Photo: Opening of 72nd Session of the UN General Assembly: Miroslav Lajčák (centre), President of the UNGA 72, gavels open the session’s first meeting. He is flanked by Secretary-General António Guterres (left) and Catherine Pollard, Under-Secretary-General for General Assembly and Conference Management. 12 September 2017. Credit: UN Photo/Kim Haughton - Photo: 2017

R2P Back on the UN General Assembly’s Agenda After 12 Years

By J Nastranis

UNITED NATIONS (IDN) – For the first time in twelve years, the UN General Assembly has included – with the recorded vote of 113 in favour to 21 against, and 17 abstentions – “The Responsibility to Protect” in the agenda for its 72nd session that kicked off on September 12.

The protractors of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) consider it a global political commitment, which was endorsed by all member states of the United Nations at the 2005 World Summit to prevent genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity. Yet, as a “not an official record” of the General Assembly’s plenary on September 15 points out, several delegations took the floor to express their concerns about formally adding the item to the agenda.

Though the concept was endorsed in 2005, the R2P origins go back to the United Nations’ failure to respond to tragedies such as the Rwandan Genocide in 1994 and the Srebrenica massacre in 1995. Kofi Annan, who was Assistant Secretary-General at the UN Department for Peacekeeping Operations during the Rwandan genocide, realized the international community’s failure to respond.

In the wake of the Kosovo intervention in 1999, Annan insisted that traditional notions of sovereignty had been redefined: “States are now widely understood to be instruments at the service of their peoples”, he said. “U.S. President Bill Clinton cited human rights concerns in 46% of the hundreds of remarks that he made justifying intervention in Kosovo,” according to Wikipedia.

In 2000, in his capacity as UN Secretary-General, Annan wrote the report We the Peoples focusing on the role of the United Nations in the 21st Century. He posed the question: “if humanitarian intervention is, indeed, an unacceptable assault on sovereignty, how should we respond to a Rwanda, to a Srebrenica – to gross and systematic violations of human rights that offend every precept of our common humanity?”

The African Union responded in 2000 incorporating the right to intervene in a member state, as enshrined in Article 4(h) of its Constitutive Act, which declares “[t]he right of the Union to intervene in a Member State pursuant to a decision of the Assembly in respect of grave circumstances, namely war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity”.

The AU also adopted the Ezulwini Consensus in 2005, which welcomed R2P as a tool for the prevention of mass atrocities. The Ezulwini Consensus – named after Ezulwini, a valley in central Swaziland with several tourist hotels, where the agreement was made in 2005 – is a position on international relations and reform of the United Nations, agreed by the African Union. It calls for a more representative and democratic Security Council, in which Africa, like all other world regions, is represented.

Speaking in the General Assembly’s plenary, Syria’s Ammar Al Arsan however expressed deep concern about efforts to breach the understanding that allowed discussions on the responsibility to protect to take place in informal dialogue sessions. Regrettably, he said, the Assembly was dealing with practices that were neither democratic, nor transparent. Some Governments used the concept to justify military action and intervention in the other States’ affairs. “We are talking about real tragedies” that persisted in many countries, he said, calling on delegates to take a responsible position that would allow a thorough evaluation of the concept in the informal interactive dialogue.

Iran’s Ali Nasimfar said he opposed including the responsibility to protect on the agenda, due to the biased interpretation and application of the concept, a trend that could compromise basic United Nations principles. R2P application had been inconsistent and motivated by politicized interests.

Evgeny T. Zagaynov of the Russian Federation said his delegation had consistently advocated for strengthening States’ capacity to protect their populations from genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity. However, it was well-known that some States had manipulated the concept, which had had disastrous consequences. Including the responsibility to protect item on the agenda would be premature and lead to a further drifting apart of positions, he argued.

Egypt’s Mohamed Moussa expressed regret that discussions on the issue had come to such a conclusion, stressing that the vote was proof of a lack of consensus. The responsibility to protect notion included many political and legal gaps, which if left unattended could do more harm than good.

Cuba’s Ana Silvia Rodríguez Abascal said the R2P issue continued to cause serious concerns for many countries, particularly small developing States, due to the lack of consensus and various definitions of the concept, which could be manipulated for political purposes. The question was not ripe for an inclusive dialogue and the Assembly should not throw itself into a debate that would only exacerbate existing gaps among Member States.

Fernando Luque Márquez of Ecuador echoed the sentiment of those voting against the measure, stressing the need for political will to ensure that all countries worked together and did not use the responsibility to protect notion as a pretext for intervention and political benefit.

Frederick Musiiwa Makamure Shava of Zimbabwe stressed the need to seek the broadest conceptual, political and operational consensus on the concept in order to gain support from Member States in its implementation. The 2005 World Summit had not expressed modalities for implementation, he recalled, adding that the prevention of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity was the primary responsibility of Governments and should not be used to justify interference in sovereignty.

Algeria’s Mehdi Remaoun said questions around the R2P caused serious doubts among States, particularly developing countries. Issues that did not enjoy consensus lacked legitimacy and were generally seen as being highly politicized. The responsibility to protect was fundamentally a legal issue, and as such, it was irrelevant to place it on the Assembly’s agenda.

Delegates of Member States voting in favour focused on the growing number of attacks against civilians. Thus, Sven Jürgenson of Estonia, speaking on behalf of the European Union, voiced support for including the item on the formal agenda. Given the alarming trend of deliberate attacks against civilians, the gap between rhetoric and action must be closed by formalizing the dialogue in the Assembly.

Australia’s Gillian Bird said the idea of prevention had become a new clarion call across the international community, and the UN Secretary‑General António Guterres had made clear that the responsibility to protect was the cornerstone of his prevention agenda. The only objective of including it on the agenda was to foster dialogue and build consensus on what the United Nations and Member States could to do prevent genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity. Resolving differences was precisely the reason why States came together in the General Assembly. A debate on the responsibility to protect would allow States to share experiences and views and learn by listening to each other.

Martha Ama Akyaa Pobee of Ghana said the R2P was relevant both as an expression of political commitment and as an action to prevent genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity. She expressed support for the framework to implement the responsibility to protect, while recognizing that some concerns had been raised on the concept and required a further exchange of views. She encouraged Member States to vote for inclusion of the item on the agenda.

India’a Syed Akbaruddin said discussions on the concept required open, inclusive and transparent deliberations, which addressed a host of unresolved, sensitive legal principles. The responsibility to protect was one of the foremost of every State, and as such, he would support the inclusion of such an item on the agenda for the current session.

While supporting inclusion, Burhan Gafoor of Singapore said it was regrettable that consensus had not been possible, expressing hope that States would avoid using the debate as an opportunity to deepen their divisions. Indonesia’s Dian Triansyah Djani likewise said the intention to politicize the topic would benefit no one. The primary responsibility to protect civilians lay with States. [IDN-InDepthNews – 16 September 2017]

Photo: Opening of 72nd Session of the UN General Assembly: Miroslav Lajčák (centre), President of the UNGA 72, gavels open the session’s first meeting. He is flanked by Secretary-General António Guterres (left) and Catherine Pollard, Under-Secretary-General for General Assembly and Conference Management. 12 September 2017. Credit: UN Photo/Kim Haughton

IDN is flagship agency of the International Press Syndicate. –

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