What happened to the UN’s ‘Responsibility to Protect’?

Nov 24, 2023
United Nations sign.

The world watches the destruction of Gaza as 13,000 thousand Palestinians are killed including 5,600 children. The world watches as Gazan hospitals are invaded, patients ordered to flee south where there is neither water, food nor safety. The world watches while Israeli spokespersons claim they never target civilians, and then comes the propagandist fig leaf to conceal all the cruelties. An Israeli spokesperson points to a hole in the ground beside a hospital as evidence of Hamas’ headquarters.

Locally, nationally, internationally, millions watch genocide in Gaza in disbelief, or explain to friends, ‘This is so terrible I can’t watch anymore.’ Millions join protests, sign petitions, pass motions pleading with indifferent western governments, US, UK, Australia, to insist on a ceasefire so that killing might stop, water, food and fuel be sent to Gaza and Israeli hostages rescued.

Millions ask, ‘Why is seventy-five years of Palestinian dispossession and experience of racist fuelled violence allowed to climax in these mass murders in Gaza?’ Is the UN so impotent? Can nothing be done?’

Something can be done. A UN sanctioned peace force could be sent into Israel with the aim to cease the violence in Gaza, abide by humanitarian law, hold Hamas and Israel accountable for war crimes and prepare the way for a durable peace settlement. However idealistic the proposals to dispatch a peace force to Israel, there is a 2005 UN operational principle, ‘The Responsibility to Protect’ (R2P) which explains the moral and political justification for such intervention.

That principle reads as though the authors had the Israel war with Hamas in mind. It says that states have a responsibility to protect populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity. If states do not protect their populations (or in this case, the populations of lands they occupy) and if assistance to do so is not effective, the international community has a responsibility to intervene and can do so under Chapters VI and VIII of the UN Charter. Under those clauses, the UN ‘is prepared to take collective action in a timely and decisive manner through the Security Council, in cooperation with relevant regional organisations.’

Nevertheless, because the intervention clashes with the international norm of non-interference in the domestic affairs of States, the UN has a record of standing by and watching atrocities. In response, outraged citizens ask, ‘How much more slaughter can occur?’ ‘Are Israel and Hamas not accountable to international law, is Israel a special, exceptional case because it enjoys the automatic support of the US plus America’s guaranteed massive supply of arms?

There are precedents for UN intervention in response to murderous violence. In Cambodia (1991) and in East Timor (1999), the UN authorised the formation of international peace forces, each under the command of Australian generals, John Sanderson in Cambodia, Peter Cosgrove in East Timor.

Into this amoral Gaza abyss, a killing spree continues, though glimmers of hope might be lit by recalling what happened in Cambodia and in East Timor.

In the 1990s at the UN General Assembly and in the Security Council, it took certain nations, in particular France and Indonesia, to demand an end to the tragic history of violence in Cambodia. Following a peace agreement signed in October 1991, participating states committed themselves to promote and encourage respect for and observance of human rights. Under the command of Australian General John Sanderson and with contributions from 46 nations, a 16,000 strong peace force was empowered by the UN Transitional Authority (UNTAC) to promote national reconciliation, and to exercise the rights of self-determination of the Cambodian people through free and fair elections.

The Cambodian peace force experience teaches how to solve the peace settlement conundrums for Palestine and Israel. The architects of intervention in Cambodia declared that violence would achieve nothing, that only a comprehensive political settlement could produce a just and durable peace which would also contribute to regional and international peace and security.

The UN initiative in East Timor was also a response to violence and to agitation by powerful nations, in that event mostly the US under President Clinton. Peace force intervention occurred at different stages and with changing objectives. A UN Assistance Mission (UNAMET) was authorised to offer the East Timorese a choice between autonomy under Indonesia or independence. Subsequently, following horrific militia violence in reaction to the people choosing independence, 1,400 civilians died and 500,000 people were displaced, at which point, in September 1999, the UN Security Council passed Resolution 1264 which led to the organisation of a multi-national force (INTERFET) of 8,950 troops headed by Australian General Cosgrove to restore peace and security. Once a semblance of peace had been attained, and here is another pointer to peace initiatives for Palestine and Israel, a UN Transitional Authority (UNTAET) assumed responsibility to foster civil rights and democratic governance.

To repeat the UN Cambodian and East Timor interventions for peace will require a couple of bold, principled nations to remind the UN that they should squabble no longer as to whether a genocide can be halted. A UN Charter and the precedent of Security Council resolutions are waiting to be learned from and imitated.

In the meantime, journalists, politicians and other commentators can empower themselves by referring to the Responsibility to Protect. Instead of watching in silence when the Israeli spokesperson Mr. Mark Regev repeats his claims that Israeli forces do not harm civilians, journalists can call him out, tell him he’s a bullshit artist, a liar.

When an Israeli Ambassador appears before Australia’s National Press Club and insists that Israel is the victim, you ask what planet he is living on, how does he justify the Israeli government claim that all Gazans, women, children, and even babies are allies of Hamas, that any Gazan can be killed because they are either a terrorist, a terrorist sympathiser or a human shield.

By referring to the Responsibility to Protect, the world’s otherwise dismayed and frustrated people can speak truth to power, can express outrage on behalf of a common humanity and reassure themselves there are precedents to intervene to strive for justice and thereby peace.

That stance may offend the US and Israel, but international law and UN resolutions have universal application, they are not a pick and choose means of deciding that powerful nations can be judged exceptional, their brutalities ignored.

Bolstered by that principle, The Responsibility to Protect, UN inaction over Palestine can be replaced by authorising a peace force to be sent to Israel.

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