path for reconstruction.  While the process of rebuilding a society following atrocity crimes remains an imprecise science, what these cases demonstrate is that there needs to be a holistic approach where security, justice and reconciliation and sustainable development are able to be achieved. The responsibility of all actors is not just to act to prevent or respond to imminent threats but assist in rebuilding efforts to ensure that populations are not threatened by the reoccurrence of atrocities.  As the UN Secretary-General reminds in his 2009 report on RtoP, “The surest predictor of genocide is past genocide,” so we need to be sure that the world’s attention goes well beyond stopping the most immediate threats, and includes long-term commitments to preventing atrocities.

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Genocide Awareness Month: Creating the Will to Act

The ongoing crises and threats to civilians in Syria and Mali, in Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) serve as reminders that mass atrocities are continuing the world over, and that more needs to be done to prevent and protect from these horrific crimes if we are to live up to the promise of “Never Again” . With the unanimous endorsement of the Responsibility to Protect (RtoP, R2P) at the 2005 World Summit, world leaders took a historic step by declaring that all governments have a responsibility to protect their populations from genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes and ethnic cleansing. During the month of April, which serves as ‘Genocide Awareness Month’, civil society across the globe brings attention to ongoing atrocities and educates on what individuals, organizations, and stakeholders at all levels can do to stand up in the face of genocide. While governments have committed to prevent genocide and other atrocity crimes, it is up to civil society and the general public to demand that world leaders uphold these responsibilities. Public demand, however, depends on public understanding and awareness of the ongoing crimes and available prevention tools. The International Coalition for the Responsibility to Protects global membership works to raise awareness on the prevention of genocide and other atrocities, not only in April but in their activities throughout the year. ICRtoP spoke with several Coalition members and close partners to gain insight on how they’re educating on genocide and how individuals and other NGOs can get involved. 

International and local efforts to build networks of advocates

The work of ICRtoP members and partners demonstrates the creative initiatives that civil society undertakes to increase understanding and knowledge on genocide prevention. United to End Genocide (UEG), and Vision GRAM-International, are two of the many organizations that believe building partnerships and working in networks builds the impact of individual activists, communities and organizations working to prevent atrocities across the globe. When we spoke with UEG, one of the largest activist organizations in the United States dedicated to preventing and ending genocide, our colleagues noted that their organization “believe[s] the only way to prevent mass atrocities and to end genocide once and for all, is to build a large, powerful activist network – a sustainable movement – that will sound the alarm and demand action by our elected leaders to protect all who face these threats, anywhere in the world.” They do this by rallying their network of hundreds of thousands of activists around what UEG calls  “action opportunities”, which have included circulating “a global petition calling for greater awareness and action to address ongoing abuses and suffering in Darfur“, and also , “ sounding the alarms about ominous warning signs of genocide by testifying before the U.S. Congress” on the situation in Burma. Meanwhile, Vision GRAM-International, a human rights organization working to promote and defend the rights of children and women in conflict zones in the Great Lakes Region of Africa, is currently recruiting local authorities, influential community members, former child soldiers, victims of genocide, churches, schools and other members of civil society to build a network of human rights activists within their local and regional constituency.  Vision Gram will then work to train their growing network “in monitoring and reporting on human rights violations, and actions to prevent genocide,” to ensure that “actions of advocacy and lobbying are organized at local, national and international level in collaboration with several associations…to remind governments of their responsibilities to protect people against atrocities.” 

Educating actors at all levels through seminars, conferences and publications

Seminars, conferences and publications are useful tools for NGOs to educate and promote discussion amongst civil society, governments, regional and international bodies, and the UN to prioritize the prevention of, and identify strategies to, halt genocide and other atrocity crimes. One group that carries out this crucial and influential work is the Auschwitz Institute for Peace and Reconciliation (AIPR), based in New York City. AIPR, which is dedicated to training and assisting governments to fulfill their responsibility to prevent atrocity crimes, created the Raphael Lemkin Seminar for Genocide Prevention and established intergovernmental networks, in Latin America and Africa, to educate policymakers from around the world on the causes of and tools available to halt genocide. Additionally, AIPR releases publications and holds events, as explained by their Communications Officer and Alumni Network Director, Alex Zucker, “We co-organized ‘Deconstructing Prevention’ a public conference at Cardozo Law School in New York, and we are currently preparing a volume on the theory, policy, and practice of mass atrocity prevention, with contributions from leading scholars and practitioners, that we hope will become required reading for policymakers, scholars, activists, and students.” Furthermore, they have organized a panel on incorporating genocide prevention into the development agenda, which will be held on 18 April.

The reach of these global education efforts can be expanded through the translation of materials, and release of publications and briefings in numerous languages. These activities allow NGOs to broaden their audience when educating on country specific situations and atrocity crimes. Genocide Alert, based in Germany, uses it’s German-language platform on the Responsibility to Protect to provide an online “space for articles that relate to RtoP and Germany and current events, interviews and conference outcomes relating to RtoP.” They recently published a short German-language summary of the European Union Task Force Report on the Prevention of Mass Atrocities to engage German politicians on the report’s recommendations targeting how the European Union can improve its genocide prevention capabilities. Additionally Genocide Alert, who is “working with German politicians to integrate the responsibility to protect and related issues into the party platforms”, is using publications to ‘name and shame’, and plans to “publish a ranking of political parties in Germany evaluating their activities on genocide prevention and response in the past four years.” 

New and innovative tools for prevention: social media and technology

In the last couple of years we have witnessed the power of social media as an essential tool for bringing the world’s attention to a range of topics, but civil society is pushing the boundaries of technology by going beyond Facebook and Twitter to create new, interactive and innovative ways to carry out their work. Christopher Tuckwood, the Co-Founder and Executive Director of The Sentinel Project for Genocide Prevention, explains how his organization uses technology, saying that “Wherever possible and appropriate, we seek to incorporate new technologies (especially web-based and mobile ones) into our work. For example, we recently launched Hatebase, which is the world’s largest online database of hate speech.” With the database, they’ve developed risk assessments to identify concerning situations and threats of genocide, and then use that information to inform and advocate for other organizations to take preventive action. It is important to acknowledge that their work, however, does not just occur in cyberspace – but is complemented by on-the-ground action. For example they recently sent their first field mission to Kenya during the recent presidential elections where, as accredited election observers, they monitored first hand developments on the ground. Meanwhile, the Global Partnership for the Prevention of Armed Conflict (GPPAC), a global member-led network of civil society organizations who are actively working on conflict prevention and peace-building, has a set-up a the Peace Portal, which serves as “a unique online platform for learning, sharing and collaborating in the conflict prevention and peace-building field…The Portal encourages information sharing and participation from civil society and grassroots organisations, whose voices often can not find the online visibility they need.” 

Creating space for and promoting dialogue

Many of these organizations’ programs aim to encourage dialogue amongst different stakeholders to prevent atrocities. Dialogue between minority populations, civil society, government officials, and other actors can help reduce tensions between groups at an early and preventive stage, long before the escalation of a conflict, thus finding a peaceful and inclusive resolution before the risk of atrocity crimes becomes imminent. It can also build the confidence, skills, and capacity of all of these actors with the ultimate result of creating an environment for solving tensions and problems together. The Foundation for Peace and Democracy (FUNPADEM), an organization based in Costa Rica working to develop regional capacity for atrocity prevention through research analysis and advocacy campaigns, is just one example of an organization creating space for such dialogue. While the organization also relies on social media and technology to communicate its awareness message, an essential element of all four of its main projects is the promotion of dialogue as a tool for prevention. For example, its program “Dialogando” which literally means talking in Spanish, provides forums for discussions between civil society and governments to improve the capacity of law enforcement of the Ministry of Labour, and in turn the civilian protection framework, in Costa Rica, Honduras, Panama and the Dominican Republic. Similarly, Lebanon-based organization, the Permanent Peace Movement, promotes peace throughout the Middle East and North African through their dialogue and awareness raising projects. Their program “Non-violence and Reconciliation in the Lebanese Mountains” uses dialogue to promote conflict resolution and reconciliation amongst local Lebanese communities in the mountain areas where violence that erupted in 2008 between different religious groups created a rift between previously peaceful villages. Working together, members of these communities produced a book to educate others and share successful stories about the co-existence between villages, which in turn reduced the likelihood of renewed violence.

Engaging national and regional actors

Preventing atrocity crimes does not stop at educating and raising awareness. It is essential to engage with national and regional actors in order to implement policies aimed at protecting civilians. As mentioned above, Genocide Alert’s primary focus is to engage directly with national political actors, and their programs include regular discussions on “genocide prevention, R2P and related issues with German parliamentarians and experts and make specific recommendations for a more effective German policy in regard to the responsibility to protect.”  In addition, United Nations Association-United Kingdom (UNA-UK) has a R2P Program, which seeks to put the Responsibility to Protect on the political agenda by galvanizing political support for RtoP and fostering an understanding of the concept within the public domain. They are attempting to consolidate a UK national RtoP policy network and build support within the UK government and national and regional political parties by engaging policy makers through reports and high-level round tables targeting decision makers. In South America, Coordinadora Regional de Investigaciones Económicas y Sociales, (CRIES) is working hard to bring the issue of RtoP amongst all actors in Latin America and Caribbean. In 2012 alone, through the release of their academic journal on RtoP and subsequent conferences, they engaged with a range of actors from representatives for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and politicians to academia and representatives of civil society organizations in Mexico, Brazil, Argentina, Chile and at UN Headquarters in New York. This is not unlike GPPAC’s programs which strive “for multi-actor collaboration and local ownership of strategies for peace and security” by connecting “members with relevant individuals and institutions such as the UN, regional intergovernmental organisations, state actors, the media and academia.” An important element of their work is building the capacity of civil society organizations on how they can reach out and engage better with media and policy makers on these issues. Engaging regional, sub-regional and national actors in discussions on preventing atrocities ensures greater collaboration to build a stronger more comprehensive policy framework for protecting civilians from these most terrible crimes.

How can you or your organization get involved in raising awareness on genocide and RtoP?

There are a number of ways you or your organization can get involved in raising awareness of and preventing genocide and other RtoP crimes. You or your organization can:

  • Use Facebook, Twitter, and other online platforms to instantly distribute your work and message. Genocide Awareness Month has a Facebook page where events and activities to promote awareness around the world are posted.
  • Stay informed of genocide prevention and advocacy campaigns by reading blogs and signing up for newletter updates; or get directly involved in the work of an organization, like joining one of United to End Genocide‘s action opportunities or contacting the Sentinel Project about becoming part of their team.
  • Connect with other groups and learn more on the work of civil society by using GPPAC’s Peace Portal, where users have the opportunity to publish material and reports – contributing to increasing the global conflict prevention and peace building knowledge base.
  • Contribute to the work of NGOs and discussions on mass atrocities by drafting articles on current situations, or organizing events. Genocide Prevention Network, an international organization, has created a directory of organizations involved in genocide awareness around the world. Find out who is working on genocide awareness in your country and region. 
  • Become part of the global movement advocating for the prevention of mass atrocities and advancement of RtoP by joining the International Coalition for the Responsibility to Protect, a network of organizations dedicated to amplifying the voice of civil society as we push for governments, regional organizations, and the international community to strengthen their capacities to prevent and halt genocide.
  • You don’t have to be an adult or NGO to work to prevent mass atrocities. Youth can participate on a local level – for example in Costa Rica or the DRC: FUNPADEM involves youth in their programs, using art and sports to prevent atrocities, while Vision GRAM-International encourages communities to participate in awareness programs held at schools, health centers, social centers and churches. The Holocaust Museum in Houston, US provides a list of 30 things you can do for Genocide Awareness Month. 

It is now up to all of us to play a part, not only in April but all year round, to raise awareness to create the public and political will needed to prevent atrocities and act in the face of escalating violence.

Learn more on and connect with the organizations featured in this blog!

 

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WHEN ARMS GET IN THE WRONG HANDS: Arms trade and the implications for upholding the Responsibility to Protect

The trade of virtually all goods is regulated and controlled; however, no global standard exists for the international trading of arms. As we speak, the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) is meeting for the final negotiations on an international Arms Trade Treaty (ATT). The idea of a treaty was introduced at the UN in 2006 in the form of a draft resolution. In 2009, the UNGA adopted Resolution 64/48 to convene a UN Conference on the Arms Trade Treaty to stop the lethal consequences of the uncontrolled trade of arms which have included hundreds of thousands of deaths, women raped at gunpoint and children recruited into armed groups; not to mention the many injured, tortured, abused or taken hostage. As the United Nations Secretary General has argued, “violence against civilians is…unquestionably abetted by the free flow of weapons…we urgently need a robust and comprehensive agreement that addresses the humanitarian impact of the poorly regulated trade in arms.” From 18-28 March 2013, the UNGA will negotiate the final text of the Treaty. Many civil society groups and members of the NGO coalition, Control Armsincluding Vision Gram International and Africa Peace Forum have stated that the document being discussed is a weaker version of the original proposal with loopholes that undermine the effectiveness of the treaty, including ambiguity in the use of terms such as “trade” and “transfer” and lower standards of control for ammunition. Nonetheless, many states and civil society organizations are positive that, if passed, the Treaty will be a step forward in achieving more security and protection.

UN Secretary General at the Opening of the Final Conference on The Arms Trade Treaty.

UN Secretary General at the Opening of the Final Conference on The Arms Trade Treaty. Credit: UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe

The Arms Trade: Impacting the Security Sector

The arms trade is a globalized and lucrative business – Oxfam International estimates that between 2008 and 2011, the trade was worth more than $9.7bn. There is an incredibly strong link between poor arms control, access to conventional weapons and the increased likelihood of intra-state violence, which can lead to the commission of mass atrocities. The presence of illegal arms and armed elements is one of the eight indicators of the Office of the UN Special Advisor on the Prevention of Genocide‘s analysis framework which assists in determining whether there may be a risk of genocide in a given situation. As small arms and ammunition can be easily transferred, stolen or diverted, they are frequently the weapons of choice in armed conflicts. Thus, regulating their trade and stopping their illegal diversion can have a powerful impact on a state’s ability to prevent mass atrocities. According to Dr. Robert Zuber, of Global Action to Prevent War (GAPW), the presence of large amounts of arms creates an unpredictable security situation and undermines state control of the security sector;

The irresponsible transfer of weapons and ammunition and proliferation of illicit small arms have direct implications for our ability to secure our streets…[and on] the ability of governments to discharge many of its important functions including the primary responsibility to protect civilians from violence.”

MONUSCO

Weapons retrieved from rebels by the UN’s mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUSCO) in coordination with the UN Mine Action Service (UNMAS) in DRC. Credit: UN Photo/Sylvain Liechti

In addition to contributing to cycles of violence, the presence of illicit arms in the hands of non-state actors and rebel groups complicates regional and international efforts to strengthen a state’s capacity to fulfill its primary responsibility to protect. What’s more, though it’s clear that governments need to minimize the spread of illicit weapons to uphold their commitment to protect populations from mass atrocity crimes, in many cases, it is the state, itself, that is complicit in the conflict and the spread and use of illegal arms.

Perpetuating the Violence

The responsibility to minimize the spread of weapons is not limited to countries in conflict. The five Permanent Members of the UN Security Council, or the ‘P5’ – China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States – are the world’s largest arms traders. Amnesty Internationals report entitled “Major Powers Fueling Atrocities: Why the World Needs a Robust Arms Trade Treaty,” demonstrates how all five countries have “engaged in arms deals that fueled atrocities”. China‘s state-owned companies, for example, supplied weapons to the Gaddafi regime in Libya as well as ammunition for small arms used by security forces and militia in Darfur; while Russia supplies weapons to Syria, Myanmar and Sudan that have been used to attack civilians. The government of Russia, which has admitted to supplying Syrian forces with weapons, has blocked several UN resolutions aimed at halting the violence by imposing an arms embargo and sanctions on Syria and says it will continue to supply weapons to the regime. Meanwhile Saudi Arabia and Qatar are delivering arms to the opposition forces, which some say could prolong the increasingly deteriorating humanitarian crisis and civil war. While some Western states originally pushed Russia to stop its arms trade to Syria, the United Kingdom and France  are now calling for the European Union to lift its arms embargo on Syria so they can send weapons to the rebels. Though the United States has argued that more weapons in Syria would do more damage, it has promised not to get in the way of other governments supplying arms to the rebels. This flow of weapons to the Syrian opposition has sparked a debate, with many arguing that these measures, undertaken by the international community to uphold protection obligations, actually perpetuate more violence. As one human rights blogSelf Evident Truth, puts it:

So long as the superpowers…arm the world with small arms, their approval of the responsibility to protect has little meaning.”

The importance of disarmament

In addition to preventing conflict, the regulation of the arms trade is an important step in securing a safe environment in post-crisis situations. According to Ray Acheson, Chair of civil society organization Reaching Critical Will, “the excess weapons available throughout the world continue…impeding the post-conflict rehabilitation and reconstruction”. This has been devastatingly illustrated in the case of Libya, as remaining weapons in the hands of thousands of militias have hampered the state’s control over the security sector, exacerbating the country’s already unstable situation. This case also showed the importance of preventing the spread of weapons in post-conflict countries as reports emerged that missing weapons from Libya may have appeared in the hands of Islamist rebels in Mali. Human Rights Watch recently stated that;

Urgent efforts to secure anti-aircraft missiles from Libya…blinded western governments to the danger of other weapons going missing and fueling conflicts in Mali…it takes a tiny fraction of the weapons missing in Libya to supercharge a conflict like Mali.”

Thus, amid attempts to protect populations in Libya, a lack of oversight of the flow of weapons throughout the country may have actually played a part in fueling conflict in Mali by providing easily accessible arms to northern-based rebel groups.

Civil society calls for stronger references to Atrocity Crimes in ATT

Article 3 in the latest draft of the ATT, on “Prohibited Transfers”, requires that a state party not authorize a transferfor the purpose of facilitating the commission genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes.According to Reaching Critical Will’s ATT Monitor, this language demonstrates that governments agree that arms must not be transferred to a state where there is a risk of gross violations of human rights and international humanitarian law. While this is a start, Africa Peace Forum states that under the treaty the “states’ obligation to refuse transfers if they assess there is a substantial risk that the transfer would result in human rights and humanitarian law violations are legally ambiguous.” Meanwhile, according Amnesty International, these references are too narrow and the definition of war crimes is extremely limited. Reaching Critical Will, argues“a circumstance in which a state would apply to import arms specifically for the purpose of committing genocide or any of the other crimes listed is a rather high threshold for prohibition.” Oxfam adds that, “the draft Article as it relates to genocide falls far short of the duty to prevent genocide by taking action before it happens…As currently drafted…Article 3.3 will apply only where genocide has already taken place.” Such language risks undermining the very foundation on which RtoP is based: the prevention of atrocities.

Amnesty International has suggested revisions to the text to support a preventative framework, stating that, “a State Party shall not authorize a transfer of conventional arms within the scope of this Treaty if the transfer would facilitate the commission of genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes or a consistent pattern of serious violations of international human rights law.”

Going forward with or without a treaty

The link between the flow of illicit weapons and the increasing likelihood of RtoP crimes as well as the devastating impact of access to weapons on a state’s ability to protect its population show the urgent need for regulations on the trade of arms, which the ATT can provide. However, it is also important to note that even if the Treaty is not adopted, willing governments can take measures to oversee the safe sale of arms and civil society can advocate for such measures. While a strong Arms Trade Treaty could greatly reduce serious human rights violations and contribute to the general reduction of conflict throughout the world, a weaker treaty might be worse than no treaty at all. The important truth is that with fewer weapons available, governments will be one step closer to being better able to uphold their responsibility to protect their populations from RtoP crimes; it is up to activists, civil society organizations, the media, and policymakers everywhere to make this a reality.

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All eyes on upcoming elections as Kenya works to prevent the recurrence of atrocities

The people of Kenya are just days away from casting their ballots on 4 March in the country’s first election since the 2007 presidential race which resulted in unprecedented ethnic violence, leaving over 1000 people dead and 600,000 more displaced.  A country with over 70 distinct ethnic groups – the five largest being Kikuyu, Luo, Luhya, Kalenjin, and Kamba – Kenya’s past elections have largely witnessed voting along ethnic lines. This year, eight candidates are running, among them Uhuru Kenyatta and his running-mate, William Ruto, both of whom have been indicted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for their alleged role in the commission of crimes against humanity following the 2007 elections. While the Kenyan government has undertaken a range of measures to prevent a repeat of 2007’s deadly crisis, including the adoption of a new constitution to redistribute political power, the training of police and civil society to identify and monitor  hate speech, and educating the Kenyan population on the newly established electoral process , civil society organizations have raised alarm to the sizeable risk of violence that remains.  As several NGOs, including Human Rights Watch (HRW), have reported,  Kenya has already experienced election-related inter-communal attacks that left over 400 dead and upwards of 118,000 displaced during 2012 and early 2013.  This election, which is expected to be extremely close and require a second round, known as a “run off” (scheduled for 11 April), will prove a great test for the Kenyan government as it works to uphold its responsibility to protect its population from the recurrence of mass atrocities, as well as ensure a free, fair and transparent presidential race.

Kenya’s 2007 disputed election: a political and humanitarian crisis

SG Meeting

Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon (centre, head table), flanked by Kofi Annan (left, head table), former United Nations Secretary-General, and Anna Tibaijuka, Executive Director of the United Nations Human Settlements Programme, participate in a meeting to end the two-week old deadly violence sparked by recent disputed results of the presidential elections, with the major parties to the conflict.
Credit: UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe

The presidential election of December 2007 swept Kenya into a wave of ethnically charged violence following the contested announcement of incumbent Mwai Kibaki as president over the predicted favorite to win, Raila Odinga. The declaration of Kibaki as president, followed by the swiftness of his inauguration a handful of hours later, triggered widespread and systematic violence characterized by ethnically targeted killings, which evidence later showed to be largely pre-meditated by politicians and community leaders. Crimes committed included crimes against humanity – one of the four crimes and violations that all governments, including Kenya, committed to preventing and halting when endorsing the Responsibility to Protect (RtoP, R2P). The international community acted rapidly to keep the volatile situation from deteriorating by deploying former United Nations Secretary General, Kofi Annan, to serve as international mediator and head of the African Union Panel of Eminent Personalities.  The outcome of the Panel’s efforts was a power-sharing government that committed to address the long term issues and root causes of the conflict.

Pre-election preparation and reform: enough to prevent a repeat of 2007?

A range of preventive actions have been taken by the government, UN agencies, and civil society to prevent a repeat of the tragic violence that plagued Kenya five years ago.  Civil society and media representatives convened a forum organized by the Nairobi Peace Initiative – Africa and the Global Partnership for the Prevention of Armed Conflict, in Nairobi in early February 2013 to share their work to ensure peaceful elections, and discuss the concerns surrounding the poll with the goal of generating a collective voice and strategy for civil society and media.  At the national level, Kenyan authorities have trained hundreds of police and peace organization representatives in monitoring media and speech to bring attention to hateful language that can incite violence.  With the support of translators the monitors can identify hate speech in a range of dialects and, through partnerships with phone service providers, track phone messages too.

Monitoring will be crucial to determine the election results so organizations like the Carter Center, the Citizens’ Coalition for Electoral Democracy in Uganda, and the Elections Observation Group, as well as the East African Community and the African Union, have dispatched teams to oversee the upcoming poll.

UN officials and agencies have been vocal and active as well, with UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon calling on all leaders to “abide by legal mechanisms and to send a clear message to supporters that violence of any kind would be unacceptable.”  The Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide, Mr. Adama Dieng, was in Nairobi in early February where he recalled the responsibility of the Kenyan authorities to protect and noted the need to ensure a swift response by the international community to prevent a repeat of 2007.  His office was there to work with the International Conference on the Great Lakes Region to support Kenya’s National Committee on the Prevention of Genocide, which included holding a five-day workshop on RtoP and the prevention of inter-communal violence. To ensure that all preparations are underway in the event of displacement, the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, created a humanitarian contingency, with the Special Rapporteur on the human rights of internally displaced persons calling on the government and international community to do everything possible to prevent massive displacement.

The government itself has adopted numerous reforms to create the environment needed for peaceful and fair elections and to address the country’s deep seeded grievances.  While these actions should be commended, remaining challenges and incomplete reforms have left many NGOs questioning if the government’s response will be enough.

Constitutional reform

Following a 2010 referendum, Kenya adopted a new constitution to prevent ethnically charged politics and check the power of the executive.  This has been done by giving greater power and resources to local political leaders through the creation of what International Crisis Group (ICG) calls a “new level of governance”– the establishment of 47 districts each with their own governor, senator and assembly. The government has also adopted measures to ensure full geographic (and therefore ethnic) support for the president-elect by creating new voting rules that require the winning candidate to receive more than half of all votes and at least 25% in 24 of the newly established counties.  While these new rules will serve to spread power and responsibility to a range of politicians, the majority of Kenyans have not received the information needed to understand the new Constitution and voting rules, as the Kenyan Human Rights Commission (KHRC) found in its report entitled Countdown to the March 2013 General Elections.  Through conducting polls and interviews throughout the country, KHRC’s research indicated that increased and continuous civic education is crucial “to secure an informed public for future elections.”

The devolution of presidential power is also meant to keep the nation from erupting into large scale violence; however the new counties and positions could very well create the likelihood for localized conflict.  This is in part due to the increased influence that local politicians will hold, which may lead “many local leaders seek to preserve the system of ethnic patronage that devolution was intended to remove.  As a result, the mobilization of ethnic grievances to garner political support remains rampant,” as the Global Centre for R2P (GCR2P) points out. These findings were echoed in ICG’s report entitled Kenya’s 2013 Elections, where the organization elaborates on how the constitutional changes can lead to risk of violence, stating that “although the new level of governance should give communities, including minorities, a greater say (…), it could also transfer political competition, violence and corruption down and create new minorities and new patterns of marginalization.”

Strengthening the security sector

Efforts were also undertaken to address the failures of the police to protect in the aftermath of the last elections. During the violent crisis, the government responded with excessive force, with Amnesty International (AI) recalling the role of police in “killing and injuring protestors and raping and sexually assaulting women and girls, particularly in opposition areas.”  The government subsequently established an ambitious framework which, as the International Center for Policy and Conflict in Africa noted, was meant to “establish and elaborate an effective system of democratic regulation and oversight of security services;” however, as AI points out, the framework has not been implemented to the fullest, and the capacity of security personnel remains an inherent problem, placing civilians at risk of violence yet again.

Little has been done practically to bring to justice those responsible for violent crimes committed following the previous election, and AI has stated that steps have actually been taken to cover up and politically manipulate cases against security personnel.  As a result, while conducting on the ground research, Human Rights Watch (HRW) has heard from countless Kenyans that “they view the police as ineffective and corrupt.” As the elections approach, police also remain understaffed and ill-equipped, with the Council on Foreign Relations reporting that the Kenyan force has about 70,000 police, “or roughly 160 per 100,000 residents, which is less than three-quarters of the 220 per 100,000 recommended by the United Nations.”  These forces will be stretched to their limits when tasked with patrolling the polling stations, which could exceed 40,000 nationwide.

Ending impunity

Upholding accountability for crimes committed during the 2007 election remains a critical challenge for Kenya, and one that has already had an impact on the elections.  HRW also pointed out that little has been done nationwide to arrest and prosecute civilians responsible for attacks on people and property, leaving those responsible for 2007 election-related violence free to repeat their actions.

At the government level, impunity has been stated to be at the heart of the 2007 crisis, with the final report of the Commission of Inquiry on Post-Election Violence calling for the creation of a domestic special tribunal.  After two failed government attempts to establish the tribunal, Kofi Annan sent to the ICC the names of a dozen suspects deemed most responsible, leading to the opening of an investigation by the Court’s then-Chief Prosecutor, Luis Moreno-Ocampo.  From this investigation, six of the suspects, referred to in the media as the “Ocampo six”, were summoned to appear before the Court, ultimately resulting in the confirmation of charges for four of the “Ocampo Six”, including candidate Uhuru Kenyatta and his running mate, William Ruto.  The ICC indictments have influenced the presidential campaigns with the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) reporting that some are describing the polls as “a referendum against or for the ICC”.  The indictments have also resulted in an unexpected political alliance with the formation of the Kenyatta-Ruto ticket, as the two men are Kikuyu and Kalenjin respectively, two ethnic groups which violently targeted the other in 2007. Civil society organizations, including the International Commission of Jurists-Kenya (ICJ-Kenya), the Kenyan Human Rights Commission (KHRC), and the International Center for Policy and Conflict, fought to keep Kenyatta and Ruto from running, arguing that their candidacy violated the integrity clause of the new Constitution.  The Kenyan High Court, however, disagreed, ruling that it would not intervene, ultimately giving the two men the green light to participate.  This ruling has led many to wonder about the practicality of a Kenyatta/Ruto presidency, with ICJ-Kenya noting in their report entitled If Uhuru Kenyatta or William Ruto is Elected President or Deputy President, that such a presidency would cripple the government because the country would be left with leaders who are unable to carry out their vast domestic duties due to repeated trips to the Hague.  As of 27 February, the trial dates remained up in the air as the Chief Prosecutor for the ICC, Fatou Bensouda, indicated that she would accept a postponement of the trials to August.  Kenyatta and Ruto had been slated to begin their trials on 10 and 11 April respectively, with 11 April being election run-off date.

What do these risks mean for the elections and the people of Kenya?

As FIDH notes, the pre-election environment has been “marked by political parties and alliances’ mobilization of the population along ethnic lines, the re-activation or creation of illegal gangs and militia groups (…), cases of civilians arming themselves as a preventive measures, the use of hate speech or inflammatory coded language by politicians, vernacular radio stations as well as through social media: in other words, all the ingredients that led to the 2007/2008 violence.”  But 2013 does not need to be a repeat of the cycle of violence that has plagued the country.  As put by ICG, “the people deserve better.  (…) they deserve the change to vote without fear and elect leaders committed to reform and ready to serve society as a whole rather than the narrow interests of elites.”

While the Kenyan government should be commended for the steps taken, more can certainly be done at the domestic and international levels to ensure free and fair elections and uphold the state’s responsibility to protect from mass atrocity crimes.  This can include publicly committing to respect election rules and, as KHRC’s research found, providing civic education about the electoral process.  As HRW recommends, the government can take direct measures through the deployment of police “in adequate numbers to areas of potential conflict and ensure that they perform their duties impartially and with full respect of the law”.  This point was echoed by the GCR2P, who also noted that state authorities should “warn all Kenyans (…) that they will be held responsible for inciting, aiding or perpetrating mass atrocity crimes.”  For actors at the regional and international levels, ICG has called on leaders to send messages urging against “political interference with the elections and especially against the use of or incitement to violence”.  These are just some of the many steps the government of Kenya and the international community can take to prevent the spread of post-election violence.  These preventive efforts drive at the very heart of RtoP, which not only calls for states to halt mass atrocities, but to protect from genocide, crimes against humanity, and ethnic cleansing happening again.  The people of Kenya deserve the opportunity to elect a new president without the fear of mass atrocities; the time for preventive action is now.

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Filed under African Union, International Criminal Court, Kenya, Post-Conflict, Prevention, RtoP

Spotlight on the World Federation for the United Nations Associations

We are delighted to introduce to you a new Spotlight series on the ICRtoP blog, where you will be able to learn more about Coalition members and their ongoing activities and initiatives to advance the Responsibility to Protect (RtoP, R2P) norm. 

The World Federation for the United Nations Associations (WFUNA), an ICRtoP member since 2009, launched its Responsibility to Protect Program in 2011. ICRtoP spoke with Laura Spano, RtoP Program Officer at WFUNA, who provided some insight into the goals of and challenges associated with WFUNA’s work on the Responsibility to Protect (RtoP).

WFUNA strives to deepen the understanding of the RtoP norm and highlight its potential as a guide for national policy amongst NGOs around the world. WFUNA’s RtoP program provides this increased awareness to mobilize civil society to advocate for their national leaders to operationalize the norm. As Spano told us, “The main goal of the program is to mobilize and push for the political will to prevent and act in the face of mass atrocities.

WFUNA represents and coordinates a membership base of over 100 national United Nations Associations (UNAs), which link citizens to the United Nations by emphasizing the relevance of UN developments at the local level through teaching, advocacy, and exchange programs. Among other areas of collaboration, WFUNA has teamed up with several UNAs in different regions around the world to create activities about and build support for RtoP. The program seeks to empower UNAs to target advocacy to four key groups: civil society, the academic community, politicians and the media.

To this end, WFUNA conducts capacity-building trainings for NGOs in these regions, in partnership with national UNAs and others, including, on occasion, the ICRtoP. These trainings provide a comprehensive background on RtoP and on the role of actors in implementing the norm and expand on how civil society can continue raising awareness and engage in effective advocacy. WFUNA also maintains an online platform to facilitate collaboration across regions as well as the exchange of expertise and best practices from outreach, advocacy and teaching activities. “Working with UNAs allows WFUNA’s programs to generate a more nuanced national understanding of the norm as the UNAs have a good understanding of domestic policy gaps and where progress is needed,” said Spano. In addition, partnering with national UNAs, which often already have well-established networks of civil society actors in the country, streamlines the dissemination of information on RtoP and hence increases awareness of the norm. “Ideally, once we run our initial training,” Spano stated, “the UNA has enough knowledge to take the norm forward in a national context with the assistance and support of WFUNA.”

Progress is visible after just one year. WFUNA and UNA partners, in particular UNA-ArmeniaUNA-Georgia and UNA-DRC,  have trained 48 NGOs, produced a number of  articles on the norm, 5 toolkits which were translated into five languages, and produced a documentary feature on the current situation in the Middle East and the RtoP norm, which was broadcasted on national Armenian television.

Dag Hammarskjold Symposium: Youth from UNA-Uganda, UNA-Tanzania and UNA-Kenya discuss the importance of RtoP in East Africa.  Credit: WFUNA

Dag Hammarskjold Symposium: Youth from UNA-Uganda, UNA-Tanzania and UNA-Kenya discuss the importance of RtoP in East Africa. Credit: WFUNA

Another key component of the RtoP program in 2011 and 2012 was the Dag Hammarskjöld Symposium Series, which provided a regional forum to engage key stakeholders in the RtoP debate. Participants looked specifically at the tension between state sovereignty, the role of intervention, and the implications for the RtoP norm. The Series reached four continents with conferences in Kenya in June 2011, China in December 2011, Venezuela in February 2012 and India in October 2012.

During our conversation with Ms. Spano, she discussed the impact of the crisis situations in Libya and Syria on global opinion towards the norm, saying that WFUNA saw an increase in debate on the implementation of measures to respond to RtoP crimes, and a resulting “divergence in ideas and understandings of the norm from conference participants.”  Consequently, WFUNA’s work shifted, as appropriate, from its initial, primary focus on awareness-raising to narrower discussions to clarify misconceptions and assess the challenges associated with implementation. Nonetheless, Spano noted that across all regions, she saw a tangible increase in knowledge of the norm and its principles, which has allowed for more comprehensive discussions on RtoP tools to prevent atrocity crimes. According to Spano, the enduring challenge is to ensure that all actors understand that “the foundation of RtoP is really about prevention.”

WFUNA will continue to challenge misinterpretations of RtoP and ensure that the norm is understood by civil society, academics, politicians and the media, as well as other relevant actors. To stay up to date on WFUNA’s work with UNAs all throughout the world, be sure to visit their website.

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Filed under CivSoc, Human Rights, ICRtoP Members, Prevention, RtoP, Spotlight Post, UN

The Responsibility to Protect: a new norm to make ‘Never again’ a reality

Re-blogged from IJCentral.

This post was written for the IJ Central blog by Megan Schmidt, ICRtoP Outreach Officer, and Amelia Wolf, ICRtoP Social Media Coordinator and Blogger. 

 In the aftermath of the Holocaust, there was a resounding global outcry for the world to never again bear witness to mass murder.  But the genocides in Cambodia, Rwanda and Bosnia, and the crimes against humanity committed in Kosovo, East Timor, and Darfur, were gruesome reminders that the international community has failed to make this aspiration a reality.  From these tragedies came a historic shift in international relations: governments agreed that sovereignty would no longer be used as a shield to massacre populations and that there is, in fact, a moral obligation to prevent and halt the most horrific crimes known to humankind.  It was in 2005 at the World Summit at United Nations (UN) Headquarters, that governments unanimously endorsed the Responsibility to Protect (RtoP, R2P), committing to protect their populations from genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing.

Civil society, which includes non-governmental organizations (NGOs), academic institutions, and the media, has a critical role to play in ensuring that governments uphold their responsibility to protect populations from mass atrocities.  Since 2005, civil society support for RtoP has continued to increase, with more organizations raising awareness of RtoP and calling on their governments, regional organizations, and the international community to take action to prevent and halt these most serious crimes.

But, what is RtoP exactly?

The Responsibility to Protect is a new international norm founded on the prevention of four crimes – genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes, and ethnic cleansing.  At the 2005 World Summit, which was the largest ever gathering of heads of state, all governments endorsed RtoP, making a commitment to protect their populations from these crimes.  The responsibility to protect populations starts first and foremost with the state.  Governments hold the primary responsibility to ensure the safety and security of their people, and to protect them from these horrific crimes.  The international community also has a responsibility. Neighboring countries as well as other governments, regional organizations, and the UN have an obligation to help states meet their protection obligations.  And should a state be unable to prevent RtoP crimes, or is in fact the perpetrator, the international community has a responsibility to take timely and decisive action to halt the commission of mass atrocities.

Despite growing support for RtoP, many misunderstandings remain. Some still confuse RtoP with the concept of humanitarian intervention, a principle that was fleetingly popular in the 1990s and focused on the right of a state to intervene in another country’s affairs.  This is far from what RtoP means.  RtoP is not based on the right of any state but on the responsibility of all governments to protect their populations from the most egregious crimes.  Another common misconception of RtoP is that the norm is just about the use of force, when in fact it is not only based on the prevention of mass atrocities, but includes a range of political, economic, and humanitarian tools for actors at all levels to implement to meet this goal, with military force as an option only when peaceful means have failed.  It’s important to remember too that RtoP actually places more restrictions on the use of force, since military measures can only be used when authorized by the UN Security Council, in accordance with the UN Charter.

How to get involved?

Civil society has always been a driving force for the protection of populations and the advancement of the norm. With the articulation of the Responsibility to Protect, NGOs, academics and the media had a way to hold their governments and other states accountable for the prevention of mass violence. World leaders made a promise in 2005, and would have to make good on their commitments.

Building understanding of the norm by educating the public, governments, and regional actors is crucial to the prevention of RtoP crimes.  In an effort to ensure that the world is aware of this historic commitment and the responsibilities it entails, NGOs have and can continue to implement a wide range of educational and awareness raising initiatives.  Organizations have published journals focused on RtoP and related thematic issues, developed toolkits and informative documents on the norm, conducted research on the prevention of and response to RtoP crimes, and used social media to provide up-to-the-minute information on RtoP discussions and crisis situations.

As the Responsibility to Protect starts first and foremost with the state, civil society organizations can advocate for the strengthening of national and regional capacities to prevent RtoP crimes.  Organizations can take a wide range of action to achieve this goal and assist governments in upholding their responsibilities. This includes calling on politicians to make RtoP references, encouraging states to adopt legislation to protect the rights of vulnerable populations and ensure equality for all, and pushing governments to enhance or establish domestic and regional mechanisms to prevent mass atrocities.

Some organizations focus more specifically on monitoring and documenting country developments, and through their field presence, are equipped to provide early warning of potential crises.  NGOs can also dispatch fact-finding missions to uncover the truth in situations where conflict has begun.  These organizations can then alert actors at the national, regional, and international levels of potential or imminent threats to populations.  Especially in cases where there is no domestic or international presence, NGOs may be uniquely placed to act as “watchdogs” for human rights violations.

If tensions arise within or between communities, civil society can encourage all parties to negotiate to find a peaceful and sustainable non violent resolution or support the mediation efforts of others, such as national or regional actors, or the UN.  These groups can also train peacekeepers and the security sector so that they are able to identify risks of RtoP crimes and respond preventively if populations are under threat of mass atrocities.

The Responsibility to Protect does not stop just because a conflict does.

Historically, NGOs have played pivotal roles in post-crisis reconstruction to not only rebuild after mass atrocities have been committed, but to assist in conflict resolution efforts that prevent states from descending back into violence.  This can mean analyzing past cases to learn from failures and assess best practices, as well as developing RtoP indicators that would allow actors to better understand the risks to mass atrocities.  Reconciliation efforts are also crucial following a conflict, and NGOs often take part in strategizing and assisting with such peace processes, placing critical emphasis on the importance of ensuring equal representation and protection of rights for minority populations and vulnerable groups.

Joining these global efforts will help ensure that the world does not look away in the face of mass atrocities.  We can all agree that genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing must be prevented, but what is crucial is that actors at all levels commit to making this a reality.

You can hold your government and other world leaders, regional organizations and the UN accountable to their 2005 promise to protect populations from these horrific crimes. The Responsibility to Protect can be an effective tool to advocate for rapid responses to dire situations and long-term measures to stave off conflicts in the future. In the words of UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, “The Responsibility to Protect is a concept whose time has come”.

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Filed under CivSoc, Prevention, RtoP, UN