The Situation in Rakhine, Myanmar


Boats in the Kaladan River, Rakhine State, Myanmar Burma – Anne Dirkse,

Noel M. Morada, Alex Bellamy and Sarah Teitt
Asia Pacific Centre for the Responsibility to Protect.

In the early morning of 9 October, a group of some 250 armed men attacked two border police and outposts in Mungdaw and Rathedaung townships in Rakhine, Myanmar, resulting in the death of nine policemen.  This was followed by clashes that killed five Myanmar army troops, with some 15 men reportedly killed and four other detained by the military in follow up operations after the attack in Mungdaw village.  The border gates between Bangladesh and Myanmar were closed indefinitely and some 400 schools in the area were ordered to close on 10 October.   Three days after the attack, the situation in Mungdaw township has reportedly returned to calm with no further attacks or clashes, even as government troops continue to inspect the area in search of the assailants.

A number of exiled Rohingya community organisations have denounced what they describe as “state violence” against the villagers (the majority of whom self-identify as Rohingya) during the search operations in Mungdaw.  However, the state government in Rakhine has denied that the military’s follow-up operations targeted civilians and has asserted that the casualties were suspected militants.  For their part, local Muslim civil society organisations in Myanmar condemned the border attacks and expressed concerns that these could lead to further violence in Rakhine.  In particular, the head of Myanmar Muslim Lawyers Association considered these “terrorist attacks” as unacceptable, while other Muslim CSOs condemned “any destructive act as detrimental to the peace and stability” of Myanmar.[1]

Meanwhile, Aung San Suu Kyi was careful not to accuse any individual or organization for the attacks until the evidence have been established on who the perpetrators are.  She pointed out that her government would manage the situation in Rakhine fairly and in accordance with the law.[2]  For his part, Al-haj U Aye Lwin, a Muslim member of the Arakan State Advisory Commission created by the NLD government to address the communal tensions in Rakhine, was also careful not to make any public statement about the Mungdaw attacks but said that he personally cannot accept acts of violence and that “harsh punishment must be given to the attackers.”  At the same time, he also pointed out that extra caution must be taken so that those who are not involved in the violence are not adversely affected.[3]  These cautious statements are laudable and in stark contrast to earlier statements made by other Myanmar officials who seem to immediately blame the Rohingyas in Rakhine for the attacks.[4]

We support the people and government of Myanmar and the international community in condemning these violent border attacks in Rakhine.  The balanced approach that both the highest leadership in the NLD and state governments have taken in responding to the situation in Mungdaw clearly demonstrate their resolve to avert further violence which could exacerbate communal tensions in Rakhine.  Other officials of the central government should support Aung San Suu Kyi’s sober and prudent response to the situation in Rakhine.  While the military conducts follow up operations in pursuit of those who responsible for these attacks, the NLD government and law enforcement agencies must bear the primary responsibility to protect affected civilians and ensure that fundamental human rights are protected. Alleged violations by any party should be thoroughly and impartially investigated.  Media and civil society groups within and outside Myanmar can also contribute to averting further escalation of violence in Rakhine by preventing incitement of communal tensions through fair, accurate and balanced reporting and by promoting inter-faith dialogue and understanding.

ASEAN and the international community should encourage and support Myanmar and Bangladesh in giving priority to enhancing their border security cooperation following the Mungdaw and Rathedaung attacks, which is one of the root causes of communal conflicts in Rakhine.

We join the international community in condemning these attacks on Myanmar’s security forces and in calling for prudence and restraint. Rakhine’s problems cannot be solved through violence but only through dialogue, understanding and the fulfillment of the Responsibility to Protect principle.

[1] Htun Htun, “Local Muslim Community Condemns Mungdaw Attacks,”  The Irrawady, 12 October 2016,, accessed on 13 October 2016.

[2] Htet Naing Zaw, “Daw Aung San Suu Kyi Responds to Arakan State Attacks,” The Irrawady, 12 October 2016,, accessed on 13 October 2016.

[3] Htun Htun, ibid.

[4] “Security tightens in Rakhine State following police killings,” Eleven News, 10 October 2016, from, accessed on 13 October 2016.

Securitising West Africa’s Ebola Pandemic: Implications for the Future of UN Peace Operations

By Obinna Ifediora



At the climax of the 2014 Ebola virus disease (EVD) outbreak in West Africa, the international community, including the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), the African Union Peace and Security Council (AU PSC), the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) (the Committee of Chiefs of Defence Staff [CCDS)]), the United States of America, and the World Health Organisation (WHO), had to adopt extraordinary measure in order to effectively address the global and regional threat posed by the EVD. These responses were considered unnecessary, not conducive for long-term health system capacity-building in West Africa, dangerous, and strategically counterproductive.  This blog article reviews these claims in a context of non-traditional security (NTS) challenges to global security vis-à-vis the underlying motivations to employ a securitised response by the international community. It finds that in the absence of a securitised approach to the threat posed by the EVD, the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) projection that without additional measures to control the spread of the virus up to 1.4 million people are likely to contract Ebola in West Africa by January 2015 could have happened. It suggests that this security approach is consistent with the growing practice of securitising public health challenges to human security: from HIV/AIDS to malaria, cholera, and Ebola and Zika viruses.

It concludes by noting that the global response to the EVD epidemic in West Africa was a turning point, as well as a precedent, in combating future public health challenges; for the first time in the UN history of maintaining international peace and security, the UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon, in an uncharacteristic move, authorised and deployed a ‘health mission’ to West Africa. In many ways, this is the first demonstrable evidence of the reframing of the future of UN peace operations  focusing, primarily, on the people.

Securitizing a Public Health Pandemic – theory and debate

The securitisation theory refers to the processes of presenting an issue as posing an ‘existential threat’ to a ‘referent object’, such populations, which requires extraordinary measures beyond the routine and norms of everyday politics to address. On the international level, the securitisation idea provides a framework that enables the presentation of an issue as urgent and existential, so important that it should not be treated in the context of normal politics.

Critics of the securitisation theory argue that excessive securitisation could render security politically ineffective, intellectually incoherent and confrontational to civil and developmental issues; the EVD challenge being one of such issues. Reviewing global response to the EVD outbreak, this article presents an alternative understanding of the potential implications of securitisation of health pandemics. Here, securitisation framework is understood as representing potential opportunities for addressing public health risks without necessarily triggering a traditional ‘military-type’ response, and also the prospect it embodies for the idea of the new security consensus.  Securitisation approach, when viewed from this perspective, provides the necessary impetus for mobilising the international community towards the desired action.

Responses to the Ebola pandemic are instructive: Following the first confirmed case of Ebola in Guinea on 21 March 2014, the WHO published official Ebola notification on 24 March 2014, and eventually a team of medical experts under its Global Outbreak Alert and Response Network (GORAN) arrived in Guinea. The EVD outbreak was discussed at a summit of the Heads of States and Government (HSG) of ECOWAS in Yamoussoukro, Cote d’Ivoire between 28 and 29 March 2014 where an initial appeal for international aid was made. These early responses, however, failed to grasp the enormity and potential ramifications of the challenges posed by Ebola. The WHO initially treated the outbreak as a localised infection requiring routine measures to contain; while for ECOWAS, it was a developmental issue, at best.

From Inertia to Action – securitising Ebola and its policy implications

Four months into the unprecedented devastation wrecked by Ebola, a policy shift eventually occurred, by which time there were 1,711 cases of infections of which 1,070 were confirmed, 436 probable, 205 suspect, and 932 deaths.

In July 2014, the WHO re-graded EVD from Grade 2 to Grade 3, the highest emergency level, which signified ‘the existence of a single or multiple country events with substantial public health consequences that require a substantial WCO [WHO Country Office] response’. Consequently, on 8 August 2014, following the first meeting of the International Health Regulation (IHR) Committee, a unanimous decision pursuant to Article 12(4) (e) of the WHO International Health Regulations (IHR) (2005) stated that, ‘the conditions for a public health emergency of international concern have been met’ and that ‘the Ebola outbreak in West Africa constitutes an extraordinary event and a public health risk to other states’.

The ECOWAS CCDS, in an Emergency Session in Accra, Ghana, on 8 December 2014, called for urgent military contributions by member states to halt the devastation caused by the EVD outbreak in the region. By placing the Ebola pandemic prior to other security issues it had to confront in the region, the CCDS asked for medical military personnel, supported by civilian components, in line with Article 89 of the ECOWAS Conflict Prevention Framework, 2008.

On 19 August 2014, the AU PSC, referring to the ‘emergency situation caused by Ebola’, implemented Articles 6(f) and 13(3) (f) of its Protocol and authorised humanitarian action and disaster management response. Consequently, the AU Support Mission for the fight against the Ebola Outbreak in West Africa (ASEOWA) was established on 29 October 2014, comprising of military and civilian components, including 1,000 health workers. To finance ASEOWA, the AU requisitioned funds from its Special Emergency Assistance Fund for Drought and Famine and Special Fund Contributions – internally displaced persons (IDPs) and Refugees.

There is nothing in the foregoing to suggest a traditional military-style operation; but rather, an innovative African hybrid military-civilian response to a catastrophic humanitarian event caused by a health pandemic. The AU understood the urgency of the situation and decided to reallocate funds that were not specifically earmarked for such situations.

The measures adopted by the UNSC on 18 September 2014, and the UN General Assembly declaration on 19 September 2014, resulted in the establishment of the UN Ebola Emergency Response (UNMEER). UNMEERS’s primary objectives were to stop the outbreak, treat the infected, provide essential services, preserve stability and prevent further outbreaks.

Conclusion: securitising Ebola into a ‘health mission’

In activating the UN’s system-wide crises response mechanism, the UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon, stated that ‘I have decided to establish a United Nations emergency health mission combining the World Health Organization’s strategic perspective with a very strong logistics and operational capability’. In essence, UNMEER was not a peacekeeping mission in the context of a classical approach to ‘maintaining international peace and security’, but a ‘health mission’ with full logistical support from existing assets from the UN Mission in Liberia (UNMIL). More so, US troops were deployed in West Africa to address America’s national security  concerns occasioned by the EVD pandemic in the context of providing expertise in logistics, training and engineering.

There is no evidence thus far to suggest that securitising the global response to Ebola amounted to a military operation or even to suggest a future role for UN blue-helmets. However, there may be a role for UN white-helmets in combating public health crises in the future, such as with the case of the Zika virus outbreak in Brazil. Available evidence demonstrates genuine multilateral humanitarianism in protecting the people of West Africa, and the world, from an existential threat posed by Ebola virus by utilising ‘securitising speech-act’ methodology to galvanise hitherto dormant, but overwhelming global capacities to save human lives, restore stability, and revive economic growth and development.

Granted that a securitised response to health crises may not be appropriate for structural human protection – that is, health systems capacity-building and development in West Africa – a securitised measure, nevertheless, helped to achieve the core purpose of operational human protection – that is, halting the spread of the EVD, treating infected people, preserving stability, and preventing future outbreaks.

The overbearing global capacities that were brought to bear on the threat of EVD to the international community ensured that the US CDC projection that over one million people could be infected by January 2015 did not materialise. Additionally, the urgency and priority that securitisation gave to the Ebola crisis exposed capacity gaps in global-regional preparedness for health emergencies, thus providing the platform for the ongoing debate on reforming global health governance systems.

Understanding the changing nature of threats to international, regional and national peace and security gives credence to the securitisation framework as a relevant and viable political tool for mobilising global political will and appropriate capacities in responding to such threats. Today, the international community recognises that challenges of governance underline the numerous threats it confronts, especially relating to human security: from terrorism to irregular migration, human trafficking, poverty, growing youth unemployment, internal displacement, refugees, and diseases. These are the threats the UN peace operations is being repositioned to address. Regarding public health crises, authorising UN health missions is now expected to become the norm.  The future is here.



Human Protection across Regions


Bangkok meeting

Learning from Norm Promotion and Capacity Building in Southeast Asia and Africa

Charles T. Hunt and Noel M. Morada

This blog is based on the Introduction in a recently published special issue, ‘Southeast Asia-Africa Dialogue: Regionalism, Norm Promotion and Capacity Building in Human Protection’, Global Responsibility to Protect, Vol.8, No.2-3 (2016).

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The special issue, guest edited by Charles T. Hunt & Noel M. Morada, is concerned with learning from Norm Promotion and Capacity Building in Southeast Asia and Africa.

The collection of articles is the product of the Southeast Asia-Africa Dialogue held in Bangkok on 29-30 October 2014 organized by the Asia Pacific Centre for the Responsibility to Protect and the Department of International Relations at Chulalongkorn University. The dialogue was part of the Centre’s initiative on South-South exchange among scholars, practitioners and civil society advocates from the two regions.

The main objectives of the Bangkok workshop were as follows:

  1. Provide a venue for dialogue and exchange of ideas among scholars, civil society representatives, and practitioners on the current state, dynamics, and challenges in norm promotion and capacity building in human rights, mass atrocities prevention, and civilian protection in Southeast Asia and Africa;
  2. Identify the challenges and opportunities confronting regional institutions or frameworks such as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the African Union (AU), as well as sub-regional arrangements in implementing these norms; and
  3. Highlight the roles played by various stakeholders in building the capacity of states and regional arrangements in these regions in preventing and responding to human protection issues.

The contributors to the Special Issue, who attended the workshop, are from academe and civil society.  Some have been, or continue to be, directly engaged in norm promotion and capacity building on human protection issues in Southeast Asia and Africa. Their insights and analyses of the challenges and opportunities faced by states and societies in the two regions on human protection contribute a nuanced understanding of the dynamics of translating principles and norms on human rights protection into practice.

The first set of articles in the issue focus on Southeast Asia. Noel M. Morada’s overview of ASEAN regionalism examines the evolution and milestones of the regional organisation concerning human rights protection norms. Sriprapha Petcharamesree’s article examines the ASEAN human rights regime, specifically the challenges and prospects of mainstreaming the R2P in the region by examining the roles and performance of the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR). Lourdes Veneracion-Rallonza’s article examines the link between Women, Peace and Security (WPS) global agenda and ASEAN’s regional agenda on human protection and atrocities prevention. Lastly, Alex J. Bellamy’s article examines the Asia Pacific region’s engagement and translation of the R2P principle from commitment to practice.

The second set of articles in the issue focus on Africa. Charles T. Hunt’s overview of regionalism in Africa examines the extent to which human protection norms have diffused in the continent’s regional organisations and communities. Chukwuemeka B. Eze’s contribution is focused on the role of Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) in promoting human protection norms in the West African sub-region. Tim Murithi’s article evaluates the role of the AU as a norm entrepreneur, specifically examining the promotion of pan-African norms that relate to sovereignty and non-interference, and how human protection and mass atrocities prevention norms have evolved and been incorporated within the AU over time.  Obinna Ifediora’s article then explores the institutional and governance capacity of the AU to meet an enhanced ‘regional responsibility to protect’.  Finally, Phil Orchard contributes to the Issue with a timely comparative study of the contrasting experience of internally displaced persons and the responses formulated in response to these populations by the AU and ASEAN.

Breaking the Silence in Myanmar

This piece has been republished from post on IPI Global Observatory, 3 June.

A recent diplomatic row over whether new United States Ambassador to Myanmar Scot Marciel may call the self-identified Rohingya ethnic minority group by that name or use the government preferred “Bengali” shows that ethnic and religious tensions remain high in the Southeast Asian nation.

The situation today for the Rohingya remains largely the same as it did prior to Myanmar’s peaceful political transition last year, which included moving from a military junta-dominated parliament to one with a National League for Democracy majority, the appointment of a new president, and continued efforts to reach a peace agreement between the country’s many armed groups.

As well as being denied the right to self-identify, the Rohingya are still not recognized as citizens of Myanmar, and the 125,000 to 140,000 in Rakhine are denied the right to leave the state, while facing massive impositions on their lives. There is no sign that those still interned in displacement camps near the Rakhine capital Sittwe since June 2012 will be released. Women bear a particularly high brunt from the worrying levels of malnutrition and long-term health implications among their children, high rates of gender-based violence, and society-wide intimidation.

A fire within Rakhine’s Baw Du Pha 2 camp, which led to 2,000 losing their homes at the start of May, was the latest tragedy to befall this displaced population. In October last year, an eight-year-old girl who was already severely malnourished died from injuries allegedly resulting from a rape by a military officer. The daily persecution continues to drive many to attempt leaving Myanmar by sea, many of who drown, as with the 21 who died at sea last month, or face brutality at the hands of those who assist in their flight, as with those found dead in Malaysia last year.

The pattern of pervasive discrimination is one we personally comprehended when speaking to those responsible for delivering the limited humanitarian assistance permitted for the internally displaced population in Rakhine. All those who spoke to us insisted on anonymity, fearing that their access to the camps would be denied if their identities were revealed. Many spoke of fearing to even submit reports to their organizations, in case the governments of Rakhine or Myanmar expelled them.

While restricted in their ability to report on it, the humanitarian workers spoke of the severe forms of violence facing women and children and the limited rights for Rohingya both inside and outside the camps. They reported having witnessed few other situations approaching those in Sittwe, and many of these people had held postings in trouble spots such as Darfur, South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the Central African Republic, and Afghanistan.

While the case of the Rohingya population may be the most notable, it is also among many examples of displacement and limited humanitarian access in Myanmar. Much more is at stake for ethnic minorities in the country’s ongoing political transition. The National Ceasefire Agreement, which is yet to attract the signature of all 15 ethnic armed groups concerned, contains provisions on the relocation of hundreds of thousands of internally displaced persons and refugees. These relocations are proposed for displaced populations that have endured persistent human rights violations and denial of access to humanitarian assistance. They will be high-risk movements in environments where there may be significant resource competition. A recurrence of the violence that followed displacements in 2012 is feared, and compensation offered by the government is seen as insufficient to overcome persistent deprivation of rights such as land ownership.

The culture of silence around the treatment of Rohingya and other ethnic groups in Myanmar poses some important questions. First, whose responsibility is it to report human rights violations in the country’s complex political situation? And do United Nations, international humanitarian, and civil society reports protect populations or further erode the protection they have, however minimal? While most humanitarian agencies must operate in conditions where they are expected to be impartial and neutral, this does not apply to the UN or embassies.

There are also concerns over the point at which securing humanitarian access requires complicity with denying rights and identity for vulnerable and displaced populations. Silence may be justified as a way to prevent further violence, but it also enables violations to continue with impunity.

Civil society groups operating in Myanmar are already concerned about the state’s failure to recognize and prosecute acts of violence committed by the country’s Tatmadaw armed forces. A climate of impunity, coupled with aggressive pro-Myanmar Buddhist nationalist sentiment and resource rivalry generate risks that cannot be overstated. In a political environment where official reporting about violence or discrimination against minority populations is already restricted, and where humanitarian workers are prone to self-censorship to protect these groups, the risk of violence is ever present. The international community must therefore closely watch Myanmar during this important and ongoing regime transition.

Sara E. Davies is Associate Professor in the Centre for Governance and Public Policy, Griffith University. Jacqui True is Professor of Politics & International Relations at Monash University.

The Inexorable Rise in Global IDP Numbers

Dr. Vickie Frater and Dr. Phil Orchard

Aid Distribution in Mayfa'a, Shabwah, Yemen on 4 Nov 2015. Courtesy UNHCR

Aid Distribution in Mayfa’a, Shabwah, Yemen on 4 Nov 2015. Courtesy UNHCR

The Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC), a Geneva-based NGO supported by a number of governments and the Norwegian Refugee Council, has released its annual Global Report on Internal Displacement or GRID. Driven by the conflicts in Syria, South Sudan, and Iraq, the numbers of internally displaced persons, or IDPs, climbed by 4.5 million in 2013 and 5 million in 2014. This meant there was a global total of 38 million IDPs at the end of 2014.

Unfortunately, this pattern is continuing, though it has started to slow down. IDMC reports that overall IDPs globally increased by 2.8 million in 2015, reaching a total of 40.8 million. This includes 8.6 million new displacements, offset by around 5.8 million returns. Ten countries alone account for almost three-quarters of the total, producing some 30 million IDPs. Of these ten, four (Colombia, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Iraq, and South Sudan) have remained amongst the top ten IDP producing states since 2003. A further five -Nigeria, Syria, Ukraine, and Yemen- have been producing significant IDPs over the past five years.

What’s driving this inexorable rise? Part of the issue is the rise in conflict, particularly in the Middle East and North Africa, a region the IDMC argues has been ‘snowballing’ since the Arab Spring in 2010/2011. Indeed, Yemen, Syria and Iraq alone account for over half the global total for new displacements, with Yemen taking the top spot for new displacements in 2015, with a total of 2,175,000. This represents a 20-fold increase on IDP totals reported in 2014 and is largely due to Saudi-led airstrikes against the Houthi insurgency. IDMC notes that in Yemen, the “humanitarian and protection needs among IDPs and the rest of the civilian population are acute, and neither the national nor international response have gone far enough in addressing them.”

In Syria, the IDMC now estimates that there are 6.6 million IDPs, or 40 per cent of the remaining Syrian population. But the Syrian case in particular also shows the limitations of data collection during active conflicts. As IDMC noted in a December 2015 report, “data gathering in Syria has also been consistently complicated by the inability to access to certain areas, including besieged cities… IDMC’s displacement figures are also qualified by the fact that the sources cited above have used different methodologies to estimate the number of IDPs in various locations… Monitoring of internal displacement in Syria has been further hampered by the volatility of the frontlines and the intensity of the conflict.”

Another critical issue the report points to is that the steady increase in IDP figures reflects the fact that most IDPs have not found durable solutions, even with many having been displaced for years if not decades. Counting IDPs is an especially difficult exercise of population measurement and measuring the end of displacement is proving to be one of the hardest yardsticks to define and apply to these complex crises.

With IDPs – as opposed to with refugees – there is no clear end point when displacement ends. The Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement, the main soft law framework for the protection of the internally displaced, notes only that internal displacement “shall last no longer than required by the circumstance.” While a 2007 UN report proposes that IDP “durable solutions” should include three elements – “long-term safety and security, restitution of or compensation for lost property and an environment that sustains the life of the former IDPs under normal economic and social conditions”- this has yet to be widely accepted and solutions remain elusive.

This has also meant that there is an increasing prevalence of protracted, or long-term, displacement. When IDMC first began collecting data eighteen years ago in 1998, protracted cases such as Colombia, Algeria and Nagorno-Karabakh (Armenia and Azerbaijan) seemed exceptional.

And yet, in each of these cases IDP populations have persisted, even as newer cases join them. In Colombia, peace negotiations continue to stall, while in Azerbaijan and Armenia not only does a long term peace agreement remain non-existent but since April the dormant conflict has threatened to restart. This is not all bad news- over the past few years, IDMC has indicated that both states seemed to show signs of accepting a responsibility to adequately measure and respond to the needs of IDP populations.

Finally, within the report the IDMC has also sought to explore other causes of displacement beyond conflicts. This includes natural disasters, which created 19.2 million disaster-induced IDPs in 2015. These disasters affected 113 countries, more than twice the number of those affected by conflict and violence. India, China, and Nepal had the highest figures, with 3.7 million, 3.6 million, and 2.6 million disaster-induced IDPs respectively.

While victims of natural disasters tend to be able to return quickly to their homes, this is not always the case. In Japan, tens of thousands of people remained displaced from the Fukushima nuclear disaster. In Haiti, at least 62,000 people still remained displaced following the 2010 Port-au-Prince earthquake. The IDMC is raising similar concerns in Nepal following the April and May 2015 earthquakes. They argue that “political instability and weak institutions have… hampered the humanitarian response.”

Overall, then, the picture is mixed. While the growth rate in the number of IDPs is slowing, new conflicts continue to generate significant numbers of IDPs, even as groups in Syria and other states remain displaced for years in protracted situations. This points directly to the need for the international community to continue and to improve its provision of protection and assistance to the internally displaced.

Vickie Frater is a Project Officer with the APR2P, and recently completed her PhD examining questions of legality and legitimacy around the use of force.

Phil Orchard is the Research Director of the APR2P and a Senior Lecturer in International Relations and Peace and Conflict Studies at the University of Queensland. He tweets @p_orchard. 


Time to Rethink Protection as Syrian Mistakes Echo Sri Lanka

By Dr Alex J. Bellamy


Image: ©AFP/B.Kilik

Post originally published in the Global Observatory

Residents of the Syrian town of Madaya are again reported to be near starvation. The United Nations is said to have underestimated the number suffering under blockades enforced by Bashar al-Assad’s government, adding to earlier accusations that the UN deliberately failed to highlight the problem. The revelations show much more needs to be done to implement Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s Human Rights Up Front action plan and mainstream the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) doctrine.

The government’s January siege on the rebel-held Madaya caused severe malnourishment among the civilian population, with as many as 70 people starving to death. As the Secretary-General has explained, both the denial of humanitarian access and the adoption of tactics designed to harm the civilian population constitute war crimes and crimes against humanity.

In a January briefing, Ban told the UN General Assembly that “The town has been the victim of deliberate starvation. Let me be clear: the use of food as a weapon of war is a war crime. All sides, including the Syrian government, which has the primary responsibility to protect Syrians, are committing atrocious acts prohibited under international humanitarian law.”

But it has also emerged that UN officials in Damascus knew about the situation in Madaya as early as July last year and, fearing that it would jeopardize already fraught relations with the Syrian government, chose not to highlight it publicly. Four senior UN officials and two aid workers told The Guardian that “access to [Syrian] officials had been prioritized over access to areas in need, meaning aid goals had often not been met.”

These individuals suggested that showing respect for Syrian sovereignty had been prioritized over humanitarian assistance, despite the fact that UN Security Council Resolution 2165 expressly permits the delivery of aid into Syria without the government’s consent. What is more, the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs reportedly insisted on the deletion of the words “siege” and “besieged” from the UN’s humanitarian reports and plans. Privately, some humanitarian workers have lamented the cozy relationships established between UN officials and Syrian government officials in Damascus, reporting that the UN has at times even employed members of the Assad regime.

The parallels between this and the UN’s response to the humanitarian crisis that befell Sri Lanka in 2009 are striking. Then, the organization’s humanitarian officials refused to speak out about alleged violations of international humanitarian law, fearing that the government would respond by restricting access. They even went as far as to publicly disown civilian casualty estimates publicized by the UN’s High Commissioner for Human Rights. In the end, the government restricted access anyway.

Continue reading “Time to Rethink Protection as Syrian Mistakes Echo Sri Lanka”

The Responsibility to Protect and the “Migrant Crisis”

By Dr Alex J Bellamy


Image: ©UNHCR/I.Prickett

The Responsibility to Protect (R2P) entails a responsibility to provide safe flight and asylum to those fleeing atrocity crimes. Yet some of those states that are the loudest advocates of R2P have been among the most reticent to extend protection to individuals fleeing atrocity crimes.  Adopting new and tougher restrictions, such as arbitrary detention and financial penalties, aimed at deterring asylum seekers, these states are not only failing to uphold their responsibility to protect, they are also fundamentally undermining International Refugee Law. This needs to change, and we need to recognize the centrality of asylum to the implementation of R2P.

Agreed at the 2005 World Summit, and reaffirmed by both the UN General Assembly and UN Security Council (which has now passed 43 resolutions referring to the principle), R2P rests on three mutually reinforcing pillars: (I) the responsibility of each state to protect its population from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity and from their incitement; (II) the international community’s responsibility to encourage and assist states in protecting their own populations; and (III) the international community’s responsibility to use diplomatic, humanitarian and other peaceful means to protect populations from these atrocity crimes and, when that is judged inadequate and national authorities are “manifestly failing” to protect their population, to take timely and decisive action through the UN Charter. As the UN Secretary-General emphasized in 2012, R2P is universal and enduring. It applies everywhere and all the time inasmuch as there is never a situation in which states, and the international community, do not have a responsibility to protect populations from atrocity crimes.[1]  We should therefore never ask whether R2P applies, but rather what can be done to fulfill it. And governments should never look to others to shoulder their responsibilities. R2P is a responsibility that demands something of everyone.

When atrocity crimes are committed, as they have been on a massive scale in Syria, one of the things that determines whether civilians caught between barrel bombs and beheadings live or die is their capacity to flee from immediate harm. The more a targeted group is able to find refuge from violence, the lower the number of casualties from direct violence is likely to be. When civilian populations are trapped in besieged communities, such as Homs, Aleppo, Malakal, and Yarmouk in Syria – and Srebrenica in Bosnia two decades ago – the death toll from atrocities can reach astronomical scales, as indeed it has in Syria and did in Bosnia. When foreign countries refuse to permit refugees fleeing for their lives to land on their territory they contribute to the death toll. That is a lesson that should have been learned in Europe and North America in the 1930s. Back then, instead of facilitating the flight of Jews from Nazi Germany they prohibited. Tens if not hundreds of thousands of people who might have escaped the Holocaust did not because they were denied asylum in third countries.

But the granting of asylum is only part of the story. As we have come to learn only too well in the Aegean, the downside is that displacement significantly increases an individual’s exposure to harm. Flight, especially across water, is difficult and dangerous. Fleeing across land exposes individuals to a crippling loss of assets and the risk of attack. Most of the world’s displaced are deprived the “essentials of life,” namely shelter, food, medicine, education, community and a resource base for self-reliant livelihood. Indeed, mortality rates among displaced populations are higher than among almost any other group, with the exception of those who stay behind to face the violence. Refugee camps, such as those that have sprung up across Jordan, are sometimes quite violent places. Women and girls can face particular protection challenges, including significant threats of sexual violence and exploitation.

Continue reading “The Responsibility to Protect and the “Migrant Crisis””