By Dr Alex J Bellamy
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. 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.