Unpacking the consensus

Peace & Security08 Jun 2010Julia Hoffmann

This morning’s session was opened with remarks by Edward Luck, special advisor to the secretary general of the UN with a mandate concerning the conceptual, political and operational aspects of the responsibility to protect (r2p). He sketched out the development of the concept, from its formation in the 2001 report to the 2005 ‘Outcome’ document, and emphasized a number of prominent aspects. These included the important fact that the r2p encompasses not only citizens, but the more general category of populations, which includes any persons on a state’s territory – including occupied territories.

Incitement has found its way into the debate, mirroring the preventive ambitions of the r2p and the recognition that action is too late when ‘bodies have started piling up’. Recent promising examples of initiatives aimed at the incitement stage include the secretary general’s efforts in Cote d’Ivoire and Kenya. The regional dimension is also gaining importance – after all, neighbouring countries are often best suited for assisting states in dangerous situations.

Concerning the oft-cited critique that the r2p is an imperialist notion, Mr Luck and the panelists remarked that the roots of the concept are not ‘Northern’, but rather African. For example, Mr Francis Deng elaborated on the idea of sovereignty as responsibility during the 1990s in his writing on the African Union (AU). In fact, as Mr Ebenezer Appreku mentioned, the AU has pioneered many initiatives grounded in the recognition of a need to supplement the principle of non-interference with one of non-indifference in the face of an increasing number of ‘new wars’ and intra-state conflicts in a post-Cold War world.

The African peer review mechanism and the establishment of an African standing military force were mentioned as examples. In this regard, the African continent may, in fact, now be moving from practice to principle rather than the other way round. And unlike the UN, the AU has been able to spell out the criteria for intervention.

Another common misconception was criticized by panelist Ms Mónica De Soto: that today there is no North-South divide within the UN, unlike in other debates. It is particularly important to note that those states that have lived through traumatic events involving large-scale human rights abuses, such as Guatemala, have been the major drivers behind pushing the debate on the r2p forwards.

The risk, Mr Appreku and Ms De Soto agreed, may not be abuse of the r2p to unduly interfere, but its non-use by the Security Council if there are no significant interests among the permanent members involved. Selectivity and the application of double standards were also seen as practical challenges.

At the practical level of making the r2p operational, the obligations of the Security Council and the UN’s ability to act in cases of political deadlock within this body, are crucial issues. Mr Luck pointed out that in the case of a deadlock in an r2p situation, there is the option to refer cases to the General Assembly, which cannot be vetoed by the Council. Ultimately, he concluded, the r2p is not a policy preference but a moral imperative that should be elaborated on the basis of consensus, which is needed for its entrenchment.

Notably, all speakers agreed that the r2p can be seen as civil society driven concept, within the African context as well as at the global level. Its further development greatly depends on the contributions of civil society as a whole, which can contribute to the internalization of its moral values and augment the pressure on governments to implement it. In this sense, in the words of special advisor Luck, the 2009 report should be seen as merely a ‘down payment’ in a continual process.