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Our Common Humanity: Responding to Humanitarian Crises

World Humanitarian Day Address by Professor the Hon Gareth Evans AC QC, Chancellor of The Australian National University, Former Foreign Minister and President Emeritus of the International Crisis Group, to Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Canberra, 19 August 2015

Of all the innumerable roles played by the United Nations family of departments, programs, organs and agencies, none is more central to the UN’s core objectives of saving “succeeding generations from the scourge of war”, reaffirming faith “in the dignity and worth of the human person” and promoting “better standards of life in larger freedom” than its humanitarian mission.

Humanitarian action – traditionally understood as saving lives and alleviating suffering in armed conflicts, natural disasters and situations of chronic vulnerability – goes to the heart of our common humanity. The UN has had a proud record in delivering effective humanitarian action, but not a perfect one. Today’s World Humanitarian Day is an occasion to celebrate what we have achieved as an international community, but also to take stock of what remains to be achieved, and in that context to focus on what now needs to be done, by policymakers and those who hope to influence them, to make a success of the World Humanitarian Summit scheduled for Istanbul in May 2016.

There can be no doubt about the alarming scale of the current humanitarian crises, and continuing endemic humanitarian problems –  both conflict driven and natural disaster driven – that are now besetting our planet.  The number of individuals displaced internally or as refugees (presently 55 million) and in humanitarian need (around 100 million) is at the highest level since World War II. In Syria alone, where 220,000 have been killed since conflict began in 2011, nearly 12 million people have been displaced, and 4.8 million are in areas hard to access for humanitarian aid.

The scoping papers prepared for the World Summit contain some further figures that are both alarming and challenging. The number of people affected by humanitarian crises has almost doubled, and the cost of international humanitarian aid has more than tripled, in the last ten years. Violent conflict has been the primary cause of the increase, as indicated by 86 per cent of the resources requested over that period through UN humanitarian appeals being for humanitarian action in conflict situations.

But even if armed conflict (which the Summit papers indicate affected, in one way or another, as many as 172 million people in 2012)  could be brought back under manageable control there are a whole range of other global challenges which are contributing to increasing vulnerability to shocks and stresses and likely to lead to increased demand for humanitarian action, including the effects of environmental degradation, climate change, food and energy price spikes, rapid population growth and unplanned urbanisation.

Already, on OCHA figures, around 100 million people are affected by natural disasters every year, costing more than $100 billion in economic damages – with disasters that may be associated with the effects of climate change, like storms and floods, increasing by around ten occurrences a year since 2012.  Looking to the future, one study suggests that by 2030 there could be 325 million extremely poor people living in the 49 countries most exposed to the full range of natural hazards and climate extremes.  And another calculates 192 million more people living in urban coastal floodplains in Africa and Asia by 2060 than the 30 million counted today.

Another dimension to the humanitarian action problem does not lend itself to quick or permanent fixes. Emergencies generally are rarely short-lived: in the last eight years six countries havc needed humanitarian assistance every year, while two thirds of all displaced people are in protracted displacement situations that last at least five years. Another study calculates that of the 33 million internally displaced by conflict over the past 20 years, the average length of their displacement has been seventeen years. 

And we are all acutely aware – or if we are not in Australia we should be, after all the local evidence of the last few years, of the depths of misery experienced by those facing protracted stays in refugee camps and detention centres. Precise and up to date figures don’t seem to be readily available of the average number of years worldwide spent by refugees in limbo – with basic rights, and essential economic, social and psychological needs unfulfilled.  But widely quoted UNHCR figures indicate that the average length of “protracted refugee situations” – defined as those where 25,000 or more refugees have sought asylum in other countries for at least five consecutive years – increased from nine to seventeen years in the ten years to 2004, and it’s hard to believe the situation has since improved.

All this poses massive challenges for policymakers and those who seek to influence them.  The myriad of issues that  need to be addressed are set out reasonably comprehensively in the Summit Scoping Papers –  on the themes, respectively, of Humanitarian Effectiveness; Reducing Vulnerability and Managing Risk; Transformation through Innovation; and Serving the Needs of People in Conflict. But the ratio of buzzwords to substance is quite high, and the material generally is not presented quite as systematically, non-repetitively and in as sharp-edged a way as one might ideally like, so I don’t particularly envy those of you who will have to shape coherent responses for your political masters or mistresses – assuming those you have at the time will be interested…

Many of the questions that are raised will be long familiar to those of you who have worked professionally in this area:

  • Is all humanitarian action conceptually and operationally distinct from development assistance, or are there significant differences in the way different kinds of humanitarian situations (especially conflict as distinct from natural disaster situations)  need to be approached, and is there not some greater role for development-focused thinking in protracted, long-stay refugee camp situations?
  • How can funding be maximised and scarce funding be prioritised, as between humanitarian action and development assistance objectives?
  • Is the management of the relevant UN organs and agencies currently best practice, and how much improvement is realistically achievable?
  • How can better coordination and inter-operability be achieved among all the different actors engaged in humanitarian action?
  • How can the humanitarian principles of humanity, impartiality, neutrality and independence be applied in practice in real-world situations where, particularly in conflict zones, endless tensions can arise – e.g. Should non-neutral state agencies be disqualified from providing humanitarian support? What should be the attitude of humanitarian agencies to the military protection of populations at risk?
  • How do you ever get policymakers to focus on prevention rather than reaction, even when all the evidence is that this is more cost effective?
  • How do you get policymakers to recognize, certainly in the context of man-made humanitarian catastrophes, that while humanitarian solutions may be palliative, they can’t solve what are essentially political problems? 

In the time left I won’t try to address questions which are better left to aid professionals with more comprehensive and more recent operational experience than I have had (and most of the questions on the list I have just offered are in this category). What I can perhaps usefully do is review the state of play on the proper policy response to one particular kind of humanitarian action problem with which I have long been closely personally concerned, i.e. the protection of civilians from violence in general, and in particular against the perpetration of mass atrocity crimes – genocide, ethnic cleansing and other crimes against humanity and major war crimes.

Although this whole subject is only tangentially addressed in the World Humanitarian Summit papers I have seen, I think it is an important subset of the question of “serving the needs of people in conflict” which has been identified as a Summit theme, and I hope our Australian delegation will ensure that it is there raised. In any event, I think it’s certainly an issue to which we should give attention on World Humanitarian Day, not least because of the alarming scale of the atrocities being perpetrated now on almost daily basis by ISIL forces in Syria and Iraq, and their followers and emulators elsewhere.

There are two distinct but interrelated frameworks within which the UN system addresses these civilian protection issues – the Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict (POC) and the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) – and I’m pleased to note that both are areas where Australia has taken every opportunity to be supportive, including during our term on the Security Council, and on which we have managed to maintain strong bipartisan consensus.

Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict (POC). This emerged as a formalised set of principles and strategies on the Secretary-General’s initiative in 1999, essentially as a response to the horrifying default in Srebrenica in 1995, when a contingent of UN peacekeepers, lacking a clear mandate and sufficient resources, stood by as 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys were extracted by Serbian militia forces  from a supposed UN safe haven and taken to their execution.  Its most important  application in the present context has been in widening the scope of military peacekeeping mandates to ensure that there is capacity to deal forcefully with those who are violently disruptive – with nine of the sixteen current peacekeeping operations  containing  Chapter VII-based mandate of this kind, and the Security Council regularly making clear that it expects them to be used.

It had become clear by 2013, however, that at least in some peacekeeping situations force commanders were interpreting their authority too cautiously, and that an approach of “protection through presence” alone was proving manifestly inadequate. In particular the MONUSCO operation in the Congo had been conspicuously failing to use its existing  Chapter VII mandate effectively to protect civilians from atrocities committed by both advancing M23 forces and the retreating DRC military.  So the Security Council, with Australia’s strong support,  took POC took a big further step forward with its decision to reconstruct the operation by establishing a Force Intervention Brigade with an explicit  proactive mandate to “neutralize armed groups” – which did then take the necessary decisive action.

While there are some member states, including troop contributing countries, who remain uncomfortable about this robust new kind of mandate, as somehow going beyond what they see as  core peacekeeping principles,  the reality on the ground is that situations will continue to arise where there is manifestly no peace to keep, and  proactive as well as merely reactive military force will be needed.  Though the MONUSCO case remains one-off at this stage, it seems likely that the lesson of its success has been learned, and the Council will give new forward leaning mandates as circumstances demand.

Responsibility to Protect (R2P).  What POC did not address, however, was violence against civilians occurring otherwise than in times of armed conflict: as with Cambodia in the mid-1970s, and Rwanda in 1994, and more recent examples such as Kenya in  in 2008, and both Libya and Syria in their early stages in 2011.  Filling this gap, and broadening the whole protection debate by focusing not just on reaction but on prevention and post-crisis rebuilding as well, and advocating a very much wider and deeper toolbox of appropriate responses than just military coercion (which had been the sole focus of the very divisive debate over “humanitarian intervention” in the 1990s) has been the achievement of the Responsibility to Protect doctrine –  conceived by the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty which I co-chaired in 2001, and endorsed by the UN General Assembly in 2005 following its unanimous embrace by more than 150 heads of state and government attending the UN’s 60th Anniversary World Summit.

As adopted by the UN, the R2P doctrine identified three separate dimensions to the responsibility involved in preventing and halting mass atrocity crimes – genocide, ethnic cleansing and other crimes against humanity, and major war crimes. Pillar One is the responsibility of a state to its own people not to either commit such atrocity crimes or allow them to occur; Pillar Two is the responsibility of other states to assist those lacking the capacity to so protect; and Pillar Three is the responsibility of the international community to respond with “timely and decisive action”, including ultimately with coercive military force if  that is authorised by the Security Council,  if a state is ‘manifestly failing’ to meet its protection responsibilities.

“R2P”, as we in the Commission conceived it, and as the UN member states adopted it, really was designed for pragmatists rather than purists. Its intended contribution was not to international relations theory but political practice. It was designed not to create new legal rules but rather a compelling new sense of moral and political obligation to apply existing ones.  It was to generate a reflex international response that genocide, other crimes against humanity and major war crimes happening behind sovereign state walls were everybody’s business, not nobody’s. The bottom line was always to change behaviour: to ensure that global policymakers would never again have to look back, in the aftermath of yet another genocidal catastrophe, and ask themselves – with a mixture of anger, incomprehension and shame – how they could possibly have let it all happen again. So, looking back over the last decade, how well did we succeed in this very ambitious aspiration? Let me offer you a stocktake, using as benchmarks the four big things that R2P was designed to be: a normative force; a catalyst for institutional change, a framework for preventive action and a framework for reactive action.

R2P as a Normative Force.  It may be too big a call to say, as the British historian Martin Gilbert did two years after the 2005 World Summit, that acceptance of the responsibility to protect is “the most significant adjustment to sovereignty in 360 years”, but it is certainly true to say that R2P, evolving as it has through successive stages since the original ICISS report, has gained over the last decade much more worldwide normative traction than most observers had thought possible, and certainly did so in a way that remains unimaginable for the concept of “humanitarian intervention” which it has now almost completely displaced.

The best evidence of this is in the annual debates on R2P in the General Assembly, even in the aftermath of the strong disagreements, which have had many sceptics pronouncing its death rites, over the Libyan intervention in 2011 – when the BRICS states alleged, not implausibly, that the NATO-led force had exceeded its civilian protection mandate by pursuing, through open-ended warfighting, a regime change agenda. Certainly there is more general comfort with its first and second pillars than the third and there will always be argument about what precise form action should take in a particular case, but the basic principles are under no threat. In the most recent annual General Assembly debate on R2P in early September 2014, in which statements were made by or on behalf of 81 states from every regional group, there was overwhelming support for all the basic R2P principles.

Further evidence of the acceptance achieved by R2P lies in the record of the Security Council, notwithstanding again the continuing neuralgia about the Libyan intervention and the paralysing impact of that on its subsequent deliberations on Syria. This has not stopped the Security Council continuing to refer to, and apply, the R2P doctrine. Before 2011 it had in fact passed only four resolutions mentioning R2P, but after its March 2011 decisions on Libya (and the accompanying case of Cote d’Ivoire), it had – at my last count to the end of June this year – endorsed 30 other resolutions directly referring to the responsibility to protect, including measures to confront the threat of mass atrocities in Yemen, Libya, Mali, Sudan, South Sudan and the Central African Republic.

While none of these have authorized a Libyan-style military intervention (and a great many references are just in Pillar One terms, referring to states bearing the primary responsibility to protect their own populations) they make clear that the Council is comfortable with both the language and substance of the doctrine in all its dimensions. 
All that said, there is obviously more work to do to consolidate R2P’s normative force, in particular by re-establishing consensus among the major powers about precisely when and how, in really extreme cases, it is appropriate to use coercive military force within a sovereign state against the wishes of its government, a point I’ll return to in discussing  R2P as a reactive framework.

R2P as an Institutional Catalyst.  All the normative consolidation in the world will not be of much use if R2P is not capable of delivering protection in practice. The continued evolution of institutional preparedness, at the national, regional and global level, is absolutely crucial if R2P is to move beyond rhetoric to effective practical implementation, particularly at the crucial stages of early prevention, and early reaction to warning signs of impending catastrophe.
Although much more needs to be done, the story in this respect so far has been reasonably encouraging. Particular effort is going into the creation of “focal points” within key national governments and intergovernmental organizations, namely high-level officials whose designated day-job it is to analyse mass-atrocity risk situations and to energise an appropriately swift and early response within their own systems and in cooperation with others. (Of course a key institutional need, for both governments and intergovernmental organizations, is for R2P-consciousness to be not just concentrated in single focal points but mainstreamed wherever relevant throughout the institution, and I hope very much that is on DFAT’s agenda.)  The joint NGO-government initiative led by the New York-based Global Centre on R2P to establish a global network of such focal points had seen by the end of 2014 over 40 states signed up,  including  Australia – from every region of the world, although Asian countries has been slower than those in other regions to sign on.

More institutional response capacity is needed in the civilian sphere in the form of the organization and resourcing of civilian capability able to be utilized, as occasion arises, for diplomatic mediation, civilian policing and other critical administrative support for countries at risk of atrocity crimes occurring or recurring: commitments to develop that capability have to date been more often rhetorical than real.

But probably the most crucial institutional need for the future is to create a culture of effective support for the International Criminal Court and the evolving machinery of international criminal justice, designed to enable not only trial and punishment for some of the worst mass atrocity crimes of the past, but potentially providing an important new deterrent for the future.

In the military sphere, the main need is to have in place properly trained and capable military resources available both for rapid ‘fire-brigade’ deployment in Rwanda-type cases, and for long-haul stabilization operations like those in the Congo and Sudan, not only in no-consent situations, but where vulnerable governments request this kind of assistance. And although the establishment of effective military rapid reaction forces on even a standby basis remains more an aspiration than a reality, key militaries –with the US playing a prominent role - are devoting serious time and attention now to debating, and putting in place, new force configuration arrangements, doctrine, rules of engagement and training to run what are now being increasingly described as “Mass Atrocity Response Operations” (MARO).
Here as elsewhere, regional organizations can be expected to play an ever more important role, exercising the full range of the responsibilities envisaged for them in Chapter VIII of the UN Charter. So far, although both the European and African Unions have shown occasional willingness to act collectively, only ECOWAS in West Africa has so far shown a consistent willingness to respond with a full range of diplomatic, political, economic and ultimately military strategies in response to civilian protection crises. Regional and sub-regional organizations in Latin America, and above all in Asia, have lagged a long way behind.

R2P as a Preventive Framework.  The credibility of the whole R2P enterprise has depended from the outset on giving central importance to prevention, in three different contexts. First, long before any atrocity crime has occurred or been threatened, but when ethnic or religious or other tensions, unresolved economic or other grievances, or manifest governance inadequacies, or all of the above, suggest there may be a serious problem in the making unless these underlying issues are systematically addressed. Second, when warning signs – like overt hate propaganda – begin to accumulate, and more rapid and focused preventive responses have to be mounted if catastrophe is to be averted. And third, in a post-violence situation, where the crucial need is to rebuild the society in a way which seriously addresses all the underlying causal issues, and ensures that the whole ugly cycle does not recur.

The good news about prevention is that the toolbox of relevant measures at all preventive stages – across the whole spectrum of political and diplomatic, economic and social, constitutional and legal, and security strategies – is well known, and as experience accumulates, and lessons-learned literature proliferates, there is an ever more detailed and sophisticated understanding by professionals of the detailed strategies that are likely to be most effective, and cost-effective. One theme strongly emphasized in commentary from the global South, and emerging from hard experience on the ground, is the critical need for more sensitive attention to be paid by external interveners and assisters to local social dynamics and cultural realities, and the perceptions of their own requirements by local populations at all levels.

It is also encouraging that, stimulated by the reports of the Secretary General to member states, prepared by Jennifer Welsh, in 2013 on “State responsibility and prevention” and 2014 on “International assistance and the responsibility to protect”, recent General Assembly Interactive Dialogues on R2P have placed renewed attention on both the preventive toolbox generally, and capacity-building and other preventive strategies in the context of the Pillar Two “assistance” responsibility. The latest Secretary-General’s report, which usefully evaluates the record of implementation under all three pillars of the doctrine, and which is scheduled to be debated in the coming General Assembly session, strongly reinforces this prevention message.

The less good news is that while there is a long tradition of regular lip-service being paid to the need for effective prevention, in both national and international debates, the record of practical delivery is not stellar. Part of the problem of getting sufficient resources to engage in successful atrocity, or conflict, prevention is the age-old one that success means that nothing visible actually happens: no-one gets the kind of credit that is always on offer for effective fire-fighting. As I know better than most, it’s not easy to get any politician excited about supporting something for which he or she is unlikely to get any recognition.

R2P as a Reactive Framework.  This is where the rubber hits the road. What do we do if a state, through incapacity or ill-will, has failed to meet its Pillar One responsibilities? What do we do if prevention has manifestly failed, and mass atrocity crimes are actually occurring or imminently about to occur?

R2P from the outset has involved a whole continuum of both non-coercive and coercive responses, and is absolutely not about coercive military interventions alone, notwithstanding that these have taken over so much of the ongoing debate. Those reactive responses include diplomatic peacemaking political incentives as well as political sanctions, economic incentives as well as economic sanctions, offers of amnesty as well as threats of criminal prosecution, the jamming of radio frequencies by non-forceful means, arms embargoes as well as the use of arms, and various kinds of peacekeeping falling short of full scale peace enforcement. And the application of coercive military force can of course take the form of Pillar Two assistance rather than invariably more controversial Pillar Three intervention – when done at the invitation of the government unable to deal alone with a mass atrocity situation not of its own making. All this is not as well understood by policymakers and commentators as it should be, and needs to be constantly reinforced.

But however much one may seek to preference non-military solutions, and while recognizing that sometimes they can work in even the most explosive situations (like Kofi Annan’s diplomatic peacemaking in Kenya in 2008) the reality is that in some R2P situations – classically Rwanda – only coercive military force would have halted the atrocities.

There is obviously a high degree of sensitivity and difficulty involved in any decision to use coercive military force against the will of the government of the state concerned – and in particular the absolute need to be sure that this won’t cause more harm than good (a criterion which most people thought, at least at the time, ruled out military intervention against the Assad regime in Syria in 201).  Because of this sensitivity, it has been assumed from the outset by most R2P advocates, certainly me, that it would only be in the most extreme and exceptional circumstances that it will be authorised by the Security Council. And so it has proved to be, with only the Cote d’Ivoire and Libya cases in 2011 giving rise to such a mandate.

But cases are bound to arise in the future where all the prudential criteria line up in favour coercive military intervention. If R2P is to have a future in all the ways that it needs to – if we are not, in the face of extreme mass atrocity situations, to go back to the bad old days of indefensible inaction as with Cambodia, or Rwanda, or Bosnia, or of otherwise defensible action taken in defiance of the UN Charter, as in Kosovo – then a solution simply has to be found to the current post-Libya stand-off. 

My judgement, for what it’s worth, is that we are not as far away from achieving that as is sometimes assumed, with the likely way forward being eventual acceptance by the P3 of something resembling the concept, first articulated by Brazil in late 2011, of “Responsibility While Protecting” (RWP), which has quite wide buy-in from the other key players. Intended to complement R2P rather than replace it, RWP has two key elements: first, close attention by the Security Council to agreed prudential criteria like last resort and proportionality before granting any military mandate in atrocity crime cases; and second, close monitoring and regular review by the Council of the implementation of any such mandate during its lifetime.

Overall, while there are certainly plenty of challenges ahead for R2P, there are also many grounds for optimism about its future of R2P over the next decade and beyond. It is important to emphasise again that the disagreement now evident in the UN Security Council is really only about how the R2P norm is to be applied in the hardest, sharp-end cases, those where prevention has manifestly failed, and the harm to civilians being experienced or feared is so great that the issue of military force has to be given at least some prima facie consideration.   There is much more to the R2P project than just these extreme late-stage situations, and much to indicate that its other preventive, reactive and rebuilding dimensions all have both wide and deep international support.

In November 1975, seven months after the Khmer Rouge had marched into Phnom Penh and commenced its reign of genocidal slaughter, US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger famously said to Thai Foreign Minister Chatichai:  “Tell the Cambodians that we will be friends with them. They are murderous thugs, but we won’t let that stand in our way”. 
While much more needs to be done to further embed R2P principles in global practice, it is a measure of how far we have come that it is difficult to imagine that being said today by any political leader anywhere.

Kofi Annan in 2000 described the kind of mass atrocity crimes committed in Rwanda and
Srebrenica as “offending every precept of our common humanity”.  We have many desperately challenging humanitarian problems on which to focus our attention on this World Humanitarian Day, and on which to concentrate our efforts in the lead up to next year’s World Humanitarian Summit, but I hope that we, with the Australian government leading the way, can keep centre-front among them the absolute need to end once and for all those mass atrocity crimes which have shocked and shamed our consciences so often in the past, and continue to do so in Syria and Iraq and Nigeria and elsewhere.  The task will not be complete until we have created a world where no-one never again has to say “Never again”.