The Responsibility to Protect: Human Rights and Humanitarian Dimensions

Roberta Cohen
Roberta Cohen Former Brookings Expert, Co-Chair Emeritus - Committee for Human Rights in North Korea

February 20, 2009

Everyone would agree that international human rights standards are the foundation of R2P. States have an obligation to protect their populations from the worst atrocities on the basis of international human rights precepts. The Global Centre for R2P affirms this on its website, but it then goes on to say that it was not until the advent of R2P that the international community accepted for the first time the collective responsibility to act should states fail to protect citizens from genocide, ethnic cleansing, war crimes or crimes against humanity.

Between the adoption of international human rights standards by the UN after the Second World War and the acceptance of a collective responsibility to protect in 2005 there is a long road. Concepts of human security, humanitarian intervention, sovereignty as responsibility are milestones on that road. But one contribution that is often downplayed is the role of the international human rights movement. Human rights advocates did not just affirm that states should observe human rights standards. They championed the view that the international community should collectively take actions to hold governments to account when they fail to meet their obligations. Beginning in the 1970s, non-governmental human rights organizations and UN human rights bodies became assertive in insisting on international accountability. There were reports, fact-finding missions, intercessions with governments and sanctions. Indeed, the human rights movement contributed to an evolution in thinking from a strictly state-centered system in which sovereignty was absolute to one in which the behavior of states toward their own citizens became a matter of international concern and scrutiny.

Another unexplored contribution to R2P is that made by the Administration of Jimmy Carter. It was President Carter who told the United Nations General Assembly in 1977 that, “No member of the United Nations can claim that mistreatment of its citizens is solely its own business.” The President challenged traditional notions of sovereignty with that speech. I was in the Administration and my own notes that I prepared for use by US representatives at the UN said: “…no nation in the world today can hide politically-sanctioned abductions and murders, torture, or other gross violations of human rights behind assertions of sovereignty. Where basic human rights are concerned, all governments are accountable not only to their own citizens but to the entire community of nations.”

The United States in some respects did a first go-around, albeit unilaterally, in implementing the concept of sovereignty as a form of responsibility. In meeting with foreign governments, Administration officials always emphasized that it was the responsibility of governments first and foremost to protect the human rights of their populations. But if they failed to do so, the United States had a right and a responsibility to act on the basis of its laws and international commitments. Acting meant taking a series of calibrated steps from vigorous diplomacy to military and economic sanctions. Today’s concepts of sovereignty as responsibility and R2P surely arise from that experience but today’s concepts importantly broaden the responsibility to a collective one. In fact, the R2P framework, from prevention through peace building, looks very like a multilateral human rights policy with the added leverage of potential military force should atrocity crimes occur or continue.

R2P will undoubtedly run into some of the same problems that plague human rights policies. For example, one of the main criticisms of the Carter policy was that it was inconsistent in its application. R2P also risks being applied to a highly selective group of countries, especially less powerful ones with no international defenders. In his recent book on R2P, Gareth Evans responds to charges of inconsistency exactly the way the Carter Administration did – that each case is different requiring different approaches and that inconsistency in application is not a good argument for not acting in cases where one can do something; and in the case of powerful nations, other steps will have to be found. Nonetheless, a credibility gap arises. The Carter Administration did not act against the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia or institute economic sanctions against South Africa because of its own political and economic interests. And R2P has not been applied to atrocities in Sudan, Somalia or the Democratic Republic of the Congo in part because of the political and economic interests of members of the P5 [permanent five]. Those five countries really have the deciding voice on strong actions under R2P, and if one of them casts a veto, it is unlikely R2P will be applied. So handling inconsistency is going to be a major issue. It plagued the Carter Administration for four full years.

Human rights policies also carry the potential for retaliation on the ground. When Carter officials condemned Ugandan human rights practices, Idi Amin threatened the safety of resident Americans. Were R2P to be applied to Darfur today, Sudanese President al-Bashir would doubtless threaten to retaliate against humanitarian workers and peacekeepers. Fears that the application of R2P could interfere with relief operations are not overblown. In Darfur, there are more than 15,000 relief workers on the ground and just over 15,000 peacekeepers and police. There are many more in other countries. The welfare and security of these personnel will have to be taken into account in the decision making about whether or not to apply R2P. At the same time, UN and NGO personnel can not be allowed to become the excuse for international inaction.

The relationship of R2P to humanitarian issues raises questions that require clarification.

First, how far does the application extend? In the case of Kenya, the first and only country to which R2P was applied, some 1,500 people died and some 600,000 were uprooted prior to international involvement. So R2P was not a preventive measure, but it did succeed in halting the violence and preventing further displacement. But should the story end there or should it extend to ensuring that displaced people are effectively protected in the aftermath of violence? Reports show a lack of security for ethnic groups in areas of return, an absence of planning for those who do not wish to return, inadequate compensation for destroyed homes and property. Moreover, thousands still live in camps and temporary settlements. Yet we don’t hear any more about R2P in Kenya. Nor do we hear about the promotion of compliance with the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement with regard to rebuilding. Welcomed by the World Summit in 2005, the Guiding Principles set forth the rights of IDPs and give the international community a role in protecting and assisting them during displacement and during return and reintegration. The national human rights commission in Kenya considers its government to be violating these Principles in its treatment of IDPs after the violence. The Guiding Principles should be used by R2P advocates as a guide for governmental and international responsibilities toward IDPs, but there was no mention of them or other steps for the protection of IDPs in the January report of the Secretary-General.

Second, when does R2P apply, and when does it not, in humanitarian emergencies? While atrocity crimes can be expected to produce emergency situations and displacement, they are not the only cause. There will be many humanitarian situations where R2P will not apply. Natural disasters and climate change, for example, can be expected to uproot tens of millions and create severe assistance and protection problems. R2P advocates have ruled out applying the concept to natural disasters, but this decision may be questionable in cases where crimes against humanity are committed in response to disasters and the victims are in need of international protection. The debate over Cyclone Nargis in Burma brought that problem to the fore.

Third, will R2P politicize humanitarian operations? Some NGOs are wary of the use of force for humanitarian purposes and argue that the integration of humanitarian aid into broader political and security frameworks will identify aid workers with one side in a conflict and expose them to attacks. In the DRC, Medecins Sans Frontieres has tried to work on both sides of the conflict whereas UN peacekeepers have acted to support the government. Many humanitarian aid workers have difficulty with the concept of protection and argue that going beyond delivering food, medicine and shelter could lead to denial of access and to their own expulsion. It is political, they say, to advocate for the physical safety and human rights of IDPs, and will interfere with their relationships with governments on humanitarian and development issues. Other aid workers, however, consider protection essential to their work, and argue that when genocide and atrocity crimes are being committed, neutrality is not an option. To what extent will R2P encourage humanitarian organizations to engage more actively in protecting the physical safety and human rights of civilians caught up in humanitarian emergencies? To what extent will it encourage UN human rights offices to play a protection role in the field, which they have not done so far?

Finally, will misconceptions about R2P undermine humanitarian approaches? It’s taken more than a decade for governments and the international community to accept that they have responsibilities for the assistance and protection of internally displaced persons. Arriving at that point involved persuading governments that concern for IDPs was not a pretext for political and military intervention. In fact Francis Deng articulated the concept of sovereignty as responsibility in order to allay governments’ fears about international involvement. Any confounding of internal displacement and the Guiding Principles with coercive intervention in internal affairs could, as one analyst recently commented, undermine the Guiding Principles’ wide acceptance.

So there is still work to be done to reconcile more effectively R2P with humanitarian and human rights concerns. It is essential to do so. The international community to date has shown itself unwilling and unable to robustly protect people from atrocity crimes committed in their countries. R2P is a tool to raise awareness to the obligation we all have when it comes to protection. It should have the support of everyone here.