Tag Archives: UN Security Council

UN at War

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In reality, nothing is more dangerous for a peace-keeping operation than to ask it to use force when its existing composition, armament, logistic support and deployment deny it the capacity to do so. The logic of peace-keeping flows from political and military premises that are quite distinct from those of enforcement; and the dynamics of the latter are incompatible with the political process that peace-keeping is intended to facilitate. To blur the distinction between the two can undermine the viability of the peace-keeping operation and endanger its personnel.

Boutros Boutros-Ghali.[1]

“If you have a hammer, the problem will look like a nail”. With the inclusion of the Force Intervention Brigade in the DRC, the UN has got a hammer and has showed that it can use force against specified targets to ‘neutralize’ them. On the other hand, MINUSMA can be seen as a laboratory for including some of the concepts and lessons learned from Afghanistan. It will be essential to support this process by providing the new arrivals to the UN with a better understanding of the similarities and differences between NATO and UN missions, and the need to take a less combative stance in Mali.

Modern peacekeeping needs intelligence capabilities in the shape of surveillance drones, tactical human intelligence teams and so forth. However, there seems to be an unspoken link made between the inclusion of modern military capabilities and the more robust version of stabilization, leaning towards peace enforcement. With the Western capabilities the MINUSMA mission is becoming more robust. But the robust posture may also have a self-fulfilling effect, drawing attention to the mission and increasing the chance of targeted attacks against the UN. In the longer term, retaliatory attacks may target the soft underbelly of the UN – the funds, programmes and agencies carrying out development and humanitarian work.

In 1993, John Ruggie warned that the UN had entered “a vaguely defined no man’s land lying somewhere between traditional peacekeeping and enforcement – for which it lacks any traditional guiding operational concept.”[2] His warnings were not heeded and the UN soon failed miserably in Srebrenica and Rwanda. The solution to the problem was to come to a new understanding that impartiality should be understood from the perspective of protecting civilians, and that the UN could not stand idly by while atrocities were committed. The Brahimi Report held that the traditional principles ‘should remain the bedrock principles of peacekeeping’, but that peace operations should be sufficiently mandated with robust rules of engagement for civilian protection and have the necessary resources to react where civilians were in danger. Today the UN is finding itself in a similar predicament, taking on new tasks that border on peace enforcement. The question is whether the gap between principles and practice signify a need to update principles, or whether this is a function of practice leaving still valid principles behind.

At the strategic level there is a need for careful consideration of what kind of instrument UN peacekeeping should be. Can the UN deploy peace enforcement operations? While it may be a tempting solution for members of the UN Security Council and for the UN Secretariat, wanting to show leadership and resolve and with limited interest in engaging bilaterally or through regional organisations, the urge to equip UN peacekeeping operations with enforcement mandates that target particular groups should be considered carefully. The use of force should be limited to critical instances when civilian populations are in grave and immediate danger. The urge to satisfy short-term objectives such as showing the UN Security Council and the UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations to be ‘doing something’ should be resisted. UN Security Council mandates should not specify any potential enemies, should resist the inclusion of euphemisms such as ‘neutralise’, and force should be used only for short periods in order to protect civilians.

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[1] Boutros-Ghali, Boutros (1995) A/50/60-S/1995/1: Supplement to An agenda for peace. New York: United Nations: para 35.

[2] Ruggie, John G. (1993) ‘Wandering in the Void: Charting the UN’s New Strategic Role’, Foreign Affairs 72 (5): 26–31.

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Read the (open access) article on which this blogpost is based, here:

Karlsrud, John (2015) ‘The UN at War: Examining the Consequences of Peace Enforcement Mandates for the UN Peacekeeping Operations in the CAR, the DRC and Mali’, Third World Quarterly 36 (1): 40-54.

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.

Sexual Violence: Monopoly of victimhood?

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In Uganda, data suggests that not only women and girls are sexually assaulted in times of conflict and war, but also men and boys. Yet, male rape victims are almost invisible in interventions and even debates on conflict related sexual violence. Attention is overwhelmingly focused on girls and women. -There is a monopoly of victimhood, says Chris Dolan, Director at the Refugee Law Project at the School of Law, Makerere University.

Women’s protection needs have forcefully been put on the international protection agenda in recent years. The United Nations Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 1325 states that all parties involved in a conflict must take measures to protect women and girls. The message that women and girls are particularly targeted by the use of sexual violence is also at the forefront in resolutions from 2008 and 2009. What are the consequences of this need to specify protection on the basis of gender?

There has been no corresponding explicit recognition of how sexual violence is used against and affects boys and men in conflict situations. The use of language in resolutions from the Security Council is characteristic of how male victimhood has been treated in the discourse of sexual violence, more broadly says Chris Dolan, Director of the Refugee Law Project at Makerere University.

Invisible victims of sexual violence
Chris Dolan recently participated in the seminar “Gender and the Paradox of War Norms”, organized by the Norwegian Centre for Humanitarian Studies, where researchers working on protection practices in different parts of the world addressed civilians’ needs in conflict and war zones.

The regression to gender essentialism in the interest of a particular pro-women agenda has not only killed the essential emancipatory political potential of a holistic gender analysis. It is also undermining the capacity to provide protection in a meaningful sense, as it has pulled a veil over the protection needs of the other half of the population, says Dolan.

‘Men are strong, women are weak’
In the conflicts and civil wars in Uganda and Congo, rape and sexual assaults have been frequently used as weapons of war. Survivors do not only suffer from severe physical injuries, they are also stigmatized and shunned.

Dolan and his colleagues at the Refugee Law Project have interviewed many male rape victims from Congo and Uganda. According to Dolan, their experiences destabilize one of the most central pillars of patriarchy; that ‘Men are strong, and women are weak’.

The rape victims’ stories strongly suggest that women and men share certain forms of vulnerability in conflicts, he says.

According to Dolan, refugee camps should be key sites for investigations and interventions, and a systematic screening for sexual violence should be done in every conflict. The Refugee Law Project is currently involved in developing a screening method for refugees together with Johns Hopkins School of Public Health, based on their experiences with and interviews of refugees in Uganda and Congo.

Turning the tide
By asking men and women the same questions, the Refugee Law Project has uncovered that many victims of rape are men and boys. Some male rape victims have recently chosen to share their stories in international media and in their local communities. And for the first time, support groups are being made.

In 2013, the UNSCR 2106 for the first time attracted attention to sexual assaults against men and boys. Is this a sign that the tide is about to turn?

What comes out of committees’ talk is always the lowest common denominator. Fortunately, the lowest common denominator is now shifting. The shift in UNSCR 2106 is a sign of progress, but we still have a long way to go. Sexual violence should not be treated as a binary female-male opposition. We need to rethink the way in which language is used, in documents on sexual violence in general, and in resolutions from the Security Council in particular. Even as we work on the language, we need to be developing best practice on working with men and boy survivors, recognizing that even as sexual violence often erases the gender binary, prevention of and responses to such violence need to be gender sensitive if they are to be effective, says Dolan.

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.

UNHCR – A Humanitarian Organization with a Mandate to Protect Civilians in Refugee Camps

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It is difficult to imagine a more humanitarian space than that of the refugee camp, whose foremost purpose is to provide refugees with temporary shelter, assistance, and protection until they are voluntarily repatriated to their country of origin, locally integrated in the host state, or resettled to third countries. The categorization of refugee camps as civilian and humanitarian is not, however, unproblematic. Refugee protection has always been deeply affected by greater security issues; rather than serving as civilian and humanitarian safe havens, camps for refugees (and internally displaced persons) have on a number of occasions become notorious for serious problems of insecurity, including armed attacks, arbitrary killings, torture, exploitation and military recruitment. But who can, and should, be held responsible under international law for these human rights violations?

This is the initial question discussed in my book Protecting Civilians in Refugee Camps: Unable and Unwilling States, UNHCR and International Responsibility. Here, I examine the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees’ (UNHCR) international responsibility for human rights violations taking place in refugee camps. The book argues that UNHCR under certain circumstances can, and should, be held responsible under the International Law Commission’s nascent framework of the Articles on the Responsibility of International Organizations. Specifically, UNHCR’s international responsibility will depend upon an evaluation of the host State’s ability and willingness to provide effective protection.

UNHCR and the Protection of Civilians in Refugee Camps

The book essentially finds that UNHCR’s mandate to provide refugees with ‘international protection’ includes the provision of physical safety and basic rights, and that UNHCR furthermore holds an affirmative duty to act and intervene to secure the basic human rights of refugees. That said, it is clear that UNHCR occupies a challenging place in the international arena when it is both entrusted with an ambitious mandate and also frequently caught in a vice between the preferences of actors such as donor governments and host states. It is to be a norm entrepreneur, supervisor and enforcement agency of refugee rights at the same time as it is expected to be a cooperative partner to states and NGOs, and the ultimate provider of material assistance. As Protecting Civilians in Refugee Camps highlights, UNHCR’s protection role has become increasingly pragmatic, focusing more on the provision of food and shelter, and refugee security has as such had to give way for other competing priorities.

Considering the clear link between UNHCR’s international protection mandate and physical security, why, then, does the physical security and basic human rights of refugees and others of concern to UNHCR appear to be only a peripheral issue within the organization? The book presents several explanations. Firstly, UNCHR appears to believe that if it ‘flaunts’ its own responsibility, this risks detracting attention from the responsibilities of host states, who, after all, have the primary responsibility to protect refugees on their territory.  Secondly, however, because it surfaces at the crossroads between state sovereignty, national security and international human rights, refugee security is generally considered to be ‘high politics’ and exposes a tension between human rights norms and realpolitik. Organizations such as UNHCR tend to view attention to physical protection issues as a threat to their neutrality, impartiality and independence. Thus, for fear of jeopardizing relationships with governments, UNHCR appears to emphasize ‘soft diplomacy’ and prioritize less controversial tasks, such as the provision of material assistance, in the face of ‘hard’ human rights concerns. But, as even UNHCR itself has noted, it has a duty to fulfill its mandate regardless of ‘political circumstances and imperatives’. UNHCR’s challenge thus lies in staying true to its main principles, and not throwing them overboard as soon as it meets resistance. This logically means that UNHCR also cannot expect to please all sides.

Without downplaying the fact that UNHCR often has to make choices between bad and less bad options on the ground, it is arguable that without an increased focus on basic human rights and physical protection, UNHCR runs a real risk of ‘simply administering human misery’. More importantly, ignoring refugee security arguably affects the situation as much as confronting it. While UNHCR’s international protection mandate may be ready to be fully implemented in theory, because it appears not to be a current priority within the organization, it is far from certain that the mandate is fully understood, and applied thereafter, among the main actors concerned with protection and security within UNHCR.

Wide Scope for Improvements

Protecting Civilians in Refugee Camps suggests that there is wide scope for improvements within UNHCR aimed at strengthening refugee protection. First, in order to ensure full and proper implementation, it is important to clarify UNHCR’s mandate vis-à-vis physical security both internally within the organization, and externally among its operative and implementing partners. In 2009, the UN Office of Internal Oversight (UN OIOS) undertook an extensive study of UNHCR’s approach to the safety and security of staff, operations and persons of concern. This study suggested that UNHCR’s mandate was often misunderstood among the main actors dealing with security issues.

A clarification of this mandate will hopefully also lead to a security focus that is more proportional between staff security and refugee security, and, on an international level, this may alleviate the current eclipse of UNHCR’s mandated responsibilities vis-à-vis physical protection of refugees and others of concern in refugee camps by the more pragmatic and operational activities of actors such as UN OCHA. In fact, recent years’ activities within the Security Council concerning the ‘protection of civilians’-framework have contributed to UN OCHA, whose mandate is essentially that of coordinating humanitarian response (and thus not protection), becoming the primary actor involved in refugee camp security. In a 2005 report by the UN Secretary-General, no mention of UNHCR’s role in protection monitoring is made – rather it is suggested that UN OCHA shall collect data on attacks against refugee camps and collate baseline information on issues such as security related to internally displaced persons.

A clarification of UNHCR’s mandate may also lead to improvements with regard to training and administering UNHCR staff: a shortage of protection staff seems to be an endemic problem within the organization, and is something which clearly has serious consequences in some operations where UNHCR has not even been aware of persistent rights violations. UNHCR must also reward staff who voice protection concerns – currently there appear to be no institutional incentives to do so.

It is also arguable that the current system of periodic rotation of staff between departments, headquarters and the field deprives UNHCR from any true expertise or staff specialization in the field of refugee physical security. Roughly speaking, there seems to be a general sentiment that each individual UNHCR staffer shall be able to tackle most of UNHCR’s various tasks, whether these tasks concern refugee camp security or material assistance. This system arguably impedes upon UNHCR’s possibility to use the skills acquired over the years to best effect. As one UNHCR staff argued in a 2005 study of UNHCR organizational culture: ‘Rotation is a serious problem … If a finance specialist has to move and become a programme person, it lowers things down to the lowest common denominator.’

Monitoring the human rights situation is an integral part of UNHCR’s exercise of its international protection mandate, and international protection cannot be advanced without full knowledge and understanding of the human rights situation. It appears as if UNHCR needs to reconsider the manner in which it collects, analyzes and, perhaps most importantly, uses the information on protection concerns in refugee camps. UNHCR’s experiences with security concerns in refugee camps are currently neglected or disguised through generalizations and shortcuts in the monitoring process. As such, new incidents can flourish. UNHCR’s internal evaluations have also shown that many field staff are not sufficiently aware of the relevant policies and guidelines, or about their monitoring roles and responsibilities. This was also emphasized in the 2009 UN OIOS Report, which inter alia found that UNHCR lacked adequate guidelines for security and protection officers in the field to enable joint assessment and physical protection of refugees and other persons of concern, and that the accountability framework, reporting mechanism, definition of security responsibilities and arrangements for monitoring the implementation of security measures were not adequately defined. It is clear that the protective effect of UNHCR’s protection monitoring depends upon how the gathered information is used.

More Protection, Less Material Assistance

A renewed focus on UNHCR’s international protection mandate might entail that UNHCR focuses less on providing material assistance. However, experience suggests that in cases where UNHCR has been unable or otherwise unwilling to provide material assistance, other organizations have stepped into the void. Such was the case in Thailand, when UNHCR sought to minimalize its involvement in the camps that were controlled by Cambodian military factions. This clearly suggests that there is an abundance of international and non-governmental organizations that can provide material assistance. Only UNHCR, however, has the mandate to provide international protection.

UNHCR’s accountability is the topic of an upcoming panel – organized by members of and affiliates to the Norwegian Centre for Humanitarian Studies – at the Humanitarian Studies Conference in Istanbul October 24-27, 2013. More information about the conference and the panel ‘UNHCR and the Struggle for Accountability: an examination of parallel regimes’ is found on http://www.humanitarianstudiesconference.org/. The book Protecting Civilians in Refugee Camps: Unable and Unwilling States, UNHCR and International Responsibility can also be pre-ordered through Brill’s webpage: http://www.brill.com/products/book/protecting-civilians-refugee-camps.

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?

PoC: Protection clusters and the formation of ambiguity- the view from Bor and beyond

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How come the policy realm of protecting civilians is increasingly being challenged on both conceptual and practical grounds, all the while efforts are being done in policy headquarters and in the field to refine its idea the implementation of it?

One such refinement seeking to alter established practices is the introduction of the protection cluster among humanitarian organisations in South Sudan in July 2010. Initially, the PoC unit of the United Nations’ Mission to Sudan (UNMIS) served as the link between the UN mission and various civilian UN and non-UN entities regarding civilian protection. The 2010 reorganisation advanced the cluster approach as a means to coordinate diverse and dispersed protection activities, with the aim to think more broadly about protection concerns drawing on interagency cooperation and coordination among the humanitarian organisations present in the area. In southern Sudan the protection cluster was to be led by UNHCR (and co-chaired with the Norwegian Refugee Council), now serving as protection lead and focal point for protection issues in the area. The cluster chair’s role is to facilitate a process aimed at ensuring coordinated and effective humanitarian response in relation to protection.

Cacophony and dissonance, however, seemed to prevail when I attended a protection meeting in Bor during my fieldwork in South Sudan’s Jonglei state in late 2010. While the distinction between the humanitarian community and the UN peacekeepers had become clearer as a result of the reorganization, the cluster approach had also brought a host of new actors into the protection folder and into the very same meeting room. The diverse and, at times, conflicting understandings of protection among the various humanitarian organizations now seeking to coordinate their efforts did not promote unity, harmony and dialogue. Rather, it seemed like all the actors involved instead used the meeting as a forum for presenting their own, distinct views and approaches to protection. In nourishing the particular and operational distinctiveness the organisations, in effect, prevented to consign to any overarching approach to or notion of protection. So, by the time everybody had presented their own work and how their organisation dealt with protection concerns, the meeting was over and people started to leave to attend to other duties.

The members of the protection cluster mainly saw it as an arena for exchanging information, without questioning each other’s diverging and sometimes conflicting notions of protection. Limited attention was paid to practical solutions, thus causing for some discontent among the participants. Although “protection” was what brought this diverse group together, their practical interface during the meeting revealed the absence of a shared understanding of what protection means and entails in and for practice. Perceptions differed not only between the humanitarian segment, government representatives and the UN mission (including its military commanders). Also among the humanitarian organisations themselves were there diverging and conflicting perceptions and usages of the protection discourse. Basically, all seemed to interpret the protection framework according to their own institutional culture without an eye for harmonisation and coordination.

I hold that these observations are not particular to the protection cluster in Bor. Indeed, I’ve come across similar ambiguities and challenges in other settings, including more central UNMIS levels, among other NGOs and at the UN headquarter in New York. As such, the observations in Bor could be seen as indicative for a larger and more general concern pertaining to the protection of civilians; that is, the lack of a common and shared conceptualisation of the term.

The ambiguity of protection relates to protection’s institutional trajectory within the UN starting in the late 1990s and the political challenges the UN had to overcome when initially dealing with it: on the one hand there was the need to establish a robust framework to secure civilian protection, on the other hand it was a need to have this framework adopted at the most authoritative level. Hence, when the protection framework – infused by the language of the humanitarian principles – was brought to the Security Council, the council refused to adopt it in fear of it becoming too binding and political. In shredding of the principles, the council rather opted for a milder version; that is, a non-binding ‘culture of protection’ to be disseminated throughout the UN. Hence, there exists no unifying notion of protection within the UN, and this ambiguity transfers onto the field level and the organisations involved. It seems that the lack of a clear definition of protection permeates the UN system which inevitably affects non-UN organisations when these seek to coordinate their efforts with UN entities.

The cluster approach seemed to have emerged as an effect of the lack of a stringent protection definition. This illustrates another phenomenon, i.e. the inversion of policy and practice: when the policy concepts that aim to direct practice are unclear, new practices tend to evolve and these practices can be counterproductive to the original policies. As such, the ambiguities of the cluster approach and the lack of a protection definition draw attention to the complex relationship between policy and practice. Nominally policy aims to direct practice, being the very raison d’être of policy-making and the answer to why policymakers invest so many resources into hatching and formulating policies. This positivist faith in planning and top-down approaches have, however, the unfortunate effect of producing a growing ignorance to the local variations and multiple contexts where these policies are being implemented. Such centralized planning is also largely dismissive of the many nodes and intersections any policy passes through when moving from the global to the local, and the unpredictable transformations the original planned intent may take in the diverse junctures between policy and practice. An adverse inevitability, at least from the perspective of the planners, is an ever widening discrepancy between the policy and the practice of it. And the more ambitious the scope is – and the idea of civilian protection based on a set of universal principles is indeed grand – the greater the disjuncture between policy and practice tend to become.

While the policy-practice discrepancy is seen as a challenge to policymakers at the central level, it might give opportunities to the practitioners and assist the beneficiaries at the local levels. As was the case in Bor where the lack of a stringent protection definition meant greater autonomy at the local level for the different agencies. It also meant that all humanitarian actors were included in the fold without having to pay attention to who passes an abstract threshold or not. The loose definition of protection, or the culture of protection, brought different people and agencies together. And although this produced cacophonies when trying to harmonise diverse protection agencies and approaches, it nevertheless allowed for operational variation and complexity that arguably was more in tune with the local needs than any centrally devised policies. And while such complexity and multitude might be a challenge to universal principles and ambitious policymakers, such plurality – indeed an effect of the ambiguous protection framework – might in fact be conducive to a more contextual, sensitized and effective approach to civilian protection.

Humanitarianism and Weapons: Should a ban on nuclear weapons rely on humanitarian principles?

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4-5 March 2013, The Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs hosts an international conference on the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons. In conjunction with this event, the international campaign to abolish nuclear weapons (ICAN) organised a two day ‘civil society forum’ in Oslo this weekend, with more than 500 participants. This blog post is based on my brief introduction to a panel there on ‘ethics in international politics’ that centered on the following questions: ‘What does it take for ethical arguments to trump the vested interests of powerful actors? How can we elevate ethical concerns to the center-stage of international decision-making processes?’

Often, a distinction is drawn between instrumental self-serving reasoning and ethical reasoning concerned with the interests of others. A similar distinction is commonly drawn in international politics between realpolitik, based on the self-serving reasoning of states, and ethics, involving an altruistic commitment to issues like humanitarianism, human rights and peace. Framing nuclear weapons as a humanitarian concern situates it in the latter category.

If ethical arguments in favour of banning nuclear arms are limited to this notion of ethics as altruism, it will fail in trumping the vested interests of powerful states. Crudely speaking, international politics are driven by the self-preservation of states and corporations, and a campaign against nuclear weapons has to engage with these premises in order to be ‘speaking truth to power’. This is not to say that any commitment by states to universal human rights and humanitarianism would be a fraud. However, as soon as these norms start conflicting with self-interest, they stand to lose. The strength and condition for international humanitarian law, like the laws of war, is that they actually are useful for the do not

The campaign to abolish nuclear weapons is inspired by successful campaigns for the abolishment of anti-personnel landmines and cluster munitions. As these were rooted in a humanitarian agenda, one might claim that they prove me wrong. Yet, when it comes to the self-preservation of major powers there are fundamental differences between landmines and cluster munitions on the one hand and nuclear weapons on the other. Rather than being an essential source of self-preservation, landmines have been a nuisance to major Western powers when intervening in war-torn states around the world over the past decades. Substantive resources have been devoted to de-mining, and a ban on landmines was a useful alternative in this regard. Concerning cluster munitions, the military use of these for major powers was also limited. This recognition was partly obtained by virtue of the campaign against cluster munitions, and this exemplifies how ethical arguments should address the premises of instrumental self-serving reasoning in addition to appealing to humanitarian ideals.

In stark contrast to landmines and cluster munitions, nuclear weapons are commonly conceived as a cornerstone of the power of the permanent five (P5) in the UN Security Council, as well as an existential prerequisite for countries like India, Pakistan and Israel. In a situation where the monopoly of the P5 on nuclear weapons is waning, their skepticism to nuclear disarmament will only be growing. Only if a legal ban were to be combined with credible security guarantees and enforcement mechanisms beyond economic or political sanctions, could their concern for national security be met. To governments with a primary mandate of promoting state security, humanitarian principles appear as irrelevant in this connection.

The good news in this story stem from the extremely bad news of nuclear weapons: that they are inherently contradictory to self-preservation and national security. Combined with a reliable sanctioning regime, a ban would be far more conducive to the security of the citizens of nuclear powers than the reliance on ‘mutual assured destruction’. That the security risk of a conventional military attack is reduced by possessing the weapon is outweighed by far by the security risk of getting caught up in nuclear war. The only way for another nuclear power to win militarily is to launch an attack so devastating that it makes retaliation unlikely. And for non-state actors, launching a nuclear attack may seem more justifiable against countries whose military predominance relies on nuclear arms. In a long term perspective, the likelihood of such scenarios is far from zero if the Non-Proliferation Treaty is not reinforced by a stronger and more consistent regime of nuclear disarmament.

Hence, in addition to appealing to humanitarian norms, the campaign to ban nuclear arms should primarily rely on realist arguments against nuclear weapons as a source of national security. It should seek the support of the citizens of nuclear powers in particular, appealing to their concern for their own security. This, however, would require coupling a ban with enforcement mechanisms of a sort that would require a revolution in multilateralism. Arguably, this would nonetheless be fully in line with the self-interest of major powers.

Given the magnitude of that task, one might rather opt for a humanitarian ban to be adopted by countries that are currently not possessing nuclear weapons. Both in order to prevent them from acquiring such in the future, and as a way of adding moral pressure against the outsiders of the treaty. Yet, in the absence of support by the P5, it would be unlikely that the ban would be coupled by sufficient oversight mechanisms beyond the current UN regime for preventing state and non-state actors from secretly acquiring nuclear weapons. Then, states committed to the ban for humanitarian reasons would suffer militarily, and the division would increase between ‘nuclear rogue states’ on the one hand and ‘good states’ backed by Western nuclear powers on the other. If humanitarian principles were to be blamed for this mistake, it would be a radical blow to the political foundations of the international humanitarian regime as well.

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.