The UN Security Council's Role in Humanitarian Crises

The principle of ‘Responsibility to Protect’ is the recognised obligation of the states and the international community to protect human rights and the obligation of the international community or institutions like the Security Council to take intervention action if the state in which the humanitarian crisis has occurred, has failed to take such action. This essay critically assesses whether the adoption of the ‘Responsibility to Protect’ really enhanced the UN Security Council’s ability to respond to intra-state humanitarian crises. The essay argues that the Security Council’s responses to intra-state humanitarian crises can be characterised as non-uniform and inconsistent because while there are instances where the Security Council has acted in the case of intra-state humanitarian crises and at the same time, there are other instances where the Security Council has failed to take appropriate action. This essay also argues that the reason for the inconsistent approach of the Security Council can be attributed to the structural gaps in the Security Council, particularly the veto power of the permanent members.

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Protection of human rights is considered to be a peremptory norm in international law, which means that it is a principle that has the status of jus cogens. As protection of human rights is considered to be jus cogens, this also lends greater legitimacy to ‘Responsibility to Protect’ principle in terms of it being used to intervene in the states’ domestic jurisdiction despite its conflict with state sovereignty. The Outcome document of the World Summit 2005 which adopted this principle also makes it clear that while the states have responsibility to protect its people and their human rights, the international community too “has the responsibility to use appropriate diplomatic, humanitarian and other peaceful means, in accordance with Chapters VI and VIII of the Charter, to help protect populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity”. Therefore, there is a clear responsibility on the states and the international community to protect people from grave human rights violations. This responsibility also extends to the Security Council. While the principle of non-intervention is provided in Article 2(7) of the UN Charter, the principle of ‘Responsibility to Protect’ is an exception that can be applied in the situation involving humanitarian crisis anywhere in the world; moreover there is also prohibition of the use of force in Article 2(4) as well as protection of human rights in Article 1(3). This is done through humanitarian intervention, which is the "use of armed force by one state against another to protect the nationals of the latter from acts or omission of their own government which shock the conscience of mankind.”

In past, the principle of ‘Responsibility to Protect’ has been used to intervene in situations involving humanitarian crises in East Timor by the Security Council. However, the evolution of the principle of ‘Responsibility to Protect’ was in part the consequence of the failure of the Security Council to respond to situations involving intra-state humanitarian crises. An example of such an event was the 1994 Rwanda genocide, which saw a significant intra-state violence and human rights violations; another example is the failure of the UN peacekeeping force UNPROFOR to prevent the 1995 Bosnian massacre. The 1999 NATO intervention in Kosovo was a pivotal movement that preceded the adoption of the ‘Responsibility to Protect’ principle because this event led to the greater consciousness for addressing mass genocides and human rights violations in intra-state violence and crises.

  1. Natalie Oman, ‘Book Review: International Authority and the Responsibility to Protect’ (2012) 50(1) Osgoode Hall Law Journal 300.
  2. Andrea Bianchi, "Human rights and the magic of jus cogens" (2008) 19 (3) European journal of international law 491.
  3. Outcome Document, para 39.
  4. Francesco Francioni and Christine Bakker, ‘Responsibility to protect, Humanitarian intervention and Human rights: Responsibility to protect, Humanitarian intervention and Human rights: Lessons from Libya to Mali’ (Transworld April 2013) 3.
  5. Tom J. Farer, Daniele Archibugi, Chris Brown, Neta C. Crawford, Thomas G. Weiss, Nicholas J. Wheeler, ‘Roundtable: Humanitarian Intervention After 9/11’ (2005) 19(2) International Relations 211, 212.
  6. Anne Orford, Reading Humanitarian Intervention: Human Rights and the Use of Force in International Law (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2003) 25.

It is also important to note that the principle of ‘Responsibility to Protect’ is an exception to the principle of state sovereignty which is the predominant principle of international law; this also presents a challenge for the consistent application of this principle in addressing the events of intra-state humanitarian crises. This is due to the conflict between state sovereignty and the notion of ‘Responsibility to Protect’, which is based on the idea of intervention in the state where the state has been unable and unwilling to prevent human rights violations. It has also been stated that while state sovereignty often trumps human rights, in the case of genocide and mass human rights violations, this is not so because the state may not be able to prevent intervention from the United Nations Security Council. The Security Council is not always able to respond to these situations despite blatant disregard for human rights values that may be carried out in a state. There is no paucity of instances or events in the last three decades where states have committed serious crimes like genocide. However, the Security Council has not always been successful in responding to the crises. One such example that really stands out in the recent times is that of Syrian crisis, to which the Security Council has failed to address adequately. The argument of this essay is that the Security Council’s application of the Responsibility to Protect principle has been inconsistent. Examples that illustrate this argument are discussed below.

In 1991, the Security Council was successful in responding to a humanitarian crisis which was related to the ethnic minorities of Shias and Kurds in Iraq; the Council passed Resolution 688 which allowed the UN to intervene in the crisis. Under the UN Security Council resolution, refugee areas were created by the UN forces for helping organise aid for the displaced Kurds in northern Iraq. While action in Iraq was taken by the Security Council, this is not adequate to argue that Security Council is consistent in how it approaches humanitarian intervention. For example, Security Council failed to take any action in the context of humanitarian crisis in Darfur, Sudan, where more than 800,000 people were killed by the militias and government agencies. More recently, the situation in Syria and the Security Council’s failures to respond to this adequately has put the role of the Security Council under more scrutiny.

The magnitude of the humanitarian crisis in Syria is significant, with hundreds of thousands being made homeless and even stateless as refugees and the state also using chemical weapons against its own citizens. The failure of the Security Council to respond early and effectively to this event has also brought to focus the structural gaps in the Security Council, particularly the ability of one or more permanent members to veto any action that can be taken to intervene in the context of a humanitarian crisis. In the case of Syrian crisis, the position taken by Russia, which supported the Syrian government, was that no action can be taken to intervene in the situation; moreover, China also supported the Assad regime and this came in the way of taking effective action against the situation despite the human costs. Thus, while the United States supported action in Syria, Russia and China continued to support the Assad government in the early part of the crisis. The difficulty is that the Security Council cannot take any action if there is no consensus between the permanent members of the Security Council and this is a structural gap in the Security Council which comes in the way of taking such action. Eventually, the Syrian Civil War and humanitarian crisis led to the death of more than 150,000 people and displacement of millions of Syrians without the Security Council taking action. This is in contrast with the position taken by the Security Council in the context of Libya in 2011, when it adopted Resolution 1973 authorising use of force as a response to the humanitarian crisis in Libya. Resolution 1973 specifically bases itself on a principle of Responsibility to Protect when it notes that the member states are authorised to take all necessary measures to protect civilians under threat of attack, and even civilian populated areas.

  1. Francesco Francioni and Christine Bakker, Responsibility to protect, Humanitarian intervention and Human rights: Responsibility to protect, Humanitarian intervention and Human rights: Lessons from Libya to Mali (Transworld April 2013) 15.
  2. Ibid, 6.
  3. Jack Donnelly, ‘The Relative Universality of Human Rights’ (2007) 29(2) Human Rights Quarterly 281, 289.
  4. Tom J. Farer, Daniele Archibugi, Chris Brown, Neta C. Crawford, Thomas G. Weiss, Nicholas J. Wheeler, ‘Roundtable: Humanitarian Intervention After 9/11’ (2005) 19(2) International Relations 211.
  5. J Cockayne and DM Malone, ‘The Security Council and the 1991 and 2001 wars in Iraq’ in AV Lowe (ed), The United Nations Security Council and War: The Evolution of Thought and Practice since 1945 (Oxford University Press 2010) 389.
  6. Dhaphna Shraga, ‘The Security Council and Human Rights: From Discretion to Promote to Obligation to Protect Securing Human Rights?’ in Bardo Fassbender (ed), Securing Human Rights? Achievements and challenges of the UN Security Council (Oxford University Press 2011) 21.
  7. Michael Clough, ‘Darfur: Whose Responsibility to Protect?’ (January 2005) accessed
  8. MP Scharf, ‘Responding to Chemical Weapons Use in Syria’ (2019) 51 Case W. Res. J. Int'l L. 189.

The principle of ‘Responsibility to Protect’ is a significant development that allows international community to intervene in an intra-state humanitarian crisis, even though such intervention means that there is an exception to state sovereignty that is being applied under the international law. The Security Council too can resort to such intervention and has done so in some situations of humanitarian crises. However, the responses of the Security Council to different situations have not been uniform and consistent. The Security Council has not been able to respond to every situation involving humanitarian crisis and even in the recent times, the case of Syria stands out as an example that shows the structural gaps in the Security Council which disables it from taking necessary action. The flaw is in the way the powers of the permanent members of the Security Council are organised with the permanent members having the veto power by which they can prevent intervention under the principle of Responsibility to Protect. This has happened in the case of Syria where despite the magnitude of the humanitarian crisis the Security Council was not able to take effective action because of the unwillingness of Russia and China to take such action. When the case of Syria is juxta-positioned with the cases of Iraq and Libya, it can be said that the approach is not consistent.

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  1. Minerva Nasser-Eddine, ‘How R2P failed Syria’ (2012) 28 FJHP 16, 23.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Report of the Secretary-General on the Implementation of Security Council Resolution 2139 (2014), 22 May 2014, UN Doc. S/2014/365, para. 17.
  4. Nathan E. Busch and Joseph F. Pilat, ‘Disarming Libya? A reassessment after the Arab spring’ (2013) 89(2) International Affairs 451.
  5. Minerva Nasser-Eddine, ‘How R2P failed Syria’ (2012) 28 FJHP 16, 22.
Books

Cockayne J and DM Malone, ‘The Security Council and the 1991 and 2001 wars in Iraq’ in AV Lowe (ed), The United Nations Security Council and War: The Evolution of Thought and Practice since 1945 (Oxford University Press 2010).

Francioni F and Christine Bakker, ‘Responsibility to protect, Humanitarian intervention and Human rights: Responsibility to protect, Humanitarian intervention and Human rights: Lessons from Libya to Mali’ (Transworld April 2013).

Orford A, Reading Humanitarian Intervention: Human Rights and the Use of Force in International Law (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2003).

Shraga D, ‘The Security Council and Human Rights: From Discretion to Promote to Obligation to Protect Securing Human Rights?’ in Bardo Fassbender (ed), Securing Human Rights? Achievements and challenges of the UN Security Council (Oxford University Press 2011).

Journals

Bianchi B, "Human rights and the magic of jus cogens" (2008) 19 (3) European journal of international law 491.

Busch NE and Joseph F. Pilat, ‘Disarming Libya? A reassessment after the Arab spring’ (2013) 89(2) International Affairs 451.

Donnelly J, ‘The Relative Universality of Human Rights’ (2007) 29(2) Human Rights Quarterly 281.

Farer TJ, Daniele Archibugi, Chris Brown, Neta C. Crawford, Thomas G. Weiss, Nicholas J. Wheeler, ‘Roundtable: Humanitarian Intervention After 9/11’ (2005) 19(2) International Relations 211.

Nasser-Eddine M, ‘How R2P failed Syria’ (2012) 28 FJHP 16.

Oman N, ‘Book Review: International Authority and the Responsibility to Protect’ (2012) 50(1) Osgoode Hall Law Journal 300.

Scharf MP, ‘Responding to Chemical Weapons Use in Syria’ (2019) 51 Case W. Res. J. Int'l L. 189.

Reports

Report of the Secretary-General on the Implementation of Security Council Resolution 2139 (2014), 22 May 2014, UN Doc. S/2014/365, para. 17.

Websites

Clough M, ‘Darfur: Whose Responsibility to Protect?’ (January 2005) accessed

Reflection

This is a reflection on my essay writing process and how I have incorporated feedback to improve this essay. Starting this essay with the feedback of the previous essay in hand, there were three areas where I consciously tried to improve upon in this work. The first area was related to research. In the previous essay, one of the feedback comments emphasised on the need to improve the research quality of the essays and to include more sources of information from books, journals and reports. In this essay, I have tried to follow that feedback comment by incorporating more research in my essay and by referring to more academic sources including in the journals to gain a better insight and perspective on the subject. The topic itself was not a simple one with significant research required into the principle of Responsibility to Protect as well as the role played by the Security Council. Although a brief essay of 1500 words, the topic required significant research and use of many academic resources to critically discuss the topic.

The second area that I focussed on, based on the feedback comment in the previous work was related to referencing. There were two comments in this regard which I had to consider to improve on my work. The first related to the citation method to be followed, for which I was asked to follow a footnoting method instead of in text citations as I had done previously. I do admit that using the footnote method has improved the flow of the essay as the references are not distracting to the reader and the footnotes can be referred to for identifying the source of the information in the essay. The second comment with regard to the referencing was that I should try to pinpoint the page numbers of the sources as far as possible. I have done that in this essay and wherever the content in the essay is not a general argument made by the source but a specific piece of information found in a specific page, I have pinpointed the page number in the footnote.

The third area where I have tried to improve this essay, based on the comments in the feedback, is related to structure and flow of the essay. I have tried to improve the structure by incorporating the following. First, I have mentioned a clear thesis statement and the arguments in the introduction. Second, I have used topic sentences and related paragraphs to chart out a structured essay. Third, I have provided a clear conclusion that ties back to the main question asked and the summary of the arguments made and the evidence provided. I admit that there is much to be done to improve the structure further, but I feel it’s a process that I need to go through a few times before I become more adept at writing effective essays. The three pieces of feedback that were made out in the previous work have been incorporated as best as I could in this essay.


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