Tag Archives: Libya

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

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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.

Mali: Humanitarian Challenges and Fragile Security, What Role for the UN?

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Despite heavy August rain, Gunhilde Utsogn (Special Assistant to the UN Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator, Mali) and John Karlsrud’s (NUPI) discussion on the humanitarian challenges facing Mail drew a large audience of academics, NGO workers, representatives from international organizations, embassies and the Norwegian armed forces to PRIO. Co-hosted by PRIO and NCHS, the seminar aimed to take stock of current developments in Mali and their ramifications for humanitarian action, as the war-torn country holds elections and welcomes the UN MINUSMA peacekeeping mission.

The events occurring in Mali are often presented as a fall-out from the Libya conflict: Northern Malians, who had for decades resided in Libya, returned to Mali well-trained and well-armed after the fall of Qadhafi. Northern Mali has a long history of Tuareg-rebellion against the Southern elite located in the capital Bamako, and has over the years seen a smuggler economy develop in the region, as it serves as a transit route for drug trafficking from South America to Europe as well as for weapons trafficking. Frustrated by the presidents’ handling of the rebellion, and by the rebels’ easy defeat of the Malian army; a faction of young officers seized power in a coup in March 2012. The Tuaregs took over control over the North of Mali in the power vacuum that followed, only to lose this control to the well-armed Islamists shortly after. The transitional president subsequently invited France to come to the rescue. In January 2013, French troops intervened militarily to stop the advance of the Islamists, following their capture of key towns in the North. Yet despite the military successes of the French troops breaking the Islamists’ control of this part of the country, the security situation remains volatile. In April, the UN Security Council agreed to send troops to take over from the French and African forces. This peacekeeping force, to which Norway has committed to contribute, began arriving last month. Meanwhile, an accord was signed between the Malian government and the Tuareg rebellion at the end of June in Ouagadougou. Despite some irregularities, the first round of presidential elections on July 28 saw a record turn-out of voters and the second round was conducted successfully on 11 August, leading to the victory of Ibrahim Boubacar Keita.

However, the humanitarian situation in the region remains highly precarious. For many observers, the challenge in Mali is not so much an emergency as a development crisis, where long term strategies are needed. Even before the 2012-events, food insecurity was chronic, with hundreds of thousands of malnourished children. The rainy season frequently brings cholera outbreaks. Yet, the conflict has undoubtedly exacerbated the problems: 800,000 children have already missed a school year. Despite the generosity of neighboring countries in opening their borders, the high number of Malian refugees in the region and the displaced population inside the country makes the situation even more fragile.

The key issue emerging from the debate between the speakers and the audience is whether the current UN mission, with its ambitious but highly aggressive mandate, is what Mali needs?

MINUSMA will be a fairly standard large multidimensional peacekeeping mission, with about 11200 troops, 1440 police and probably more than 1000 international and national civilian staff. The mandate authorizes MINUSMA to stabilize key population centers and to “deter threats and take active steps to prevent the return of armed elements to those areas”. It should also create a secure environment and secure the main roads. The French troops in Serval will operate alongside MINUSMA “to intervene in support of elements of MINUSMA”. MINUSMA is also given a broad range of substantive tasks including security sector reform, demobilization and reintegration of armed rebels, including children, good offices, supporting an inclusive dialogue, and supporting the presidential and legislative elections.

Although the mandate is fairly aggressive if one reads between the lines, it is not as explicit as the mandate that recently was given to MONUSCO in the Democratic Republic of Congo. However, the trend of increasingly assertive mandates given to peace operations, effectively turning these operations into peace enforcement operations is worrying. None of the traditional principles for UN peacekeeping will in effect apply – including consent of all the parties, the non-use of force and impartiality. MINUSMA is also tasked with supporting the new government in re-establishing or extending state authority and few if any will be in doubt about the fact that the mission will be partial. The human rights record of the national army is weak at best, and although the mandate includes a task in training the national army, human rights violations can be expected to continue, in turn also tainting MINUSMA.

It is also paradoxes that while the mandates for UN peacekeeping operations are becoming increasingly aggressive; the tolerance for losses of UN troops is going down. Since the bombings of the UN HQ in Baghdad in 2003, in Algeria in 2007, and other more recent attacks in Nigeria, Afghanistan and South Sudan, the UN has been criticized for its ‘bunkerisation’ – imposing increasingly strict security measures that in effect closes the UN off from contact with the local population. This is especially the case for the UN’s humanitarian agencies but also its civilian peacekeepers. Although the UN argues that this is not the case so far in Mali, only one successful terrorist attack can and will change this situation overnight. The increasing likelihood of “terrorist” attacks against aggressive UN peace “enforcement”, also means that attacks against other UN agencies operating in the same volatile area, or humanitarians for that matter, may increase.

Internally, the aggressive mandate of MINUSMA also deepens the schisms between the military, political and development components of the UN on the one hand, and the humanitarians on the other. From the humanitarian perspective, there is considerable concern that the peacekeeping mission will infringe on the humanitarian space (humanitarian agencies to operate safely and effectively on the ground) and compromise humanitarian principles of neutrality, impartiality and universality, understood by humanitarians themselves as preconditions for gaining access to civilians in war-torn areas. UN humanitarian actors may soon find themselves imposed with escorts due to a tightening of security rules and the mandate to secure roads in the North. In what is still effectively a war zone, the different parts of the UN may very quickly come at odds with each other.

These concerns are well-known from debates on the costs of stabilization missions in Iraq and Afghanistan. Over the last two decades, peacebuilding and stabilization programs have incorporated humanitarian aspects into their mandates, contributing to serious problems in the field for humanitarian actors.

Over the last decade a division of labor has developed between international organizations engaged in conflict and post-conflict situations in Africa. Regional and sub-regional organizations have engaged in the sharper end of conflicts with peace enforcement missions, e.g. in Somalia, while the UN has focused on the following phase of peacekeeping. Naturally, many cases blur this distinction, but in principle this has been a mutually good division of work. However, with the recent mandates for MONUSCO in DRC and MINUSMA in Mali, a worrying trend of a more aggressive UN is emerging. To sum up the discussion, a central question is if this aggressive peacekeeping is what Mali needs and which long-term consequences for humanitarian action can be expected?

Protection: From deeds to words?

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I have just finished reading a book on protection that tells a rather different story than the one we typically hear. The conventional narrative on protection (of civilians) goes more or less like this: it is a central legal concept in International Humanitarian Law, it has over the last ten years been made an operational concept in UN peacekeeping operations (then under the heading “protection of civilians). Since the UN World Summit in 2005, moreover, it has been incorporated – many say distorted – in the concept of a “responsibility to protect” (R2P). Those who follow policy debate will no doubt recall that UN Security Council resolution 1973 on Libya in 2011 authorized “all necessary measures” under chapter VII of the UN Charter precisely to ”protect civilians.” Not long after, a strongly worded resolution on Cote D’Ivoire – resolution 1975 – similarly authorized the use of force to protect civilians in the context of the post-election violence attributed to Laurent Gbagbo. The story can be more specific and detail the many gross violations of international humanitarian and human rights law and the deliberate targeting of civilians in many of today’s conflicts, as is on display now in Syria. And so the end-point of the standard story is that there is a set of principles that the international community should aim to implement in practice – that one needs to move from words to deeds.

In International Authority and the Responsibility to Protect (Cambridge University Press, 2011), legal theorist Ann Orford argues – as the title of this blog indicates – that the concept of protection could, and at some level also should, be understood as moving from deeds to words. The book provides what I consider a must-read for scholars and others interested in contemporary debates about protection. The analysis starts with an important analysis of Hobbes’ Leviathan and the stakes involved in the development of a novel concept of sovereignty. The analysis weaves together early legal and political debates about sovereignty on the jurisdiction of the Roman Emperor and the Pope relative to European kings. Orford argues that the core of Hobbes’ formulation of sovereignty in terms of a social contract is that people submit to it because the sovereign can offer protection. Thus, the de facto capacity to offer protection is that which secures sovereignty. Written, of course, in the context of religious warfare in Europe, Hobbes’ treatise was important because it gave European Kings a stronger rationale in their efforts to challenge the claimed jurisdiction of the Pope: the fact of being able to offer protection within their realm became more important than the (claimed) right of being universally sovereign with reference to the Pope’s religious authority.

To cut a long (and very interesting) story short, then: the privileging of fact over right, of making capacity to protect a crucially important ingredient in the constitution of sovereign authority has significant implications for how we think of protection today. For Orford, whose focus is on the UN’s role in peacekeeping and peacebuilding since the Congo operations in the early 1960s, the capacity to protect is the driver of the story, with different justifications given ex- post, as it were. Her main empirical focus is on the concept of “Responsibility to Protect” (R2P) that was officially sanctioned by UN member states at the 2005 UN World Summit. It was formulated, she says, in an effort to secure the renewed legitimacy of what she calls the UN’s long-standing tradition of “executive action” inaugurated by Dag Hammarskiold during the UN’s Congo operation.

I’m not entirely convinced about the story Orford tells about R2P as simply a justification for existing practice. Certainly R2P was formulated in the context of an effort to render possible and legitimize interventions to stop genocide and mass atrocities. But to say that it was formulated quite specifically to fill a “justificatory void” of what the UN had been doing for quite some time is insufficiently nuanced. But there is truly a wealth of important insights here. Let me briefly identify three that I think have bearing on research on humanitarian actors and their work on protection.

First, this analysis links protection to broader questions of sovereignty and the authority to rule also outside the realm of humanitarian law and humanitarianism. If the authority to govern in far-away places can be, and is, claimed by reference to de facto capacity to protect, we need to consider how protection is used to justify a range of practices that may move well beyond protection of civilians as stipulated in IHL, including development and peacebuilding efforts. Indeed, R2P – mostly described in terms of its legitimation of humanitarian intervention and conditioning of sovereignty – emerges in this light also as a principle that is markedly different from the more ambitious efforts aimed at so-called liberal peacebuilding: R2P is about avoiding genocide and mass atrocities. It is not about the advancement of liberal principles. R2P says little about the contents of domestic governance arrangements and as such bears a close affinity to rather than only condition sovereignty:  as long as the state protects its population against atrocities, it can pretty much do as it pleases, and need not be democratic. The UN’s work under the R2P agenda has also been very much on advising governments on how to organize itself to be able to offer protection more effectively.

Second, protection can be used as a justificatory register for humanitarian actors to branch out, as they are currently doing to address urban violence. Shifting between the generic reference to protection and references to IHL offers a bridge between traditional humanitarian work and other areas traditionally not under the humanitarian umbrella. But this also means having to work with other actors, some of which humanitarian organizations often have necessary yet difficult relations, such as police forces and the military. If the ability to offer protection is indeed a powerful argument for jurisdictional control, we should expect considerable battles between humanitarians and other actors over jurisdictional control over specific tasks.

Third, if authority and ultimately sovereignty is premised on claims to de facto protection capacity, then the obverse is also true, that lack of protection may entitle others to step in to do the job. And then we face the question of who are in a position to authoritatively interpret what constitutes “protection” and whether lack thereof should open up for other actors – such as international or non-governmental organizations – to step in. Here, Orford offers much food for thought in her analyses of the many layers of sovereignty. In short, who interprets and who decides becomes important. From this follows another set of questions about accountability and representation. Who are authorized to speak on behalf of whom? Are not some humanitarian and human rights groups claiming to represent victims and indeed “humanity” without being accountable to those on whose behalf they claim to speak (and act)? As Alex de Waal has pointed out several times, there is a tendency of advocates of protection (broadly defined) to describe and define the problem in question in terms geared solely towards the mobilization of western, and particularly US political actors. This move incurs considerable political costs, for the political solutions that are thereby legitimized are often not at all attuned to and based on solid factual knowledge of the problem in question.

In conclusion, protection is about more than the no doubt politically laden processes of operationalizing and implementing it in practice. This process of moving from words to deeds raises a range of questions about the voice of beneficiaries, the categories (of gender, for example) used to assess what, and who, needs protection. But there is also another story that has to do with the move from deeds to words: de facto capacity to offer protection has historically been a central ingredient in the formation of authority. Thinking through what it means to invoke protection as a justification for some activity, or to be able to assert that there is lack of protection, seems important as humanitarian action confront new challenges in defining the proper relationship with its environment.