Do they really care? Protection of Civilians and the Veto Powers in the UN Security Council

It was not until the advances of IS in Syria and Iraq turned into an international security threat that a military intervention was launched in September 2014. A horrendous civil war had then killed tens of thousands Syrian civilians and displaced millions without provoking any similar reaction. In this blog post I reflect on what this tells us about the commitment of major powers to the principle of protecting civilians across borders. Do they really care? And do they agree on its meaning and implications?

A report of the UN Human Rights Commission from 13 August this year describes the humanitarian situation in Syria as follows:

With 6.5 million internally displaced persons and 2.9 million registered refugees, Syria has become the world’s worst humanitarian catastrophe. According to UN agencies, 10.8 million Syrians are in need of urgent humanitarian assistance inside the country, 241,000 people still live under siege and 4.7 million reside in hard-to-reach areas.

Yet, the veto powers of the UN Security Council have not been able to agree on any effective response. This ‘failure’ seems to contradict their repeated statements in the Council on their commitment to the Protection of Civilians in armed conflict (PoC).[1]

Unlike the Responsibility to Protect (RtoP), PoC is on the agenda of the UN Security Council. This gives significant weight to PoC as a normative agenda, and has contributed to its integration in peacekeeping mandates and non-military responses to humanitarian crises. The US, UK and France are generally associated with the promotion of protection across borders, while Russia and China are seen as critics of such interventionist normative agendas. The mandate for intervening in Libya in 2011 to protect civilians from their authorities with all necessary means short of an ‘occupation force’ (UN Security Council Resolution 1973) was perceived as a new development in this regard. China and Russia abstained from voting but did not veto the resolution. Perceiving that NATO failed to comply with the limits to the mandate, Russia and China opposed a similarly interventionist response to the crisis in Syria the following year.

This development could be interpreted as the rise and fall of PoC in the Council. Yet, I do not see the blow to the political momentum of PoC that the ‘Libya trauma’ caused as fatal. That assumption would presuppose that (1) the difference in mandates over Libya and Syria reflects a changing stance on the principle of PoC as such, and (2) that the commitment by the veto powers to PoC can be reduced to their positions over Libya and Syria.

With regard to the first assumption, I think it is uncontroversial to argue that other matters, like a concern for NATO interventionism, military considerations of the prospects of success, strategic alliances and economic interests were more decisive than a general normative stance on the principle of PoC.[2] Focusing on the positions of emerging powers (or BRICS) on RtoP, scholars like Oliver Stuenkel and Ramesh Thakur have argued that the vetoes against military intervention in Syria do not reflect a general rejection of international protection by Russia and China.[3] What these countries do not accept is a general norm of military intervention against the will of sovereign authorities (Pillar III of RtoP).[4] Meanwhile, they have expressed a continuous commitment to PoC as a principle of state governance, peacekeeping, humanitarian assistance, refugee management, conflict prevention and resolution, and for international humanitarian and human rights law.[5] These spheres of protection (associated with Pillars I and Pillar II of RtoP) leave extensive room for governance by international actors, with highly significant political implications. The norm of protection opens for a wide range of political interpretations, and having the power to define the meaning and implications of PoC is a useful way for the five permanent members of the Council (the P5), including China and Russia, to justify their foreign policies.

Furthermore, I think it is important to point out that the concept of protection still limits the scope for international engagement vis à vis more radical calls for promoting peace, justice or democracy globally. It mirrors the classic justification of state authority that has been criticised for being too conservative and hierarchical ever since Thomas Hobbes formulated it in the seventeenth century. The norm of protection is thus also useful for the P5 in bolstering the current international system upon which their privileged position rests.

In my view, the question regarding the positions of the veto powers on PoC is therefore not whether they support the principle or not; but which political meanings of PoC they support under which circumstances. While seemingly a question of the regulation of peacekeeping operations and the work of international humanitarian organisations, this question concerns the very regulation of international order: exactly where does the responsibility of states end and of international institutions begin when it comes to efforts at granting protection and preventing mass atrocities?

How ought international organisations to operate in relation to states that are incapable of protecting all people within their territory? Which measures should be applied, including sanctions and international law? How should incentive structures for sovereign authorities be managed? And, fundamentally, according to which conceptions of protection and civilians should states and international actors operate? Is for instance the promotion of human rights, democracy and economic development a part of the protection agenda through their supposed virtues in preventing civil war and mass atrocities?[6] Or does protection come at the expense of international promotion of economic justice and political freedom? Which models of state governance are consistent with the prevention of conflict and the promotion of PoC?

Ramesh Thakur writes: ‘As power and influence seep out of the U.S.-led transatlantic order and migrate toward Asia and elsewhere, who will manage the transition from the Westphalian system of world affairs to an alternative system, and how?’.[7] Oliver Stuenkel (2014) makes a similar observation concerning the position of emerging powers on PoC as a response to a situation where both the sovereignty principle is changing and a new multipolar world order emerging.[8] Anne Orford (2011) relates the question of protection to the very distribution of power between the UN, major powers and the rest, and criticises the doctrine of the Responsibility to Protect for failing to address this underlying problem.[9]

As I see it, two visions of world order are at stake in the commitment of the veto powers to PoC: (1) an order in which sovereignty, conditional upon a commitment to PoC, remains with the state, but where international institutions play an active role in supporting and influencing the decisions and capacities of the states, and (2) an order where the UN Security Council trumps state sovereignty and actively regulates the internal affairs of weak or conflict prone states. If conceived as a continuum, the P5 could be placed along this scale, with Russia and China closer to model 1 and the P3 (US, UK and France) leaning towards model 2.

Does this difference reflect a stronger commitment by the P3 to the norm of PoC as such? Presumably not, I would argue. PoC is not the leading motive of their international engagement. Given the military and political strength of the P3, the interventionist model of PoC rather serves their interests by allowing the expansion of their political influence and control across borders. This self-interest is still, as we have seen, compatible with a universalistic normative agenda like PoC, but takes it in certain political directions. Similarly, the emphasis by Russia and China on the principle of state sovereignty in model 1 should arguably not be seen as a commitment to state sovereignty as such or a rejection of PoC but a reflection of their geopolitical self-interest in limiting the global expansion of Western powers. In effect, it can be assumed that Russia and China would become more eager proponents of protection across borders had they shared or replaced the global predominance of the P3 and their allies.[10]

On these premises we may conclude that the veto powers really do care about PoC in the Security Council, and acts upon the principle when it harmonises with their interests. Regarding countries torn by civil war and disasters, the interests of all P5 have tended to converge over effective peacekeeping and humanitarian assistance. In Syria, their interests did not harmonise with any substantial measure for the protection of civilians, demonstrating the evident limits to PoC as an organising principle of world politics. The international failure to react effectively also demonstrates the urgent need for novel political instruments for protection in the shadow of stalemates in the UN Security Council.

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[1] E.g. UN Security Council (2014), Statement by the President of the Security Council – S/PRST/2014/3, 12 February, p. 1, where the commitment of the Council is reaffirmed ‘regarding the protection of civilians in armed conflict, and to the continuing and full implementation of all its previous relevant resolutions including 1265 (1999), 1296 (2000), 1674(2006), 1738 (2006), 1894 (2009)’.

[2] See e.g. Brent Steele and Eric Heinze (2014), ‘Norms of Intervention, R2P and Libya: Suggestions from Generational Analysis’, Global Responsibility to Protect 6: 88-112; Jeremy Moses (2013), ‘Sovereignty as Irresponsibility? A Realist Critique of the Responsibility to Protect’, Review of International Studies 39 (1): 113-135.

[3] Oliver Stuenkel (2014), ‘The BRICS and the Future of R2P: Was Syria or Libya the Exception?’, Global Responsibility to Protect 6 (1): 3-28; Ramesh Thakur (2013), ‘R2P Libya and Syria: Engaging Emerging Powers’, The Washington Quarterly 36 (2): 61-76; Jennifer M. Welsh (2013), ‘Norm Contestation and the Responsibility to Protect’, Global Responsibility to Protect 5: 365–396.

[4] Ironically, the norm of protection was nonetheless invoked by Russia in connection with the annexation of Crimea against the will of Ukraine authorities earlier this year, as well as in the 2008 Russian intervention in Georgia.

[5] Hugh Breakey distinguishes these aspects of the PoC agenda through the concepts of Combatant PoC, Peacekeeping PoC, Security Concil PoC and Humanitarian PoC. As he himself argues, Security Council PoC overlaps with the other categories because the Security Council is tasked with overseeing combatant PoC and mandating humanitarian and peacekeeping PoC, in addition to devising other political responses. Hugh Breakey (2012), ‘The Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict: Four Concepts’, in Angus Francis, Vesselin Popovski and Charles Sampford, Norms of Protection: Responsibility to Protect, Protection of Civilians and their Interaction (New York: UN University Press).

[6] This role is for instance invoked in §28 of UN Security Council Resolution 1894 (2009) on Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict.

[7] Thakur (op cit, note 2), p. 62.

[8] Stuenkel (op cit, note 2), p. 4.

[9] Anne Orford (2011), International Authority and the Responsibility to Protect (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), Chapter 5.

[10] These presumptions are substantiated in a forthcoming paper co-authored with Simon Reid-Henry in the Protection of Civilians project. For a similar argument on the commitment of major powers to the normative agenda of ‘liberal peacebuilding,’ see Kristoffer Lidén (2013), ‘In love with a lie? On the social and political preconditions for global peacebuilding governance’, Peacebuilding 1 (1): 73–90.

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Kristoffer Lidén is a researcher in the Protection of Civilians project of the Norwegian Centre for Humanitarian Studies. He recently conducted a series of interviews in New York on the commitment of the P5 to PoC in the UN Security Council, and presented the findings in a research course and workshop at PRIO on Humanitarian Action and the Protection of Civilians 28-30 October.