Tag Archives: responsibility to protect

PoC as a concept for UN peacekeeping

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The Protection of Civilians (POC) has gradually become central to UN peacekeeping both in policy formulation, in mandates, and in practice. Yet, the concept is broad, and few actors agree on its meaning. Such a broad understanding hinders coordination on issues across agencies, and makes the implementation of POC challenging. Few agree on whether POC is a specific task of peacekeeping mandates, or it should be an overall concern across all tasks.

The issue is further exacerbated by the lack of differentiation between POC and the Responsibility to Protect (R2P). The somewhat contested status of R2P thus contributes to undermine the inclusion of POC concerns in peacekeeping mandates. The introduction of a related system-wide agenda, Rights Up Front (RUF) is not about to make that more clear. An essential task at the policy level is therefore now to clarify the status and meaning of POC both vis-à-vis other tasks and other broader protection concerns.

Entering the UN peacekeeping system from Kofi Annan’s emphasis on the need for a “culture of protection” as a remedy to the failures of peacekeeping in the mid-1990s, the POC has since become an established part of the peacekeeping vocabulary and repertoire of actions. Today, while not a central concern to all UN agencies involved in peacekeeping operations, POC is nevertheless a factor taken into consideration by most of them. While it was for long seen as the prerogative of OCHA, it is now also an equally important concern to DPKO. The prominence given to POC in UN documents is symptomatic of a growing awareness of protection issues within the international community. However, these good intentions and interventions have not always led to the security and peace desired. Effective implementation of POC still involves practical challenges at the operative level as well as resolving the conceptual muddle characterizing POC today.

For the UN is routinely accused of not protecting when expected to in practice, and at the conceptual level little has been done to clarify what POC actually entails, and the extent to which it should figure in peacekeeping: is POC but one aspect of a vast array of measures, and should it therefore be compartmentalized alongside other policy areas, or is it an overreaching or cross-cutting concern for peacekeeping operations as a whole? In which case, should it also guide the work of agencies not formally part of the operation?

Yet, the past years have seen an increasing number of policy and doctrinal processes aimed at streamlining POC. Combining the UNs military capacities with the humanitarian ethics of protection produces both opportunities and challenges. On the one side it makes the PoC framework more robust, putting greater political (and military) capital behind preventive protection efforts, while also enabling actual physical protection of civilians. On the other side, it risks politicising protection, and conflate the UNs political-military agenda with the humanitarian, in turn jeopardising the humanitarian principles so central for the legitimacy of PoC.

The PoC is central to peacekeeping operations in seeking to manage war-to-peace-transitions. This involves both civilian and military entities, and a critical problem is their lack of a shared understanding of what PoC means in and entails for practices. This is partly due to the UNSC who feared defining and operationalising PoC would make it too binding for member states and override the UN’s lack of resources. Hence it was never properly defined and instead the UNSG opted for mainstreaming a ‘culture of protection’ throughout the UN system. The problem here is that distinct actors interpret this culture differently and contextually, thus making interagency harmonisation difficult. The paradox of this is that while mainstreaming POC would seem to require a simplification of the concept, so to speak, in order to make it more tangible, this in turn would run the risk of undermining the aim of POC, which is to be malleable enough as to provide protection in all situations.

There is a crucial need for more grounded reflection on how to provide effective protection. As long as understandings of “protection” vary, ranging from the provision of direct physical protection to the wider framework adopted by the UN, greater flexibility should be shown in which interpretation of protection is taken as the point of departure, depending on the aim of the case in question.

POC is broad, lacks tangibility, and is still elusive to many involved in peacekeeping. Accordingly, it has become a conceptual battlefield with little agreement of the status of POC, ether as a legal principle rooted in International Humanitarian Law, guidelines for humanitarian action, or a comprehensive doctrine including coercive means. This confusion is due to the fact that POC is vague and open for interpretation and contextualisation. This inherent feature of POC has been exacerbate by the fact that a number of actors eager to further legitimize the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) have been deliberately confusing the two concepts. While both the POC and R2P concepts are related in terms of aims, there are clear differences between them. R2P is interventionist, POC is not.

R2P faces the problem of legitimizing humanitarian intervention which POC does not face, and its disciples have therefore sought to attach or confuse the two in order to take a share in the broad legitimacy POC has enjoyed, but which R2P has lacked.

Even so, these distinct concepts are routinely referred to as synonymous and used interchangeably in the same contexts. This is not likely to change with the recent launch of the Rights Up Front (RUF) Action Plan, yet another concept aimed at remedying the failures of peacekeeping. If no concerted and central effort is made within the UN to conceptually clarify how POC, R2P and RUF relate to different agencies, contexts, policies and actions, UN peacekeeping will have to deal with three related, often competing, ideas or cultures of protection – all good intentioned, yet not clearly defined as to enable action. Such a reflection must take the field as its starting point, as the key to understand protection in any given context is to understand how it translates into practice, and the extent to which its application addresses the needs on the ground.

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.

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

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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.