By Ramesh Thakur – ramesh.thakur [at] anu.edu.au
As demonstrated by recent events in Sudan, Sri Lanka, Libya, and Syria—and earlier in Rwanda, the Balkans and East Timor during the 1990s—the numbers of civilians killed in contemporary armed conflicts is intolerably high. Their plight is a lasting stain on an internationalized human conscience. Our common humanity demands the acceptance of a duty of care by all of us who live in zones of safety towards those trapped in zones of danger.
In response, the United Nations has developed the twin principles of the protection of civilians and the responsibility to protect (R2P). However, their inherent limitations perpetuate critical protection gaps for civilians caught in danger zones, for example those living under foreign occupation (Palestinians, Iraqis from 2001 to 2013), natural disasters (such as Cyclone Nargis in Myanmar in 2008), kin states (where the ethnic minority in one territory constitutes the majority in a neighbouring country, e.g. Russians in Crimea), civil wars, and insurgencies.
Syria is an example of why it is so difficult for outsiders to provide credible civilian protection amidst a violent civil war. The fluid and confused internal situation; question marks over the identity, intent and methods of the rebels; the risk of atrocities against minority groups if the regime collapses; the country’s relations with Iran, China, and Russia; and the Sunni–Shia divide have all made it impossible to assess the balance of consequences of outside intervention. Will intervention unleash more harm than it will do good?
Civil wars raise three profoundly challenging questions. Is the recognized state prohibited from using force to fend off armed challenges to its authority by rebels and secessionists? How can we avoid the moral hazard of encouraging other anti-government rebels from taking up arms in multi-ethnic countries around the world, thus escalating the humanitarian crises? If the complexities, nuances and balance of consequences suggest caution in invoking R2P in Syria, then how else can civilians be protected? In sum, the protection of civilians is a ‘wicked problem’ with no solutions, only better or worse outcomes.
Ramesh Thakur is a professor in the Crawford School of Public Policy, The Australian National University. He previously served as an R2P Commissioner and co-authored its original 2001 report.
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- Gareth Evans and Ramesh Thakur, “Correspondence: Humanitarian Intervention and the Responsibility to Protect,” International Security 37:4 (Spring 2013): 199–207
- David W. Lovell and Igor Primoratz, Protecting Civilians During Violent Conflict: Theoretical and Practical Issues for the 21st Century, 2012
Ramesh Thakur, “Protection Gaps for Civilian Victims of Political Violence,” South African Journal of International Affairs 20:3 (December 2013): 321–38
- Jon Western, “Protecting States or Protecting Civilians: The Case for R2P,” Massachusetts Review 52, no. 2 (2011): 348–357
- Griffith University, Institute for Ethics, Governance, & Law, “Responsibility to protect and the Protection of civilians Policy Guide,” 2012