GA focuses on Syria and Security Council reform during dialogue on Responsibility to Protect
Friday, 14 September 2012 22:29


On 5 September 2012, the General Assembly held an informal interactive dialogue to discuss the Secretary-General’s fourth report on ‘the responsibility to protect’[1] (R2P). This year’s report was on the third pillar of R2P, “timely and decisive response”.[2] The report follows previous informal interactive dialogues and reports on R2P in 2009 (“Implementing the responsibility to protect”), 2010 (“Early warning, assessment and the responsibility to protect”) and 2011 (“The Role of Regional and Sub-regional Arrangements in Implementing the Responsibility to Protect”.)


The report discusses the wide range of measures available under the “timely and decisive response” pillar, whereby Member States have a responsibility to collectively respond when a State fails to protect its population. The other two pillars are (1) the protection responsibilities of the State and (2) international assistance and capacity-building.


The dialogue was well-attended by Member States, with many represented by their more senior delegates. Interventions by States followed a panel discussion moderated by Adama Dieng, Special Adviser to the Secretary-General on the Prevention of Genocide. The panel included presentations by Jan Eliasson, United Nations Deputy Secretary-General; Ivan Šimonović, Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights; Gert Rosenthal, Permanent Representative of Guatemala; Youssoufou Bamba, Permanent Representative of Côte d’Ivoire; and Alex Bellamy, Professor of International Security, Griffith Asia Institute, Australia.


The panel was preceded by remarks from Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon and Nassir Abdulaziz Al-Nasser, President of the General Assembly (the PGA). The PGA highlighted that the role of the UN is to reinforce a State’s protection obligations, not undermine national sovereignty. Mr Ban Ki Moon also touched on sovereignty, saying that it “is not a shield behind which states commit grave crimes against their people”. The Secretary-General commended the General Assembly for its “proactive response” to the crisis in Syria, saying that despite the Security Council’s inability to speak with one voice, “the rest of the world body need not be silent”.


Of the 56 states that spoke, most reaffirmed their commitment to the R2P concept as enshrined in the 2005 World Summit Outcome: that it is the responsibility of States to collectively guard against genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity and to take timely and decisive collective action for this purpose, through the Security Council, when peaceful means prove inadequate and national authorities are manifestly failing to do it.


As was the case during last year’s debate, the conflicts in Libya and Syria proved fertile ground for debate. Most of the interventions were punctuated with concern about the Security Council’s inaction on Syria. Libya noted that while the international community’s rapid and decisive efforts had saved thousands of lives in Libya, it was taking too long to provide protection for the Syrian people. Belgium agreed, saying it was profoundly shocking that the international community had not yet been able to respond to protect civilians in Syria and said the “unacceptable and incomprehensible blocking” of action by some States brought Rwanda and Srebrenica to mind. Ireland questioned how high the death toll would have to rise for the Security Council to speak in one voice. Spain noted that inaction was not an option, as it undermined faith in the UN system.


Some states voiced concerns about double standards in the implementation of R2P and questioned how to avoid politicization and abuse (Iran, Cuba, Malaysia, Pakistan, Venezuela and Burundi). A few states expressed that the concept of R2P had yet to be clearly defined, with Cuba asserting that Member States must begin by defining ‘protection’ and ‘civilians’. Some states, including Venezuela, contended that R2P was manipulated to carry out regime change in Libya.


Singapore linked the impasse on Syria to the need for Security Council reform, recalling that the Security Council also failed to intervene in Rwanda when some of the P-5[3] had refused to define the situation as genocide. Singapore further recalled that the P-5 were uniformly opposed to the recent attempt by the S-5[4] to pass a General Assembly resolution to improve working methods of the Council,[5] noting that genuine R2P progress could not occur without reform. Lichtenstein, Costa Rica, Burundi and New Zealand echoed Singapore’s call for the P-5 to refrain from exercising their veto power in cases of R2P.


While asserting that the application of R2P in Libya harmed the image of the R2P concept, Russia noted the timeliness of Brazil’s paper on ‘Responsibility while Protecting’ (RwP).[6] Nearly half of the States who spoke welcomed Brazil’s concept paper on RWP, which focuses on concerns regarding the implementation of military measures in the context of R2P, and emphasizes prevention as well as the monitoring and assessment of the use of force. The European Union (EU) expressed support for Brazil’s paper, emphasizing that the third pillar encompasses more than military intervention, and includes coercive measures such as sanctions and referral to the International Criminal Court. China stated that RWP is of great significance, and worthy of consideration. Rwanda welcomed RWP as an important contribution, and Japan agreed that any type of coercive measure must be conducted in accordance with international law as governed by the UN Charter.


States diverged on the call in RWP for chronological sequencing of the three pillars of R2P. The Secretary-General’s report emphasises that the three pillars are reinforcing, and not sequential. India disagreed, arguing that a simple reading of R2P demonstrates that there is a chronological order. Echoing Uruguay’s point that the third pillar requires prevention and response, Australia, the UK and Costa Rica were of the view that the three pillars were meant to be mutually reinforcing. France contended that sequencing of the pillars could be used as an excuse for inaction. Professor Bellamy also disagreed with the chronological order and asked delegations to consider what would have resulted if this had been applied in the situation of the Rwandan genocide.


Several speakers remarked on the capacity of civil society to contribute to R2P. Portugal and other delegations acknowledged the important work of NGOs in the prevention aspect of R2P. Mr Eliasson highlighted the important role NGOs play in recognising the early warning signs of burgeoning conflicts. The EU reiterated this, questioning how the UN could ensure that it benefits from such insights. Ghana stressed that both the UN and NGOs must be relied upon in the future. Luxemburg said that for effective advancement of R2P there must be an early warning system, utilising expertise and information from the UN system, regional organizations, civil society, member states and individuals. Spain noted that civil society and humanitarian agencies actions should not supplant nor be confused with political action.


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



[1] 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.’

[2] (A/66/874)

[3] The five permanent members of the Security Council; China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States, are known as the P5. These members were appointed after the UN's founding in 1946, and are generally considered the "victors" of World War II. Each P5 member has the power of veto, enabling them to prevent adoption of any substantive draft Council resolution.

[4] The ‘small group of five’, Costa Rica, Jordan, Lichtenstein, Singapore and Switzerland, are known as the S5. Since 2005, they have pursued improvement of the Security Council's working methods. Among other things, the S5 calls for greater inclusion in the decision-making process, no veto in situations of R2P and mandatory explanation of veto in other situations.

[5] The draft resolution, which included a call for the P-5 to refrain from exercising veto power in cases of R2P crimes, was withdrawn after a legal opinion delivered by the Under Secretary General for Legal Affairs on the eve of the adoption of the resolution, stated a two-thirds majority could be required under Article 18 of the UN Charter and GA resolution 53/30.

[6] Brazil’s concept paper, ‘Responsibility while protecting: elements for the development and promotion of a concept’, was presented to the Security Council on 9 November 2011 by Brazil’s Permanent Representative to the UN, Maria Luiza Ribeiro Viotti, during the Council’s open debate on the protection of civilians. The concept was first articulated by Brazilian President Dilma Roussef in her opening address to the General Assembly in September 2011.


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