When to invoke Responsibility to Protect: The case for Iraq

Tina Park and Victor MacDiarmid on how the West can fulfill its responsibility to protect Iraqi civilians from ISIS.
By: /
September 24, 2014

At the emergency debate in the House of Commons last week, on Sept. 16, Minister Jason Kenney made an unequivocal call for our ‘responsibility to protect’ people in peril in Iraq, against acts of genocide undertaken by the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (also known as ISIL or ISIS). In his own words, “If the responsibility to protect means anything, if our moral obligation to defend human dignity means anything, it must mean that we act in this instance.”

While much of the media attention has focused on Canada’s deployment of 69 military advisors to Northern Iraq and former Prime Minister Jean Chrétien’s warning message that it could pull Canada into further commitments in the region, the invocation of R2P on the situation in Iraq calls for a more careful assessment of the new direction undertaken by the Canadian government.

There are clear implications of calling out acts of genocide committed by the ISIL and invoking R2P as a guiding principle in Canadian foreign policy. In times of crisis, as we witness ISIL brazenly committing human rights crimes under daylight, it is all the more critical for the Canadian public to fully understand the implications of invoking R2P and Canada’s role on the global stage.

Naming the Crime

Since its emergence in the spring of 2013 as a major player in Syria’s civil war, the “Islamic State” has committed a wide range of crimes, including arbitrary and targeted killing, abduction, rape, forced conversions, trafficking, sexual abuse, and extreme brutality to shut down dissent. To this date, ISIL has publicly beheaded, shot, and tortured thousands of civilians. ISIL continues to attack ethnic and religious minorities, including Christians, Shabak and Turkomen throughout western and northern Iraq. As early as August this summer, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, stated that civilians in Iraq were suffering horrific human rights violations at the hands of ISIL, including “systematic and intentional killings” and “widespread ethnic and religious cleansing,” amounting to war crimes and crimes against humanity.

There have been reported executions of over 500 members of the Yazidi community in Sinjar and the surrounding areas in northern Iraq by the members of “Islamic State”. There have been reports of abductions of some 1500 Yazidi, Christian and Shabak women and girls. Over 200,000 people have fled the advance of ISIL militants into the Sinjar area in the Ninewah governorate of northern Iraq. The ISIL has given an ultimatum to those who remain, many of whom are minority groups, such as Christians and Yazidis, to convert to Sunni faith or leave. Such attacks against any individual or group on the basis of their identity, including their ethnic and religious identity, are prohibited under international human rights law. The massacres committed by ISIL are deliberate, planned, and public in attempting to wipe out religious minorities through the use of force and violence. As documented by UN observers and civil society groups such as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect and the International Coalition for RtoP, the widespread and systematic killing of civilians by ISIL call for our immediate attention and decisive action.

As U.S. President Barack Obama made clear in his recent speech on the American strategy against the ISIL, this terrorist organization is neither “Islamic” nor a “State” – ISIL began as an affiliate of Al Qaeda in Iraq and has taken advantage of Syria’s ongoing civil war to gain territory on both sides of the Iraq-Syrian border. A vast majority of ISIL’s victims have been Muslim, in addition to thousands of ethnic minorities who refused to pay a religious tax or convert. ISIL is not recognized by any government to be calling itself a state, and uses killing as a primary tool of expansion and control. The crimes perpetuated by ISIL not only threaten the Iraqi and Syrian state but also the stability of the Middle East and our global community at large.

The UN Security Council has also issued a statement declaring that “wide-spread or systematic attacks directed against any civilian populations because of their ethnic background, religious beliefs or faith may constitute a crime against humanity.” There are serious warnings issued by Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict that ISIL is using children as informers, checkpoint sentries and suicide bombers and girls were abducted for forced rape and marriage. The use of child soldiers and the systematic rape and sexual assaults on young girls seriously violate existing tenets of international law such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the UN Convention on the Rights of Child. The indiscriminate use of cluster munitions by ISIL, as reported by Human Rights Watch, constitutes a serious violation of international humanitarian law, particularly in light of the 2008 Convention on Cluster Munitions.

Naming the crime is a first step towards effective response in the face of mass human atrocities. A “genocide” which owes its intellectual roots to the leadership of a Polish-Jewish lawyer Raphael Lemkin,is a very specific crime in international law, referring to violent crimes committed against groups with the intent to destroy the existence of the group. In the wake of the Rwandan Genocide in 1994, many western countries refused to call the crisis a “genocide,” fearing obligations imposed under the Genocide Convention and international law. Back then, our refusal to name the crime and take timely and decisive action led to the death of over 800,000 innocent civilians over the course of merely a hundred days. Samantha Power called it a “Problem from Hell” in her Pulitzer Prize-winning book, as the western leaders idly stood by as they failed to overcome the yardstick of national self-interest.

Canada’s stance

Today, we witness another test for humanity in light of acts of terrorism and gross violations of fundamental human rights committed by the ISIL. Minister Kenney’s invocation of the word ‘genocide’ on the situation in Iraq in the House of Commons last week, therefore, should not be interpreted as a mere political rhetoric. Despite concerns about uses and abuses of R2P, the Canadian government has taken a clear stance on the global struggle against the ISIL. Canada is certainly not alone in this fight – our allies, such as the United States, France, Germany, and others, are united in countering the ISIL’s message of hate, stopping financial flow, and protecting people in peril through our collective capabilities.

To this date, in addition to the 69 special military advisors to Iraq, Canada has committed $28 million in humanitarian aid and $50 million in support for operation impact. Canada is also set to ship bullets to security forces battling the ISIL. There are concerns that this engagement might last longer and cost us more than we anticipate. There are legitimate concerns raised by scholars and experts on the scope of the engagement and the viability of military and political strategies.

In light of our limited capacities and other priorities at home, Canadians ought to demand more clarity in the government’s long-term plans against the ISIL. Yet, in this deeply troubling moment for all humanity, as UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon put it, “turning a blind eye to these acts is no longer tenable and our responsibility to protect is collective and urgent.”

Why R2P?

Responsibility to Protect, also known as R2P or RtoP, is a proud Canadian intellectual offspring, first coined under the leadership of the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty in 2011, with the sponsorship of the Canadian government. R2P essentially states that when a national government is unable or unwilling to protect its people from four specific mass atrocity crimes (genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity), the international community has the responsibility to protect them.

At the 2005 World Summit, 150 heads of state and government unanimously endorsed the paragraphs 138 and 139 and pledged to protect their populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity. This responsibility entails the prevention of such crimes, including their incitement, through appropriate and necessary means in a timely and decisive manner.

While the member state has the primary responsibility for protecting its people, the international community should, as appropriate, encourage and help states exercise this responsibility and support the UN in establishing an early warning capability. The international community also has the responsibility to use appropriate diplomatic, humanitarian, and other peaceful means, in accordance with Chapters VI and VII of the Charter, to help protect populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity. Each case is to be considered on a case-by-case basis and in cooperation with relevant regional organizations as appropriate, and may require collective action taken under the authority of the UN.

Since the endorsement in the 2005 World Summit Outcome, the UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon has developed a three-pillar approach on R2P. These three pillars are to be applied as needed, in full partnership with regional and international organizations. As formulated in the Secretary-General's 2009 Report (A/63/677) on Implementing the Responsibility to Protect, the three pillars of R2P entail:

  1. The State carries the primary responsibility for protecting populations from genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing, and their incitement;

  2. The international community has a responsibility to encourage and assist States in fulfilling this responsibility;

  3. The international community has a responsibility to use appropriate diplomatic, humanitarian and other means to protect populations from these crimes. If a State is manifestly failing to protect its populations, the international community must be prepared to take collective action to protect populations, in accordance with the Charter of the United Nations.

Earlier in August, the UN Security Council Resolution 2170 strongly condemned the acts of ISIL and encouraged the member states to take measures to combat terrorism to fulfill their responsibilities under international human rights law, international refugee law, and international humanitarian law.

Even if we were to deny the relevance of R2P on the situation in Iraq, our existing obligations under various tenets of international law would hold us accountable as we witness the massive killings of Iraqi civilians on the basis of their ethnicity and religious beliefs. What R2P provides is a toolbox to tackle the most horrendous crimes facing our common humanity, with the hope of mobilizing the political will and necessary resources in the most timely and decisive manner.

Protecting Iraqis – but how?

In the case of Iraq, we have already passed the point at which the prevention wing of R2P can be effective and it is clear that the Iraqi government is unable, and failing, to uphold its responsibility to protect its people against the ISIL attacks. Populations at risk in Iraq and Syria desperately need international assistance as they fear for their lives, security, and freedom. Contrary to popular misconceptions, invoking R2P does not always mean resorting to the use of force or regime change. At its best, R2P should be used for prevention and coordination of rapid response, and only if all available tools, such as diplomatic tools and economic sanctions, have been tried and exhausted, and only when it becomes clear that the national government is unwilling or unable to protect people in peril, the international community may need to use military tools to stop mass human atrocities in a timely and decisive manner.

The second pillar of R2P, which refers to “assistance” to the state in fulfilling its protection responsibility, is most relevant for the situation in Iraq. While fully acknowledging that the state has the primary responsibility for protecting its people, Pillar II provides a number of international assistance and capacity-building measures for the implementation of R2P, ranging from dialogue and preventive diplomacy to capacity building such as developing bedrocks of good governance, addressing horizontal inequalities and assistance to protect the rights of minorities.

While President Obama’s goal of “ultimate destruction” of ISIL through a counter-terrorism strategy, as we are seeing in full-force in Syria this week, may be difficult to achieve given the very nature of ISIL’s operations, there is much that could be done in Iraq through a professional and accountable security sector, impartial institutions for overseeing political transitions, strengthening judiciary and human rights institutions, developing media capacity to counteract hate speech, and protecting civilians in humanitarian emergencies, as well as the special plight of women and children who have fled their homes or have been internally displaced.

Recently, at the UN General Assembly in New York on Sept. 8, the sixth annual dialogue on R2P focused on this second pillar of R2P principle. The dialogue followed the UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon’s sixth report on R2P called “Fulfilling our Collective Responsibility: International Assistance and the Responsibility to Protect.” Most of the member states gathered at this informal and interactive dialogue reaffirmed their commitment to R2P and highlighted various ways in which they can mainstream R2P in their domestic political context. Assistance and capacity building must always be based on a clear understanding of the nature of the four R2P crimes, and a wide variety of actors, including regional and sub-regional bodies, civil society actors, the private sector and international organizations could play important roles in carrying out protection responsibilities.

At all times, principles of sovereign equality, mutual commitment, flexibility, and ‘do no harm’ must govern all engagements. Although assistance is generally considered in non-military forms, pillar II could also entail the use of force, especially when “international military assistance may be the surest way to support the State in meeting its obligations relating to the responsibility to protect, and in extreme cases, to restore its effective sovereignty.”

Promoting global humanitarianism, beyond the calculations of geostrategic interests, is something that Canada has been known for on the global stage. We need not go back as far as the Gray Lecture delivered by Louis St. Laurent in 1947, when he outlined five key guiding principles of Canadian foreign policy, including political liberty, rule of law in national and international affairs and acceptance of international responsibility in promoting our key values. Throughout our history as a nation, Canada has believed in the importance of rule of law, political freedom and respect for diversity. Ranging from the UN Peacekeeping Operations to humanitarian aid to intellectual legacies such as the R2P principle, belief in human dignity has indeed been an important guiding principle in Canadian political culture.

Above all, we should also remember that freedom of conscience, religion, belief, opinion, expression, and association remain fundamentally Canadian values, as enshrined in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Prime Minister Stephen Harper noted in July this year that “forced conversions, by threat of death, are an egregious violation of the fundamental human right to the freedom of religion…” and called upon the Iraqi government to govern for all Iraqis, regardless of ethnic origin or religious belief.

This week, the ISIL released a video message, urging Jihadists to attack Canadians. In light of the rampant recruitment campaign conducted by ISIL on social media, which has managed to attract western-educated elites (some of whom are Canadian citizens) for their objectives, it is also in Canada’s national interest to do everything we can to stop ISIL’s activities for the safety of Canadians at home.

An attack against Christians and other ethnic minorities in Iraq is an attack against all of us who believe in freedom of conscience and religion. As Martin Niemöller put it so eloquently in his powerful poem, “First they came for the Socialists,” our indifference towards others and inability to speak out in the face of injustice may ultimately put our own lives in jeopardy – “Then they came for me, and there was no one left to speak for me.” Giving tangible meaning to our pledge of “never again” allow death of innocent lives compels each one of us to care a little more, do a little more, and speak up a little more.

Despite our best intentions, tackling the ISIL will be a complicated and lengthy engagement with multiple regional and international partners. There will not be a one-size-fits-all solution to combat the cycle of hate and violence perpetrated by ISIL.

A systematic campaign that targets ISIL’s leadership, infrastructure and funding will require a close cooperation between the North and the South, and the West and the East. Putting boots on the ground is always a controversial issue and a test for our national unity, our core values, and our actual capability. R2P is not always about military intervention, but sometimes, military engagement may be our last, and most effective tool, to save innocent lives. The Regional Assistance Mission to the Solomon Islands in 2003 provided military, civilian and police support to protect populations at risk and to hold perpetrators accountable. Pillar II assistance, like any other international engagement, is complex in nature and depends heavily on the political will and commitment of resources.

Twenty years ago, our indifference and inaction in the face of evil led to the “failure of humanity” in Rwanda. While the nature of perpetrators and regional contexts are entirely different, we face another test for humanity as we witness the graphic acts of terror committed by ISIL.

A country like Canada, with a track record of punching above its weight in promoting global humanitarianism, is uniquely equipped to serve as the voice of reason and live up to our collective responsibility for protecting people in peril. In the face of daunting and often depressing reality, our first responsibility is to try and remain united in our hope for the future of humanity.