LEST we forget, 2020 marks the 15th anniversary of the adoption of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) doctrine, which was institutionalised at the international level through the World Summit Outcome Document (WSOD).
In a section of the WSOD titled “Responsibility to protect populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity”, heads of state and government resolve as follow:
“Each individual state has the responsibility to protect its populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity. This responsibility entails the prevention of such crimes, including their incitement, through appropriate and necessary means. We accept that responsibility and will act in accordance with it. The international community should, as appropriate, encourage and help states to exercise this responsibility and support the United Nations in establishing an early warning capability.” [para 138]
“The international community, through the United Nations, also has the responsibility to use appropriate diplomatic, humanitarian and other peaceful means, in accordance with chapters VI and VIII of the charter, to help to protect populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity. In this context, we are prepared to take collective action, in a timely and decisive manner, through the Security Council, in accordance with the charter, including chapter VII, on a case-by-case basis and in cooperation with relevant regional organisations as appropriate, should peaceful means be inadequate and national authorities are manifestly failing to protect their populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity. We stress the need for the General Assembly to continue consideration of the responsibility to protect populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity and its implications, bearing in mind the principles of the charter and international law. We also intend to commit ourselves, as necessary and appropriate, to helping states build capacity to protect their populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity and to assisting those which are under stress before crises and conflicts break out.” [para 139]
Heads of state and government clearly have acknowledged and accepted a responsibility to protect their own populations from “genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity” and to use appropriate diplomatic, humanitarian and other peaceful means to help protect populations from the same and, where necessary, to take peaceful and even coercive measures in accordance with the UN Charter to ensure that populations are protected.
And this year marks the 20th year of the coining of the phrase “responsibility to protect” (R2P), as it has come to be known.
The ideas behind it were the product of efforts over several decades in international society to identify and define crimes that have shocked the conscience of mankind and to protect populations from them.
Kashfi, Salahi and Sadeqi (2020) explains R2P as follow:
“It embraces three specific responsibilities: (a) to prevent – to address both the root causes and direct causes of internal conflict and other crises putting populations at risk; (b) to react – to respond to situations of compelling human need with appropriate measures, which may include coercive measures like sanctions and international prosecution, and in extreme cases military intervention; and (c) to rebuild – to provide, particularly after a military intervention, full assistance with recovery, reconstruction and reconciliation. The expression ‘crimes of international law’ is used more or less to refer to what is now embraced by the description ‘genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity’.”
What, therefore, was resolved by heads of state and government in the WSOD is to accept the “responsibility to protect”, thereby institutionalising R2P.
t must be said, however, that in principle, states are responsible and accountable to the international community for the protection of their populations and that the international community can act to protect populations when national authorities fail to do so. Both come with sovereignty of a state.
While the doctrine may – oftentimes – be seen as a departure from the classic definition of sovereignty, it actually has deep historical roots.
Luke Glanville (2013) has argued that the responsibility extends back to the 16th and 17th centuries, and that “states have since been accountable for this responsibility to God, the people and the international community”.
Over time, the right to national self-governance came to take priority over the protection of individual liberties, but the non-interventionist understanding of sovereignty was only firmly established in the 20th century, and it remained for only a few decades before it was challenged by renewed claims that sovereigns are responsible for protection.
R2P cannot, therefore, be seen as a departure from non-interventionist understanding of sovereignty.
So, where are the international community’s – particularly of the United Nations – “humanitarian and other means” to help protect the Gaza population from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity?
And where is the “timely and decisive” collective action of the international community, through the Security Council, to do the same?
Let the heads of state and government be reminded as well that immediately after the “Responsibility to protect” section of the WSOD, a section titled “Children’s rights” follows. In this section, heads of state and government declare as follow:
“We express dismay at the increasing number of children involved in and affected by armed conflict as well as all other forms of violence, including domestic violence, sexual abuse and exploitation and trafficking. We support cooperation policies aimed at strengthening national capacities to improve the situation of those children and to assist in their rehabilitation and reintegration into society.” [para 140]
It is unconscionable – to borrow from Graca Machel whose report titled “Impact of armed conflict on children” was submitted to the UN General Assembly in 1996 – that children’s rights continue to be attacked and that the international community fails to defend them. In the 1996 report, Machel wrote:
“It is unforgivable that children continue to be assaulted, violated, murdered and yet our conscience is not revolted nor our sense of dignity challenged. This represents a fundamental crisis of our civilisation. The impact of armed conflict on children must be everyone’s concern and is everyone’s responsibility; governments, international organisations and every element of civil society. Each one of us, each individual, each institution, each country must initiate and support global action to protect children. Local and national strategies must strengthen and be strengthened through international mobilisation.”
That was 25 years ago. Four years ago, in a press release, Unicef had warned that children in conflict zones around the world “are under attack at a shocking scale” as parties to conflicts blatantly disregard international laws designed for their protection.
Sadly, that shocking scale has continued unabated.
Seven years ago, an imagined letter from a Gaza child victim whose life was cut short by a US-supplied Israeli F-16 fighter jet missile was written as follow:
Hi. My name is Eman; it means faith in Arabic. I doubt you will have seen or remember me; only particular photos make it to your TV screen, those are the ones you will remember. I’m a Palestinian child from Gaza. I like my dolls, playing with my sister, and swimming. I was told that many of you are crying for me, but please don’t cry for me. I just arrived to [sic] this place and wanted to write to let you know that I’m OK. Really, I’m fine. I just miss Mommy.
“There are a lot of people here, just like back home in Gaza. Lots of Palestinian kids, too, some have been here for a very long time. Why would you want to cry for only me?”
But children of Gaza, why would we not cry for you? – May 20, 2021.
* Hafiz Hassan reads The Malaysian Insight.
* This is the opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of The Malaysian Insight.