Responsibility to protect: On-going crisis in Libya provides fertile ground for debate in GA
Friday, 29 July 2011 18:09

On 12 July 2011, the General Assembly held an informal interactive dialogue to discuss the Secretary-General’s third report on ‘the responsibility to protect’*: “The Role of Regional and Sub-regional Arrangements in Implementing the Responsibility to Protect”. The report follows previous informal interactive dialogues and reports on R2P in 2009 (“Implementing the responsibility to protect”) and 2010 (“Early warning, assessment and the responsibility to protect”).


The dialogue was intended to provide an opportunity for Member States, as well as regional and sub-regional officials, to exchange views and lessons learned on global-regional-sub-regional cooperation on R2P, to consider the regional and sub-regional dimensions of the United Nations’ R2P strategy, and to reflect on implementation efforts to date. The topic was responsive to calls from States during last year’s dialogue for greater cooperation and partnership with regional and sub-regional organisations.


The report encourages a more active role for, and greater cooperation with, regional and sub-regional organizations in each of the three pillars of R2P: (1) the protection responsibilities of the State; (2) international assistance and capacity-building; and (3) timely and decisive response.


The dialogue in the GA was well attended by Member States, with many represented by their most senior delegates. Interventions by States were preceded by a panel discussion on “Regional and Sub-regional Perspectives and Experience” that included presentations by Knut Vollebaek, High Commissioner on National Minorities, Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, Liberata Mulamula, Executive Secretary, International Conference on the Great Lakes Region,  and Victor Rico Frontaura, Secretary for Political Affairs of the Organization of the American States. While the panel featured a cross section of regional experience, neither Asia nor the Arab region was represented. The afternoon panel on “United Nations Perspectives and Experience” was preceded by remarks by the Secretary-General and included presentations by Edward Luck, Special Adviser to the Secretary-General on the Responsibility to Protect and Francis Deng, Special Adviser to the Secretary-General on the Prevention of Genocide.


Of the 43 States that spoke, most voiced their support for the continued operationalization of the principle of R2P and welcomed the opportunity to engage in further discussion to refine and implement it.  Many speakers underlined that the principle has moved beyond the academic and conceptual realm and is being applied in a number of situations. Of course detractors remained, with a handful of delegations warning against its potential abuse (Israel, Lebanon, China, Iran), and some arguing that the concept is still far from being accepted (Cuba, Pakistan, Venezuela).


A few statements touched on the need for reform of the Security Council in the context of R2P. Mexico argued that the current working methods and veto power can lead to a lack of objectivity and consequent distrust by other States. Lichtenstein similarly mentioned that consistency is needed from the permanent members who should refrain from using their veto power to block action in cases of suspected mass atrocities covered by R2P.


On a related note, the Secretary-General’s report to some extent highlighted a role for intergovernmental processes in implementing R2P, suggesting that criteria related to R2P be introduced into the Universal Periodic Review as well as regional peer review mechanisms. Japan noted that these mechanisms should be used for continuous self-monitoring and Switzerland agreed that including such indicators would improve the detection of high-risk situations and signal a clear commitment to prevention. Lichtenstein went as far as to say that, while the statements and early warning activities of the Special Advisors, OHCHR and the Secretary-General have played an important role, that the Human Rights Council had done a better job lately, citing the examples of Lybia, Cote D’Ivoire and Syria.


A certain timeliness to this year’s debate was acknowledged by many delegations as the dialogue took place against the backdrop of the so-called Arab Spring in the Middle East and North Africa as well as recent crises such as Cote d’Ivoire, Kyrgyzstan, Guinea, and the Sudan.


In particular, many statements revealed the divergent views held regarding current action in Libya, which many view as the first true test of R2P due to its explicit reference in the preambles of Security Council resolutions 1970 and 1973. Probably referring implicitly to inaction regarding the situation in Syria, Mexico mentioned the divisive effect that the Libyan crisis has had on the international community and the way in which it is affecting the treatment of other topics. Some states offered negative views, saying for example that R2P is being easily manipulated in Libya (Cuba) or that intervention has only brought about increased loss of civilian lives and destruction of infrastructure (North Korea).


Others highlighted the need for further thought and study given what has transpired in Libya. The African Union called for an examination of lessons learned, noting that certain regional organizations have felt marginalized. Lebanon cited the role of the League of Arab States and the African Union during the crisis in Libya as a good example of regional cooperation, while also noting that assessments are sceptical and the implementation remains far from ideal. Brazil expressed its doubts regarding the ability of the use of force to achieve an end to violence and protection of civilians as it has made a political solution more difficult. New Zealand noted that the situation in Libya (and Cote d’Ivoire) supported the claim made in the Secretary-General’s report that there is no well-developed doctrine for the use of military assets even in clear cases that require invoking the doctrine of R2P. Kenya also echoed the need for global standards, albeit more negatively. Referring to recent experience with R2P as “at best worrisome, at worst disconcerting”, Kenya attributed the poor application of the doctrine in recent events to a lack of understanding and agreement on its definition, application, limits, and scope. Still others, such as the US and the UK, disagreed with the characterizations put forth by some delegations, arguing that the Libya example shows progress from past failures to implement R2P.


Very few delegations mentioned the role of civil society in the implementation of R2P, whether in regional and sub-regional arrangements or otherwise. However, the Secretary-General’s report encouraged the participation of civil society representatives in intra-regional dialogues with states and experts on the implementation of R2P in regional contexts. In particular, the report underlined the role of civil society in several areas: as partners for States aiming to prevent mass atrocities; as key actors for building public understanding and support for R2P; in contributing politically and operationally to the provision of assistance; in providing local insights; and in supporting regional and sub-regional arrangements to facilitate cooperation on training and education for officials in rule of law and security sectors. The report also mentions that networks of civil society R2P focal points could be developed parallel to the network of national focal points currently being developed.


Most delegations welcomed the Secretary-General’s suggestion that the next informal interactive dialogue on R2P in 2012 should take the form of an assessment of efforts to date to utilize all of the tools of Chapters VI, VII, and VII in implementing the third pillar of the R2P strategy. A few states underlined the need for this to include peaceful and not just military intervention. Only Brazil said outright that it favoured a different focus—“on the need for a more holistic approach of the concept of the responsibility to protect, in which preventive measures take a central role.”


Also taking part in the dialogue were the African Union, CARICOM, the EU, and four civil society participants: the School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution at George Mason University; the West African Civil Society Institute and Initiatives for International Dialogue (on behalf of the International Coalition for the Responsibility to Protect); the Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect; and the Quaker United Nations Office and the School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution at George Mason University (distributed only).


Further analysis of the interactive dialogue is available from the International Coalition for the Responsibility to Protect, including links to most of the statements delivered.


* Also referred to as ‘R2P’, this concept relates to the obligation of States toward their populations and toward all populations at risk of genocide and other large-scale atrocities. It was endorsed by the General Assembly in the 2005 World Summit Outcome Document (paragraphs 138 and 139), and reaffirmed in September 2009 in a consensus resolution (63/308). The resolution was the outcome of a three-day debate in the GA debate that was convened to discuss the January 2009 report of the UN Secretary-General:  ‘Implementing the Responsibility to Protect.’

Last Updated on Friday, 29 July 2011 18:47
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