The following is the most recent submission to the ICRtoP’s RtoP at 10 blog series, which invites civil society and academic experts to examine critical country cases, international/regional perspectives, and thematic issues that have been influential in the development of the norm over the past 10 years, and that will have a lasting impact going forth into the next decade. The views expressed by contributors do not necessarily reflect those shared by the membership of the Coalition. Below is a piece by Kyle Matthews, Senior Deputy Director of Montreal Institute for Genocide and Human Rights Studies (MIGS), and Cédrick Mulcair, MIGS Junior Fellow.
On the 10th anniversary of the endorsement of the Responsibility to Protect (RtoP) by all member states at the United Nations, an important question has arisen: are we seeing a convergence between the mass atrocity prevention and counter-terrorism communities? While acts of terrorism and mass atrocity crimes are easily comparable and sometimes overlap, some human rights practitioners have demonstrated ambivalence in admitting that RtoP is more than just a humanitarian concept and touches upon national and international security.
Over the past few years, the world’s gaze has been routinely directed to atrocities committed by non-state actors in the Middle East, the Horn of Africa and West Africa. There, groups such as the Islamic State, al-Shabaab and Boko Haram have been waging wars on their governments and respective civilian populations through mass casualty attacks. Yet these groups are more often condemned for acts of “terrorism”, as opposed to crimes against humanity.
Some even argue that acts committed by such groups fall outside of the scope of RtoP, and purely into that of counter-terrorism. The cause of this detrimental gap in interpretation dates to the manner in which the RtoP was initially discussed and endorsed at the 2005 World Summit. This can partly be explained by that fact much emphasis was placed on cementing the notion that national governments bear responsibility for not committing atrocity crimes against civilians in their respective jurisdictions, leaving non-state actors on the margins of the policy debate.
Ten years later, however, we are bearing witness to the truth that governments no longer hold the monopoly on the use of deadly violence against civilians. At the end of 2014 the British Broadcasting Corporation, in association with King’s College London, released a study which demonstrates just how deadly the situation on the ground has become for civilian populations where “terrorist” groups are present. The study’s data confirmed that in the month of November alone more than 5,000 people were killed in over 600 jihadist attacks across 14 countries, which averages seven casualties every hour. These statistics are not an anomaly; they represent a dangerous and increasingly worrying pattern that can be observed in three distinct corners of the globe.
In West Africa, Boko Haram, whose name can roughly be translated to “Western Education is a Sin”, has been on a bloody warpath against civilians (Christians in particular) in Nigeria since 2002 but has really escalated it mass atrocity crimes beginning in 2009. In the six years that followed the start of their insurgency, more than 13,000 civilians were killed by the group. Equally disturbing is that Boko Haram has made the decision to specifically target schools and students, while also kidnapping children where they are either forced or indoctrinated to become sex slaves, child soldiers or suicide bombers. Boko Haram has also committed atrocity crimes in neighboring Cameroon, Chad and Niger, drawing in their armies into the conflict. The problem has thus evolved to become truly regional, and in no way isolated within Nigeria’s borders.
Within the Horn of Africa, Al-Qaeda affiliated al-Shabaab, or “the youth” continues to commit mass atrocity crimes with impunity. Operating initially out of Somalia, it has now expanded to attacking crowded population centers in surrounding countries like Kenya. The attack of April 4th 2015 on Kenya’s Garissa University which killed nearly 147 students and injured 79 more, stands as one example among many of their willingness to harm civilian populations. Al-Shabaab is also considered notorious for attacks such as the one on Nairobi’s Westgate shopping mall in September 2013, where 67 civilians were killed. It also carried out suicide bombings against crowds watching a screening of the 2010 FIFA World Cup Final in Uganda, killing 74 and injuring 70.
Within Iraq and Syria, the now infamous Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) remains active and increasingly threatening. The transnational Sunni Muslim extremist group was best described by Alex Bellamy in his piece for the Canadian International Council “The Islamic State and the Case for the Responsibility to Protect”. Bellamy rightly points out that ISIS
“…as a matter of proudly held and publically proclaimed ideology, makes no distinction between soldiers and non-combatants. It makes blanket claims that peoples and individuals that fail to conform to its worldview are legitimate targets for killing. […] The IS has shot, beheaded, knifed, bludgeoned, burned and tortured its unarmed victims – every one of these instances a crime against humanity, if not an act of genocide. It stands opposed to the values that sustain the community of humanity”.
With the group expanding through affiliates in Libya, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Tunisia, the atrocity prevention community must begin formulating new strategies to protect civilians in these countries.
But most interesting is that Bellamy touches upon a central problem that RtoP advocates must begin finding the answers to. In his words:
“Others have claimed that the problems posed by IS are primarily ones of counter-terrorism, not RtoP. That view mistakes the nature of the organization’s violence. It also overlooks the reality that terrorism — understood as violence intentionally targeted against civilians — is itself often a crime against humanity. In some situations, such as that caused by the IS, counter-terrorism and RtoP are simply different ways of talking about the same problem: violent attacks on civilian populations. The fact that a crisis can be described in terms of counter-terrorism does not mean that it is not also a challenge to RtoP. IS is not unique in this regard, the same point applies to groups such as Boko Haram and al-Shabaab. More needs to be done in future to understand the contours of the relationship between RtoP and counter-terrorism.”
The positive news is that people are beginning to take note. In June 2015, the 5th annual meeting of the Global Network of RtoP Focal Points in Madrid brought this discussion to the fore. RtoP focal point, UN representatives and civil society actors held important policy discussions on terrorist groups such as ISIS and Boko Haram, opening the way to see countering violent extremism as an important first step towards the goal of preventing atrocities.
In the months and years ahead, those working on RtoP will need to achieve consensus on whether countering violent extremism and implementing certain counter terrorism measures are in fact a state obligation under RtoP. If a national government stops its citizens from traveling abroad to join a transnational terrorist group that is committing genocide, should that be considered a policy that advances atrocity prevention? Similarly, does cutting off domestic financing to extremist groups count as a positive policy response? Equally important, does the disruption of social media accounts that incite hatred and advocate for mass casualty attacks also fall under RtoP?
Though the topic and the questions it brings up are not easy ones to tackle, the human rights community, national governments and the United Nations have a duty to come together and discuss the convergence of mass atrocity and terrorism prevention. While the original RtoP report tabled in 2001 by the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty did not contain many practical recommendations in protecting civilians from genocidal non-sate actors, it appears the time is ripe to further develop RtoP conceptually. We should not bury our heads in the sand and pretend the problem will simply disappear.