Minding the Gap: Approaches and Challenges to Civilian Protection
Friedrich Ebert Stiftung
This Friedrich Ebert Stiftung publication features author Robert Schütte is Chairman of Genocide Alert, which is an ICRtoP member based in Koln, Germany.
Protection of civilians from mass atrocity crimes has emerged as a prominent field of international action. Humanitarian actors and development workers have been and remain at the forefront of protecting civilians by non-coercive means. More recently, given the international community’s failure to act and intervene in situation such as the genocides in Rwanda and Bosnia, the military dimension of protecting non- combatants has gained in importance. Two different operational types of robust civilian protection can be identified: On the one hand, Peacekeeping missions under a chapter VII mandate such as those in the DRC, Sudan or Côte d’Ivoire. On the other hand, Mass Atrocity Response Operations (MARO) conducted by the armed forces of a state or regional organization such as ECOWAS in Sierra Leone, or NATO in Kosovo or Libya. Despite a surge in such coercive protection activities, there is still a notable gap in terms of conceptualizing protecting of civilians. (…)
2. Protection of Civilians Since the End of the Cold War
(…) The shock that came with the genocides in Rwanda and Srebrenica caused the UN to rethink its approach to sending blue helmets in the midst of conflict zones. In two landmark reports published in 1999, the UN found two lessons to be learned in the future: First, it stated that “whether or not an obligation to protect civilians is explicit in the mandate of a peacekeeping operation, (…) the United Nations must be prepared to respond to the perception and expectation of protection created by its very presence.” Second, it argued that “when the international community makes a solemn promise to safeguard and protect civilians from massacre, then it must be willing to back its promise with the necessary means.” Rwanda and Srebrenica made clear that protection of civilians (POC) will not come as a sideline to lightly-armed and under-resourced peacekeeping. A new approach was needed.
3. A Big Leap Forward: Normative and Practical Developments Since 1999
(…) When UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan called for the finding of a new normative common ground, Canada followed suit and hosted an influential International Commission on Intervention and State Soverreignty (ICISS) which eventually introduced the notion of the responsibility to protect (RtoP) in 2001. (…)
The foundation of the International Criminal Court (ICC) in 2002 constituted another major achievement for the ending of impunity for mass atrocity crimes. Also the development of the responsibility to protect and its unanimous adoption by the UN General Assembly in 2005 were important steps towards a new global common ground on mass atrocity prevention. Although the norm itself did not add anything new to existing Human Rights or International Humanitarian Law, it did have the effect of reaffirming unquestionable minimum standards of civilian protection, and codifying the responsibilities of the international community and its member states towards threatened populations.
Once proclaimed, the RtoP underwent a process of cautious elaboration and consensus-building through high-level debates and references in UN resolutions that finally lead to the UN Secretary-General's 2009 report on implementing the Responsibility to Protect. Confronted with egregious human rights violations in Libya, the Security Council decided in Resolution 1973 for the first time to mandate a military intervention under the banner of the RtoP “to take all necessary measures (...) to protect civilians and civilian populated areas under threat of attack”. The Libya intervention marks a turning point in the international community's efforts to curb mass atrocities by assuming a responsibility to protect civilians. (…)
5. Minding the Gap: Obstacles and Shortfalls in Protecting Civilians
Despite the surge in international efforts to protect civilians over the past two decades, no consensus has emerged on how exactly protection by coercive means should be implemented. While the UN Security Council is increasingly willing to authorize robust peacekeeping operations to protect civilian populations, neither the UN nor Troop Contributing Countries have had any clear idea what exactly protection of civilians entails. POC is one of the most important objectives of peacekeeping since its inception in 1999, but the UN is still in the process of producing a coherent concept on how blue helmets should conduct and benchmark their protection activities on the ground. (…)
If the UN’s conceptual understanding of civilian protection is deemed sketchy, NATO’s approach to civilian protection in Libya can only be described as ad hoc and opaque. With its resolution 1973, UN Security Council authorized NATO “to take all necessary measures (...) to protect civilians and civilian populated areas under threat of attack”. The resolution granted the coalition forces much flexibility insofar as all necessary means – explicitly comprising armed force, excluding only occupation forces – could be brought to bear for the purpose of protecting threatened civilians and civilian-populated areas. (…)
5. Briding the Gap: Towards a Civilian Protection Doctrine
(…) Despite hesitations to tackle the politically sensitive issue of defining protection of civilians, a POC doctrine would be a major step to streamline protection activities, pre-deployment training and evidence-based benchmarking at the UN. The doctrine would facilitate the development of adequate civilian protection training modules and allow for more specific instructions on how UN peacekeepers are expected to protect civilians prior to their deployment. Once on the ground, conduct and performance of blue helmets would be more consistent, reliable and adequate. Furthermore, a comprehensive concept of protection would make it possible to develop evidence-based and comparable benchmarking criteria to measure mission performance and facilitate the transfer of best practices across operations. (…)
The development and incorporation of a MARO doctrine should be understood as capacity building for civilian protection by coercive means. It would provide political decision-makers with more options in dealing with situations of mass atrocities. While the US armed forces have begun to ponder over the matter, NATO, EU and AU countries should follow suit. If the international community is serious about civilian protection and its responsibility to protect, a more systematic approach to the prevention and curbing of mass atrocities is inevitable.
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