Practice Makes Perfect: Another Step towards Effective Prevention of Mass Violence

13 Feb

Yesterday’s Security Council debate on Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict under the presidency of Lithuania was the latest in a series of efforts by Council members and other states to outline the road ahead regarding what has become a welcome, urgent preoccupation of diplomats and policymakers – strategies to effectively protect civilians from violence perpetrated by state and non-state actors.

Valerie Amos and Navi Pillay, among others, gave their typically comprehensive and passionate overviews of what, for them and for many of their colleagues, are surely quite painful markers on the long road ahead until responsibilities under international humanitarian and human rights law are fulfilled by all relevant actors as a matter of course. Ms. Amos in particular noted unresolved ‘stresses’ between humanitarian workers and PKOs implementing coercive mandates, and also reflected on the fact that, despite increased social media scrutiny, ‘siege’ strategies to terrorize and humiliate civilians are still prevalent.

States, too, were thoughtful about the policy directions that should be pursued and the infrastructure gaps and working methods that need to be addressed. Uruguay underscored the need for accurate information to assess POC operations and reassurances that coercive measures such as the DRC Brigades – which tend to blur the lines between traditional peacekeeping and atrocity crime response — adhere to core PKO values.  Indonesia highlighted the need for POC mandates to do more to understand local contexts and work with local conflict prevention capacities.  Both Slovakia and Cuba linked POC to larger efforts to abolish war, while Brazil underscored the ‘mirage’ of military solutions and urged more attention to conflict prevention strategies. As they have done previously, the UK rightly urged that ‘politics and protection’ not be mixed, though without what would surely be a helpful confession of the numerous, diverse incarnations of that ‘mixture’ to date.

In the end, while many delegations conveyed helpful insights, it was New Zealand which most forcefully reminded Council members and others in the room that we already have many Council statements on POC that are not yet fully integrated into country-specific resolutions.   Nor, we might add, are they fully reflected in Council working methods which continue to encourage ‘deliberations’ without the necessary feed-back loops to help identify any concrete impacts from such discussions.  While resolve was in evidence throughout this debate, it still seemed more rhetorical than practical.   For those who make a living around the UN, this hardly constitutes a surprise.

Thankfully, though, this debate was more than a ‘talk shop,’ more than yet another effort to build support for additional coercive mandates. The resolve in the room was mostly directed towards helping the UN system to ‘get on the same page’ regarding protection responsibilities, available (and required) implementation tools, the need for more robust and transparent regional partnerships, etc.   It was also (between the lines) about getting capacities such as the C-34 to take more leadership on POC; about states cooperating more through the PoA process to stop illicit arms flows; about the Council paying closer attention to the Special Advisers on genocide prevention and RtoP — and to others with expertise on development and climate — providing early warnings of potential humanitarian disasters; about listening more closely to working journalists doing important and dangerous reporting in volatile country contexts.   There are many more steps to be taken and, if yesterday’s debate was any indication, sufficient skill and capacity to take them.

The small part of the wider world that tuned in for this debate surely came away with the sense that, despite the desperate headlines from CAR and Syria, the international community really is trying to address their POC responsibilities with proper seriousness.   One next step is to ensure full-system accountability for those in danger of being victimized.   As Italy noted during the debate, we must say ‘loud and clear’ that there is no excuse for abusing civilians. The UN must ‘grab the reins’ if states will allow it.   Despite misgivings about the working methods of the Council, the clarity and ‘selectivity’ of POC mandates, or the ‘inconsistency’ of much of the UN’s general response to conflict, many states seemed ready to support Italy’s call.

Dr. Robert Zuber

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