Palestine and the UN’s ‘responsibility to protect’ doctrine

Under its P2P doctrine, the UN must deploy to Palestine to protect Palestinians from further Israeli war crimes.

Major General Indar Jit Rikyhe of India reviews a guard of honour on arrival at the Gaza Strip Airfield on January 29, 1966 to take over as commander of the United Nations Emergency Force in the Gaza Strip [File: AP]

The recent escalation of the conflict in Palestine has emphasised the multiple paradoxes in the decades-long political stalemate in the Middle East, which is unique in the amount and extent of suffering heaped on its peoples. Notable also are the paradoxical levels of external complicity and indifference.

Influential foreign actors assist the perpetrators of atrocities but pay little attention to the mounting numbers of victims, except when they turn up as refugees at their doorstep. They do not care when Palestinians and Syrians are thrown out of their homes or bombed into oblivion, packed into a no-man’s land. But they rise up in unison when the perpetrators are threatened.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the circumstances surrounding the obscene legal travesty of the double dispossession the Palestinians of Jerusalem’s Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood. Already driven out of their homes as Israel came into existence in 1948 and prevented from ever reclaiming their original homes, they are about to be turned into refugees again on the pretext that the homes they have lived in for decades legally belong to Jewish settlers, according to the rigged Israeli judiciary system.

Protests against this brutal dispossession have been ignored for years and it was only when Hamas fighters started launching rockets at Israeli cities that Israel, and the rest of the world, stood up and listened.

This is the abiding paradox of the current international system, which champions peace and justice but only listens to those who have guns. When the United Nations was set up in 1945, its guiding principle had been to contain war and violence in general and mass atrocities in particular. Haunted by international inaction in the face of the Holocaust, the UN hastened to adopt the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide.

The UN Charter provided for peacekeeping and armed intervention against aggressors – principles that were implemented, significantly, first in Palestine a couple of weeks after the establishment of Israel and later on the Korean Peninsula, in Lebanon, Cyprus, etc. However, with the paralysis of the UN during the Cold War and the rather disappointing outcomes of interventions, the push for such action was weakened.

The post-Cold War proliferation of atrocities and acts of genocide (in Rwanda, Bosnia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, South Sudan, etc) provoked a lot of clamouring for active intervention to stop such mass violence.

Spurred both by a rise in atrocities and the partial success of interventions in Iraqi Kurdistan (1991), Somalia (1992), Haiti (1994), Bosnia (1992-1995), Kosovo, Sierra Leone, and East Timor (1999), the debate gained momentum. In 1998, the Rome Statute was adopted, establishing the International Criminal Court (ICC) to prosecute individuals for genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity.

In 2001, former Australian foreign minister Gareth Evans, Special Advisor to the UN Secretary-General Mohamed Sahnoun and their colleagues in the Canadian-sponsored International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS) published the landmark report The Responsibility to Protect.

The commission was in turn inspired by a 1996 book titled Sovereignty as Responsibility: Conflict Management in Africa, produced by the Brookings Institution and edited by the veteran Sudanese diplomat Francis Deng, arguing that state sovereignty should be conditional on fulfilling obligations of human rights protection.

The ICISS report, with its rather ambitious subtitle: Ending Mass Atrocity Crimes Once and for All, reiterated the slowly evolving consensus that it was no longer acceptable to stand by and watch atrocities being televised live in this era of global media.

It advocated the “responsibility to protect” doctrine (R2P) that affirmed the responsibility of the wider international community for taking “timely and decisive” measures to protect endangered civilians when their state – bearer of the primary responsibility for protecting its citizens – is found “manifestly failing” to fulfil its duty. Appropriate and proportionate coercive measures, properly authorised by the UN, can then be taken as a last resort.

The R2P doctrine was formally adopted by the UN General Assembly at the 2005 World Summit. The unanimous adoption meant that Israel also endorsed it, as did many Arab countries, like Sudan, which later became a main target of the doctrine.

Nevertheless, the evolving fragile consensus around R2P continued to wobble. Divisions over the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq were a key factor, given the prominence of the US and the UK as R2P advocates.

Some saw the doctrine as fundamentally flawed, even disingenuous, a combination of resurgent imperialism and the “war on terror” or as an attempt to sell militarism and neo-colonialism as humanitarianism.

By its very nature, the doctrine appeared wilfully selective, never being applied to the powerful states. Its moralist language was depicted as naïve, condescending, and so permissive as to justify intervention at the slightest pretext.

From the other side, some advocates decried the watering down of the doctrine to appease the sceptics, leading to the loss of its original ethos of urgency and non-consensual military intervention. This signalled a return to normal UN and international practices of fitful and selective, patchy and piecemeal interventions.

Regardless of mounting scepticism, the doctrine continued to enjoy support and was invoked formally in the NATO-led intervention in Libya in 2011.

These developments, especially the NATO military campaign in Libya, provoked some negative reactions, in particular from Russia and China, while the ICC’s indictment of some African leaders, including Omar al-Bashir of Sudan, also brought resistance from African and Arab countries.

However, in spite of Arab and African solidarity with al-Bashir, Arab and African countries have endorsed the Palestinian Authority’s decision to join the ICC in April 2015. The court’s affirmation that crimes in Palestine fall under its jurisdiction issued in February this year was also widely welcomed. During the assault on Gaza in May, ICC prosecutors announced that they would be monitoring the conflict for possible war crime charges.

It is a supreme irony that the most ardent proponents of the responsibility to protect and the ICC, in particular Western democracies, have been very hostile to applying the doctrine in Palestine. This vocal opposition is an admission that serious crimes are being committed. In an interesting role reversal, arch-liberals who have always defended justice are practically advocating impunity for perpetrators of some of the most heinous crimes in the book, while former sceptics have now converted to the ICC.

Being lukewarm towards humanitarianism was the signature of the Trump era and the rise of pathological populism in Europe and the Americas. These trends have not only advocated turning a blind eye to atrocities abroad, but even presented tyrants like Russia’s Vladimir Putin and Egypt’s Abdelfattah el-Sisi as role models. They negatively impacted human rights in established democracies and more so in relatively fragile ones in Eastern Europe, Asia, Latin America, etc.

Given that left-wing populists have also been among the leading critics of R2P as imperialism in disguise, this has significantly narrowed the scope of support for genuine humanitarianism. However, there are signs of a revival of humanitarianism and human rights advocacy, strengthened by the surge in principled activism among the youth all over the world. It is that surge which carried President Joe Biden to power in the US and is now pushing Western governments to change their stance on Palestinian rights.

The international reaction to the war in Gaza is a positive sign of a major shift back to active humanitarianism. Palestine could become a focal point in this resurgence. A number of considerations favour the application of R2P in Palestine.

First, Israel is the first state that had been created by a UN resolution. Its refusal to adhere to the terms of that resolution undermines its own legitimacy. More to the point, the UN is directly responsible for the suffering and dispossession of the victims of that decision. The UN and the international community must account for those sins and act to stop the current “robbery in progress”. This is aside, of course, from the specific responsibility of major international actors for more substantive moral, political, financial and military complicity in these crimes.

Second, even from the Israeli perspective, applying R2P to Palestine should be desirable. The whole rationale for a Jewish state is to offer a refuge for a category of people who had suffered persecution and enmity. It would be incongruous and morally perverse if the state that is supposed to protect against atrocities indulges in an abundance of atrocities, dangerously resembling the fascist entity from which many of its citizens sought refuge. A repressive state is not an ideal refuge for anyone.

In any case, a state does not exist or function in a void. Its very existence depends on a mutually supportive network of states sharing values of mutual protection. The survival of any state depends on the good will of others, especially its neighbours. A state where key politicians and a majority of citizens reveal patterns of cruelty, chauvinism and ugly self-centredness, paints itself as a villain. And we know what fate most narratives reserve for villains.

If brute force is what protects communities and states, Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union would still be here. They are not.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.