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Where is the ‘responsibility to protect’ in Gaza?

On October 18, the Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect (GCR2P) published an open letter calling for an immediate ceasefire in Israel’s war on Gaza, which has put the territory on “the precipice of a humanitarian catastrophe”. Within a week, it was signed by more than 460 NGOs from all over the world.

Even before the latest Israeli war on Gaza, the GCR2P, which was founded in 2008 to promote the doctrine of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P), issued five warnings this year about atrocities being committed by Israel in the occupied Palestinian territories.

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An August 31 report highlighted the “systematic nature of [Israel’s] human rights violations and inhumane acts” in the occupied Palestinian territories, amounting to crimes against humanity or war crimes, including collective punishments and the imposition of an “apartheid”.

Interestingly, some of the most fervent supporters of the R2P doctrine and backers of the GCR2P, the United States and European countries, do not seem to agree with the centre’s assessment of the situation in Gaza. Nor are they upholding the “responsibility to protect” in the case of the Palestinian people being indiscriminately killed by the Israeli forces. Rather they are actively aiding and abetting Israeli war crimes, flouting international legal principles they have spent decades rhetorically promoting.

The emergence of R2P

The roots of the R2P doctrine can be traced back to the international reaction to the recurrence of mass atrocities in conflicts in Bosnia, Rwanda and elsewhere in the 1990s.

Given that the UN was established on the principle of deterring mass atrocities, such as the Holocaust, the proliferation of such crimes, even in the heart of Europe, rang alarm bells in the “never again” camp.

In the run-up to the adoption of R2P, many regional and international actors felt compelled to intervene in civil conflicts. From the early 1990s, the Organisation of African Unity (renamed the African Union in 2002), championed a more proactive stance towards promoting peace, security, democracy and development on the continent.

Sub-regional bodies such as ECOWAS in West Africa and IGAD in East Africa were already actively involved in tackling protracted conflicts in their neighbourhoods, often intervening militarily to end civil wars or reverse military coups. In Europe, the NATO intervention in Kosovo in 1999 cited principles of international humanitarianism.

The UN has practised international interventions since its inception and continues to do so. However, the idea of R2P went beyond habitual international peacekeeping by making sovereignty, a cornerstone of the UN system, conditional.

This idea was first explored in a 1996 book, Sovereignty as Responsibility: Conflict Management in Africa, published by the US-based Brookings Institution. The lead author was the Sudanese-born scholar and diplomat, Francis Deng.

It was further developed in a 2001 report entitled The Responsibility to Protect, published by the Canadian-sponsored International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS), led by former Australian foreign minister Gareth Evans.

The report argued that international intervention to protect civilians from mass atrocities, including genocide and ethnic cleansing, should happen only when the relevant sovereign state fails to discharge this responsibility. In such a case, the international community should try to assist the affected state or intervene peacefully. Military intervention should be a last resort proportional measure, with good intentions and reasonable prospects of success.

In 2005, the World Summit was held at the UN headquarters in New York to address a number of pressing global issues. R2P was among the main commitments expressed in the World Summit Outcome Document, signed unanimously by 170 heads of state and government.

Since its adoption, the doctrine was invoked in quite a few UN Security Council resolutions, starting with Resolution 1706 on Darfur in 2006, followed by Resolutions 1970 and 1973 on Libya, Resolution 1975 on Côte d’Ivoire and Resolution 2014 on Yemen – all issued in 2011.

The resolution on Libya was followed by international intervention in its civil war, which provoked a strong backlash from Russia and China and raised fears that it was used to pave the way for wilful regime change rather than peace enforcement.

R2P failure in Palestine

Article 139 of the Outcome Document stipulates: “We are prepared to take collective action, in a timely and decisive manner, through the Security Council … should peaceful means be inadequate and national authorities are manifestly failing to protect their populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity”.

The case of Palestine clearly fits in this definition. For decades, there has been manifest and repeated failure by “national authorities” – in this case, the occupying power, Israel – to protect the population under its authority against the atrocities listed above. The situation in Gaza now should also call for the application of R2P.

Israel is committing a growing number of war crimes in the enclave: systematically targeting civilian residencies and killing whole families, forcibly displacing over a million people, deliberately bombarding hospitals and schools, and intentionally depriving the whole civilian population of water, food, medicines and fuel.

Gaza is practically a ward of the international community. As an occupied territory, with no independent statehood, no recognised government and no army, the state stipulated by R2P as the first line for civilian protection does not exist. The occupying power is the one perpetrating the atrocities, in contravention of all international norms, instruments and treaties.

Additionally, the international community as a whole, and the UN in particular, are doubly responsible for the current plight of the Indigenous Palestinian population. In 1947, the UN passed the resolutions that created Israel, but since then has failed to face up to the consequences of its actions, as Israeli governments have violated every provision in the international rule book.

The resulting dispossession and continued victimisation of the Palestinians have not resulted in resolute international action. In fact, the proverbial “international community” is continuing to punish Palestinians for their misfortune, turning them into permanent refugees, in their homeland and everywhere else. Worse still, members of this international community are subsiding the Israeli efforts to evict Palestinians from their homes, but then refuse to welcome them as refugees.

Today, the international community is complicit in atrocities in Gaza, where civilians have nowhere to go to escape the bombing. There is nowhere to be “ethnic cleansed” to.

A failed doctrine?

Those who remain silent in the face of this televised barbarism are complicit. Those who aid and abet the Israeli crimes are directly responsible for them.

Repeating and endorsing the genocidal rhetoric of Israel’s most extremist government, parroting its incendiary propaganda, and offering weapons, cash and intelligence support for the genocidal assault on civilians are certainly criminal acts.

Reflecting on this reality, Crispin Blunt, a conservative member of the British parliament, has threatened to sue British government ministers for complicity in Israeli war crimes in Gaza. Victims of atrocities also could, and should, take their tormentors to the International Criminal Court (ICC).

Ironically, the states that are enabling Israeli atrocities are also some of the erstwhile champions of the R2P doctrine and the ICC as the ultimate haven of justice against the most depraved of transgressors.

Observing leaders of the most powerful countries ganging up to mobilise the world’s most formidable arsenals and fleets against the poorest and most oppressed inhabitants of the earth, is a lesson in moral blindness. It appears to vindicate critics of R2P who have been arguing that the doctrine has always been a subterfuge for thinly disguised imperialism under false moral pretence.

I beg to differ. I believe that the doctrine has emerged in a period where the West in general and Europe in particular felt they could afford to act ethically. The end of the Cold War, coupled with the so-called “revolution in military affairs”, generated a “surplus of security”, and made the West feel invincible. Like the superheroes of fiction, they could fly to the rescue of victims without fear of any consequences.

The October 7 attack by Hamas revived insecurities generated by Western misadventures in the region. What stands out in the Hamas attack was not so much its brutality, but its audacity. The resistance movement has perpetrated many brutal acts in the past, such as indiscriminate suicide bombings. Its recent operation on October 7, however, was marked by military professionalism and sophistication.

Not only did Hamas fighters breach the post-modern defensive systems of the world’s most paranoid state, but they also took full control of territory for a few days, with the Israeli army and state in total paralysis. The realisation of total vulnerability has caused Spartan Israel, currently under the control of its most militaristic mavericks, to lose it.

Interestingly, Israel and its core backers appear more convinced today than Hamas that the Israeli state is in real danger of collapse. As I have argued elsewhere, hysterical narratives of insecurity are what makes actors see genocide as the proverbial “lesser evil”. Ironically, it also sets them on the path of self-destruction.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.

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