Don’t turn away

Because of violent conflicts in Libya and Syria, lawyers, political scientists and policymakers are once again discussing the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) principle. The big question is what kind of military intervention or other response is appropriate at what point.

By Peter Hauff

R2P is based on the multilateral consensus that every state must protect its people from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity. When a government does not live up to this duty, the international community may intervene, even with armed force. The UN General Assembly adopted this principle in 2005. It is up to the Security Council to decide exactly what measures are to be taken to enforce peace.

The historical backdrop of R2P was peacekeeping failure in Rwanda and Bosnia, where UN troops watched people being slaughtered before their very eyes. The troops’ mandate did not include protecting civilians. In spite of the UN agreement of 2005, experts keep debating when exactly R2P applies and what kind of intervention should follow. To date, there have been many verbal alerts, but decisive action remains rare.

In March 2011, however, the Security Council set a precedent by passing Resolution 1973. It allowed the USA, Canada, Britain and France to use their air forces and navies to protect the citizens of Libya. Accordingly, western military prevented Libyan war planes from taking off. In the end, they helped the insurgents prevail. The resolution was a mistake, argue some people who took part in an international conference on R2P at Evangelische Aka-demie Loccum, a Protestant institution, in June.

In the eyes of Lawrence C. Moss, an official from Human Rights Watch, the results of the Libya campaign are mixed. He points out that former mercenaries of Muamar Gaddafi, the former Libyan dictator, are now wreaking havoc in neighbouring countries like Mali and Niger, and that no sovereign nation had taken control of all of the former regime’s arms stocks. Moss says, moreover, that government crimes must be prosecuted with more determination. Far too often, he argues, culprits are never tried.

Whose jurisdiction?

International criminal prosecution is difficult. Consider the case of Laurent Gbagbo, for instance. He lost the presidential elections in Côte d’Ivoire, but tried to stay in office nonetheless. He is now being tried by the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague. His supporters, however, consider his case an example of “might making right”, because Alassane Ouattara, who won the elections and is now in power, is not on trial even though his followers are known to have committed atrocities too. Civil society organisations too are expressing criticism. In June, Human Rights Watch stated the trial against Gbagbo in the Hague was one-sided.

Libya and the ICC are currently de-bating who should try Gaddafi’s son Saif al-Islam. The transitional government in Tripoli wants the matter to be dealt with in Libya. At the moment, Saif is in the power of local clans that refuse to hand him over to the national government or the ICC. Their leaders state they do not want him to share his father’s fate who was shot dead when he was arrested. Moreover, they feel they have some leverage over their unelected government so long as they have Saif in their power.

Islamic law does not necessarily agree with western ideas of democracy, says Yves Boyer of the French Fondation pour la Recherche Stratégique (FRS). China’s vote in the Security Council, he adds, tends to depend on economic interests rather than human rights concerns. Boyer predicts there will not be an R2P intervention of the Libyan scale again because the principle is not universally accepted and because Europe’s military capacities are limited. He is in favour of considering national interests. In his view, Europe should intervene if doing so serves its interest, but not because the US government wants Europeans to act. Boyer insists Europe should pursue a common foreign policy in line with the EU’s Lisbon treaty.

In any case, Boyer says, those who intervene in a foreign country must take into account the local people. He also points out that the example of Afghanistan proves the need to devise an exit strategy at the very beginning of an intervention.

Military strikes won’t do

In principle, R2P is not only about using military force. Prevention and reconstruction are crucial too. However, fast action is sometimes called for. The international community did not expect anything like the Arab spring last year, nor that various governments would respond to people’s demands for democracy with violent repression. And whenever the veto powers in the Security Council (USA, France, Britain, Russia and China) disagree, the international community will keep on watching brutal regimes murder citizens. Syria is a current example.

The government of Brazil recently proposed to add a Responsibility While Protecting to R2P. Basically, the idea is that the Security Council should only allow military force within very strict limits – only for a short time, for example – and monitor implementation stringently. Such an approach could have prevented the kind of mission creep that made NATO troops support Libyan insurgents after a few weeks of intervention.

In international debate on R2P, experts emphasise that the use of force should consider five criteria of legitimacy: Just cause, right intention, last resort, proportional means and reasonable prospects. “Such debate has made incredible progress,” says Christian Schwarz-Schilling, an 81 year old former Christian Democrat leader. In 2006 and 2007, he served as the High Representative for Bosnia and Herzegovina, monitoring the impact of the Dayton agreement.

In retrospect, Schwarz-Schilling says the Dayton agreement was not up to task. One reason, he says, was that war criminals were involved in the negotiations. “Politicians sitting at their desks or in parliaments are unable to imagine what kind of situations can materialise on the ground,” he says. Treaties in themselves do not lead to peace, he warns, and policymakers tend to underestimate how much time constitutional or security-sector reforms take (also note article on the DR Congo in this edition).

Natalia Ablova of the Bishkek-based Bureau for Human Rights agrees that re­liance on tanks and treaties will not do. She says schools play a role in building peace. After ethnic clashes in Kyrgyzstan, she ­reports, school classes helped youngsters and their parents to regain a sense of normal day-to-day life, which is needed for reconciliation and coping with trauma.

Peter Hauff

Related Articles