Action to protect people from man-made or natural calamities stands at the centre of the United Nations purposes and principles, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said today, stressing that human protection matters as much as the security of states, and is a responsibility shared by governments, business communities, and civil society.
“The founders of the United Nations understood that sovereignty confers responsibility, a responsibility to ensure protection of human beings from want, from war, and from repression,” he declared in the Cyril Foster lecture at Oxford University. “When that responsibility is not discharged, the international community is morally obliged to consider its duty to act in the service of human protection.”
Mr. Ban has made the “responsibility to protect” a hallmark of his tenure, most recently telling a seminar on genocide prevention in December that prevention is a global responsibility – when states fail to protect their populations, the international community must act.
Today, he noted that at the 2005 UN World Summit, heads of state and government embraced the responsibility to protect by preventing genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing, and crimes against humanity, including their incitement. Efforts to prevent these crimes rest on three pillars: state responsibility, international responsibility to help states to succeed and timely and decisive response should national authorities manifestly fail to protect, including under Chapter VII, if the Security Council deems such steps necessary.
Chapter VII of the UN Charter allows the Council to use force in the face of a threat to peace or aggression, taking “such action by air, sea, or land forces as may be necessary to maintain or restore international peace and security,” including blockades and other operations by the forces of member states.
Mr. Ban began his lecture on a personal note, recalling his experiences as a child witnessing the ravages of the Korean War.
“I learned about hunger, poverty and displacement in the ultimate classroom, personal experience,” he said. “Against all odds, the United Nations came to our rescue. It fed my family and my people; it helped rebuild my country. And it has given us hope. It continues to offer hope to our troubled peninsula.
“But I often wonder how many children, in similar straits, ask the same questions today that I did more than 60 years ago: Is the world listening? Will help arrive in time? Who will be there for me and my family?”
In his speech, he focussed on three areas: human protection in conflict and complex emergencies where the UN serves as fire-fighter, such as peacekeeping and disaster relief; prevention “so that fires do not happen in the first place;” and the development of standards of justice, and legal institutions promoting accountability.
He noted that peacekeepers have been entrusted with growing responsibilities not only to keep armies at bay, but to protect civilians who are prey to militias and other combatants, a task implying mobility and, in difficult terrain, air mobility.
“As we repeatedly pointed out in Sudan (where the UN is involved on two fronts, in the south and the western Darfur region), if we do not have helicopters, we are only able to field a static force,” he said.
“Securing the required resources and troops has consumed much of my energy. That experience underscores what can happen when Member States fail to provide the resources necessary to carry out the Council’s mandates.”
He also referred to Côte d’Ivoire, where former President Laurent Gbagbo clings to power despite losing elections, noting that the UN mandate there encompasses both guaranteeing the electoral process and protecting recently elected officials and vulnerable populations.
“It is a task that must be performed in the face of direct attacks, harassment and provocation,” he said. “Undoubtedly, the UN needs to perform its protection duties more effectively. Our peacekeepers are upgrading their methods of patrolling and systems of communication to cover vulnerable communities more adequately in the most difficult terrain.”
Turning to prevention, he noted that in 2010 alone, the UN supported 34 different mediation, facilitation and dialogue efforts, including easing the crisis in Kyrgyzstan and keeping the transition to democracy on track in Guinea. Work in this area includes adapting doctrines, capacities and training, and working with partners and regional organizations, he said.
On the third issue – an end to impunity – Mr. Ban cited the UN courts trying perpetrators for gross human rights violations in Rwanda and former Yugoslavia, and stressed that “it is essential that we stand firm in support” of the tribunal set up to try suspects in the 2005 murders of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri and 22 others.
“We must ask ourselves: Have our strategies and our operational practice on the ground kept pace with the ever-increasing demand for human protection?” Mr. Ban said in conclusion. “We must concede that our words are ahead of our deeds. But I am convinced this is a challenge we can meet. Momentum is on our side.
“What is required is shared responsibility between Member States and the leadership of the UN. Together, we can answer the cry of that child I mentioned before, trapped under the rubble of an earthquake, and people caught in the crossfire and those who are wondering: Can the world hear my call? Who will help me and my family?”