Webcast Recap

On September 29, 2009, the Project on Leadership and Building State Capacity co-hosted the launch of Oxfam International's report on protection of civilians.

Edmund Cairns, Senior Advisor and Report Author
Oxfam Great Britain

Victoria K. Holt, Senior Associate; Co-Director, Future of Peace Operations Program
The Henry L. Stimson Center

J. Alexander Thier, JD, Senior Rule of Law Advisor
United States Institute of Peace

Eric Schwartz, Executive Director
Connect U.S. Fund

Mark L. Schneider, Senior Vice President and Special Adviser
International Crisis Group

The principle of protecting civilians in conflict is enshrined in the Geneva Convention of 1949, but after 60 years in practice, it has been either ignored or seriously violated in times of war, interstate and intrastate alike. On September 29th, 2008, a panel of experts gathered at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars to offer some insightful suggestions for the incoming 44th President, with the purpose of improving methods to help protect civilians in a multi-polar world. The discussion is based upon the newly published report, For a Safer Tomorrow: Protecting Civilians in a Multipolar World from event co-sponsor Oxfam International.

Mark L. Schneider, an expert at the International Crisis Group, initiated the discussion by acknowledging the contribution of the report, in terms of raising awareness of deficits in civilian protection efforts and their implications in the current global context. In order to take, "never again," beyond rhetoric, he pointed out the importance of identifying conditions that are likely to engender mass violence against civilians, knowing what needs to be done under what circumstances, and recognizing which actors are in the right position to implement those protections. As he mentioned later on, four progressive steps have been taken since the end of Cold War: (1) the expansion of United Nations peace operations; (2) strong demands from the international community to hold criminals accountable for their behavior; (3) the establishment of special International War Crimes Tribunals and the permanent International Criminal Court; and (4) the UN General Assembly's adoption of the concept of "Responsibility to Protect" (R2P) at the 2005 World Summit. He placed special emphasis on R2P, which has three critical components: (1) responsibility to prevent root causes and immediate sparks of conflicts; (2) responsibility to react and combine human needs with effective measures across the spectrum of diplomacy, humanitarian intervention, commissions of inquiry, arms embargoes, economic sanctions, and coercive use of force; and (3) responsibility to rebuild the society after military intervention, which encompasses full assistance in recovery, reconstruction, and reconciliation. In the end, Mr. Schneider echoed a point made in the report that with 46 countries at risk for conflict, the current prevention measures taken by United States and the United Nations are inadequate.

Edmund Cairn began his speech by casting doubt on the assertion that we are living in the most peaceful time in our species history. Considering the combined effects of climate change, continued poverty and inequality, and proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, he predicts a rising number of armed conflicts over the coming years. Among three million people who live at the recipient end of humanitarian aid, many are the victims of today's unresolved conflicts. It is also projected that in the coming decade, more than half of the world's population will be at risk due to the same reasons listed above. However, positive lessons have been drawn from the case of Kenya's post-election violence in 2008, which illustrated the tangible impact of R2P during a real crisis by showing the improving performance and effectiveness of pressure from the United Nations. Cairn also mentioned that controlling the export of conventional weapons will be vital to the success of civilian protection. Mr. Cairn lauded the effort of Oxfam to produce the report, calling it a "wake-up call" for follow-up discussions. He finished by saying that the United States is not alone in tackling the problems emerging from conflicts around the world, but it should be positioned at the center of command and be prepared to do more.

Eric Schwartz unfolded a nine-point package of diplomatic recommendations for the audience to consider, and prescribed a top-down approach to civilian protection in conflict. Schwartz recommended that the incoming president articulate his support for protecting civilians, and that the United States adopt a multi-faceted approach to fulfill these humanitarian obligations. As such, the president should increase funding for building civilian capacity within the State Department, and dispatch diplomats to the centers of emergencies where the lives of the civilians are at risk. Mr. Schwartz pointed out the Security Council would be stronger and more strategically effective with increased accountability as well as inclusion of Russia and China in the civilian protection discussion. Moreover, enhancing the capacity of regional organizations, particularly the African Union, would also promote diplomatic approaches on the ground.

J. Alexander Thier expressed concern over implementation of civilian protection and the role of individual decision making. Speaking from his personal experience, Mr. Thier emphasized the importance of prevention at the earliest signs of atrocities and war. He posited that preventive action is not only feasible but necessary to increase the cost-effectiveness of conflict resolution. Prevention can be successful when it takes into consideration the underlying causes of conflict as well as the means and motives of leaders engaging in the conflict. But that doesn't prevent it from running into the critical counter-factual problem, which means that once a conflict has been successfully prevented, involved parties and observers cannot definitively prove whether the conflict would actually have happened or not. This increases the difficulty of convincing international actors that investing in prevention is not only effective, but also fundamentally crucial to furthering the long-term goals of peace and sustainability. The overall strategy, according to Mr. Thier, should be to simultaneously reduce capacity and motivation for violence while increasing social and institutional safeguards against mass violence. He concluded by prescribing the following combination of positive inducements: better constructed rule of law; security sector reform; promoting good governance; helping leaders to shift away from zero-sum-game mentality and communicate on a mutual-trust basis; and creating punitive options such as using aid conditionality to curtail leaders' resources, taking advantage of negative media coverage, and applying sanctions. In Thier's view, institutional capacity, leadership, and civil society are the top three issues to focus on when strengthening the fabric of society.

Victoria K. Holt structured her speech around four major questions: why R2P matters; why it's no longer simply a theoretical question; how we can make it our priority; and how could we choose the future we like, with a concentration on R2P and preventive action. She agreed that R2P is no longer a theoretical question but a reality that places weighty responsibilities on states. The Genocide Prevention Task Force found that genocide is usually state-based and linked to war, but she is still optimistic because over 80,000 UN peacekeepers are now on the ground who recognize protecting civilians as a major component of their mandate. It has to be admitted, however, that challenges still exist and many conditions will continue to constrain the capacities of the UN peace operations. In the face of these challenges, Holt recommended first, laying out the basic concepts upon which we can build up international consensus, such as the meaning of protection in a military operation, the doctrine of humanitarian intervention, and rules of engagement. In addition, the international community should plan their strategy ahead of time to take control of the situation before a potential conflict escalates and civilians are threatened.

The panelists arrived at the conclusion that political will alone would not be sufficient to stop violence worldwide. Willingness to act must be coupled with empowered institutions, wise prioritization of issues, and wise allocation of limited resources. The United States should play a leading role in civilian protection, for the sake of its own credibility and stability, and to improve the well-being of civilians living in volatile regions.

Drafted by Zhu Sha
Intern for the Project on Leadership and Building State Capacity