The Crisis in Syria Turns Four: Civil Society Organizations Call for Renewed Push on Restraint of Security Council Veto Use

Image Courtesy: Amnesty International
Syria: Turn the lights back on

This Sunday, 15 March 2015, marks the 4-year anniversary of the crisis in Syria. For over 1,460 days, the Assad regime—and to a lesser extent, elements of the opposition—have inflicted a ruthless succession of war crimes and crimes against humanity against civilian populations in Syria. Such atrocities, which according to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon should “shock the international conscience”, include the intentional starving of entire communities for the purpose of gaining a military advantage; the terrorizing of populations through the illegal use of barrel bombs and chemical, artillery, and cluster munition assaults; and inflicting gruesome torture techniques upon thousands of prisoners.

And yet—despite the staggering figures of 210,000 dead, 3.8 million civilians seeking refuge in neighboring countries, and 7.8 million internally displaced—the hopes for an end to the Syrian crisis have dwindled rather than improved over the course of 2014. Though the Assad regime’s human rights violations dwarf those of all other actors, the emergence of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), a new actor ready and able to commit grisly crimes, has further heightened the risk of mass atrocities in Syria. ISIL’s dramatic rise has been used as a tool by the Assad regime to legitimize its inexcusable actions in the name of fighting ‘terrorists’—a catch-all term used by the government when referring to protestors since the start of the crisis. Furthermore, as the international community increases its response to the crimes committed by ISIL, it risks overshadowing efforts to respond to and resolve the larger Syrian crisis, thus further empowering the Assad government.

In 2005, UN Member States agreed that they had an individual as well as collective responsibility to protect populations from genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity, and ethnic cleansing—a responsibility which the Syrian government has clearly failed to uphold. However, the below signatories welcome the role that many have played in upholding their
Responsibility to Protect by taking strong, often unprecedented measures within their mandates in an attempt to protect Syrians. Such actions include, inter alia, the six General Assembly resolutions on the crisis; the establishment by the Human Rights Council of an Independent Commission of Inquiry to investigate atrocities; the sanctions and arms embargoes imposed by the League of Arab States; the absorption of millions of Syrian refugees by Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey; and the consistent monitoring/documentation, advocacy, and delivery of aid by civil society.

Nevertheless, the UN Security Council, largely due to the veto power wielded by Russia and China, has failed to match the unparalleled actions mentioned above. Despite displaying fleeting unity on resolutions on the removal of chemical weapons and the delivery of humanitarian aid, the four vetoes cast by Russia and China on most Security Council resolutions pertaining to Syria point to that body’s powerlessness to uphold RtoP when the veto is used. Such blatant inaction by the UN organ chiefly responsible for maintaining international peace and security has exacted catastrophic consequences on the people of Syria by delaying and hindering early and subsequent international action.

In this regard, the undersigned civil society organizations working to advance the Responsibility to Protect reiterate their support for efforts being taken, including under the leadership of France as well as Member States within the Accountability, Coherence, and Transparency Initiative, to ensure that Permanent Members refrain from using their veto power when confronted with a crisis in which civilians are at impending risk of atrocity crimes.

A refusal by the Permanent Members to use their veto when the Security Council is facing the most daunting of challenges—that of responding to mass atrocities—would mark a historic step for the Council, both in terms of upholding its Responsibility to Protect and in preserving its legitimacy as the primary organ responsible for maintaining international peace and security. Furthermore, such a measure would both help the international community to speak with one voice when responding to the threat or commission of such crimes and ensure that the aforementioned efforts to protect populations undertaken by other actors are not in vain. The undersigned civil society organizations who are actively working to promote RtoP and protect populations from these most horrific crimes thus urge actors at all levels to remain closely engaged with this issue and continue to advocate for Permanent Members to not obstruct united action to protect populations from atrocities. Four years – forty-eight months – 1,460 days of atrocity crimes show the desperate need for such unity—and the appalling price of not acting on the Responsibility to Protect.

1. Action on Societal Violence-KAFA (Jordan)
2. Action pour le Développement et la Paix Endogènes (Democratic Republic of Congo)
3. Al Adala Centre for Human Rights (Saudi Arabia)
4. Alternative ASEAN Network on Burma (Thailand)
5. American Iranian Council (Iran)
6. The Arab Program for Human Rights (Egypt)
7. The Arab Organization for Human Rights—Libya
8. The Arab Organization for Human Rights—Mauritania
9. Asia-Pacific Centre for the Responsibility to Protect (Australia)
10. Budapest Centre for the International Prevention of Genocide and Mass Atrocities (Hungary)
11. Canadian Centre for the Responsibility to Protect
12. Centre for Media Studies and Peacebuilding (Liberia)
13. Coalition for Justice and Accountability (Sierra Leone)
14. Education Centre on the Human Rights of Women Morocco
15. Droits Humains Sans Frontières (Democratic Republic of Congo)
16. Free Tunisia
17. Genocide Alert (Germany)
18. Genocide Watch (USA)
19. Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect (USA)
20. Global Justice Centre (USA)
21. Global Political Trends Centre (Turkey)
22. Human Rights Information and Training Center (Yemen)
23. Human Security Initiative (Sudan)
24. Igarapé Institute (Brazil)
25. International Coalition for the Responsibility to Protect
26. Inter-Religious Council for Peace-Tanzania
27. Justice Africa Sudan
28. Justice Without Frontiers (Lebanon)
29. Legists Association of Kuwait
30. LuaLua Centre for Human Rights (Bahrain)
31. Middle East Non-Violence and Democracy (Palestine)
32. Minority Rights Group International (United Kingdom)
33. Montreal Institute for Genocide and Human Rights Studies (Canada)
34. Nuon Organization for Peacebuilding (Syria)
35. PeaceNet Kenya
36. Permanent Peace Movement (Lebanon)
37. Salam al Rafidain Organization (Iraq)
38. Scientific Association of Young Political Scientists (Greece)
39. The Stanley Foundation (USA)
40. United Nations Association of Denmark
41. United Nations Association of Sweden
42. United Nations Association of the United Kingdom
43. United to End Genocide (USA)
44. Vision-Gram International (Canada, Democratic Republic of Congo)
45. Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom-Netherlands
46. World Federalist Movement—Institute for Global Policy (Netherlands, USA)
47. Zarga Organization for Rural Development (Sudan)

AP R2P Seminar: Summary of the Gender Related Findings of the Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea

Siobhan Hobbs, Gender Advisor to the Commission of Inquiry

The Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea was mandated by the Human Rights Council in March 2013 to investigate the systematic, widespread and grave violations of human rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, with a view to ensuring full accountability, in particular for violations which may amount to crimes against humanity.[1] The Commission’s detailed findings were made public on February 17, and presented to the Human Rights Council on 17 March 2014. Below is a summary of the gender-related findings of the Commission. The detailed findings of the Commission are available on the Commission’s website.[2]

Gender-based Discrimination[3]

The Commission found that gender-based discrimination is pervasive in the DPRK and intersects with the discrimination based on the state-assigned social class system (Songbun) resulting in many vulnerable groups. Discrimination against women in particular is prevalent in all areas of society. Although the State encouraged women’s participation in state-based employment in the early years, as the economy declined women were shed from state employment thus losing their right to state pensions and childcare facilities. Many women, survival-driven during the famine of the 1990s, began operating private markets. However, the State imposed many restrictions on female-dominated markets, including the restriction that only women over 40 can engage in trading and women are targeted to pay bribes or fines. There is recent evidence that women are beginning to object and to resist such impositions. Sexual and gender-based violence against women is prevalent throughout all areas of society. Victims are not afforded protection from the State, support services or recourse to justice. The male dominated state preys on both economically advancing and marginalised women extracting bribes and fines from those that can pay, transactional sex from the marginalised and perpetrating sexual and gender-based violence without fear of prosecution.

Discrimination against women also intersects with a number of other human rights violations, placing women and girls in a position of vulnerability. Violations of the rights to food and to freedom of movement have resulted in women and girls becoming vulnerable to trafficking and increased engagement in transactional sex and prostitution. These violations have also contributed to the malnourishment of women and children during the periods of food shortage.[4] The complete denial of the freedoms of expression and association has been a large contributing factor to the generally unequal status of women vis-à-vis men. These limitations have, inter alia, prevented women from collectively advocating for their rights as women have done elsewhere in the world.

Trafficking in Women and girls[5]

Since 2006, over 70% of DPRK nationals reaching the Republic of Korea have been women and as it is likely more women than men remain in China (due to trafficking), the ratio of women to men leaving the DPRK is likely higher than those recorded to have reached the ROK. Women are pushed into leaving due to the difficulties that women particularly face inside the DPRK, especially during times of famine, as well as on going challenges as a result of the political system; women have relatively more freedom of movement and can go undetected for longer; and traffickers disguised as brokers are more willing to assist the travel of a woman with the intention of selling her in China.

The Commission estimates that a large percentage of women and girls who cross the border from the DPRK to China unaccompanied become victims of trafficking in persons, mainly for purposes of exploitation in forced marriage, forced concubinage and to a lesser extent forced prostitution under conditions of control by others. Women and girls are lured to China by brokers operating within the DPRK with the intention of selling her to a Chinese household, or into prostitution once in China, with or without the woman’s knowledge and/or consent. Traffickers also approach vulnerable and desperate women and girls inside the DPRK promising to take them to another province in the DPRK where paid agricultural work is possible but instead take the women to China. Trafficking networks operate to pick up women that have crossed into China without the assistance of a broker, and those that may have escaped from traffickers, or husbands to whom they were sold too.

Inside China, victims of trafficking are at high risk of sexual and domestic violence; do not have access to basic services such as health and education; nor the protection of the state increasing their vulnerability. Fearing capture and forcible repatriation to the DPRK further increases their vulnerability and causes children they bear to become effectively stateless as registration of their birth would alert authorities to the illegal status of the mother.

Sexual violence against the forcibly repatriated[6]

In an attempt to deter citizens from fleeing the country, the DPRK authorities subject those who were forcibly repatriated from China or were caught in the process of trying to reach China to torture, inhumane treatment and imprisonment. Among other things, the forcibly repatriated are subjected to:

  • Forced repeated squatting whilst naked (also known as ‘pumping’) as a means to dislodge items that may be concealed in vaginal and anal cavities, and cause pain to persons concealing items in such a manner.
  • Vaginal cavity searches in an unsanitary and degrading manner. These searches are conducted for the primary purpose of stealing items from detainees.
  • Other forms of sexual violence such as forced nudity and sexual assaults.
  • Humiliating treatment such as being asked derogatory and sexual questions and refused sanitary napkins.

The Commission finds that such acts against persons attempting to flee the country amount to crimes against humanity.[7]

Forced abortions and infanticide against repatriated mothers and their children[8]

The Commission finds that there is a widespread prevalence of forced abortion and infanticide against repatriated mothers and their children, constituting crimes against humanity.[9] Forced abortions and infanticide are conducted to prevent the birth of ethnically mixed Korean children, seen as a contamination of the “pure Korean race”. They are also intended as an additional punishment for women who have left the DPRK and became pregnant in China, and are conducted in a number of brutal (and unsterile) ways without anaesthetic.

Sexual and Gender-based violence in the prison system[10]

Inmates of political prisons are generally not permitted to form relations; on rare occasions “marriages” are arranged between model prisoners, the prisoners have no say in the choice of partner. Women who are not in authorised relationships and become pregnant are subjected to forced abortion and additional punishment including torture or execution. Rape and other forms of sexual violence is commonly perpetrated against women and girls in the political prison camps, particularly teenage girls and young women, by guards taking advantage of the coercive environment and climate of impunity within the camps. The Commission finds that such acts amount to crimes against humanity.[11]

Rape and forced abortions are also common within the ordinary prison system. Largely due to the fact that the majority of those that flee to China and are subsequently repatriated are women, there is an increasing number of women in the ordinary prison system. While sexual contact between guards and prisoners is not condoned by the prison authorities, the power differential between guards and inmates makes it easy for guards to abuse and rape prisoners with impunity. The instances of rape include cases where guards demand sex in exchange for food or other essential goods that prisoners require to survive the ordinary prison camp, thus taking advantage of the coercive circumstances of the prison environment. The Commission finds that such acts amount to crimes against humanity.[12]

The abduction of women from other countries[13]

 From the late 1970s, the DPRK abducted several women from other countries to be sexual partners for foreigners within the country and some of the leaders. In an effort prevent the birth of ethnically mixed Korean children, women were “given” to American army deserters as wives. The Commission finds that DPRK authorities have committed and are committing crimes against humanity against the victims of international abduction.[14]

 Slides from presentation may be seen here.



[3] Section IV.B.2 Discrimination against women [300-320], from page 85; Section IV.B.5 The impact of discrimination on economic, social and cultural rights [330-345] from page 93.

[4] Section IV.D. 1(f)(ii) impact of violations of the right to food on women [554- 560] from page 167.

[5] Section IV.C. 2(d)(i) trafficking in women and girls [455-471] from page 132. Forcible repatriation to the DPRK further increases their vulnerability and causes children they bear to become effectively stateless as registration of their birth would alert authorities to the illegal status of the mother.

[6] Section IV.C. 2(d)(ii) Sexual violence and other humiliating acts against women, in particular invasive searches [415 – 422] from page 117: (ii) Situation of children born to mothers who flee or are trafficked from the DPRK [472 – 477] from page 139.

[7] Section V.E. 1(c) Rape and other forms of sexual violence [1106-1107] from page 336.

[8] Section IV.C. 2(e) Forced abortion and infanticide against repatriated women and their children [424 – 434] from page 122.

[9] Section V.E. 1(c) Rape and other forms of sexual violence [1105] 336.

[10] Section IV.E. 3(d) Sexual violence in the political prison camps [763 – 766] from page 237; 4(a)(v) rape and forced abortions in the ordinary prison system [809 -813] from page 255.

[11]Section V.B. 1(g) Rape and other forms of sexual violence [1054-1056] from page 327.

[12]Section V.C. 1(c) Torture, rape and other grave sexual violence [1076-1077] from page 331.

[13] Section IV.F. 1(g) [963- 975] from page 304.

[14] Section IV.D Crimes against humanity targeting persons from other countries, in particular through international abduction, [1138-1153] from page 345.

AP R2P Statement to UN General Assembly


Remarks to the United Nations General Assembly

Informal and Interactive Dialogue on International Assistance and the Responsibility to Protect

New York 8 September 2014

Thank you, Mr. Moderator.

Thank you for organizing this informal and interactive dialogue on International Assistance and the Responsibility to Protect.

Thanks too to the eminent panelists for illuminating the steps that should be taken to make the Responsibility to Protect a “lived reality”. In particular, the Asia Pacific Centre for R2P welcomes and endorses Dr. Surin Pitsuwan’s comments and congratulates him on the leadership he is providing as Chair of the High Level Advisory Panel on R2P in Southeast Asia. Efforts like this are indispensable as we work to deliver on the commitment to R2P that was made in 2005.

Our mission is to support the advancement of R2P in the Asia Pacific region. We support the mandate of the Special Adviser on the Responsibility to Protect and we congratulate the Secretary-General and Dr. Welsh on this important and timely report.

The primary responsibility to protect rests with the state. As such, the international community’s primary responsibility must be to provide encouragement and assistance. Our ultimate goal is to help one another reinforce the habits of protection and to build the necessary capacities.

Mr. Moderator, let us be frank about the magnitude of the challenges we confront. We are daily confronted by agonizing acts of barbarity committed by groups that reject the basic principles of humanity and decency advanced by this Assembly.

When this Assembly committed itself to the Responsibility to Protect nearly a decade ago, it promised that the entire membership of the UN would stand together to protect populations from the worst of crimes known to humanity. International assistance, the topic of today’s dialogue, is one of the principal ways in which we can do that.

Mr. President, I would like to highlight five points about international assistance.

First, we should make a virtue of asking for assistance by celebrating and commending those states that do. Responsible sovereigns do not try to soldier on by themselves against the odds. They ask for help. We should encourage states to ask for help and congratulate and embrace those that do. In so doing we should establish amongst us a spirit of cooperation that facilitates mutual support.

Second, it is important to think strategically about international assistance and to set aside the necessary resources. When Member States ask for international assistance, it is imperative that the international community as a whole responds in a timely fashion by providing what is needed. Be it military assistance to the government of Iraq, surveillance assistance to root out terrorists in Nigeria or technical assistance to support the rule of law in Nepal, R2P commits us all to doing what we can. Only by backing our words with deeds will we achieve our common goal.

Third, international assistance should pay particular attention to the protection of women and girls and to the urgent need to empower women as agents of protection. We need to ensure that more practical support is given to women human rights defenders. In many parts of the world, these women are the first line of protection for marginalized and minority groups.

As called for by UN Security Council Resolution 1325, international assistance should contribute to the goal of ensuring that women are empowered and represented in peacemaking activities and in relevant political, judicial and security sectors. Our deliberations on Pillar II of R2P provide an opportunity to redouble our efforts to empower women as agents of protection.

We should not forget that widespread and systematic sexual violence can constitute acts of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity. Assistance aimed at preventing these crimes is rightfully part of our discussion today. International assistance is a crucial part of that equation.

Fourth, we underscore the need to deny perpetrators the capacity to commit these crimes. Controlling small arms and light weapons is a crucial part of that equation. Therefore, we welcome the Arms Trade Treaty and call on states to ratify and implement it. States should also redouble their efforts to control the flow of small arms.

Finally, it is time to mainstream the responsibility to protect throughout the UN system so that atrocity prevention becomes part of the daily-lived reality of the organization and its partners. The Secretary-General called for the mainstreaming of R2P in his first report on the topic and we are delighted that Mr. Dieng and Dr. Welsh have committed themselves to advancing this objective. The prevention of genocide and other atrocity crimes must become part of what we do every day. The Secretary-General’s report is a significant contribution and provides a pathway for incorporating an atrocity prevention mindset into the work of the UN system as a whole.

Mr. Moderator, the challenge now is to translate the commitment this Assembly made in 2005 into a lived reality. That demands of us a renewed determination to take the practical steps necessary to protect people in need. That is the challenge that lies before the General Assembly. We are confident that it is a challenge that you will meet, with the help of the UN, regional bodies and organizations like ours.

Thank you.

Alex Bellamy, Executive Director

Asia Pacific Centre for the Responsibility to Protect

Breaking Cycle of Impunity in Gaza: Accountability is the Key, the ICC the Best Route



Originally posted at IPI Global Observatory

A little over a week ago, the UN Secretary-General’s Special Advisers on Genocide Prevention and the Responsibility to Protect (Adama Dieng and Jennifer Welsh, respectively) issued a joint statement on the situation in Gaza. The statement advanced a bold account of the situation in Gaza and outlined steps to strengthen the protection of Gaza’s population. Sadly, the statement generated little interest beyond a small community of diplomats and analysts. It deserves to be revisited.

The Special Advisers noted that Israel (as the occupying power), the Palestinian Authority, and Hamas all shared in the responsibility to protect the population in Gaza, and that the international community had a responsibility to assist in protecting the civilian population. The Special Advisers expressed “shock” at the civilian casualties, observing that the high toll could “demonstrate disproportionate and indiscriminate use of force” by the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). They concluded that both sides “are in violation of international humanitarian law” and pointed to the “disturbing” use of hate speech on social media directed especially against the Palestinian population.

The Special Advisers urged all parties to comply with their legal obligations to international humanitarian law, called on the international community to “encourage and support” negotiations toward a ceasefire, recommended the delivery of humanitarian aid and the establishment of “humanitarian corridors,” insisted that those responsible for war crimes and crimes against humanity on both sides be held accountable for their actions, called for the lifting of the blockade of Gaza, and urged the parties to enter serious negotiations to end the cycle of violence.

Last Friday, hopes emerged that at least some of these objectives could be achieved when UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and US Secretary of State John Kerry brokered a 72-hour “humanitarian ceasefire” and won a commitment from the parties to begin negotiations on a durable ceasefire.  But the ceasefire collapsed almost as soon as it came into force, due, it seems, to a callous attempt by Hamas to exploit the pause for its own tactical advantage. All too predictably, Israel responded with overwhelming force, much of which rained down on civilians. Included in the target list were buildings apparently struck because of their cultural or religious value—not because they were military targets. Once again, the UN and those civilians sheltering under what limited protection its flag still offers, were targeted. On Sunday, at least ten civilians at a UN-run school were killed in what appears (at best) to have been a disproportionate strike on three suspected members of an armed group riding near the school.  This was the third time the IDF had directed fire against a UN school with deadly consequences for civilians. Ban Ki-moon described the attack as “reprehensible” and “criminal.”

The conflict in Gaza clearly needs to be understood within its broader historical context. There will be no end to the violence until durable solutions to the underlying political problems are found. The Responsibility to Protect (R2P) is agnostic on precisely what that solution should look like, though the Secretary-General’s 2013 report on “State Responsibility and Prevention” gives powerful clues as to what ought to be included. R2P is most certainly not agnostic when it comes to the urgent need to protect populations from atrocity crimes and the looming need to break the cycles of escalation and impunity that keep Gaza’s civilians in an intolerable condition of acute risk.

In terms of the immediate challenge, like others before them, the Special Advisers called on the “international community” to do what it could to persuade the parties to agree an immediate ceasefire. There are few good options in this regard, and the diplomatic context is becoming only more difficult.  Would-be mediators have to contend with the extraordinary and blatant display of bad faith by both parties in the wake of the “humanitarian ceasefire.” If reports are correct, it seems that Hamas planned to violate the ceasefire for tactical gains and that the IDF was simply waiting for an excuse to drive its own coach-and-horses (in this case, tanks and mortars) through the ceasefire agreement. Clearly, neither party believes that their ceasefire agreements are worth the paper they are written on, and each expects the other to renege on their agreements and acts accordingly.

The problem of bad faith is compounded by the absence of a trusted third party. The Egyptian government is avowedly opposed to Hamas. Indeed, it is likely that it was Egyptian moves against Hamas, which are reckoned to have seriously damaged its capacity to import goods and raise funds, that prompted the group to step up attacks on Israel in the hope of winning much-needed concessions on the blockade. Meanwhile, negotiating on one hand, while supplying ammunition to Israel on the other, makes the US more an ally to one of the parties than an impartial third party. On the other hand, regional activists such as Turkey and Qatar have associations with Hamas that make them unsuitable as mediators. The Quartet’s Tony Blair is, at best, a lame duck envoy and always was—his appointment being more a sign of their lack of seriousness than anything else. 

While the UN itself has a long and tortuous history in Palestine, the Secretary-General has adopted a strong and consistent line in defense of civilian protection and human rights and is uniquely placed as arguably the most appropriate mediator. But, as political figures with all the responsibility and no power, UN Secretaries-General have a notoriously difficult time extracting concessions from parties unless they are backed strongly by the Security Council. Simply put, the parties are likely to reach a durable ceasefire only if the anticipated costs of not doing so are increased by promises of international action. That would be very hard to achieve in this case. On the one hand, besides raising all sorts of normative questions, it would be difficult (at best) to persuade the US and its allies to support the adoption of one-sided measures designed to push Israel to the negotiating table. On the other hand, as it is already proscribed as a terrorist organization in the West and confronted directly by its two neighbors (Israel and Egypt), it is difficult to see what additional measures could be usefully adopted to make Hamas more cooperative.

Partly as a result, the most likely endgame for this particular crisis is a unilateral cessation and withdrawal by Israel without any agreement with the Palestinian Authority or Hamas. In the short term, Hamas will emerge weakened, but if the past is any guide to the future, it will rebuild itself with a new generation scarred and traumatized by the seemingly indiscriminate destruction of their civilian neighbors and therefore more radical and determined than the last. Far from breaking the cycle of escalation, as called for by the UN’s Special Advisers, events over the weekend have reinforced them and likely planted the seeds of Gaza’s next war in which more civilians will suffer and die.

The Special Advisers identified one potential way of breaking the cycles of escalation and impunity: holding those responsible for violations of international humanitarian law accountable for their actions.

Few would disagree that accountability is critically important. One of the most striking aspects of the current conflict is the appallingly low regard that both parties have for civilian life. Through its actions, the IDF has exposed the hollowness of its rhetoric about compliance with the law. Time and again, it has fired directly on civilians, its actions clearly lacking discrimination and proportion. But Hamas has been no better. It has stored weapons in vacant UN facilities, deliberately targeted civilians and willfully violated a “humanitarian ceasefire,” squarely placing civilians in harm’s way. 

How is accountability to be achieved? The mandating of an investigation by the UN’s Human Rights Council is a step in the right direction. However, while illuminating the evidence of atrocity crimes, the Human Rights Council’s past efforts did not lead to accountability. Nor, in recent years, has either the Israeli government or the Palestinian Authority investigated allegations of war crimes and crimes against humanity in an independent and impartial manner.

As such, the only viable way of ensuring accountability is for the situation in Gaza to be referred to the International Criminal Court (ICC). If true, the Palestinian Authority’s willingness to consider signing the Rome Statute should be applauded and the Authority encouraged down that path. But the Authority cannot yet become a state party and its actions would be largely symbolic. The practical engagement of the ICC requires a referral by the UN Security Council. Given that the Council has referred other matters to the ICC, including complex and difficult ones, the only legitimate reason for not doing so in this case would be the viability of alternative accountability mechanisms. Given that no such alternatives exist, it is imperative that the Security Council consider referring the situation in Gaza to the ICC. I can see no good reason not to do so. In the absence of accountability, impunity will give rise only to further escalation—and civilian suffering—in the future.

Alex J. Bellamy is Director (International) of the Asia Pacific Centre for the Responsibility to Protect and a Non-Resident Senior Adviser at the International Peace Institute.

Diplomacy and the Distractions of Protection



Originally posted at the International Peace Institute’s, Global Observatory. Original here.

When genocide and mass atrocities strike, the first imperative is to stop the violence. When the violence stops, protection increases. With outright victory for the perpetrators of these crimes less likely than it once was and outright defeat still relatively uncommon, an increasingly significant number of episodes of genocide and mass atrocity are terminated or mitigated by agreements negotiated with some of the perpetrators. Thus, atrocities in Darfur, South Sudan, Kenya, the DRC, former Yugoslavia, and East Timor were ended or significantly reduced by negotiation. Meanwhile, one of the few international points of consensus on the current situation in Syria is the need for a negotiated political settlement involving all the relevant parties.

Sometimes, diplomatic imperatives collide head-on with protection concerns. Moral or legal considerations grounded in the Responsibility to Protect (RtoP) sometimes make it more difficult to negotiate an end to violence with political leaders responsible for atrocity crimes. This is primarily because these principles reduce the capacity of negotiators to offer incentives and compromises to those responsible for atrocity crimes.

This is not a new problem. In 2006, the UN’s chief humanitarian, Jan Egeland tried to negotiate with LRA leader Joseph Kony shortly after his indictment by the ICC. Kony demanded that the indictment be lifted as a prerequisite for peace–something Egeland could not deliver. The talks collapsed and the violence continued. More recently, the ICC’s indictment of Sudan’s President Omar al-Bashir has presented all sorts of diplomatic difficulties. On the one hand, the president is indicted for grave crimes by an international tribunal backed by the UN. On the other, Bashir remains indispensible to the achievement of peace in Darfur and the smooth running of the UN/AU hybrid peacekeeping mission there (UNAMID). So fraught has the situation become that some UN officials were advised that, should they need to pose for photographs with the Sudanese president, they ought not smile.

By raising expectations about what the world should be doing to protect populations from genocide and mass atrocities, RtoP might inadvertently limit the deals that negotiators can offer perpetrators and damage already difficult relationships with political actors whose support is often needed to end the violence.  In 2012, South Sudan expelled a UN human rights investigator, Sandra Beidas, for publishing information about serious human rights abuses by the country’s security services. Three years earlier, UNICEF’s spokesperson in Sri Lanka was expelled for raising concerns publicly about the treatment of Tamil children in government run “welfare camps.” In these and other cases, the international community’s capacity to negotiate protection was harmed when officials were expelled for publicly raising protection concerns.

Situations like this call for difficult judgments about whether protection is best served by quiet diplomacy or by speaking out. Quiet diplomacy can sometimes miss the mark by facilitating a climate of impunity, as happened in the final days of the Sri Lankan civil war in 2008-9. But megaphone diplomacy can also sometimes make matters worse by encouraging retribution and making already difficult relationships more so without direct gains on protection. Here are five pointers that might help diplomats navigate through these difficult issues in a manner consistent with the RtoP principle:

1. Prioritize protection. Whatever else may be going on, the overriding objective must be to protect populations from genocide and mass atrocities as far as it is possible to do. RtoP is not a “tool” to be employed, but a basic principle to which the community’s energies should be directed. Strategies should aim to achieve the greatest protection for the greatest number of people possible in the affected area, as quickly as possible. How that might be achieved will differ from case to case.

2. Aligning means to ends. Approaches should start by understanding the nature of the problem and the causes of civilian suffering, tailoring responses to address those issues, and ensuring that once adopted policies are properly resourced.

3. Doing it though not always saying it. Although language matters, it is much less important than practice. If the language of RtoP makes it more difficult to get protection work done, then it should be avoided–but it is equally important to ascertain whether the quiet approach is yielding tangible results.

4. Sequencing responses. While in the long-term there is no stable peace without justice, sometimes justice and protection concerns inhibit the pursuit of “negative peace”–the ending of violence. Prioritizing protection might sometimes make it necessary to set aside justice considerations, albeit temporarily.

5. Muddling through. Muddling through sometimes has a quality all of its own. Genocide and mass atrocities are too rare and complex to permit the development of robust models telling us how best to protect populations in each and every case. There are simply too many factors that impact a situation for us to make iron-cast laws about what works and what does not. Muddling through is therefore unavoidable. But if officials prioritize protection, try to align means and ends as far as possible, can be pragmatic about the language they use, and think creatively about sequencing, it may be possible to navigate a way through the dilemma.

Alex J. Bellamy is Professor of International Security at the Griffith Asia Institute, Griffith University, Australia;  a non-resident Senior Adviser at the International Peace Institute, New York; and Director (International) of the Asia Pacific Centre for the Responsibility to Protect. 


Sri Lanka and the Politics of War Crimes




When Sri Lanka’s human rights record once again comes under the spotlight, Australia’s leaders may be compelled to trawl the depths of hypocrisy, writes Gordon Weiss, newly appointed Principal Research Fellow in the Human Protection Hub.

Since Sri Lanka’s armed forces killed an estimated 40,000 of its own citizens in 2009, governments around the world have debated a response. Should they praise the army’s crushing of a notorious organisation, the Tamil Tigers, which used suicide warfare in pursuit of political ends? Or should they condemn the atrocity as abhorrent and unjustifiable, and press for a war crimes investigation?

Further, if the latter, should all the leaders of Commonwealth nations now be rubbing shoulders in Colombo, as though the Commonwealth’s tea and tiara toothlessness really doesn’t matter in the modern world, because togetherness is so much more important than apartness?

Those who oppose Tony Abbott attending CHOGM in Colombo know that his presence means Australia recognises the transfer of the leadership of the Commonwealth from India to a government accused of war crimes. At least the Coalition Government cannot be accused of hypocrisy. When just an aspirant foreign minister before Australia’s last election, Julie Bishop travelled to Sri Lanka and essentially gave the Sri Lankan government an end-justifies-the-means clean bill of health.

Some other conservative Commonwealth governments are very different – possibly, however, for hypocritical reasons. Yes, Canada’s Stephen Harper has ‘boycotted’ the summit, the UK’s David Cameron has said that he will attend but will press for a credible war crimes investigation, and India’s Manmohan Singh withdrew at the last moment. Since few doubt the actual evidence of war crimes, their pronouncements seem strong and ethical. Yet unlike Australia, their political calculations are necessarily coloured by large Tamil constituencies that can influence the outcome of elections in their respective countries.

The issue is not whether to boycott or not. That the Commonwealth voted to hold the summit in Colombo, and to hand the two-year leadership of this considerable multilateral organisation to a government with blood on its hands, is eloquent self-condemnation. When it did so two years ago, the Commonwealth already failed to live up to its two-decades old proclamation that it would place human rights at the centre of its diplomacy. Its supporters who believe that human rights are fundamental to international law and a source of stability in the modern world are in despair.

A number of Commonwealth leaders have justified their attendance at CHOGM on the basis that it is better to engage and persuade than to simply condemn. Yet for four years since 2009, dozens of countries have urged, cajoled, and begged the current Sri Lankan government to abide by an agreement it signed with the UN secretary-general at the end of the war to both account for the deaths of those 40,000, and to place a serious political solution to the island’s woes on the table. Engagement has resulted in no credible account, and no political deal, while the family of President Rajapaksa has meantime slowly disembowelled the democratic structures of one of the Commonwealth’s oldest democracies.

No, the issue is not CHOGM, but is rather what will happen next with Australia’s adopted position on Sri Lanka, pursued by both Labour and Coalition governments since 2009, and the depths of hypocrisy that our own political leaders may shortly be compelled to trawl. Have our political leaders placed short-term domestic political considerations to deal with those thousands of boat people who inundated our shores last year, at some cost to our long-term interests?

The upper reaches of the Obama administration have closely watched Sri Lanka flout international law and norms. It too tried engagement for four years. Then, earlier this year, the US State Department declared that serious human rights abuses have continued unabated in Sri Lanka since the end of the war (indeed, as they have continued on the island for decades now, whatever the findings of Foreign Minister Bishop).

The US believes that stability and security are equally served by a respect for law and norms that must be upheld by individual nations, and by the collective when a fellow nation refuses. The US, it seems, is determined to bring Sri Lanka to book and to shore up the challenge to the post-Cold War order raised by an ascendant China and its chequebook diplomacy (China is the main funder of the Rajapaksa government).

Don’t take too much notice of CHOGM, which the Sri Lankan government mistakenly sees as an affirmation of its rehabilitation, and proof of the short-term memory of international politics. Much more importantly, in March 2014 the UN Human Rights Council will once again consider Sri Lanka’s human rights record since the end of the war. With patience exhausted by the current Sri Lankan government’s efforts to whitewash its record, it is conceivable that the HRC might well put a resolution for an international war crimes investigation to the vote.

Watch Australia in the round of diplomacy that will accompany that 2014 vote. It may well be hypocrisy, but of a variety that better serves the progress of multilateral cooperation on the great issues of our time than the colourful gathering in Colombo in the coming days.

Gordon Weiss is the author of The Cage: The Fight for Sri Lanka and the Last Days of the Tamil Tigers, a research professor at the Human Protection Hub at the Griffith Asia Institute, and an expert at the International Crimes Evidence Project.

Originally Posted in The Drum


Asylum Solutions: we need a regional refugee compact

This article was originally published at The Conversation. Read the original here.

Photo courtesy of IRIN.
Photo courtesy of IRIN.

The Australia-PNG regional resettlement arrangement and the “no advantage” policy are based on the incorrect assumption that asylum seekers come to Australia because it’s an “easy” entry point into the affluent Western lifestyle via established people smuggler networks. This makes the issue out to be about “pull” factors and diminishes “push” factors for refugees.

In order to address the asylum seeker problem, we first need to reframe the debate to reflect the facts. Then we can focus on protecting refugees in our region who resort to the dangerous sea voyage.

The first steps towards a “solution”? A regional refugee summit that brings together civil society, humanitarian groups, international organisations, academics and politicians. Let’s go with the working title: The Summit on Ideas for Durable Solutions. With genuine engagement and sharing of ideas, practices, tools and policies, the aim of the summit would be to establish a regional refugee compact.

Getting the right structure

Rather than having state chairs, the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) and International Organization for Migration (IOM) would be given dual responsibility to organise the summit. Such an arrangement has a precedent in the Rio +20 United Nation Conference on Sustainable Development in 2012.

If UN General Assembly endorsement required for such a process proved too ambitions, the summit could appoint a high-level organising committee to chair and report on the summit. The panel would include esteemed individuals with knowledge and experience in this area and the region, such as:

Erika Feller, a former Australian diplomat, recently retired from UNHCR
Sadako Ogata, former United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees
Vitit Muntarbhorn, UN Special Rapporteur and currently serving as Commissioner for Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic.

Hearing from organisations on the ground

There are a variety of refugee experiences in the region – which agenda-driven political processes ignore – that need to be heard in order to explore opportunities for further collaboration and investment.

There are refugees, for instance, who are UNHCR-recognised but survive and thrive in countries where their status remains “illegal”. There are countries – China, Malaysia, Philippines, Thailand, even Singapore – which have in the past have agreed to resettle refugees, in some cases thousands, if they are allowed to determine when and who they receive.

Non-government organisations in regional countries, such as Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand, that work with asylum seekers must be engaged more fully beyond their current status as service providers. Their work with and experiences of the grassroots interventions to protect asylum seekers remains underutilised.

The regional refugee summit would provide an opportunity for these experiences to be shared with public service officials, law enforcement officers and politicians in an environment where the ideal objective is not an arrangement but an understanding of what drives the demand process, what satisfies demand, and what is durable for each and every state in the region.

Moving towards a regional refugee compact

The summit’s agenda will focus on local and regional initiatives to protect asylum seekers. We need to discuss what services countries can and will provide, what funding arrangements and humanitarian intake solutions can be given and received, and which durable solutions are acceptable under international refugee law and for the region.

The process would start with a wide participatory summit that moves discursively and creatively towards a regional refugee compact, guided by the high level panel of experts who are knowledgeable and engaged in the region. The panel would then report its findings to the region’s heads of state.

Burden-sharing would have to be clearly outlined and bilateral agreements may still flow from the compact as long as they adhered to its principles. These principles could be based on the 1951 Refugee Convention without forcing non-signatories to sign onto the convention.

Such a regional refugee compact could build on the languid Bali Process. Since 2011, all 40 signatory states (in and around the region) have agreed to five principles including asylum processing arrangements, refugee protection, and durable solutions. There is regional agreement on what should guide behaviour but there remain great deficiencies in the creation of arrangements that meet these five guiding principles.

The regional refugee compact, however, would focus the attention away from border protection and towards refugee needs and service provision.

Addressing the real problem

We need a discussion about what better protection outcomes can be achieved without relying on the 1951 Convention, as few states in the region are signatories. We also need to ensure that the protection that the 1951 Convention supplies (hence the passage to Australia) can be regionally sustained into the future via other instruments. None of the policies at the moment meet this criteria.

The Australian government should seek a regional approach that supports and enables engagement between local, national and regional NGOs, the UNHCR, regional governments and refugee groups. These discussions need to be outside of the migration focus and outside of the deterrence model that focuses on the supply side – people smuggling and trafficking. Rather, it must engage with the demand – the asylum seekers themselves.

An “individual asylum needs”-focused approach rather than a “state versus people smuggler” approach may start to yield a more sustainable solution if breaking the business model is the goal. Deterrence does not mitigate demand. It may provide a temporary limit on demand, but in the longer term, this makes people more determined and desperate to find a way to go where they need to go for protection.

Sara Davies, Griffith University and Gerhard Hoffstaedter, University of Queensland.