In an evaluation, which caused uproar amongst some of South Sudan’s political members, the UN Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide observed “there is a strong risk of violence escalating along ethnic lines, with the potential for genocide”. Similarly, Ban Ki-moon expressed “grave concern” over unverified reports of atrocities against a large number of civilians in Syria, including women and children.
What most of us have been witnessing through our television screens of the events unfolding in Syria and South Sudan, especially in the last several months, are a reminder of how complex and utterly frustrating humanity is. The images; the soundbites – we have all heard and seen them before in Rwanda; in Srebrenica – yet, it seems like we have not learnt from our mistakes and that history is repeating itself.
Let us not give into the human instinct of subsequently asking ourselves whom is to be blamed for this and, rather, reflect on the legal procedures actually in place to facilitate our learning; to ensure that these sorts of heart-breaking stories did not have to happen again and ask ourselves whether these were “to the point” enough. And – you may have guessed it – for the very fact that we have to ask ourselves this question, the probable answer is “no”.
Apart from the moral and ethical responsibility that we all have to protect populations at risk of atrocity crimes, both individually and collectively, there are also well-established legal obligations to do so – the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, international human rights and humanitarian law and customary international law to name a few. The State, in so far sovereign over its own populace, bears the responsibility of the first responder not only to punish but to prevent mass atrocities within its walls. However, in 2007, the playing field was widened. In regards to the instances suffered during the Bosnia & Herzegovina/Serbia & Montenegro era, the International Court of Justice stated that the obligation “to prevent” within the scope of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide imposed an obligation that was not territorially limited. According to the Court, every State with a “capacity to influence effectively the action of persons likely to commit, or already committing genocide,” even if outside its own borders, is under the obligation “to employ all means reasonably available to them, so as to prevent genocide so far as possible”. This is where the principle of the Responsibility to Protect comes in, underlining the responsibility of the international community to prevent atrocity crimes by helping States to build capacity to protect their populations and assisting States under stress “before crisis and conflicts break out”. That is to say that when States “manifestly fail” in their responsibility to protect populations from atrocity crimes, the international community should be prepared to take collective action to protect populations from these crimes, using all available tools.
If you chose to go down the route of International Politics – or have equally followed the events of the likes of Rwanda and Srebrenica – you may be aware of the debate surrounding the R2P principle and the nuances in terms of language which makes it hard to distinguish the exact terminology of elements such as “all means available” and “timely manner”. These terms are not straight forward and are very subjective, rendering the decision on whether to intervene or not and how that much more complicated – perhaps on purpose.
The trick here, as always, is liability: how much/what will an intervention cost in terms of political and economic ties? But what becomes even more mind-boggling, especially for a romantic humanitarian as I am, is when humanitarian law – hence what should be impartial in so far as it is of humanitarian nature – spills over into the demon that is realpolitik. The fact of the matter is that, as much as we would like to consider humanitarianism as impartial, in a context which foresees the international community intervening in a conflict for the prevention of atrocities, whatever decision is taken will be seen as a politically fuelled stance, the impact of which would be felt on the stakeholders of the conflict and the victims of the civilian populace. And this is seen clearly in the individual stances of country members of the United Nations – instances like Syria, where, on many occasions, Russia and China veto decisions of the body, furnish member countries with the opportunity of deciding based on their political and economic interests – all the while impacting all stakeholders on the ground.
But that is my realist side coming out and it is a reality I to this date have troubles coming to terms with so I shall leave that to the political decision makers. So, in the humanitarian spirit of things, what can the international community really do whilst abiding by the principle of impartiality when concerned with the potential of mass atrocities in a foreign country? At field level, if possible, monitor tense situations through indicators pertaining to early warning mechanisms to allow for a real-time evaluation of the risks of potential degeneration in the situation, whilst leaving the potential politicking to headquarters. The idea is to be able to sound the alarm on time if critical instances were to happen, all the while maintaining the status quo of the humanitarian workers with the authorities in country to facilitate daily operations and avoid the shrinking of humanitarian space as political consequence. Easier said than done: to do all this, one would need buy-in – and not all agencies and coordinating humanitarian bodies are always up for that. I would just like to point out that, yet again, the finger should be pointed towards politics as a reason for this. Yet, considering the undying presence of legal documents which state the shared responsibility to protect, lobbying and advocating; communicating and setting up systems are key ways forward – forever hoping we don’t arrive too late and must resort to response, rather than prevention…