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Our age has confronted no greater ethical, political and institutional challenge than ensuring the protection of civilians, as victims of both war and of mass atrocity crimes. Awareness of the problem of civilian protection is growing and has been accompanied by a much greater evident willingness—at least in principle—to do something about it.
Two normative advances in this area are, first, the dramatically upgraded attention given since 1999 to the law and practice relating to the protection of civilians (POC) in armed conflict; and, second, the emergence in 2001, and far-reaching global embrace since 2005, of the concept of the responsibility to protect (R2P).
There is now more or less universal acceptance of the principles that state sovereignty is not a licence to kill but entails a responsibility not to do or allow grievous harm to one’s own people. The international community also bears a responsibility to assist those states that need and want help in meeting that obligation, and a responsibility to take timely and decisive collective action in accordance with the UN Charter.
UN Security Council Resolution 1973, authorizing military intervention in Libya to halt what was seen as an imminent massacre, was a resounding demonstration of these principles at work, and seemed to set a new benchmark against which all future arguments for such intervention might be measured. However, the subsequent implementation of that mandate led to the reappearance of significant geopolitical divisions.
The Security Council’s paralysis over Syria during the course of 2011, culminating in the veto by Russia and China of a cautiously drafted condemnatory resolution, has raised the question, in relation to the sharp-end implementation of R2P, of whether Resolution 1973 would prove to be the high-water mark from which the tide will now retreat.
The crucial question is whether the new geopolitics of intervention that appeared to have emerged with Resolution 1973 is in fact sustainable, or whether, as suggested by the subsequent response to the situation in Syria, a more familiar, and more cynical, geopolitics will in fact reassert itself.
This author takes the optimistic view that the new normative commitment to civilian protection is alive and well, and that, in the aftermath of the intervention in Libya, the world has been witnessing not so much a major setback for a new cooperative approach as the inevitable teething troubles associated with the evolution of any major new international norm. The Brazilian ‘responsibility while protecting’ initiative, focusing on clearer criteria for and more effective monitoring of the use of force, offers a constructive way forward.
Gareth Evans was Australian minister for foreign affairs (1988–96) and president of the International Crisis Group (2000–2009). He is currently Chancellor of the Australian National University.