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Power politics decides when the UN protects human rights

The UN intervened to uphold human rights in Libya and Ivory Coast, deploying the "Responsibility to Protect" for the first time. Yet competing interests and visions of world order make intervention inconsistent at best.

UN Peacekeepers on patrol in Ivory Coast

The UN swiftly intervened in Ivory Coast and Libya

The United Nations supposedly intervened in Libya and Ivory Coast to protect the human rights of civilian populations exposed to the indiscriminate and brutal use of force by warring political factions.

Although the relevant UN resolutions mandated the use of "all necessary means" to protect civilian populations in these African civil wars, the intervening forces were still called on to remain neutral in the conflict itself.

According to Bardo Fassbender, an expert on international law, the idea of impartial military intervention is a political conundrum that represents an attempt to reconcile two diverging conceptions of UN peacekeeping operations.

Past and present

"From its very beginnings in the 1940s when it was first tested in the Middle East, peacekeeping was meant to be strictly impartial," Fassbender, who works with the University of the Bundeswehr in Munich - a German military college - told Deutsche Welle.

Fassbender says that in the past peacekeeping operations had to be sanctioned not just by the UN, but also by the two warring parties themselves. This consensus approach was designed to preserve the national sovereignty of the country in question.

"However, this comes into conflict with a new tendency in the Security Council to intervene much more actively on the side of one party in the conflict," Fassbender added.

Impartial intervention

In the case of Ivory Coast, the UN Security Council mandated military intervention on March 30th when it passed resolution 1975. The resolution found that government security forces had committed grave violations of human rights and international law, resulting in the conclusion that attacks on civilians may represent crimes against humanity.

Yet the UN resolution clearly states that the peacekeepers are mandated to use all necessary means to impartially protect the civilian population from violence.

"UN resolutions are full of political compromises because the Security Council always wrestles for the necessary majority and tries to ensure that none of the permanent members will use their veto power," Fassbender said.

"The result is broad language that is left open to interpretation," he continued. "For example, a UN mandate to protect civilians or a legitimate government tends to be very broad and ultimately has to be filled with real political power."

Proportional force

In Ivory Coast, France ultimately filled the UN mandate with the necessary political muscle. The deployment of attack helicopters against incumbent President Laurent Gbagbo ultimately decided the conflict in favor of the internationally recognized presidential election winner Alassane Ouattara.

However, the Russians and the South Africans objected to this aggressive use of military force against Gbagbo. Russia has called for an investigation into whether the use of force was proportional.

"It is the question of how long the permanent members of the Security Council support such a broad mandate to intervene," Fassbender said.

Libyen rebel conducts daily prayer in front of tank

Responsibility to Protect calls for military intervention to protect fundamental rights

Regime change

In Libya an international coalition led by the NATO military alliance has conducted airstrikes against Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi's forces for over a month now.

The relevant UN mandate, resolution 1973, identifies gross and systematic human rights violations. In response, the Security Council mandated an international coalition to use all necessary means to protect the threatened civilian populations, with the very important caveat that an occupying army could not be deployed.

However, protecting civilians does not necessarily require the overthrow of Gadhafi, according to Thomas Bruha, the chairman of the German Association for the United Nations.

"Whether or not the relevant actors decided to pursue this goal is another question," Bruha told Deutsche Welle. "Viewed realistically, it naturally happens that as one pursues the goals included in the legal mandate, one also has other goals in mind. That does not make the military action immediately illegal. But it does make it politically questionable."

Responsibility to protect

The UN resolutions that mandated the use of force in Libya and Ivory Coast clearly base themselves on the emerging global norm called "Responsibility to Protect" (R2P).

According to R2P, the international community has a responsibility to protect civilians from gross human rights violations when the relevant national government proves unable or unwilling to do the same. The concept was developed in the aftermath of the failure of the international community to stop the 1994 genocide in Rwanda.

Libya and Ivory Coast are the first cases where the UN clearly referred to R2P as a justification for intervention. Although the principle is not directly embedded in the UN's charter, Bruha believes R2P derives its legitimacy from a more fundamental source.

"The responsibility to protect can already justify itself on the basis of human rights, especially the UN human rights conventions," Bruha said.

"All the states that signed these human rights conventions are obligated not only to refrain from violating human rights, but are also required to actively protect these rights where they are being violated. That is particularly the case with the right to life."

Selective intervention

However, the question remains why the international community chooses to intervene in some conflicts and not in others. While the UN acted relatively quickly in the cases of Libya and Ivory Coast, the Security Council did very little to stop human rights violations in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Sudan.

British and American UN ambassadors voting in favor of Libyen no-fly zone

The Security Council inconsistently protects human rights

"It is not morally and ethically satisfying," Bruha said. "But international law derives itself from the life and breath of the international community, where differing constellations of particular national interests still serve as the political foundation for doing business."

Above all, the competing national interests of the five veto-wielding permanent members of the UN Security Council - US, Britain, France, Russia and China - makes it simply impossible to clearly lay out the goals of an intervention. Real politics still decides when and how the UN acts as a protector of human rights.

For Bruha, this is an imperfect solution in an imperfect world.

"Better to act inconsistently and protect human rights sometimes than to act consistently and never intervene to uphold those rights," he said.

Author: Sandra Petersmann/ sk
Editor: Rob Mudge

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