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Political and humanitarian approaches to civilian protection

Time (GMT +01) 12:00 13:30


James Darcy, Director of Programmes, Humanitarian Policy Group, ODI

Nicholas Grono, Vice-President for Advocacy and Operations, International Crisis Group


Prof Nicholas Wheeler, Department of International Politics, University of Wales

Introduction: Is there political will to protect?

Nicholas Wheeler opened the meeting by stating that the invasion of Iraq has discredited the concept of humanitarian intervention. He noted the importance of the World Summit Declaration in September 2005 where 109 sovereign governments recognised the importance of civilian protection which provides those with humanitarian impulse with normative arguments for greater protection. However, the concessions made to reach this consensus must also be highlighted – governments accepted the use of force for humanitarian purposes on the basis of prior UN agreement.

NW stated that the language used in the declaration also has significance. Paragraph 138 – which sets out the responsibilities of a sovereign government and when it appeared in the ICISS report was intended to enable greater intervention – has actually been used to constrain intervention. In the case of Darfur, a number of representatives in the UN argued that the Sudanese government should be given more time as it had not yet exhausted all possible means. This demonstrates how the declaration can be used to constrain greater engagement. The real concern in relation to R2P is not the question of sovereignty, but rather whether political will exists to prevent future Rwandas. When you look at the gap between the declaration and the operational reality in Darfur, the continuing challenge is obvious.

James Darcy: Different Threats and Divergent Protection Agendas

James Darcy reviewed different threats to civilians and questioned whether recent studies, such as the 2005 Human Security Report which suggest that the incidence of armed conflict globally is reducing and conflicts are becoming less deadly, reflected the full range of threats which civilians face. These reports leave out of account ‘less traditional’ forms of violence such as suicide bombings in Baghdad. Even more significantly, it leaves out of account the indirect casualties of war which are often the indirect causes that kill people (DRC, CAR). Also perhaps not documented are neglected crises such as the spread of violent conflict and displacement into Chad and CAR, which has gone almost unnoticed in the western media.

James Darcy noted how the protection of civilians in situations of violent conflict has risen up the international agenda, in political, humanitarian and human rights spheres. However, it is not clear whether all actors are speaking about the same thing. There is a huge amount of confusion about scope of agenda, roles and responsibilities, depending on who you are talking about. He cited a US Marine quoted in Victoria Holt’s recent report for HPG on civilian protection in peacekeeping operations, 'Resetting the Rules of engagement', who stated “If you want to protect civilians, go kill the bad guys” Even within particular groups, there are different conceptions of protection and a high degree of uncertainty not just about how to protect civilians, but quite what the protection agenda consists of: protection of whom or what, against what kinds of threat, by whom?

Political perspectives on protection were reviewed. Darcy highlighted how the late 1990s was a period in which a new doctrine of humanitarian intervention based on just war principles was forged by the US and UK, in particular, to justify interventions to protect with force in Kosovo, Sierra Leone, East Timor. The 2001 ICISS report proposed a reformulation of this doctrine in the form of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P), stressing the sovereign responsibility of the state to protect those within its borders, and the responsibility of the international community to intervene in the event of a catastrophic failure of protection by the state. Events subsequent to the 9/11 attacks and the ‘global war on terror’ saw intervention with force (in Afghanistan, Iraq) justified on hybrid grounds that included state security and counter-terrorism as well as ‘civilian protection’. To the extent that these interventions were rationalised as protective, they appeared to rest on a broader concept of political protection – through the deposing of abusive regimes, creation of newly accountable political structures and reconstruction of national law enforcement and security mechanisms. Political discourse has tended to focus on the use of force and ‘hard’ rather than ‘soft’ power options for intervention, and to under-play the sovereign responsibility dimension of the doctrine.

James Darcy indicated how humanitarian perspectives on protection begin from a different starting point. The concern is less about the fact of conflict, but rather the way conflict is waged. International Humanitarian Law thus has provisions on the use of inhumane weapons, restraint in the use of force and other war methods. For the most part, humanitarians do not have the means actively to protect, though they may have the means to enhance civilian security by reducing vulnerability and exposure to violence. What they can do and they rightly do, is to urge warring parties to respect the IHL principles of distinction, precaution and proportionality in the use of force.

Differences between humanitarian and human rights agendas were drawn. According to Darcy, this shows particularly in the relative emphasis by human rights actors on approaches to the exposing and denunciation of abuse, and with the process of justice; as set against the generally more low-profile, pragmatic and locally-engaged humanitarian approach. The difference of agendas is seen, for example, in the different attitudes to the issue of displacement: seen from one angle, an abuse to be condemned, a denial of freedom of movement; seen from another angle, a rational response to the threat of violence and one that should be facilitated. This divergence matters where the protection approach is in tension, such as between public denunciation of abuse and maintaining safe access on the ground. Perhaps more importantly, divergence matters where it prevents the different actors coming together around a shared protection agenda – not a combination of their respective agendas, but a common core agenda representing their overlapping concerns.

The overlap of political, human rights and humanitarian protection agendas

James Darcy went on to describe how protection, as understood in humanitarian, human rights and political-military terms extends right across the spectrum of cause and effect. It is concerned with actions taken before, during and after the incidence of violence; in other words with prevention, response and remedial action. But there are widely differing interpretations of what each of these means.

The prevention agenda in humanitarian and human rights terms is about norm building, such as promoting and training people in international humanitarian law (IHL) and human rights concepts. These seek to influence policies and patterns of behaviour rather than specific actions. In the political sphere, it consists more in conflict prevention and peace-building agendas. The responsive component aims at preventing further incidence of violence in the short and medium term, through influence or direct intervention. Humanitarians and human rights actors tend to emphasise this component. The normal political manifestation relates to the use of ‘soft’ power and diplomatic instruments, where the objectives may range from brokering a cessation of hostilities or ceasefire agreement, to ensuring asylum for those fleeing violence, to the fostering of comprehensive political settlements.

The remedial component varies widely across the three spheres. For humanitarians, it concerns helping people deal with the effects of violence and typically takes the form of relief assistance, sanctuary and restoration of lost assets. For human rights actors, it includes a strong justice component: redress/remedy for victims, trial and punishment for abusers, deterrence of future abuse. Restoration of law and order is central to the remedial protection agenda in the political sphere. So too is return and reconciliation – an objective that does not always sit comfortably with the justice-oriented human rights agenda.

Darcy felt that it is remarkable that asylum policy does not feature in discussions of R2P, as asylum and temporary refuge have proved by far the most important mechanism for providing international protection to civilians threatened with violence. Trends in domestic, foreign and security policy have led to increasingly restrictive asylum practice and a general move towards ‘containment’. But providing protection in situ raises major problems of sovereignty, will and capacity to protect, as the Darfur case shows.

James Darcy concluded with an urgent challenge: the need to develop more effective and politically viable models of political-military protection that combine asylum or temporary refuge with ‘internal’ protective measures, including the creation of protected areas, ‘no fly’ and demilitarised zones. Deployment of ground forces may be essential to this, though we are still some way from having adequate mandates, doctrine, rules of engagement and training for international forces undertaking this role. He believed that the difficulty of doing so in the context of a live conflict should not be under-estimated, particularly where the targeting of civilians itself forms part of the strategy or even the war aims of the belligerents. This puts a particular premium on the effective use of diplomatic and soft power options, and ultimately requires the expenditure of political capital in the name of protecting people before economic or geopolitical interests.

Nicholas Grono: Has Political Endorsement of Responsibility to Protect Borne out in Practice?

Nick Grono began his presentation by emphasising the importance of looking at how the agenda has transformed over time. Looked at from the perspective of the 90’s, R2P has transformed the terms of the debate about protection and humanitarian intervention. Back then, the sanctity of state sovereignty dominated the discussion. Today, the legal debate has been transformed. With the recognition by the 2005 World Summit of the doctrine of R2P, followed by its endorsement by the UN Security Council in a number of resolutions, the concept has become an emergent international norm.

Grono felt the consequence of this was that large scale atrocities these days rarely generate arguments about whether there is a right of humanitarian intervention. It’s generally accepted that a right to intervene – and in fact an obligation – exists when a state has failed in its responsibility to protect its own population. Instead the debate is about the nature of the intervention. So in Darfur, the Security Council has invoked R2P in resolutions on Darfur, and there is an international force on the ground in the form of the AU mission, and there has been grudging acceptance from Khartoum of the expansion of that mission, albeit with much backsliding and game playing on the regime’s part. NG felt that this is the great achievement of R2P and its advocates. It has shifted the debate from one about the legitimacy of intervention to the modalities of it.

However, Grono questioned whether there this represented more than a shift in terminology. Using Darfur as an example, he reported how the EU has repeatedly supported the need for intervention. Since April 2004, European foreign ministers have issued 19 council conclusion statements on Darfur, most recently on March 5th, 2007, announcing their collective "concern", "grave concern", "continued concern" or "deep concern" no fewer than 53 times. When it comes to modalities, the EU has consistently argued in favour of African solutions for African problems. While he felt it highly desirable that Africa take the lead in solving one of its own conflicts, as the conflict drags on without an end in sight, he wondered if Europe is cynically standing behind the AU because it doesn’t have the political will to take the tough action needed to change the calculations of the government of Sudan.

Grono therefore concluded that that little of substance has changed in the past decade or so in terms of real protection. In the end the question inevitably comes back to political will – or perhaps, more accurately, the willingness of states to expend military, financial, diplomatic or domestic political capital in addressing conflicts and humanitarian disasters in far away lands. The constant remains political will, or the lack of it. Following all the fine speeches about “never again” on the 10th anniversary of Rwanda back in April 2004 in the context of Darfur – who would have believed that two years later we would still be making do with the utterly inadequate AU mission on the ground, that the Sudanese regime would have recommenced its bombing raids on civilians – painting its planes in UN colours - and that an already dire humanitarian situation would have continued to deteriorate. What has changed is that political leaders can no longer so readily hide behind the protective skirts of “state sovereignty” as a justification for their lack of action. Now they have to find other reasons for their inaction – such as a preference for African solutions, or the other litany of superficially reasonable grounds for doing nothing.

‘Futility, Perversity and Jeopardy’ in the Response to Darfur

Nick Grono quoted Samantha Power’s indictment of US and international policy failures to prevent genocide in “A Problem From Hell”, where economist Albert Herschman in noting that those who don’t want to act often cite the “futility, perversity and jeopardy” of proposed measures. He reported how these were reflected in a series of meetings with the EU Peace and Security Commission ambassadors – when ICG met separately with British, Portuguese, Italian, Danish, Belgian and Spanish ambassadors - to push for targetted sanctions on Darfur. Their reasons for non-action rang a familiar strain. First was perversity. Taking tougher action against Sudan would result in a crackdown on humanitarian agencies, thereby worsening the situation. Grono believes that that argument may have had some merit 3 years ago, in the early stages of the large scale humanitarian engagement – but little weight now with the regimes renewed efforts to squeeze the humanitarian agencies, resulting in some of the (UN and relief) agencies saying that their operations were on the verge of collapse, and calling behind the scenes for tougher measures.

Then there was the futility argument – sanctions would have no impact on the regime. But Grono believes that this is wrong, and deliberately misconstrues the purpose of such measures. Purpose of sanctions is to change the calculus of self-interest for the Sudanese regime, and significantly increase the costs of not pursuing peace. And there was the jeopardy argument – that taking tougher measures now would jeopardize efforts to restart the peace process. He believes that there are always difficult issues of judgement here – but that these arguments have been deployed, and listened to, for the last 4 years, with absolutely no real impact in terms of bringing the conflict to an end.

Grono cited a number of reasons why Europe needs to take tougher measures against Sudan. First and foremost is the fact that Khartoum is not interested in a peace deal for Darfur right now. Its objective is to wipe out the rebel groups in Darfur, at almost any cost, because it does not wish to share power or wealth with them and by so doing weaken its grip on the state. Sporadic diplomatic engagement will not alter this dynamic. They would also demonstrate that warnings from Europe about consequences for non-compliance are not utterly meaningless. Khartoum, despite its blustering, has a history of responding to international pressure – but only if it is unified and sustained. To date the UN and the EU have applied sanctions to just four individuals – one former mid level airforce commander, a janjaweed commander, and two rebels, and imposed a an ineffective arms embargo. The result is that Khartoum has suffered no consequences for its flouting of UN resolutions, and its own ceasefire commitments and promises to disarm the janjaweed. And during this time over 200,000 have died from the conflict.

According to Grono, this reluctance to act is not grounded in any philosophical objection to sanctions. While it has been unwilling to move against Khartoum, Europe has been more than happy to apply asset freezes and travel bans on leadership of Belarus for “violations of international electoral standards” and its crackdown on civil society. It has also imposed travel bans on separatists in Moldova for their “campaign against Latin-script schools” and on Uzbekistan’s leaders for the Andijan massacre. The EU has imposed sanctions on state-owned enterprises in Burma, freezing all their assets and banning financial transactions with them. Spoilers in the Congo, Liberia and Côte d’Ivoire are subject to EU asset freezes and travel bans. But while these are all worthy of condemnation, the conduct being targetted pales in comparison to the systematic campaign of atrocities being conducted in Darfur.

Nick Grono concluded by stating that these dilemmas will continue until and unless we introduce structural changes to operationalise R2P. This, he believes, involves a set of resources and measures that help overcome the political will problem. These include a stronger early warning coordination and response machinery at the centre with the UN Secretary General having a Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide and other Mass Atrocities reporting to him. More effective diplomatic capacity must be made ready and available to negotiate and mediate those situations which are capable of being stopped by effective early intervention of this kind. A repertoire of carefully thought–through sanctions measures are also required, with an effective, professionally-resourced mechanism available to be put in place immediately to monitor the application and effectiveness of those sanctions. A full range of civilian capabilities must be considered, especially effective policing, on permanent standby, with the capacity to be immediately deployed. And finally, effective preparedness will be required to mount military operations for civilian protection purposes - with the consent if at all possible of the government in question (as was the case in East Timor, for example, and has been the case with the limited forces so far sent to Darfur). However NG believes that in really extreme cases, if there is no other way of protecting the people in question from slaughter and ethnic cleansing, then military operations should proceed without that consent.

Discussion: Are There Positive Experiences of Protection or Is R2P a Step Backwards?

In the discussion, the Australian interventions in East Timor and Solomon Islands were highlighted as examples of positive interventions with civilian protection at their core. But these had important specificities: there was strong national interest on the part of Australians, were ‘consensual’ and low cost in terms of intervention. They were also small countries with little political clout.

Nepal was also cited as a positive example, where the international community has played a significant role in ending the conflict, largely through a protection and human rights framework. In 2005, following a royal coup, the royalist government reluctantly accepted the deployment of a UN Human Rights monitoring mission as the cost of evading censure by the Human Rights Commission. The mission was mandated to promote and protect human rights and monitor the observance of international humanitarian law. This has had a major impact on the warring parties – the Royal Nepalese Army and the Maoists – causing them to curb some of their worst abuses. While there is a long way to go, there is a slow process of cantonment underway, there is a unity government, and elections scheduled before the end of the year – and the international community deserves a large part of the credit for the progress to date.

The role of regional bodies as political-military protection actors was underscored, as well as the attendant risk of Western actors using this as an excuse for inaction. The AU has committed 7,000 troops in Darfur, and has been tasked to go into Somalia. It was noted that these are the world’s worst crises and but the response is to send in troops which lack funding and capability, who will then be held responsible when the missions fail.

Others believed that R2P has been a step backwards. That it has shifted the discussion away from protection of civilians towards military intervention. The positive examples of intervention cited are all ones involving consent by relatively weak states. For strong countries, such as Sudan with powerful diplomatic presence in the Security Council, they are able to ensure support for inaction on military intervention. Darfur has 4 or 5 conflicts which don’t lend themselves to peace-keeping. The 2 billion dollar force being deployed which will achieve very little.

The importance of protection in humanitarian assistance was also highlighted. Where humanitarian actors are permitted access is important, as if people are being denied assistance, this is a question of protection. But humanitarians don’t often report lack of access despite its importance, as they tend to emphasise their successes.


The formal adoption of the ‘responsibility to protect’ doctrine at the 2005 World Summit had led to a series of discussions about the practical and strategic implications of that doctrine. The language of protection had featured increasingly in political discourse since the mid-1990s and the spectacular failures to protect in Rwanda and Bosnia. It featured in the resolutions of the UN Security Council and the mandates of UN and regional peacekeeping forces, at the same time as asylum policy has become increasingly restrictive. Meanwhile, in the domain of humanitarian action, protection had been increasingly stated as a central objective of interventions that had previously focused almost exclusively on relief assistance. Yet in both spheres, the capacity (and the will) to protect appeared to lag well behind the rhetoric.

This meeting  explored the evolution of these agendas and ask whether their trajectories were being convergent or divergent. How do political ideas of protection relate to that embodied in international humanitarian law? Where a state is failing in its duty to protect, how can the international community intervene effectively to protect civilians? Is international protection for civilians an achievable goal or a false promise – and how does it sit with dominant state security agendas?