Tag Archives: Syria

PRIO Research Featured at Conference on Development Research

Presenting a newly funded research project on refugee education

23 January, Research Director and Professor Cindy Horst presented the newly-funded REBuilD project to an audience of government representatives and NGOs invited by the Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation (NORAD) and the Research Council of Norway (RCN). The aim of the conference, launching the new projects funded under the NORGLOBAL-2 program, was to improve the communication between researchers and practitioners, in order to guarantee that research results are better informing development policy and practice. The REBuilD project asks how we can best support refugee children and their communities to build durable futures, when it is unclear where those futures will be. The project focuses on two of the largest populations of refugees: Somalis and Syrians, and involves fieldwork in cities and refugee camps in Kenya and Lebanon, as well as in Somalia with returnees from Kenya.

Horst’s presentation can be found here:
NORAD Jan 2018 (Horst)

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.

Syria’s humanitarian crisis

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The Syrian revolt has over the past three years escalated into a massive humanitarian crisis with regional implications. At present, almost half Syria’s pre-war population (22 million) is displaced, including 6.5 million internally displaced persons (IDPs) and 2.3 million refugees. Inside Syria, almost ten million war-affected residents need outside assistance, the majority of them being homeless. At the Kuwait donor conference in January 2013, the international community pledged USD 1.5 billion in aid to the “Syria Regional Response Plan”. In June, the amount was tripled to USD 4.5 billion, the largest humanitarian appeal in UN history. By end of the year the amount was raised to USD 6.5 billion the largest-ever appeal for a single crisis.

 Complex emergency

The Syrian civil war has turned into a complex emergency with brutal violence, massive displacement and regional havoc. The most intense battles have taken place along the Hama-Homs-Idlib axis. This is the most ethnically diverse part of the country, where the Alawites – who make up about 12 per cent of the pre-war population – live side-by-side with the Sunni majority representing over 70 per cent. Strategically, the Syrian Army is determined to remain in control of the Homs-Hama “corridor” connecting Damascus with the Alawite heartland in the Latakia and Tartous Governates. For this reason, the Army has staged massive attacks on rebel strongholds in Homs, Hama and Aleppo ruining the built environment, killing civilians and causing repeated displacement.

Displacement crisis

The Syrian displacement crisis is consistent with (global) panel data surveys demonstrating the robust link between violence and displacement. The turning point was the the Syrian army’s ground assault on Homs in March 2012, which changed the nature of the conflict,from a security to military approach that led to a steep rise in casualties and displacement (Figure 1). In mid-2013, the UN casualty figure was more than 100,000 dead, with current estimates reaching 130,000 (Dec. 2013). Since the start of 2013, nearly 50,000 people are fleeing Syria every week. With no diplomatic or military solution in sight the Syrian civil war will continue. The displacement crises will therefore expand too, with dire consequences for regional stability.

 

Syria displacement crisis (Figure 1)

Figure 1: Syria displacement crisis: March 2011–December 2013 (33 months)
Sources: Data compiled from several sources: HIU, ICDM, OHCHR, SNC, UNHCR, UNOCHA.
 
This blog post is part of a longer article analysing the Syrian displacement crisis within the context of contemporary forced migration theory and assesses its impact on the region, forthcoming in Maghreb-Machrek (2014). 

Reforming the Security Council: the question that won’t go away

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Last week Saudi Arabia took the unprecedented step of turning down the offer of a non-permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council, accusing the body of having failed in its “duties and … responsibilities in keeping world peace.” Saudi Arabia may have had the deadlock over Syria in mind, but it had the “work mechanisms and double standards” of the Security Council (UNSC) very firmly in its sights.

Saudi Arabia seems like a paradoxical place to be calling for reform of the Security Council. It has been the clarion call more recently of global justice campaigners and poorer, politically disenfranchised nations. But Turkey and France have also now added their voice to the controversy, France in particular expressing “frustration” over the Security Council’s non-response to the Syrian imbroglio.

Between them these countries have opened up a wider debate – wider than perhaps they realize, since the pertinence of the Syria issue is not simply about the inability of the UNSC to take action (to send in the peacekeepers). It is about the barrier that the Security Council has long presented to democratic international decision-making tout court.

Calls for reform of the UNSC and the much-maligned veto powers held by its five permanent members, the so-called P-5 countries of Russia, China, the United States, Britain and France, have a long history. Such calls were there at the Security Council’s inception, in fact, when Australia led a last ditch effort to limit the veto powers that Stalin had most strongly advocated. The UN General Assembly has its own open-ended Working Group looking at Security Council reform today – although the fact that this was first set up back in 1993 gives fair indication of the amount of headway it has achieved.

But for all that reform of the UNSC is an uphill struggle, the question keeps on being raised, primarily because what is done there goes right to the heart of the world’s major powers claim to the status of being ‘benign hegemons’ – or the purveyors of “partnership and cooperation” as Blair would have put it. Such claims have never stacked up well against the historical record. Which is why a little historical perspective is actually useful here, beginning with the rather unusual angle – literally – that Norway offers onto the workings of the Council.

Party to every decision taken behind the notoriously closed doors of the Security Council are the figures looking down on them from the mural that hangs over the Security Council Chamber. The mural depicts a phoenix arising from the ashes and was painted by the Norwegian artist Per Krogh. “The world we see in the foreground is collapsing, while the new world based on clarity and harmony can be built up,” Krogh said of his work in 1950.

In some senses he was at least five years too late with this vision that he had so carefully painted for the world, since the terms of the real new world order had largely been set in 1944: at Dumbarton Oaks and at Bretton Woods. In others he was at least half a century too early, since both clarity and harmony are still notable at the Security Council primarily by their absence. 

But Krogh’s mural has always been the perfect emblem for how we tend to think about the United Nations and the Security Council in particular – as the institutional backbone of a new world of civility as it arose from the ashes of the old in 1945. On this score at least the UN, no less than its member nations, has a founding mythology. And the claim that this particular body was the only conceivable institutional settlement for the post-1945 world order, the product of such greater common sense as had finally been beaten out of the world’s primary powers at the bloody end of the age of empire, flows naturally from it.

The reality of the founding of the UN, however which was at least as much about preserving the remnants of the imperial balance of powers, or at least the global pecking order that it bequeathed us, has always been rather different. And at the heart of that ‘actually existing’ UN is the way that the Security Council itself has gone about its task of promoting “peace and security” these past seven decades.

Inevitably, given the make up of the permanent members (Russia, China, United States, Britain, France) the veto was used frequently during the Cold War. But even in the post-Cold War era the veto has been a key weapon in the arsenal of the strong. Actual use of the veto by the US has helped prevent international sanctions against Israel’s settlements policy, while threat of veto has led to non-action or delayed action in Kosovo in 1999 and Darfur in 2005. Last year both Russia and China vetoed resolutions calling for sanctions against Syria. And Russia, not surprisingly, has been the most outspoken against Saudi Arabia latest stand last week.

Saudi Arabia is most concerned the impact of the Security Council and the power wielded by the veto power locally in relation to the regional concert of the Middle East. But calls for reform have been issued many times in recent years: be it by South Africa’s Jacob Zuma, the UN’s own Kofi Annan, or the United by Consensus group of countries agitating for expansion of the number of Council members.

But excluding the most immediately determining factor of national self-interest, what are the actual arguments for Security Council reform?

Very briefly summarized, they are the following. First, the fact that the current system is unrepresentative of the world’s peoples (though the Security Council is hardly the only part of the UN hit by this critique). All too often, the problems that come up for discussion in the Security Council tend to be problems in which the P5 have a direct interest.

Second, the Security Council is undemocratic in the way that it functions: the Council’s decisions are taken behind closed doors, the figures in Per Krogh’s painting notwithstanding, and as to process, the five permanent members are, on their own, able to stop a substantive Security Council resolution even when that is supported by all other members. The veto power can also be used to secure non-reciprocated privileges (the US has used it to obtain immunity from the ICC, for example). And the P5 retain a further veto right over any proposals for change.

A more basic criticism, however, is that it has effectively set in concrete a ‘great power’ and ‘grand alliance’ system of rule that was developed in the pre-WWII era even. The result is a rather serious anachronism at the heart of world politics. We are confronted by post-Cold War realities yet the single most powerful global body retains the preference for political horse-trading beloved of the diplomats and statesmen of 1815 and 1918.

Arguments for retaining the Security Council appeal to largely the same values: and herein lies a part of the problem in reforming it. They merely put those values to different tasks. To wit, the permanent members argue that to scrap the veto would be, in effect, to open up the most powerful part of the UN to mob rule (which is a pejorative way of saying it would be to democratize it). They argue, as George Bush did in 2002 that it’s purpose is not to be democratic but to put ‘words into action’: democracy runs counter to efficiency being the argument here.

International conservatives also point out that there are institutional safeguards already built into the system: the P5 are to use their powers only in accordance with wider objectives of “peace and security,” for example. This again is a largely rhetorical claim and conveniently ignores the fact that a good deal of reform could be carried out short of actually abolishing it. A more sophisticated defense is that it is better to include the post-WWII Great Powers in such a system. This is the ‘lesson’ of the League of Nations we are reminded over and again – or, when more imaginatively phrased, we are told that it is at least a good to bind their feet to the same fire every now and then, rather than leaving them free to pursue their interests on their own account outside any system. But if that is your argument then bring in Iran as a permanent member too. Bring in India and Pakistan. Bring in Israel and Palestine.

So what, then, are the chances of reform? Optimists will say that reform has happened before, as in 1963, when the number of non-permanent seats was increased from six to ten. But this was more concession, more tweak in fact, than actual reform. Pessimists point to the fact that any change requires the agreement of all five permanent members, who having recently banded together to affirm their belief in their own fitness to rule on behalf of others are unlikely in the extreme to permit any serious change at all.

But events like that taking place in Syria and responses like that of Saudi Arabia’s can shift the status quo in ways that are impossible to predict – precisely by putting words into action, albeit in ways that Bush Jr. never imagined. Should that prove to be the case – and to be sure the current opening of debate merely hints at the possibility – then one hopes it will be in ways that are beneficial albeit hard to imagine at present (which is just the shot in the arm the international system needs), rather than in ways that are unpleasant yet all too easy to imagine.

Humanitarian challenges in Syria

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NCHS arranged a seminar on the humanitarian situation in Syria. During the discussions it was made clear that the world had not seen a humanitarian emergency of this scope since Rwanda 1994. Lack of access inhibits humanitarian operations directed at the Syrians in Syria, while the programs for the protection of refugees are still underfunded. There are many potential partner NGOs operating inside Syria, but the large international humanitarian NGOs have a hard time finding implementing partners. NGOs that are reliably neutral and have a full mastery of Western accounting standards – are in short supply. It was noted that work in Syria was very dangerous for both the media and the humanitarians; kidnappings, arrests, and executions have effectively blinded the international community and largely incapacitated the humanitarian response.

The seminar was opened by a rough introduction to the current positions in the civil war: The cleavages are many and, unfortunately, multiplying. A rough summary is that the Assad regime controls areas to the south and west; the opposition controls areas in the north and east – while the northern most area is controlled by Kurdish nationalists. The conflict threatens the stability of the entire region. Turkey is under pressure by a massive influx of people fleeing the conflict, Jordan is hard-pressed by its’ own population which can potentially gain support from Syrian refugees, and the population of Syrians in Lebanon is closing in on the 25 % mark. Considering Hezbollah’s close affiliation with the Shiite regime in Syria, and that the majority of fleeing Syrians are Sunni, this can potentially destabilize the political balance in Lebanon.

It was claimed that the international actors have a disproportionate focus on refugees; to the detriment of the internally displace inside Syria. A partial explanation for this is that it is very difficult to act inside Syria. The security situation is tough for the international humanitarians and the complex political situation makes it difficult to choose local implementing partners. It was also emphasized from many speakers that the neutrality had become an impossible ideal inside Syria. It is virtually impossible to get a full overview of political implications and potential offences taken at any given course of action. Meanwhile the UN is forced to work within the framework of Syria as a sovereign state, granting the Assad regime authority over how they conduct their humanitarian efforts. The national Red Cross Society also has close ties to Assad’s administration. Concern was expressed by several speakers that humanitarian relief could be abused by Islamist elements in the opposition. To this it was objected that the Islamists were there to stay. Neglecting humanitarian obligations in fear of supporting radical Islamists could potentially lead to a failure similar to the one faced in Somalia. The consequences could be catastrophic for the Syrian population.

The potential for abuse of humanitarian aid to promote political and military goals is large. At the same time the situation is dire. With winter on the way it can become necessary to sacrifice neutrality in order to ensure that the aid can reach those in the greatest of needs.

The complete video of the “Humanitarian Challenges in Syria” seminar (in Norwegian) is available here:

Part 1

Part 2

 

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.