It was 10 years ago last month that the concept of a ‘responsibility to protect’ first emerged. 2011 alone saw the principle cited in some of the most defining moments of the year—a testament to growing acceptance of the international norm.
At an event this week hosted by the Stanley Foundation in New York to recognize the anniversary, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon offered complimentary remarks about the use of R2P to justify action in Côte d’Ivoire and Libya. He highlighted partnerships with the African Union and the Economic Community of West African States in the case of Côte d’Ivoire and in Libya with the Arab League and the Organization for Islamic Cooperation that paved the way for action from the U.N. Security Council.
But it was the U.N. secretary general’s unusually candid insights about the limitations of implementing the Responsibility to Protect in South Sudan recently that stood out. Ban was speaking about the overtly ethnic clashes between the Lou Nuer and Murle people of South Sudan’s Jonglei state.
We saw [the violence] coming weeks before.
Yet we were not able to stop it – unfortunately. Nor was the government, which like others has primary responsibility for protecting its citizens.
The reason was painfully simple: we were denied the use of necessary resources … in particular helicopters that would have given us mobility to bring all the U.N. peacekeepers where there are no roads except by air mobility.
At the critical moment, I was reduced to begging for replacements from neighboring countries and missions. With limited resources, we tried our best.
So, a key challenge in putting the Responsibility to Protect into practice is this: how do we do our job, how do we deliver on Security Council mandates, when the very members of the Council do not give us the support we need.
The U.N.’s strategy for protecting civilians in the case of Jonglei primarily consisted of instructing civilians to flee. The U.N. mission sent 500 combat-ready peacekeepers and around 300 supporting peacekeepers to the area, under the mission’s Chapter VII mandate that enables them to fire on would-be aggressors in defense of civilians. But up against approximately 6,000 Lou Nuer militia men with the stated aim “to wipe Murle out,”* and without the adequate equipment for transportation, urging people to flee—effectively encouraging a humanitarian emergency that has now left an estimated 120,000 people in need of assistance—became the least bad option. In the end, because of the U.N.’s action, the Lou Nuer offensive proved far less deadly than initially anticipated. But urging civilians to hide in the bush, where they become vulnerable to other threats, hardly seems like a sustainable long-term approach to protection.
In hindsight, far more needed to be done in Jonglei to mediate between the rival Lou Nuer and Murle, such as engaging in reconciliation efforts the young men who would become implicated in the violence. The South Sudan government should have gotten more deeply involved in addressing past grievances between the communities. In other words, key preventative efforts could have been tried to potentially avert the explosive attacks and counter-attacks now ongoing.
Importantly, in his remarks at the Stanley Foundation, Ban Ki-moon highlighted the role prevention plays in the responsibility to protect in the face of brewing conflict. He called for 2012 to be the year of prevention, urging member states to be willing to take “proactive, decisive, and early action” before violence breaks out, to not look away when crisis is intensifying. “We have done that too often,” he said, adding:
For societies under stress, early warning may come too late to prevent the outbreak of mass violence. Such situations call for a dynamic assessment of how such stresses are developing over time, and how the international community can help.
It means little, however, to get the assessment right if it is not followed by targeted, measured and determined action.
The secretary general pointed to Syria as a crisis that is presently putting this point to test. But Ban Ki-moon need not have looked even beyond South Sudan and Sudan to highlight a glaring example of a ‘responsibility to protect’ failing to mobilize meaningful action. After months of bombardment and attacks on civilian populations by the Sudanese army and its allied militias, which provoked a shockingly feeble rhetorical response from the international community, the states of Southern Kordofan and Blue Nile now teeter on the verge of famine.
"It is clear that the Government of Sudan has instituted a deliberate policy to prevent humanitarian agencies from reaching vulnerable civilians impacted by the conflict,” wrote U.S. Special Representative to the United Nations Susan Rice in a letter to the Security Council just two days before the secretary general’s remarks. “[I]f the government of Sudan does not allow immediate meaningful humanitarian access to the conflict zones in Southern Kordofan and Blue Nile so life saving humanitarian assistance can be provided to civilians in need, we will likely see famine conditions in parts of Sudan,” Rice said.
An eight-month long government offensive, “indiscriminately bombing” of its own civilians, followed by acute food insecurity exacerbated by the government’s blockage of aid—it’s a scenario that exemplifies the need for the Responsibility to Protect. And yet in its conspicuous absence from Ban Ki-moon’s remarks, Sudan’s latest crisis zone also epitomizes the unequal nature by which R2P is acted upon, when the call for a meaningful international response gets stymied by what Ban himself called, “a minefield of nuance, political calculation, and competing national interests.”
*This explicit goal was cited in a letter seen by Enough.
Photo: Women from Blue Nile state fled across the border to a refugee camp in Sherkole, Ethiopia after attacks by the Sudanese government (Enough / Amanda Hsiao)