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Observations and reflections of the role of R2P at the UN

I am fortunate enough to be an intern at the United Nations HQ in New York for 5 weeks with The Temple of Understanding: an interfaith NGO which specialises in interfaith education, which acts as a platform for other issues such as human rights, ecological justice and food sovereignty to be discussed and tackled. On a daily basis most of my time is spent observing UN meetings on a range of topics and issues.

A General Assembly discussion which has resonated particularly strongly with me, not least because it’s a topic that’s been discussed in my lectures and tutorials at The University of St Andrews, was the doctrine of Responsibility to Protect (or R2P), and its importance in giving the UN a mandate to step in to protect minorities under persecution when the sovereign state fails to do so. R2P, adopted into the UN Charter in 2001, gives states a primary responsibility to protect their citizens, and when they fail to do so the international community has an obligation to step in.

It is clear that 70 years on from the signing of the Convention on the Prevention of Genocide various ethnic and religious minorities across the world remain under significant persecution. The socio-economic impacts triggered by subsequent displacement of persecuted groups has implications for millions more. It is surprising to me that this meeting was the first to discuss R2P’s role in protecting citizens in 9 years, given the clear awareness of all member-state representatives to contemporary events surrounding the persecution, forced displacement and genocide of minorities including the Yazidis and Rohingya.

Virtually every representative reiterated the importance of the doctrine in fulfilling its primary purpose of giving the UN a mandate to step in and protect citizens under persecution. Regardless, the emphasis rested on prevention being more ideal than cure. This was asserted especially strongly by the representatives of San Marino, the Philippines and Vietnam. In particular, identifying the causes of racism and rooting them out struck me as being the foremost way to prevent these crises happening in the first place. This is notwithstanding strengthening the role played by women and reaffirming the importance of discussion and dialogue as equally important methods to avert persecution escalating into something much more serious.

However, tension between the sovereignty of the nation-state and UN was almost tangible in the points brought forward by the representatives of Venezuela and China as well as others. Both asserted that the international community should not interfere with the internal affairs of the state unless they absolutely have to.This discussion is a small part of debates already surrounding the UN and its role in international affairs. Venezuela highlighted that the UN is inherently threatened by being used by nation-states for their own political objectives. The representative argued that without a clear definition of R2P, there is an especially high risk of this occurring.

I was fortunate enough to to be able to interview a human rights activist working for the Alliance for Peace, Democracy and Human Rights in Iraq. Like myself, he was involved in observing the Annual International Human Rights Youth Conference. I questioned him on the Yazidi Genocide, the UN’s involvement (plus that of coalition nation-states), and if the intervention had had any success. He was clear that the reaction to the genocide was delayed by disagreements between nation-states/non-state actors, such as the Iraqi and Kurdish forces, but when they started to cooperate they made a positive impact. I found it somewhat unsurprising that the coalition, led the US, has enjoyed a higher degree of success. I would argue that this is because they are more greatly aligned around similar political goals. Unfortunately, he argued the UN’s contribution to protecting the Yazidis was less prominent, though acceptable.

The doctrine of R2P is one of the most central principles guiding the UN’s role and actions on the international stage. The call for nation-states to retain their sovereignty was most poignant, and it is clear the UN’s role in protecting citizens is unlikely to grow, and will remain somewhat secondary to the responsibility of the nation-state.

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