Why hasn’t the principle adopted by the United Nations in 2005 to prevent genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity, and ethnic cleansing—known as the Responsibility to Protect (RtoP)—helped to stop the war crimes in Syria?
“The principle itself is not the problem,” said Jennifer Welsh, the UN Secretary-General’s Special Advisor on the Responsibility to Protect (RtoP).
While acknowledging the “broad-based failure” to address Syria’s crisis, Welsh explained that “states aren’t necessarily contending that there isn’t an international responsibility to act, but they wonder whether force is appropriate, and particularly whether force will achieve good.”
Reflecting on the Security Council’s division over action in Syria and the sometimes selective use of force in the past, Welsh explored the dynamics at play when it comes to intervention. “We do know that certain bodies and certain instruments will not be able to act consistently,” she said. “And indeed, if you look at the summit outcome document in 2005, it talks about the use of military force being undertaken on a case-by-case basis.”
“I think strategic interests are often at play; that doesn’t mean other motives also aren’t present,” she said, noting that prudence is also part of these decisions, whether interests are at stake or not. “I think a lot of the concern over Syria expressed not just by the Russians, but by others was: would force actually accomplish positive things on the ground? Is it a prudent course of action at this point in time? And you can have reasonable disagreement.”
However, she noted that the Security Council can damage its standing when it can’t come to a consensus on action. “And those considerations need to be taken into account, and so their pressure can be brought to bear on that institution to keep that in mind.”
While many discussions of RtoP and its three pillars center on the circumstances under which the international community should intervene, it is the second pillar, said Welsh, that is its most promising aspect because it “is about international actors working in partnership with states, and emphasizing that the Responsibility to Protect, at the end of the day, is not designed to be undermining of sovereignty, but supportive of sovereignty, to help states exercise their responsibilities to protect their populations—because they are the best placed agents to do that if they are able to.”
Considering the changing nature of violence on a global scale and the greater focus on criminal violence and other forms of civil strife, Welsh said that the Responsibility to Protect is not limited to situations of armed conflict. “We have to look at those situations, not necessarily as ones that call for third pillar action, but perhaps other forms of engagement. And I think what’s really interesting in this respect is to look at how some humanitarian organizations are beginning to become involved, like the ICRC [International Committee of the Red Cross], in these situations other than armed conflict. I think that’s a very interesting trend, which suggests there is a recognition that protection is important, even outside the context of armed conflict.”
The interview was conducted by Adam Lupel, Editor and Senior Fellow at the International Peace Institute.
Listen to interview (or download mp3):
Adam Lupel: I’m speaking today with Jennifer Welsh, the UN Secretary-General’s Special Advisor on the Responsibility to Protect. She was appointed in July of this year to further the conceptual, political, institutional, and operational development of the Responsibility to Protect concept known as RtoP. Thank you for joining us in the Global Observatory.
Next year will mark the 20th anniversary of the Rwandan genocide, and it has now been eight years since the landmark 2005 World Summit when UN member states agreed on the responsibility to protect populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing, and crimes against humanity. Where does the Responsibility to Protect principle stand today, in your mind? And how has the failure to stem the tide of violence in Syria impacted the RtoP as an emerging international norm?
Jennifer Welsh: I think the Responsibility to Protect as a principle stands still very central to the concerns of states and international organizations and civil society groups about the protection of populations from atrocity crimes—and it’s an important principle in that very broad agenda. I think there is very widespread support for the way that the principle’s been articulated within the UN, as comprising three pillars, beginning with a state’s responsibility to protect its populations, and then emphasizing the role of the international community in assisting states, and then finally recognizing that if states manifestly fail, the international community has a role in taking collective action to protect.
That third pillar has been the pillar that has been the most controversial with respect to the Responsibility to Protect, and there’s no doubt that issues involving the use of force in situations such as Libya, or the lack of the use of force in situations such as Syria, have called into question what the principle can or should do. But there remains very broad support across regions within the UN for the principle. Indeed, even though there has been a broad-based failure to address the crisis in Syria—both I should say preventively but also in terms of effective response—that the principle itself is not the problem.
It’s not an operational principle. It’s a call to action. And it does put the responsibility for using coercive measures in the hands of the Security Council. And so the failures to exercise coercive measures with respect to Syria really come down to issues we’ve had within the Council about agreement on appropriate action. And I think we need to see that in a way that recognizes that there were differences of opinion as to what force could actually achieve, and those opinions, I think, have accompanied other crises. We saw it in the reaction to Libya. That states aren’t necessarily contending that there isn’t an international responsibility to act, but they wonder whether force is appropriate, and particularly whether force will achieve good.
So, I would just say in closing on reflections on Syria that we did see other actions under the third pillar to protect populations. The Human Rights Council was very active in its commission of inquiry on Syria, the [UN] General Assembly passed resolutions with respect to Syria. There’s been an extensive humanitarian operation and some modest efforts by the Security Council to ensure humanitarian access, and the neighboring states themselves have exercised their responsibility to protect. But we need to see the failure to act in Syria as a broad failure and not just one associated with this principle.
AL: You raised the issue of the international division over action in Syria, and it raises a question. There seems to be great agreement over the principle of RtoP but disagreement over its application, especially with the use of force. Do you think that the cases of Libya and Syria signify that interventions will always be selective in some way based on political criteria? And if so, is there in your mind a way in which international actors can limit that selectivity to help to ensure that action is taken when needed, and perhaps not taken when not needed?
JW: Yes, the rule of our office and the secretary-general is to be completely consistent if we can. It’s to call attention to situations in which we think populations are at risk. We do know that certain bodies and certain instruments will not be able to act consistently. And indeed, if you look at the summit outcome document in 2005, it talks about the use of military force being undertaken on a case-by-case basis. So, in a sense, a form of inconsistency is built into the very text as a recognition that the Security Council is a political body and must deliberate, and various calculations will come into that decision. I think strategic interests are often at play; that doesn’t mean other motives also aren’t present. We simply have multiple motives at work, which is I think very common with all kinds of action. Whether moral or ethical action or not, you will often have multiple intentions at work.
But also I think sometimes disagreement is a result of differences of opinion over whether the use of force is prudent, whether interests are at stake are not—in other words, whether it will achieve greater harm than good. And I think a lot of the concern over Syria expressed not just by the Russians, but by others was: would force actually accomplish positive things on the ground? Is it a prudent course of action at this point in time? And you can have reasonable disagreement. We actually saw that over Darfur, as well. Where you might have argued strategic interests were less front and center—although they weren’t absent—but where you had, again, reasonable differences of opinion over whether a successful military operation could be undertaken.
So, in that way, your question as to whether we can ever do away with selectivity is a good one, and, in a certain sense, not. But we need to recognize that selectivity damages the legitimacy of institutions. And so the Security Council in particular needs to recognize that when it can’t come to a consensus on any action, it damages its standing. And those considerations need to be taken into account, and so their pressure can be brought to bear on that institution to keep that in mind. And we’ve seen some of that, and I think that’s been actually the fuel behind some of the actions that we have seen—the more robust diplomatic activity on Syria, though it is still clearly stalled.
AL: The secretary-general is focused on the responsibility of states to protect their own populations, RtoP’s first pillar, in his most recent report on the matter. What are the best ways for international actors to support national processes to lessen the risks of atrocity crimes?
JW: In many ways this is the most promising aspect of the Responsibility to Protect because the essence of pillar two, as you described it, is about international actors working in partnership with states, and emphasizing that Responsibility to Protect, at the end of the day, is not designed to be undermining of sovereignty but supportive of sovereignty, to help states exercise their responsibilities to protect their populations—because they are the best placed agents to do that, if they are able to.
And so there’s a variety of forms of international assistance, starting with organizations like the UN, but also moving to regional organizations and private actors or civil society actors within the UN system. I think we see five broad categories of assistance falling within the field of development, but here I think we must be much more targeted on those forms of assistance that actually address the risk factors for atrocity crimes, which we’ve identified, we identified in the report you referred to. So, for example, addressing horizontal inequality, extreme economic shocks, issues of land title, those sorts of issues.
There’s also, secondly, a human rights assistance that we can provide through the partnership mechanisms that exist within the UN human rights machinery—and, importantly, some of the regional human rights machinery—to work with states to build up capacity domestically. But also through conflict prevention assistance, whether that be mediation, special political missions, those kinds of activities. Or even, at a lower or earlier stage, helping societies themselves build up mechanisms for dialogue—interfaith dialogue, for example, or inter-communal dialogue. And then, fourthly, thinking about peacekeeping as a form of international assistance. It’s done with the consent of the state. Can particular kinds of deployment happen when crises that might lead to atrocities or greater instability come into play? Peacekeeping is actually a pillar-two form of assistance.
And then, lastly, I think, there can be assistance to states through the efforts of the Peacebuilding Commission and other broader regional and private peacebuilding initiatives. If you think about organizations like the World Bank, for example, who, in working with post-conflict countries, are trying to build institutions, build capacities to prevent the reversion to violence. And I actually think this last area is one of huge opportunity—because we know that one of the greatest indicators for mass atrocity crimes in terms of risk factors is a previous history of atrocities. So, in any efforts that are being done in peacebuilding, we need to build in an atrocity prevention component and think of how processes and institutions to build peace are addressing potential threats.
AL: We associate RtoP with preventing atrocities that involve mass killings during a conflict, but the nature of violence is changing. There is increased attention on criminal violence and other forms of civil strife. Is this something that you consider to monitor as a part of RtoP in your office?
JW: Yes, you make an observation that’s interesting, that it is associated with situations of conflict, but actually the principle is broader than that. It looks at crimes against humanity, ethnic cleansing, war crimes and genocide. And some of those crimes can occur outside of a formal armed conflict context, which is why the Responsibility to Protect overlaps with the protection of civilians agenda but is not equivalent to it—because some of these populations are not civilian populations; they are populations who are not in a state of armed conflict.
But what we see around the world is that, over time, not only has war between states declined, but also civil wars are on the decline. Despite the worrying incidences that we can think of, they’re actually on a macro level in decline, and so is their lethality. Yet political violence—criminal violence of the kind that you are pointing to—remains, and violent death remains. And so our office is concerned about any form of massive violations of human rights as potential triggers for mass atrocity crimes. We have to look at those situations, not necessarily as ones that call for third pillar action, but perhaps other forms of engagement. And I think what’s really interesting in this respect is to look at how some humanitarian organizations are beginning to become involved, like the ICRC [International Committee of the Red Cross], in these situations other than armed conflict. I think that’s a very interesting trend, which suggests there is a recognition that protection is important, even outside the context of armed conflict.
AL: Thank you so much for speaking with us today.
About the photo: An observer with the UN Supervision in Syria interviews a local man while conducting a fact-finding mission in the village of Mazraat al-Qubeir. (credit: UN Photo/David Manyua)