UN Security Council Open Debate on the Protection of Civilians

Open debate

Last week I watched the 18th “Open Debate on Protection of Civilians” in armed conflict at the UN Security council. This event takes place once a year and represents an important forum for member states, i.e. the world’s governments, to discuss the issue and position themselves. As this month’s president of the Security Council, Uruguay chaired the debate, and UN Deputy Secretary General Jan Eliasson, the ICRC’s Vice President Christine Beerli and Oxfam Senior Humanitarian Policy Advisor Eveline Rooijmans provided briefings. Subsequently, many member states’ representatives, including Iran, Montenegro and the Holy See, gave their respective statements. As usual, these statements expressed great concern for civilian victims of today’s armed conflicts, but there also seemed to be a sense that “civilians in conflict are in greater risk now than at any time in the UN’s history” (New Zealand), which is reflected by the record high of 60 million displaced people. Statements also referred to this year’s worrying trends. Virtually every speaker condemned the attacks on hospitals in Afghanistan and Yemen, the use of starvation as a weapon of war in Madaya and 14 other areas in Syria, the increasing attacks against journalists and the use of explosive weapons in densely populated areas.

Speakers were also in agreement concerning the solutions to civilian’s plight in armed conflict, again, referring to the above mentioned documents. Accordingly, they stressed the need for political solutions, specifically for dedicating more attention to preventing and meditating violent conflict. Burundi was often mentioned as a case in point, as the Security Council mission left for the country the next day – quite late but hopefully able to avoid worse. Speakers agreed that compliance to International Humanitarian Law needs to be ensured through applying and reinforcing the existing accountability tools of (international) criminal justice. Statements also referred to a number of operational issues for UN peacekeeping, such as the need for realistic and clear mandates, more engagement with local communities and regional organizations, well-equipped and quickly deployable peacekeepers, and a commitment to zero tolerance for sexual abuse and exploitation by UN staff. Speakers expressed hope that the upcoming World Humanitarian Summit in Istanbul (May 23/24) would lead to fruitful discussions.

As someone who is interested in practice-theory, I am also trying to make sense of the event on the basis of what actually happened. First, as Jan Eliasson remarked, the high number of speakers suggests that the topic is important for many of the world’s governments. Actually, there were so many registered speakers that the chair urged orators to keep their statements brief and provide longer versions online. Second, this was not a “debate” in the classical sense. Rather statements were given about the same topic but without referring to each other. The Uruguayan delegation had provided a briefing note beforehand, which obviously guided the statements alongside three other documents: the Secretary General’s report on the protection of civilians, the High-Level Independent Panel on Peace Operations (HIPPO) report and the SG’s report on the implementation of its recommendations. Consequently, statements mirrored each other. What was more interesting and differentiated the statements from each other was when speakers took the opportunity to connect PoC to their country’s history and interests. For example, Rwanda focused on the FDLR, Israel mentioned that Hezbollah was responsible for much of the violence in Syria, China stressed the neutrality and impartiality of UN peacekeeping, India talked about its experience in PoC since ONUC, Ukraine described Russian aggression and South Africa underlined the success of the FIB, etc.                Third, speakers obviously adhered to a set of shared norms, spending a good portion of their limited time to thank everyone and subsequently acknowledge previously stated facts and generally agreed-upon points of reference. Finally, the debate was a bit lengthy and repetitive. Some speakers made more relevant connections or, like Samantha Powers, depicted situations skilfully, but you were getting the gist of it after a couple statements. I must be one of the only people that followed it from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. and quite frankly that wasn’t necessary. Many of the diplomats just came in for their statement and even the chair rotated several times.

It can be concluded that the “debate” did not seem to be about rethinking PoC or exchanging information, but should be seen more as a political process where member states expressed their commitment to the protection of civilians and broadly agreed to an agenda. While falling short of committing to tangible steps, the strong condemnation of the practice of starvation, for instance, will increase the pressure on Assad. Nevertheless, it should be taken with a grain of salt when many of the member states’ representatives ended by pointing to the forthcoming Humanitarian Summit in Istanbul (May 23/24) as “an excellent opportunity to address the issue in a more in depth and comprehensive manner”.

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16th Humanitarian Congress Berlin

This weekend I participated in the Humanitarian Congress in Berlin. The two-day event is the biggest of its kind, this year’s theme being ‘Protection: A Broken Promise’. The keynote speech was held by Roméo Dallaire, commander of the UN Peacekeeping troops in Rwanda during the 1994 genocide. Unsurprisingly he critiqued “the problem of prioritization” during humanitarian interventions, stating that geostrategic interests of powerful states count more than human lives. According to Dallaire, 450 peacekeepers had been deployed during the on-going Rwandan genocide, while around the same time 67.000 troops were deployed in the former Yugoslavia, although more people were killed in 100 days in Rwanda than in 5 years of Yugoslavia. Hence the need for objective criteria, as formulated in R2P concept, that give clear guidelines when the international community needs to intervene. Dallaire proposed to include the use of child soldiers as one such criterion, as it generally indicates that “these guys” are going to commit a lot of human rights violations.

The rest of the two days meant difficult choices between 24 sessions that were partly organized parallel in four different venues. It was quiet crowded, a lot of the participants being humanitarian practitioners (mainly MSF and ICRC) and many students interested to know more about the issue-area and its job opportunities. In a friendly and open atmosphere a wide array of important protection issues were discussed, from medical protection to the use of force to protect and possibilities of evaluating protection efforts. Personally, I appreciated the case studies of Syria and Central African Republic, although they would have benefitted from more a more analytical approach. The question of perceptions and expectations towards protectors was also treated, and it was concluded that although nobody seems to actively promise protection anymore, interveners should become a lot more modest for themselves and towards populations (an interesting issue, which I will formulate some thoughts on during the next days).

case study car Dallaire

The Protection of Civilians in UN Peacekeeping

book cover
Last week, I finally had the time to finish de Carvolho and Sending’s book on the Protection of Civilians in UN Peacekeeping. On top of a foreword by former Emergency Relief Coordinator (aka head of OCHA) Jan Egeland, an introduction and an outro by the two editors, the book provides input in nine different chapters. The starting point is PoC’s persistent paradox: while protecting civilians in peacekeeping situations requires a comprehensive approach that combines humanitarian, human rights, security and political processes, the broad understanding results in confusion and makes PoC mandates difficult to implement in practice.

Accordingly, the book begins with four chapters on conceptual developments and the evolution on PoC mandates. Noteworthy is chapter three, which differentiates PoC from its twin concept of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P), stating that “PoC is meant mainly as a guide to how to act, not a trigger for whether to act”. The authors therefore caution that the two should be kept separately to avoid that R2P interventionist character tarnishes the legitimacy of PoC, which largely reflects what the Secretary General said himself in 2012. But the most interesting chapter is Stensland and Sending’s political economy analysis of protection. According to their argument, PoC is the playfield in which OCHA, DPKO, UNHCR and others formulate and advance different aspects of protection to compete for influence and resources. The uncertainty of the term is thus not mere coincidence, neither is it caused by the inherent challenges of protecting civilians, but rather represents the product of differing views and organizational interests. Particularly OCHA had good reasons to press for a vague and comprehensive definition of PoC, as it allowed addressing more issues, secure influence in the UN Security Council, and representing the demands of the humanitarian community.

In a second part, the book then turns to five case studies of PoC implementation in Africa: MONUC (Congo), AMIS and UNAMID (Darfur), UNMIS (South Soudan), MINURCAT (Chad) and UNMIL (Liberia). The empirical descriptions from the field are intended to familiarize the reader with the challenges for implementation, and provide an overview over the heterogeneity of understandings and practice. At the same time, reinforcing the understanding of practice also allows for a more academic perspective of the rupture between headquarters and field and the way that protection discourses are created and influenced on these different levels. However, although giving the reader a useful idea about what protection looks like in practice, the field chapters remain too descriptive and context specific. Instead of this sort of a report style, I would have expected more analysis, the identification of underlying mechanisms and maybe even some use of theory to produce real arguments and insights.

Obviously, this is a must read for people that are interested in or working on how the UN does protection. Originally quite excited about this book, I was disappointed that the leading researchers on protection have mainly restated earlier articles in not very engaging writing.