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Global Britain: The Responsibility to Protect and Humanitarian Intervention Contents

3Applying R2P to the Syrian Conflict

20.Action taken to fulfil states’ commitments to R2P does not have to amount to military intervention.42 As Laila Alodaat, Middle East and North Africa Director at the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, told us: “it is important not to equate taking action in Syria with military intervention, otherwise all the countries who cannot intervene will say, ’Well, there is nothing to be done,’ and withdraw. We cannot afford that, because 22 million Syrians still need help and support.”43

21.In written evidence the FCO recognised the current challenges “in mobilising the political will of the UNSC to intervene”44 and highlighted some of the other measures that they have taken to help resolve situations where there is a risk of atrocity crimes. These include supporting the establishment of the International, Impartial and Independent Mechanism (IIIM) and leading on a resolution on Syria in the Human Rights Council that was passed in March 2018, which extended the mandate of the UN Commission of Inquiry on Syria for another year.45 These measures, whilst welcome, are limited in their impact, illustrated by the sheer scale of the tragedy in Syria. Evidence we received highlighted that “there is an urgent need to develop a specific atrocity prevention strategy within the UK government.”46

22.An atrocity prevention strategy would require a consolidated cross-Government approach to programming and policy development in atrocity risk contexts.47 This idea is not new. According to Protection Approaches, a charity that works to assist UK decision makers in better predicting and preventing identity-based violence, an atrocity prevention strategy would strengthen the UK’s ability to “address the prevention of mass atrocities as a core national security interest and a moral responsibility”.48 In evidence from UNA UK the use of sanctions was suggested as “part of the coercive elements of the atrocity prevention toolkit.”49 The importance of the difference between conflict prevention and atrocity prevention was also highlighted during the inquiry.50

23.When asked why the UK lacks an atrocity prevention strategy, Lord Ahmad appeared to propose that humanitarian intervention was a primary mechanism to address atrocity prevention.51 Humanitarian intervention is however, by definition, an option of last resort and a blunt tool of atrocity prevention. Protection Approaches cited a concern that by not having a comprehensive approach to atrocity prevention “the UK falls short of the holistic understanding of atrocity crimes that is intrinsic to successfully tackling conflict and instability overseas and to strengthening the rules-based international system in a time of considerable duress.”52

24.Prevention will always be better than a response. The Government should be doing all it can do to prevent atrocities from occurring in the first place. The obvious and driving impetus for this is the lives saved. As the situation in Syria has illustrated in the most devastating of ways, waiting to respond to crises means that it will inevitably be too late for some, or in this case many. Successfully preventing atrocities also has domestic implications such as reducing the likelihood of the need to deploy the armed forces and contributing to achieving national security objectives.

25.In our first report of this session on the Violence in Rakhine State and the UK’s response53 we called on the Government to prioritise atrocity prevention in political and diplomatic conversations. Everything we have heard as part of this inquiry has strengthened our belief that an atrocity prevention strategy is now more vital than ever. The Government needs to act urgently to produce a comprehensive atrocity prevention strategy and implementation plan to ensure it moves beyond words and towards concrete actions. Such a strategy would benefit from consultation and we call on the Government to produce a draft strategy for consultation by April 2019.

Avoiding deadlock in the UN

26.As a recently emerging norm R2P has gained traction. It has been mentioned in 69 UN Security Council resolutions since 2005.54 However the recent deadlock in the Security Council has highlighted the challenges to the process. The decisions of the UK, US and France to conduct airstrikes in Syria can be understood as a reaction to that deadlock. Russia has used its veto 12 times to block direct action in Syria on a range of issues,55 including draft resolutions that addressed chemical weapons,56 the Joint Investigative Mechanism (JIM),57 and ending military flights over Aleppo.58 The chilling effect of the deadlock goes beyond the situation in Syria and, according to Dr Aidan Hehir, a Reader in International Relations at the University of Westminster, governments will need to seek bolder solutions to the way decisions are made or risk impeding “the consistent and effective enforcement of international law.”59

Constructive Abstention

27.Russia’s repeated use of the veto in relation to Syria has led to renewed attention to what Marc Weller, Professor of International Law and International Constitutional Studies at the University of Cambridge, referred to as the idea “that states should refrain from using the veto when there is a credible allegation of genocide”60 This proposal was mentioned in the report of the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS) in 2001 where it was observed that “capricious use of the veto, or threat of its use”61 would likely be an obstacle to averting humanitarian crises. The report then went on to suggest that states could refrain from using the veto to obstruct the passage of what would otherwise be a majority resolution, an idea that has been referred to as “constructive abstention” in the past.62 This concept was then put forward by President Hollande of France in 2013 in relation to mass atrocities.63

28.The Government, whilst not officially endorsing the French proposal, has signed up to the Accountability, Coherence and Transparency (ACT) Group’s Code of Conduct64 which includes a “Pledge in particular not to vote against a credible draft resolution before the Security Council on timely and decisive action to end the commission of genocide, crimes against humanity or war crimes, or to prevent such crimes.”65 Lord Ahmad told the Committee “we agree with the principle of what the French are suggesting” but that in the current political climate “it will not be supported by the Security Council, and particularly the P5.”66

Uniting for Peace

29.Another potential option to circumvent the UNSC’s deadlock could be to go through the UN General Assembly, applying a process referred to as ‘Uniting for Peace’, after the 1950 General Assembly Resolution 377 known by this name.67 In this process a resolution would need the support of at least two-thirds of the Assembly to be passed and would be considered in a situation where due to “lack of unanimity of the permanent members, [the Security Council] fails to exercise its primary responsibility for the maintenance of international peace and security.”68 However whilst a resolution that gathered this level of support in the UNGA would potentially demonstrate political legitimacy, its application would not change the legal status of an action prohibited under international law and so could not form the legal basis for use of force (and it has not been used for this purpose.69) Its use could also have longer term repercussions for the authority of the UNSC, undermining the role of the UNSC as set out in Article 39 of the UN Charter.70

30.We agree that the UNSC is the right authority to mandate collective use of force. However, we believe that the P5 states, in holding a right to veto, have a responsibility to ensure that the narrow interests of a few do not stand in the way of protecting the many. It is an abuse of the moral responsibility entrusted to the permanent Security Council members to block action sought to prevent or alleviate suffering from mass atrocities. Just as there are risks to undermining the authority of the UNSC through invoking the ‘Uniting for Peace’ resolution, so there are similar risks if the UNSC fails to respond when a state is perpetrating mass atrocities against its own citizens.

31.The Government should commit to implementing France’s 2013 proposal to refrain from use of the veto where there is credible evidence of genocide and it should encourage other P5 members to do the same. The Government should explain how it intends to encourage P5 members to commit to this proposal and, if other members fail to adopt voluntarily the French proposal, how it intends to work with those states to secure this commitment.


42 Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect (RTP0003), para 4

43 Q74 [Laila Alodaat]

44 The Foreign and Commonwealth Office (RTP0016), para 14

45 The Foreign and Commonwealth Office (RTP0016), para 14

46 Peace Direct (RTP0014), para 15

47 Peace Direct (RTP0014), para 15

48 Protection Approaches (RTP0002), para 6

49 UNA-UK (RTP0018), para 2

50 Professor Jason Ralph (RTP0006), para 1.6, Dr Eglantine Staunton and Dr Outi Donovan (RTP0005), para 2.2

52 Protection Approaches (RTP0002), para 16

53 Foreign Affairs Committee, First Report of Session 2017–19, Violence in Rakhine State and the UK’s response, HC435

54 Dr Eglantine Staunton and Dr Outi Donovan (RTP0005), para 3.1

55 UN Library, Security Council – Veto List, accessed 17 July 2018

56 Security Council Report, Middle East S/2017/172, 28 February 2017

57 Security Council Report, Middle East S/2017/884, 24 October 2017

58 Security Council Report, Middle East S/2016/846, 8 October 2016

59 Dr Aidan Hehir (RTP0009)

60 Q16, [Professor Marc Weller]

61 International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty, The Responsibility to Protect, December 2001, para 6.20

62 International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty, The Responsibility to Protect, December 2001, para 6.21

65 Accountability, Coherence, Transparency Group, Code of Conduct regarding Security Council action against genocide, crimes against humanity or war crimes, 1 September 2015, p2

67 Q11 [Dr Kate Ferguson]

68 UN General Assembly, 377 (V). Uniting for Peace, 3 November 1950, para 3

69 Brigadier (Retired) Anthony Paphiti (RTP0004), para 21

70 Charter of the UN, Chapter VII, accessed 17 July 2018




Published: 10 September 2018