PoC: How the Security Council in 1999 came to consider protection of civilians in armed conflict

It is now fourteen years since the UN Security Council formally decided to include protection of civilians in armed conflict as a separate item on its agenda. The event was marked by an open discussion on protection in the Security Council – the first of its kind – which took place in February 1999.  It was followed by a request to the UN Secretary-General for a comprehensive report on the subject. The report was duly submitted in September (S/1999/957), which highlighted problems (“challenges “in UN language) and ways of addressing them. The Security Council endorsed the report’s recommendations in a formal resolution.

That was the beginning of a biannual, and later annual, routine in the Security Council  of dedicated discussions, reports and resolutions  that highlighted protection of civilians in armed conflict. Dedicated websites now follow the process. The practice has become so well institutionalized and widely accepted that we readily overlook the significance of these first, path-breaking steps in 1999.

Before then, the Security Council had focused on “hard” security issues of war and peace. Occasional reports had been requested and resolutions passed that dealt with refugees – not surprising given the existence of a large, and in the 1990s increasingly powerful, UN agency with a mandate to protect refugees (UNHCR). Questions of protection of civilians in armed conflict had also surfaced in the context of particular crises – notably the genocide in Rwanda in 1994, when the UN peacekeeping force, UNAMIR, was told to stick its head in the sand rather than respond to the unfolding signs of a genocide, and also when UN peacekeepers the following year were passive bystanders to the massacre in Srebrenica. But it took another five years before the Security Council was energized to consider protection of civilians in armed conflict as a subject worthy attention on its own, and in its own right. Protecting civilians was in effect elevated to the sphere of ‘high politics’.

How  did that happen?   And why then?

The context was favourable. The 1990s was “the humanitarian decade”. Humanitarian action was the language of the time, the veil of politics, and in part also a driving force. Analyst spoke of an international order with “embedded humanitarianism”.

An agent was needed as well. The crucial initiatives came from the Canadian government, above all its innovative and energetic foreign minister, Lloyd Axworthy. The government (then liberal with a small as well as large L), was seeking a seat on the Security Council and campaigned on three issues. “Human security” was one of them. Having rescued the term from near-oblivion (it first came to general attention in the 1994 UNDP Human Development Report), the Canadians had been promoting  “human security” as a central concept in foreign policy and international relations.  The new orientation had already contributed to a very significant result – the treaty banning landmines was signed in Ottawa in 1997. With their eyes on the Security Council seat, the Canadians were now seeking broader support for the “human security” concept and its possible concretizations.

The Norwegians soon signed on. “Human security” fitted nicely with the country’s general foreign policy traditions as well as the particular orientation of the new coalition government lead by the Christian Democrats (Bondevik I). Not so coincidentally, Norway was also angling for a future seat on the Security Council and needed relevant issues and allies. In 1998, the foreign ministers of the two countries met at a small island in western Norway where they declared their support for human security (the Lysøen Declaration).

Canada did win a seat in the Security Council (1999-2000), and so, a bit later, did Norway (2001-2001). The Canadians immediately tabled the issue of protection of civilians in armed conflict. The rest, as they say, is history. The issue never left the Security Council again. Outside the Security Council, the Canadians promoted “the responsibility to protect’ (R2P) as a matter of principle on the national and international level, receiving a measure of endorsement by the UN World Summit conference in 2005.

The above analysis of how the Security Council routinely came to pay attention to protection of civilians in armed conflict is cast in a neo-realist mould.  In this perspective, noble ideas need to be propelled forwards by more robust national interests of power and ambition, such as getting a seat on the Security Council. That is, we need to recognize the instrumental value of ideas to account for their political saliency. We also need to step outside a narrow neo-realistic framework to consider the conceptual clarity and normative power of the idea itself. At the time,  “human security” was a powerful idea; concretizing it in terms of protection of civilians gave it a focus and policy relevance necessary to capture the agenda of the Security Council.

What this all matters on the ground, outside the chambers of policy debates in the United Nations, is of course another question. But high-level recognition of a problem surely is a necessary (though not sufficient) prerequisite for effective active.

What, then, of the future? Will “human security” again provide inspiration or legitimacy for new initiatives in the humanitarian sector? The original carriers – Norway and Canada – will this spring mark the 15th anniversary of the original Lysøen Declaration. It will be a low-key and totally unofficial affair. The present Canadian government, no longer liberal with a small l, has practically banned the term (and taken down the website). The Norwegian government has not gone quite as far, but seems focused elsewhere.  Yet there is no lack of urgent issues. On top of my list is the development of an international regime to regulate ‘targeted killings’, particularly through drone strikes.  To get this squarely on the table of the Security Council and beyond, however, probably requires a massive lift – more than even an inspired Oslo-Ottawa axis could carry.