Press Conference by Civil Society Coalition for Responsibility to Protect

28 January 2009

Press Conference by Civil Society Coalition for Responsibility to Protect

28 January 2009
Press Conference
Department of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York


A newly formed global civil society coalition for the responsibility to protect will seek to raise awareness of that principle, strengthen its acceptance and promote the elaboration of objective criteria for its implementation, correspondents were told at a Headquarters press conference this afternoon.

Launching the coalition were Bill Pace of the World Federalist Movement Institute for Global Policy; Thelma Ekiyor of West Africa Civil Society Institute; Augusto Miclat of the Initiatives for International Dialogue; and Andres Serbin of the Coordinadora Regional de Investigaciones Economics y Sociales (CRIES).

The responsibility to protect had been unanimously approved by the Heads of State and Government at the World Summit in September 2005, Mr. Pace said, lauding that principle as one of the most important tools for preventing and stopping genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity.  In the next couple of weeks, the Secretary-General was expected to issue his report on the responsibility to protect, which would subsequently be considered by the General Assembly.  He believed that, this year, important steps would be taken at the United Nations to operationalize that concept.

The civil society coalition would seek to raise awareness of the responsibility to protect and work with like-minded Governments that were supporting that norm at the United Nations in the context of the discussions around the Secretary-General’s report and the General Assembly debate, he said.  Ms. Ekiyor added that what civil society could do was “raise the noise level” and assist in providing the general public, and such actors as national parliaments, with information that Governments had subscribed to an international norm and should adhere to it.

Regarding the creation of the coalition, Mr. Pace said it had been established by a group of non-governmental organizations, which included the International Refugees Rights Initiative, CRIES, OXFAM International, the Initiatives for International Dialogue, the West Africa Civil Society Institute and Human Rights Watch.  Many of those groups had been part of the establishment of the Global Center for the Responsibility to Protect in New York.  Prior to the launch of the coalition, seven regional meetings and round tables had taken place in various parts of the world.

The other participants at the press conference then outlined their main activities, with Mr. Sebin saying that, as an organization involved with conflict prevention, CRIES wanted to work towards developing the civil society responsibility to protect network at the global level to prevent conflict in the region and all over the world.

Mr. Miclat said that South-East Asia was a region beset with conflict, and the Initiatives for International Dialogue was very happy to be part of the new coalition that would play an important role in preventing an escalation of hostilities.  His organization would like to engage other regional organizations, such as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), urging them to apply the responsibility to protect norm in its charter.

Ms. Ekiyor said that one of the main goals of her organization was to provide a platform for debate on the impact of global issues in the region.  Stressing the importance of the responsibility to protect principle, she said that the statement by Kofi Annan -- that never again could the world stand back and watch what had happened in Rwanda -- had triggered a sense that everybody had a role to play in ensuring that atrocities did not recur.  Since then, African Governments had made a very symbolic attempt to stop mass atrocities through the African Union constitutive act, and very recently, the conflict prevention framework of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) had mentioned verbatim the responsibility to protect.  However, the African Governments’ symbolic commitment had not translated into action, and the new coalition could provide an impetus to make the Governments abide by what they had agreed on at the World Summit.

She also highlighted civil society’s educational role, saying that the responsibility to protect was not widely known in Africa.  It was important to explain to the people that it was not a western norm and had significance in its application for the continent.

In response to questions, she said that subjective application of the the to protect had been an excuse for inaction, and some countries had invoked that principle to promote their own goals, raising suspicions that the responsibility to protect would be used as another tool for powerful States to invade others.  For that reason, the coalition would seek to lead a process of setting the criteria by which the responsibility to protect could be invoked.  Very recently, Zimbabwe had been called a responsibility to protect “case”, but many believed that, while sad and urgent, the situation there did not fall under that principle.  Objective criteria would be helpful in addressing similar situations.

Asked what kind of leverage the coalition would have to promote the application of the responsibility to protect, where needed, Ms. Ekiyor said that had been one of the challenges so far.  With criteria that “everyone is aware of, everyone subscribes to”, it would be possible to determine when conditions for invoking the responsibility to protect existed in a particular context.  The overall objective was to prevent atrocities and genocide.  It was also important to explain that the reaction should not always be the use of force, and that other measures, including sanctions and mediation, could be used.

To another question, Mr. Miclat added that the task of the coalition was to popularize the responsibility to protect and work for like-minded Governments and groups to establish the indicators to invoke that principle properly.  However, it was important to realize that the principle was already in place, as all Governments had signed in 2005.  Civil society, as creative and bold as it was, could already tap into that norm to prevent escalation of conflict, together with other instruments at its disposal.

Mr. Pace said one of the main achievements so far was that it was now recognized that a State had the responsibility to protect populations inside its borders from war crimes, crimes against humanity, genocide and ethnic cleansing.  If it was unable to do that, all States had the responsibility to address the protection issues.  If the country was manifestly failing, then the international community, through the Security Council and other mechanisms, needed to act.

A correspondent wanted to know what the coalition would do about the instances when countries were reluctant and had the power to stop international responses, as had happened, for example, in the case of China vetoing United Nations intervention in Darfur, “essentially handcuffing the international community”.

Mr. Pace said that the Security Council had twice invoked the responsibility to protect in its resolutions, including in the text relating to Darfur. In that connection, many civil society groups emphasized the need for the Council to support its resolutions, once a decision had been taken.  Permanent members of the Council had a serious responsibility, in that regard.  He hoped that the coalition would be able to work with both elected and permanent members of the Council to convince them of their duty, as members of the organ bearing primary responsibility for the maintenance of international peace and security.

Regarding the role of the Security Council, he said that, in the past, a call had been made for permanent members of the Security Council to agree not to use the power of veto in cases of war crimes, crimes against humanity, genocide and ethnic cleansing.  He was curious to see whether that call would be repeated in the Secretary-General’s report on the responsibility to protect, and in the General Assembly debate on the matter.

To other questions, Ms. Ekiyor said that what the responsibility to protect did was provide a platform for a conversation that could never before have been held on situations when sovereignty could be put aside and intervention could be considered where States manifestly failed to protect their own citizens.  At the United Nations, States that had subscribed to that norm needed to put action behind it.

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For information media • not an official record
For information media. Not an official record.