More than a decade has passed since Nelson Mandela, in his capacity as President of the Republic of South Africa, addressed the Heads of State and Government of the then Organization of African Unity (OAU). In his speech, he focused on one of the biggest dilemmas the world had been facing since the end of the Cold War: should outside forces intervene in the internal affairs of a state when the civilian population is suffering massive violations of human rights and the state is unable or unwilling to fulfil its responsibility to protect its own people? Although his message was conveyed to those present in Ouagadougou, its essence can be extended to the entire international community.
With the fall of the iron curtain and the end of the Cold War, the dynamics of international politics began experiencing a series of changes. Gradually, the classical war between nations turned into a series of conflicts characterized by continuous attacks against non-¬combatant civilians within nations, with no clear boundaries, with no respect for international laws, and where violence resulted in the displacement of thousands of people every year. Internal and regional conflicts involved different kinds of actors, deprived people of their basic human rights, and put at stake the lives of the most vulnerable. As time passed, and with the tragic events in Somalia, Rwanda, Bosnia, and Kosovo engraved in people's minds, some of the main pillars of the Westphalia system were brought into question and, with them, the principles of sovereignty and non-interference.
Trying to move away from the controversial notion of the droit d'ingérence of the 1990s, the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) norm sought to recast the issue in terms of responsibility and protection rather than of the right to intervene. The prospect was that a state's ¬failure to protect its own citizens would no longer be seen, as in the past, as no one else's business, but as the entire world's concern; it was a straightforward answer to "never again." During the 2005 United Nations World Summit, a restrictive and narrow understanding of R2P, based on the report on this norm by the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty, was agreed upon by world leaders. The report stated that each individual state had the responsibility to protect its population from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing, and crimes against humanity. The document also highlighted that the international community was prepared to take collective action on a case-by-case basis, through the Security Council and in accordance with the Charter, in a timely and decisive manner. Much emphasis was given to the importance of conflict prevention, which included countries assisting other countries under stress before the break-out of a crisis or conflict. In 2006, those provisions were reaffirmed by the Security Council through the adoption of resolution 1674 on the protection of civilians in armed conflict, and through resolution 1706 on the deployment of a United Nations peacekeeping force in Darfur, Sudan.
The formulation of R2P was the starting point of the international community's will to act to prevent and halt mass atrocities. However, as a work in progress, R2P has been dealing with numerous difficulties resulting from the traditional tension between protection obligations, which are rooted in international law, and traditional perceptions of security, which are linked to the principles of state sovereignty and non-interference. Now, the dilemma concerns how the Security Council links its overly-ambitious resolutions and mandates with the reality on the ground. Generally speaking, UN peacekeepers working in R2P scenarios are not provided with sufficient guidance or resources to protect civilians under imminent threat; this applies also to those who could be exposed to such threats or risks in the near future and may require preventive measures to avoid direct attacks. Moreover, UN peacekeepers are rarely equipped to prevent the outbreak of atrocities; rather, they struggle to respond to violence when it occurs. In Darfur, I learned first-hand that peacekeepers are often confused about their role in implementing protection activities, and wonder what exactly this civilian protection entails. Another delicate issue when you are deployed in the field, whether you are military, civilian, or police, is the mission's plan of action vis-à-vis the host country's Government forces -- with whom the primary responsibility to protect lies -- when they represent a threat to civilians, as in the case of Darfur.
Although we cannot deny that progress has been made within the United Nations framework, it is essential to clarify how protection is interpreted and perceived among those in the field -- women and men risking their lives on a daily basis in an effort to protect human lives. Similarly, and of equal importance, is the urgent need for providing clear strategic guidance to all components of UN missions to ensure that their mandated protection tasks are translated into concrete R2P actions. Particular attention should be given to the military and police who require in-depth direction, for they are in the forefront of such protection efforts. In fact, R2P responses and scenarios should be devised at the outset of the drafting process of the mission's mandate, and not when the mission is already fully functional.
At press time, the international political scene is giving us the momentum to put into practice all the machinery that the United Nations and its partners can offer. Diplomats, politicians, academics, UN officers, and members of civil society should keep in mind what R2P is about, and what the principle was designed to achieve. It should definitely be more than a label used to safeguard the interests of a few countries. Indeed, R2P has the potential to serve as a tool for conflict prevention and resolution. It should be seen by both practitioners and politicians not only as a new concept, but as a framework of action to prevent future atrocities -- an opportunity to show the real value of this major commitment and to translate into actions what the international community has been saying for the last two decades.
The United Nations should, therefore, focus its efforts on developing a comprehensive matrix that will lead to the establishment of a framework for R2P scenarios. It's not a matter of redefining existing concepts or emphasizing their importance. The responsibility to protect civilians is both a priority and a challenge, and should lie at the core of the United Nations.