R2P could prove solution for protection failure in Gaza

Palestinians pass by a pool of blood after Israeli shelling at a residential area in Beit Hanoun in the northern of Gaza Strip killed 18, 8 November 2006. (MaanImages/Wesam Saleh)

The United States has vetoed a U.N. Security Council resolution today that would have condemned Israel for its military operations in Gaza. According to U.S. Ambassador John Bolton, the resolution, which also called for Israel to cease military operation in the occupied territories and condemned Palestinians who fire missiles from Gaza, was “biased against Israel and politically motivated.”

The resolution, which focused on Wednesday’s attack on Palestinian civilians in Beit Hanoun, killing 18, mostly women and children, was proposed by Security Council member Qatar. The United States cast the only vote against. Ten of the council’s 15 members voted in favour and four - Britain, Denmark, Japan and Slovakia - abstained. As one of the council’s five permanent members along with UK, China, France and Russia, the US has veto power which it has now used 82 times, often to shield Israel from censure.

Its previous use of the veto was in July to block a Qatari-sponsored draft resolution that would have condemned Israel’s military onslaught in Gaza as “disproportionate force” and would have demanded a halt to Israeli operations in the territory.

More than six years ago, on March 28, 2000, the US used its veto power to kill a Security Council resolution that would have supported the creation of an international observer force to protect Palestinian civilians in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza. By the terms of the draft, which received nine votes in favor and one against (US), with four abstentions (France, Ireland, Norway, UK), the Council would have requested the Secretary-General to consult the parties — Israel and the Palestinians — on immediate steps to implement the resolution.

Until now, Israel has always refused international intervention or a protection force in the occupied territories. With this refusal and failure, Palestinian civilians remain living targets. The circumstances involved in the killing of the Palestinians in Beit Hanoun, including the fact that the attack was not a defensive action, raise a grave concern that the shelling constitutes a war crime. The Israeli military’s contention that they did not mean to harm civilians is meaningless, and cannot justify an action that amounts to a war crime.

When peaceful means are exhausted and leaders of a UN member state are “manifestly failing to protect their populations,” then other states have the responsibility to take collective action through the Security Council.

The Security Council is not required to gain the government’s consent before sending in troops. By inserting the reference to the responsibility to protect, the Security Council could give notice to Israel that while it seeks the government’s cooperation, others will have to step in and substitute if Israel cannot fulfill its sovereign responsibilities.

One year ago, in September 2005, following upon a report of the High-Level Panel on Threats, Challenges and Change, the Millennium Project report and the Kofi Annan’s recommendations, heads of state and governments took part in the Millenium Summit at the UN headquarters in New York. At this meeting, these world leaders made commitments to strengthen international institutions, particularly the United Nations, so that global security challenges are indeed met with global responses.

This reform agenda included a package of reforms. Governments endorsed the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) and took other initiatives through the UN to address root causes of conflict, install a stronger human rights mechanism, create a peacebuilding commission designed to prohibit countries emerging from conflict from sliding back into violence, and establish standby reserves of peacekeepers and civilian police.

Humanitarian intervention has been one of the most controversial foreign policy issues of the last decade — both when intervention has happened, as in Kosovo, and when it has failed to happen, as in Rwanda. R2P is a subsidiary responsibility to protect populations from atrocities (genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity) when their own governments are disinclined to or incapable of acting responsively; that is, when “national authorities are manifestly failing” to protect their populations.

The failure of Israel to live up to its legal obligations as an Occupying Power to protect civilians in the occupied territories, as well as Israel’s failure to protect its own civilians, as well as the Palestinian Authority’s incapability to protect Palestinian and Israeli civilians not only resulted in a humanitarian and political disaster caused by government troops and militant groups but also shows the failure of other governments to ensure respect for international humanitarian law.

The emergent doctrine of R2P locates primary responsibility squarely with the government of the state in question. But it also stresses the collective responsibility of other states for protecting civilians of any state facing genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing or crimes against humanity. This response should be the exercise of first peaceful and then, if necessary, coercive (including forceful) steps to protect civilians.

What would the R2P doctrine require of other states in this case? Surely as a minimum that breaches of humanitarian law be condemned, and that steps be taken to put an end to such practice by whatever means necessary.

Considering the inability of the Israel to protect Palestinian civilians, does the international community not share a collective responsibility to protect civilians by getting Israel - through persuasion or otherwise - to abide by the Geneva Conventions?

Canada is the principal architect and advocate of the “responsibility to protect” doctrine. It should, therefore, play a key role in galvanizing international action. International efforts will determine whether responsibility to protect is a living instrument or a dead letter.

If the UN does not act, the “responsibility to protect” will become an empty phrase, as meaningless in the 21st century as “never again” was in the 20th.

Arjan El Fassed is a co-founder of The Electronic Intifada.

Related Links

  • The Responsibility to Protect, International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (2002)
  • World Summit 2005: Outcome Document (PDF)