Civilians to the Rescue?

Revisiting the Responsibility to Protect: Can a State-Centric Principle be Saved by Non-State Actors?

As the term “ethnic cleansing” begins to appear in discussions of the recent violence in Kyrgyzstan and hopes of progress toward peace seem to be crumbling in the Darfur region of Sudan, we are reminded of just how important it is to continue exploring potential avenues toward establishing international statutes regulating civilian protection.

With that in mind, I find it an ideal time to revisit The Mantle’s first roundtable discussion from this past fall: “Whose Responsibility to Protect?” Issued in 2001 by the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (I.C.I.S.S.), the “Responsibility to Protect” report addressed the need for international regulations for civilian protection. The I.C.I.S.S. was brought together in response to what was felt to be a growing need for the “internationalization of the human conscience.”1 This report has become a flagship for the international effort for the protection of civilians and a belief in the need to begin responding to human rights violations at the global level. The report asserts that states have a responsibility to protect their citizens from genocide, ethnic cleansing, war crimes and crimes against humanity. Furthermore, if states are unable or unwilling to protect civilians, it becomes the responsibility of the international community to step in and do so. While the 2005 World Summit saw 191 countries sign the Outcome Document, which included a general agreement about the need for the responsibility to protect (R2P), the international community continues to struggle with what these signatures mean and how to put theory into practice in the case of civilian protection.

In The Mantle’s roundtable discussion,2 moderator Marie Mainil posed this question:

Given the spirit of the R2P doctrine (that states have an obligation to protect populations from genocide, crimes against humanity, ethnic cleansing, and war crimes), how do we reconcile a state-centric bias of R2P and its potential for use in places where no state exists or functions? Is this a contradiction, in theory and/or in practice that must be remedied? If yes, how so?

Responses from roundtable participants varied, from a focus on state rejectionism by Jonas Claes, to Sarah Teitt’s discussion of failed and weak states. Teitt makes the profound statement in response to the concern over non-existent states that “there are therefore no situations in which R2P is relevant because there is never a point at which it is irrelevant.” This could arguably be the mission statement for the R2P marketing campaign.

As I revisit this roundtable I find myself not wanting to take this article as an opportunity to critique, but rather to expand on the discussion at hand. Of course the state-centricity of the R2P principle is undeniable, so speaking to the role states play in civilian protection is essential. Yet, as I went back through the discussion, I felt a growing need to clarify that while the state may well be at the center of potential regulation and international law, it is not the only actor in the case of civilian protection. Perhaps the most under appreciated resource for helping to actualize R2P is the power of non-state actors; specifically their ability to encourage the creation of political will among states where enforceable international law does not exist. These non-state actors are not among those seen as human rights violators, as militias or terrorist organizations may be, but rather the international non-governmental organizations (N.G.O.s) and human rights activists that exist independently of states and work tirelessly to alert governments to human rights violations and encourage states to take action when these abuses occur worldwide.

It is important to remember that at this point the Responsibility to Protect is not enforceable international law, and has yet to lead to the creation of any binding statutes. This reality, in addition to the continued struggle to enforce international law as a whole, underscores how essential it has become for states to possess the political will to act in the interest of civilians, especially when there are no real repercussions for failure to do so.

One way to understand R2P is to liken it to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a document which lays out crucial directives for states and the international community in relation to the treatment of human beings. Just as the creators of the Universal Declaration stipulated what they saw as the innate rights of individuals, the I.C.I.S.S. stipulates through R2P that humans have a fundamental right to protection against war crimes, ethnic cleansing, genocide and other crimes against humanity.

Neither of these documents is legally binding, nor are they enforceable. The Universal Declaration was intended to serve as a foundation for the institution of international statutes involving recognition and respect of basic human rights; subsequent treaties and conventions would serve to create enforceable international law based on that foundation. This was first actualized through the creation of the 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, followed shortly thereafter by the Geneva Convention, a set of four treaties establishing international regulations concerning the treatment of prisoners of war.3 What this means for R2P is that while it is not currently enforceable international law, it will hopefully inspire the creation of similar types of treaties and conventions.

What does this lack of enforceable international law in relation to civilian protection mean for state and non-state actors? With the clear disparity between what R2P labels as a responsibility of states and the existence of related enforceable international law, the role non-state actors play in the implementation of R2P becomes absolutely crucial. N.G.O.s and human rights activists not only assist in the context of early warning about human rights violations, but also play a vital role in the creation of political will among states.

A perfect example of the power of non-state actors has played out in the recent passage of the Lord’s Resistance Army Disarmament and Northern Uganda Recovery Act through the U.S. Congress.4 For over 23 years, the Government of Uganda has found itself fighting a violent war against the Lord’s Resistance Army (L.R.A.), a rebel movement intent on overthrowing the current Ugandan regime. Rather than attack military targets, the L.R.A. has conducted a campaign of brutal violence against the people of Uganda; killing, mutilating and raping those in its way. Additionally, the LRA has become well known for kidnapping children and forcing them to become child soldiers in their army. Thanks in large part to the N.G.O. Invisible Children and their network of devoted young activists, a groundbreaking bill made its way through the House, Senate, and was most recently signed into law by President Barack Obama. The L.R.A. bill calls on the U.S. government to take a stand against the rebel group and its leader Joseph Kony, committing not only to supporting stabilization of affected areas and dispersal of humanitarian assistance toward rehabilitation, but also to “successfully protect civilians and eliminate the threat posed by the Lord’s Resistance Army.”

What makes the passage of this bill so shocking are the portions of the bill related to the protection of civilians and elimination of the threat of Kony, the leader of the L.R.A. For the U.S. government to participate in actualizing this goal requires them to not only coordinate with the United Nations but also to work in conjunction with the International Criminal Court (I.C.C.). To date, the US remains at best indifferent to the I.C.C., and have yet to sign and ratify the Rome Statute.5 This is to say that without the constant pressure of the human rights activists, the U.S. government would not have chosen to involve itself in this situation. The activists successfully created an environment which forced the creation of the political will within their government.

It is exactly this type of push by non-state actors which serves to further my belief that to simply view R2P as a matter for states overlooks the most influential members of the international community: the civilians. While it is true that an 18-year old activist from San Diego, California does not have voting rights within the United Nations General Assembly, their ability to influence the actions of their government illuminates the powerful role they do play in the international community. Furthermore, it should be made clear this influence is not particular to the passage of the L.R.A. bill.

Among other occurrences, this influence was also seen in the late 1990s as Australian citizens came out in droves to protest Indonesia’s violent involvement in East Timor.6 After East Timor’s 1999 vote in favor of independence from Indonesia, the people of East Timor found themselves under attack by Indonesian-backed rebel militias. The violent nature of these attacks on the innocent civilian population caused an uproar in the international community, especially among those in Australia. As a result of the Australian citizens’ call for peacekeeping forces in East Timor, their government was encouraged to support the creation of a “coalition of the willing,” which eventually culminated in the independence of East Timor (or Timor Leste, as the country is now known). Additionally, in the case of Darfur, where atrocities continue today, the U.S. government felt the push of activists and N.G.O.s such as Save Darfur, not only to label the conflict a genocide, but more importantly not to block the Security Council vote referring the case of Darfur to the I.C.C.7

Again, these examples serve to highlight why in the attempt to actualize R2P, the power of non-state actors should not be overlooked. In response to Mainil’s concern over how R2P can function in the case of failing or non-existent states, this is exactly the type of situation where non-state actors can accomplish what states might struggle to achieve on their own. Again, non-state actors exist irrespective of states. Thus, in cases such as Somalia which was referenced by Sarah Teitt, N.G.O.s and activists can maintain a presence in the region fulfilling their role of assisting in early warning and pushing for the action of the international community when needed, whether or not a working state exists.

What this ultimately means for the Responsibility to Protect is that actualization of the principle is going to require the involvement of more than just state actors. With situations continuing to arise where civilians are in need of protection, the international community must work to discover all of the resources at their disposal, including non-state actors. Even further, the international community would greatly benefit from fostering this sort of human capital, enabling non-state actors to take an even more prominent role in civilian protection efforts.

August 4, 2010

frontispiece and top image: Save Darfur sign from a New York City demonstration; skulls from the Rwandan genocide; Srebrenica massacre memorial (all Wikicommons).

1. International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (I.C.I.S.S.). “The Responsibility to Protect: Report of the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty.” (Ottawa: International Development Research Center, 2001): VII. On the web:

2. “Whose Responsibility to Protect?” was published on October 7, 2009. Read the debate here.

3. United Nations General Assembly. “Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, 9,” A/RES/260 (December 1948); International Committee of the Red Cross. “Geneva Convention Relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in a Time of War,”Fourth Geneva Convention, 75 UNTS 287 (August 12, 1949).


5. International Criminal Court. “Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court,” A/CONF.183/9 (July 1, 2002).

6. Anne Orford. “Reading Humanitarian Intervention: Human Rights and the Use of Force in International Law,” (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003): 1-3.

7. Eyal Mayroz. “Ever Again? The United States, Genocide Suppression, and the Crisis in Darfur,” Journal of Genocide Research (2008): 10 No.3; 370; United Nations. “Report of the International Commission of Inquiry on Darfur to the United Nations Secretary-General,” (January 25, 2005).

Civil Society, Genocide, Humanitarian Aid, NGO, Peace, United Nations