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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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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Shocking report details the UN’s failure to protect the people of Sri Lanka

A United Nations (UN) report alleging the failure of the international body to uphold its responsibilities to protect civilians threatened by massive human rights violations during the Sri Lankan civil war was released on 14 November 2012, and quickly spurred impassioned reactions from civil society and UN actors. For many, the Report of the Secretary-General’s Internal Review Panel on United Nations Action in Sri Lanka confirmed their earlier claims that the UN did not act rapidly or robustly to protect the people of Sri Lanka. For others, the report was a shocking reality check that the international community still has a long way to go to build the necessary political will and capacity to respond to these deadly conflicts.

Large-scale civilian suffering during the civil war

The final stages of the Sri Lankan civil war, from August 2008 until May 2009, saw a dramatic escalation of violence between the Sri Lankan government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), known as the Tamil Tigers, who had been fighting to establish the state of Tamil Eelam in the north of the country since the late 1970s. Violence was concentrated in the Wanni, a northern region, and clashes trapped hundreds of thousands of civilians without access to basic necessities or humanitarian aid.

At the time, several civil society organizations, including Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, criticized the UN for its limited efforts to hold the Sri Lankan government accountable for likely war crimes and crimes against humanity. As noted in the report, the UN evacuated its staff in the Wanni in September 2008 when the government announced it would not be able to guarantee their security, and after that was largely unable to gain access to distribute humanitarian relief aid. With the end of the war in May 2009 came widespread calls to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to investigate the perpetrators of mass atrocities and UN efforts to protect civilians.  After a Panel of Experts, established by the UNSG, reported in April 2011 that many UN agencies and officials had not done enough to protect civilians, the UNSG created the Internal Review Panel on UN actions in Sri Lanka, which is responsible for the recently released report.

UN fails to protect Sri Lankan population

The report concludes that though the government and LTTE were primarily responsible for “killings and other violations” committed against the civilians trapped in the Wanni, the “events in Sri Lanka mark a grave failure of the UN to adequately respond to early warnings and to the evolving situation during the final stages of the conflict and its aftermath, to the detriment of hundreds of thousands of civilians and in contradiction with the principles and responsibilities of the UN.”

The report criticizes the UN for its overall lack of action on the crisis, condemning the evacuation of UN staff without protestation as a “serious failure”. According to the report, the UN system as a whole did not put enough political pressure on the government, and left its staff on the ground ill-prepared to deal with the escalating crisis. The report also draws attention to the fact that, though the UN officials had data on the number of civilian deaths and evidence that the government, in many cases, was responsible, they only reported on the violations committed by the LTTE. According to officials at the time, they were reluctant to release information about the government’s involvement out of fear it would further hinder their access to the population in the Wanni. The sole exception was a public statement issued by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) on 13 March 2009, in spite of strong criticism by most UN senior officials, which reported on the number of casualties and declared that actions by the government and LTTE “may constitute international crimes, entailing individual responsibility, including for war crimes and crimes against humanity”.  The report concludes that “in fact, with its multiplicity of mandates and areas of expertise, the UN possessed the capabilities to simultaneously strive for humanitarian access while also robustly condemning the perpetrators of killings of civilians.”

According to the report, the low level of commitment to civilian protection in Sri Lanka was exacerbated by the inaction of Member States, who failed to take up the escalating crisis in the Security Council, Human Rights Council and General Assembly. To what extent was the commitment governments made in 2005 endorsing their collective responsibility to protect populations from crimes against humanity and war crimes considered during the crisis? The report notes that though RtoP was raised in the context of the war, states were unable to agree on how the norm could help the international community halt the ongoing violence. The report concludes that governments “failed to provide the Secretariat and UN [Country Team] with the support required to fully implement the responsibilities for protection of civilians that Member States had themselves set for such situations.”

Civil society and former UN officials clash over the report’s findings

Civil society organizations swiftly responded to the report, calling for accountability and to use the example of Sri Lanka as an impetus to strengthen UN protection capacities. On 14 November Amnesty International’s José Luis Díaz called the report a “wake-up call for UN member states that have not pushed hard enough for an independent international investigation into alleged war crimes committed by both Sri Lankan forces and the LTTE in the last phase of the war.”  Philippe Bolopion of Human Rights Watch agreed, stating that the report serves as “a call to action and reform for the entire UN system.”  Additionally, Bolopion noted that “The UN’s dereliction of duty in Sri Lanka is a stark reminder of what happens when human rights concerns are marginalized or labeled as too political”.

Meanwhile, others reacted to the UN’s decision to evacuate its staff from the Wanni region. In reading the report, Edward Mortimer, who serves on the Advisory Council of the Sri Lanka Campaign for Peace and Justice and who formerly served as Director of Communications in the Executive Office of the UN, declared that he believed the UN left when they were most needed. The report, Mortimer stated, would show that the “UN has not lived up to the standards we expect of it…”

Benjamin Dix, a UN staff member in Sri Lanka that left the war zone, recalled his own doubts at the time, saying that he “believe[d] we should have gone further north, not evacuate south, and basically abandon the civilian population with no protection or witness….As a humanitarian worker questions were running through my mind – What is this all about? Isn’t this what we signed up to do?

Sir John Holmes, Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs at the time of the crisis and one of those whom the report blames for underreporting the government’s responsibility for the violence, defended the UN’s actions. Holmes told BBC that “the idea that if we behaved differently, the Sri Lankan government would have behaved differently I think is not one that is easy to reconcile with the reality at the time.”  In an attempt to provide clarity on the UN’s decision not to report casualty figures, UN spokesperson in Colombo, Sri Lanka at the time, Gordon Weiss, stated that, “It was an institutional decision not to use those [casualty lists] on the basis that those could not be verified and of course they couldn’t be verified because the government of Sri Lanka wasn’t letting us get anywhere near the war zone.” However, his remarks starkly contrast the findings of the report.

Some took the opportunity to remind that the report highlighted the ultimate failure of the Sri Lankan government to protect its population from mass atrocities.Steven Ratner, a professor at University of Michigan’s Law School, stated, “the UN failed, but the Sri Lankan government is ultimately most responsible…They are the ones who have not begun a bona fide accountability process.”  Echoing this, Amnesty International’s José Luis Díaz noted that “The report clearly illustrates the Sri Lankan government’s lack of will to protect civilians or account for very serious violations. There is no evidence that has changed.

Report shows challenges in implementation must not lead to inaction

The Secretary-General’s report not only shows the need to uphold the responsibility to protect populations in Sri Lanka by preventing a culture of impunity for crimes against humanity and war crimes, it emphasizes the critical gaps that the international community must address to strengthen its political will and overall capacity to respond to emerging and ongoing situations of RtoP crimes.

With regard to the Responsibility to Protect norm, the report concludes that, “The concept of a ‘Responsibility to Protect’ was raised occasionally during the final stages of the conflict, but to no useful result. Differing perceptions among Member States and the Secretariat of the concept’s meaning and use had become so contentious as to nullify its potential value. Indeed, making references to the Responsibility to Protect was seen as more likely to weaken rather than strengthen UN action.” This finding serves as a sober reminder to governments, UN officials and the international community as a whole that though we continue to address important questions about how to implement the Responsibility to Protect, these disagreements must never hinder our commitment to react when populations are in dire need of assistance.  The report as a whole underlines the prevailing importance of the prevention of and rapid response to RtoP crimes and violations by highlighting a tragic example of the consequences when the protection of populations is not prioritized.

The initial establishment of the Panel and the Secretary-General’s decision to make its findings public show a commitment to holding perpetrators of the crimes committed in Sri Lanka accountable. However, as Human Rights Watch’s Philippe Bolopion said, “While Ban deserves credit for starting a process he knew could tarnish his office, he will now be judged on his willingness to implement the report’s recommendations and push for justice for Sri Lanka’s victims.”  The UNSG stated that the report’s findings have “profound implications for our work across the world, and I am determined that the United Nations draws the appropriate lessons and does its utmost to earn the confidence of the world’s people, especially those caught in conflict who look to the Organization for help.”  We can only hope that this report will act as a much needed impetus to reform the system as a whole to better respond to protect populations from the most horrific crimes known to humankind.

 

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FEATURE: Responsibility while Protecting – the impact of a new initiative on RtoP

The “responsibility while protecting” (RwP) concept and its potential influence on the development of the Responsibility to Protect norm (RtoP, R2P) have been a source of ongoing discussion in recent months. RwP was first introduced by Brazilian President Dilma Raousseff as “responsibility in protecting” during her address to the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) in September 2011 and then expanded on in a concept note presented to the UN Security Council (UNSC) on 9 November 2011 by Brazilian Permanent Representative, Maria Luiza Ribeiro Viotti. RwP seeks to address concerns regarding the implementation of military measures to prevent and halt mass atrocities, emphasizing that prevention is the “best policy” and that the use of force in particular must be regularly monitored and periodically assessed so as to minimize the impact on civilians.

On 21 February 2012, the Brazilian Permanent Mission organized an informal discussion on RwP with Member States, UN actors, and civil society organizations. Debate has since continued, most recently at the fourth UNGA informal, interactive dialogue held on 5 September, with many commentators and scholars reflecting on how RwP will impact RtoP and more importantly, the international response to future situations of genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity, and ethnic cleansing. The ICRtoP Secretariat reached out to civil society organizations with a series of questions in order to map the origins of RwP and analyze the concept’s influence on the Responsibility to Protect.  

Read the full feature post.

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What’s Next for Syria?

On 20 July, with only 13 hours left before the expiration of the United Nations Supervision Mission in Syria (UNSMIS) mandate, the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) unanimously adopted Resolution 2059 drafted by the United Kingdom and cosponsored by France and Germany.  The Resolution restructured the mandate to facilitate dialogue between the opposition and the Syrian regime in accordance with UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s July 2012 report on UNSMIS, and extended the mandate for a “final” 30 days with a possible renewal if there is a cessation of the use of heavy weapons and a decrease in violence by all parties.

Despite the renewal of the UNSMIS mandate, divisions amongst Council Members remain a barrier to implementation of further diplomatic, political, economic and, as a last resort, military measures by the UNSC aimed at halting the violence in Syria. While much of the debate within the international community has remained focused on what steps the UNSC, specifically, should take to halt the violence, the Council’s lack of decisive action has led commentators to make recommendations for measures to be taken by national- and regional-level actors.

Exploring Options for Syria

Reflecting on the deteriorating crisis, civil society organizations, regional actors, commentators and specialists in fields related to conflict and mass atrocity prevention have provided a wide range of “next steps” for Syria.

As the expiration of the UNSMIS mandate rapidly approached, several international actors provided suggestions for a restructured mandate. The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), in a letter to UNSC Ambassadors stressed the importance of strengthening the UNSMIS mandate and urged Council members to include within the mission an intensified human rights component with specialists to act as “impartial ‘eyes and ears’ of the international community.” FIDH noted, “Upholding human rights and working to protect civilians in Syria is an imperative that goes beyond the political differences of members of the Security Council. We call on the Security Council to fulfill this shared responsibility to Syrian civilians.” FIDH also urged the UNSC to refer the situation in Syria to the International Criminal Court (ICC).

Similar suggestions were put forth by Amnesty International (AI) following the 19 July double-veto. AI also called for the inclusion of an adequately staffed human rights component as well as providing expertise in related fields and resources to document and report findings and progress. AI wrote, “The failure today of the UN Security Council to deliver better human rights protection for Syrians will embolden those responsible for the crimes and violence wracking the country.”

While FIDH and AI have discussed measures to improve UNSMIS, other international actors and commentators have focused specifically on how a political transition would be orchestrated.

Steven Heydemann, senior advisor at the US Institute of Peace‘s Middle East Initiatives, in his article “The end game in Syria,” brings light to a transformation of perspectives by international actors due to recent developments, saying, “These trends all point to one conclusion: the end of the Assad regime is drawing nearer. The relevant question is no longer whether the regime will fall, but when and, even more importantly, how.”

Similarly, Volker Perthes, director of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP) in Berlin, in his article “The Solution in Syria Must Be Political” stressed that a “Yemen-style” solution is the most plausible as it would stop the bloodshed- the main goal of all actions being taken in Syria. This process would involve a temporary transfer of power, followed by a UN-Arab League-mediated dialogue on the political future of Syria. This, however, has its drawbacks as a transition of this style would likely grant amnesty to Assad, as seen with the political process in Yemen.

Also arguing in favor of a political solution, and reflecting on the discord between UNSC members in “No room for foreign military intervention in SyriaJohn Hubbel Weiss, associate professor of History at Cornell University,argues that any attempt to act under Chapter VII of the Charter would only be vetoed by Russia, as was seen on 19 July. Instead, he believes that the only way to convince Assad to take a less-violent course of action is if the Syrian population and civil society from within the country call for and/or take action themselves.

While some still believe that there are feasible options for bringing an end to the crisis in Syria, either through the facilitation of a political transition or implementation of more robust measures, others do not believe it is possible for the international community to successfully and effectively operationalize stronger measures than what has been implemented thus far.

How Russia Divided the World”, an article written by Michael Ignatieff, an original member of the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS) which initially articulated the Responsibility to Protect in 2001, presents a grim outlook for the future of Syria and RtoP more broadly. Ignatieff states that the divisions within the opposition leave no opportunities for successful military intervention, such as air strikes, safe havens or buffer zones and, that because there is not an established power to take authority once the Assad regime falls, there is no sense in toppling the regime via military measures.

Hugh White, professor of strategic studies at Australian National University and a visiting fellow at the Lowy Institute, was no more optimistic in his article “A Syrian intervention must be weighed against the costs.” He claimed that it was unlikely for diplomatic and political measures to be successful, and instead, military measures, such as air strikes or no fly zones, were increasingly “the only way to fulfill our responsibility.” Yet he delved deeper to state that, although military intervention may be the only tool left untested in Syria, military tactics may not be feasible or halt violence. White sees another barrier to implementing further measures if the RtoP entails a responsibility to assist post-crisis, and states that “If so, we have a problem, because the West has no capacity to shape Syria’s trajectory after Assad.”

In response to White’s argument, Tim Dunne and Sarah Teitt from the Asia-Pacific Centre for R2P, an ICRtoP Steering Committee Member, published “Firing blanks at R2P.” Dunne and Teitt reiterated the idea that coercive military measures are not the solution to ending the crisis, and went further to suggest that a resolution was slowly becoming viable, “not through the overt threat or use of force but through tireless diplomacy on the part of the UN and through unrelenting scrutiny by humanitarian NGOs.”

Advocates for military intervention –in various forms- have voiced their ideas as well. One commentator on military measures is Ausama Monajed, Executive Director of the Strategic Research and Communication Centre (SRCC), who puts forth a set of steps in his article “The Price of Apathy: Why the World Must Intervene in Syria” that the international community should take to immediately halt the bloodshed, including arming the rebels, establishing safe zones inside bordering countries, and creating buffer zones along the Syrian border. These steps are what Monajed refers to as a “viable alternative” and what he believes will lead to and trigger an increase in mass defections, which could serve to facilitate the fall of the Assad regime and an end to the conflict. He believes that those who still advocate for the imposition of sanctions to “bankrupt Assad” should take heed that Russia and Iran remain “staunch, wealthy allies.”

Despite the enduring deadlock within the UNSC regarding further implementation of preventive measures, an array of tools to halt the violence in Syria remains at the disposal of regional, national and civil society actors. In this sense, the Responsibility to Protect remains a crucial framework through which to view the crisis and assess achievable and effective tools to protect populations.

With the establishment of UNSMIS, the international community took action in a timely and decisive manner, to ensure an observer presence on the ground. However, divisions within the Council continue to pose a great barrier to UNSC authorization of further non-military and if necessary, military measures, to protect civilians from mass atrocity crimes. With a 30 day renewal of UNSMIS, the Council must work creatively to overcome their differences, and be prepared to respond collectively to the situation in a flexible, timely manner.

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