Diplomacy and the Protection of Civilians

Diplomacy and the Protection of Civilians

Antonio de Aguiar Patriota
The protection of unarmed civilians in conflict situations is a moral and diplomatic challenge. Killed, wounded and displaced civilians cannot be treated merely as “collateral effects.” The issue requires the international community to take on its collective responsibility.

The growing importance of the subject has led the South Korean Presidency of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) to hold a debate, at ministerial level, in which I took part on Feb. 12. As a starting point we must keep in mind that prevention of conflicts is the best way to ensure the protection of civilians. A lot is said about the unacceptability of situations in which governments do not protect their own populations. Today, there is an international consensus about the need for coordinated efforts to face such circumstances. It must be recognized, however, that the international community has failed to take heed of fundamental issues for the protection of civilians, among which the following stand out:

1) The promotion of sustainable development with a focus on poverty eradication and on food security contributes to the promotion of peace. The lack of opportunities and perspectives is the seed of conflicts, encourages radicalism and weakens faith in institutions. It is regrettable that there are such high military expenditures while the Official Development Assistance goals agreed on in Monterrey in 2002 have still not been met.

2) We must fight to reduce the availability of instruments of violence, particularly weapons of mass destruction. It is indispensable to progress on disarmament and non-proliferation. The ease with which conventional weapons can be obtained, particularly through illegal trade, multiplies the damages caused by conflicts. The consequences for civilians of the indiscriminate use of technological innovations in the fight against insurgencies or terrorism, in turn, require a deeper debate.

3) We cannot forget the responsibility of the international community in the paralyzation of the Israel-Palestine peace process and the failure of the Quartet in contributing to an agreement. Unilateral measures are exacerbating tensions in the region. The Security Council must act decisively on this issue. The vulnerability of the civilian population in the occupied territories represents a situation of high risk, whose dangers must not be underestimated.

4) The paralysis in issues of international peace and security can be considered the most worrisome example of the stagnation of the global governance system. The United Nations Security Council, frozen in an obsolete configuration of power, is the forum that debates and can authorize the use of force for the protection of civilians. A more legitimate and representative UNSC will dispose of better conditions to implement preventive measures and diplomatic strategies that can avoid radicalization and solve conflicts. We recognize that in some cases the international community will not be able to prevent, by diplomatic means, armed conflicts causing massive violations of the civilian population’s human rights. Nevertheless, all peaceful means to minimize the impact on civilians must be exhausted.

The use of force always brings with it the risk of killings and of the dissemination of violence and instability. The military interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq created a high number of civilian casualties (conservative estimates put the numbers at approximately 120,000 deaths from September 2001 to September 2012), in addition to refugees and internally displaced persons (approximately 1.6 million only in Iraq). Northern Africa is experiencing the destabilizing effect of the actions taken in Libya. These lessons cannot be ignored. In the exceptional and extreme situations in which the Security Council might authorize the use of force for the protection of civilians, it is necessary to ensure that the military intervention is judicious, proportional and strictly limited to the objectives established by the UN. In this context, we must ensure that:

1. The intervention is inserted in a diplomatic strategy for the resolution of the conflict. In other words, an intervention cannot be an end in itself.

2. A minimum of violence and instability is generated, therefore avoiding even greater harm to the civilian population.

3. The UN adopts and observes clear procedures for the monitoring and assessment of the manner in which its resolutions are interpreted and applied. Prevention of conflicts and the peaceful resolution of disputes minimizes the suffering of civilians. When military intervention is authorized and considered potentially beneficial, the responsibility to protect must be accompanied by responsibility while protecting. Multilateral efforts for the protection of civilians must be anchored in the respect for human rights and International Humanitarian Law, including in the context of the fight against terrorism.

Lately, use of the phrase “there is no military solution for...” can be increasingly noticed. President Dilma Rousseff, in her statement to the General Debate of the 67th General Assembly of the UN, declared that “there is no military solution to the crisis in Syria.” It is the perception of this fact that makes a diplomatic platform for Syria, such as the one proposed by the 2012 Geneva Action Group, so urgent and necessary. In his inauguration speech in January, United States President Barack Obama stated that “enduring security and lasting peace do not require perpetual war.” With the end of the uni-polar moment and the beginning of the formation of a multi-polar order, the certainty that there is no military solution for the vast majority of peace and security problems in the contemporary world has begun to take shape. We must see this development as new leeway for multilateralism and for a more relevant role for diplomacy.

*Antonio de Aguiar Patriota is the foreign minister of Brazil.