RtoP: Key Developments in 2013

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

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

A new Special Advisor on the Responsibility to Protect

Òthe Responsibility to Protect:  State Responsibility and PreventionÓ

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

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


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

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

United Nations General Assembly Holds 5th Dialogue on RtoP

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

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

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

Member States call for P5 to Prioritize Protection over Veto Use

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Weapons retrieved in DRC. UN Photo

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

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

II. Applauding Success without Turning a Blind Eye

Use of Chemical Weapons Unites UNSC on Syria

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

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

Shelling in Homs, Syria

Shelling in Homs, Syria. UN Photo

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

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

Central African Republic: Collective Action by the International Community

First Phase Digital

Central African Republic. UN Photo/Evan Schneider

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MONUSCO Mission in Bunia

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

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

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

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

III. Looking back to go forward

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

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

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

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