Last post in a three part series by Alex Bellamy
Unfinished Operational Work
In its first decade, the progress of RtoP was judged mainly on its normative and institutional development. In its second decade RtoP will be judged on the difference it makes to people’s lives.
There are a number of reasons why this is a much more difficult challenge, among them the political complications that arise when states disagree about their priorities and the nature of the crises they confront. These challenges are compounded by the often quite limited influence that outsiders have on the conflicts that give rise to genocide and mass atrocities. Although concerted international action can sometimes prevent mass atrocities, the so-called “structural” or “root” causes of genocide and mass atrocities are often deeply ingrained in societies, economies and national institutions. Whilst outsiders can play important enabling and facilitative roles, foreign assistance cannot by itself achieve structural change except through massive interventions that are rarely contemplated. Well-targeted programs can sometimes support local sources of resilience but cannot manufacture it out of thin air. At the later stages of a crisis, international actors can use punishments and incentives to persuade armed actors to refrain from committing atrocities, deploy peacekeepers to provide physical protection, provide humanitarian assistance and negotiate respites in the violence. These efforts can reduce violence and protect sections of the community but they will always struggle to provide comprehensive protection.
The problem is compounded by the fact that global demand for protection is already coming close to exceeding the global supply of relevant resources. With more missions, deployed with more peacekeepers, with more complex mandates, in more difficult environments, UN peacekeeping is already stretched to the limit. And with the developed world still recovering from the Global Financial Crisis there is little appetite for spending added money on saving populations overseas. After all, in an age of austerity governments have to make tough choices about their priorities – funding protection efforts overseas necessarily means that states have fewer resources with which to fund their domestic priorities.
When we think about the operational challenges associated with implementing RtoP, we should therefore be modest about what we expect the international community to achieve and the timeframes for achieving it. Some situations do not lend themselves to simple solutions or easily achievable remedies – they are simply too complex and too difficult. That does not mean that the international community should not do everything it can to protect vulnerable populations only that we should recognize that even with the best of intentions it will sometimes come up short because there is often no solution that suits everybody, equally.
How, then, do we start to close some of the most pronounced operational gaps? Three challenges in particular are worth highlighting.
Major Operational Challenges
First, the need to prioritize protection. Whatever else may be going on in a particular situation, when genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing or crimes against humanity are perpetrated or imminently apprehended, the overriding objective of the UN and its partners must be to protect populations from these crimes as far as it is possible to do. RtoP is not a “‘tool” to be employed to achieve other ends, but a master principle to which the energies of the UN, its Member States, other international and regional organizations, and individuals should be directed. The operational gaps will be filled only when RtoP is seen as fundamental to the way the UN and its partners do business.
In practice, this means that debates about how to respond to individual crises should focus squarely on what is needed to best protect the civilian population in harm’s way and that—as a matter of principle—protection needs should never be sacrificed to achieve other goals. This does not mean states should act without heed for the wider consequences. Nor does it remove the need to make difficult choices. In situations like Mali or Syria, for instance, where comprehensive protection cannot be provided without first ending a civil war, the prioritization of protection might dictate a strategy focused on ending the violence no matter what the cost to justice further down the road.
Prioritizing protection involves understanding when atrocities are likely and having the capacity to assess situations from an atrocity prevention perspective and devise strategies that can be resourced and implemented. Although there is no sure way of guaranteeing adequate resources, governments tend to be more willing to support options backed by clear plans. Developing a comprehensive strategy for prevention and promoting the mainstreaming of RtoP across the UN and its partners are two ways in which the institutional development of RtoP could support its operational development.
Among the more important practical challenges is overcoming the tendency to see RtoP as disconnected from associated programs of work in areas such as conflict prevention, peacebuilding, the protection of civilians, international criminal justice, and the protection and empowerment of women and girls. Thus far, practitioners and analysts have tended to treat these agendas as “solitudes” within the UN system because of their differences, rather than recognizing their overlapping issues and mutual interdependence. This has limited the international community’s ability to develop comprehensive responses to genocide and mass atrocities.
Second, we need to ensure that the international community delivers on the protection mandates it already has. This calls for the matching of means to ends. If our priority is to protect populations from genocide and mass atrocities it follows that the policies and strategies adopted should be aimed at achieving the greatest protection for the greatest number of people possible in the affected area and as quickly as possible. For instance, if the principal source of threat is a civil war, then means should be directed at ending it; and if the principal source is a particular armed group, then the means should focus on impeding its ability to commit mass atrocities or on persuading it to cease and desist; if perpetrators cannot be persuaded, deterred or neutralized, then the means should focus on facilitating the escape of potential victims or their in situ protection.
This involves something of a change in mindset and a commitment to the careful assessment of situations prior to the articulation of policy options. To close the operational gap, we need to make better use of the resources already provided by the international community through a more targeted approach. This involves understanding the nature of each protection problem and the most effective and feasible way of supporting as much protection as possible. Matching means to ends simply means understanding the causes of civilian suffering in each individual case, tailoring appropriate responses to address those issues, and ensuring that once adopted policies are properly resourced. This latter point involves more than just the level of material resources provided. It also involves building the expertise needed to conduct peacekeeping and other types of activities in ways that maximize their capacity to protect populations through doctrine, training, operational guidance, planning and the conducting of operations themselves. It also involves joined up thinking and policy responses across the UN system and its partners, in order to ensure that responses are comprehensive.
Third, we need to manage the controversies arising from the use of force and other means of coercion. The use of coercive measures remains deeply controversial. This, of course, is not unique to RtoP. Nor, by itself, is it undesirable. Coercion and force should be controversial. A key challenge is to improve the legitimacy and effectiveness of the Security Council’s performance. On this question, RtoP finds itself wedged between two positions. One, arising from Libya, holds that the Security Council and states acting on its mandates need to be held more accountable for their actions. The implementation of Resolution 1973 by NATO and its partners drew sharp criticism from states complaining that the Alliance overstepped its mandate. It is not surprising that as the Council becomes more proactive in its pursuit of RtoP, demands for political accountability are becoming more significant. Future agreement about the use of force to protect populations from genocide and mass atrocities will likely depend upon concomitant steps to address accountability questions such as those raised by the “Responsibility while Protecting” concept advanced by Brazil.
The other critical issue for the Security Council, arising from Syria, stems from calls for more decisiveness and demands for the restraining of the veto in situations where genocide and mass atrocities are perpetrated. It is not surprising that after four vetoes blocked action on Syria, demands for veto restraint have gained traction with some 60 states supporting French calls for an informal “code of conduct” or “statement of principles” aimed at limiting the veto’s use. But at least three of the permanent five members (China, Russia, United States) remain skeptical, meaning that the proposal is unlikely to be adopted any time soon though the dialogue surrounding it may well help to lift the political cost associated with exercising the veto when timely and decisive responses to genocide and mass atrocities are warranted.
Finding a balance between these twin imperatives – to do more to protect whilst ensuring better accountability – will be among the key challenges for the Security Council in the coming decade. For RtoP, much will hinge on the extent to which the Council succeeds.
Concerted Action Needed to Protect the World’s Most Vulnerable
In its first ten years, RtoP has emerged as an international norm. With only a tiny handful of exceptions, states accept RtoP and agree on its main components. The principle’s normative development has progressed apace and its institutional development is gathering pace, with the UN, regional organizations and dozens of states taking concrete steps to implement it.
If the first ten years of RtoP was primarily about this normative development, the next ten will be about its implementation and making a real difference to people’s lives. This will require concerted action to complete the unfinished conceptual, institutional and operational work of building a world less tolerant of conscience shocking inhumanity and more likely to protect the most vulnerable. That is our challenge for the decade to come.
This post was originally published on icrtopblog.org.
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