Advancing Human Protection Through Multilateralism

03 February 2021   ·   Jennifer M. Welsh

The agenda to protect populations in situations of violent conflict faces an uphill battle in today’s multilateral institutions. Germany can prevent a backsliding on the agenda by pursuing pragmatic multilateralism that starts with an acknowledgement of its own responsibility for protection and a willingness to form coalitions with a new set of partners.

In his remarks to the UN Security Council in December 2020, marking the conclusion to Germany’s stint as an elected member, Ambassador Christoph Heusgen spoke pointedly about the consequences of multilateral failures. “This Council will lose its legitimacy”, he warned, “if it ceases to be concerned about the fate of individuals, about their protection and security.” Germany’s Security Council term coincided with a particularly dark chapter in that body’s performance in managing threats to peace and security. Despite Secretary General António Guterres’ proclamation that COVID-19 represented “the gravest threat” to the UN since the founding of the organization,  the Council failed to support his call for a global ceasefire to enable organizations working in conflict-zones to redirect their attention to fighting the pandemic, or to overcome divisions among its members over the renewal of arrangements for lifesaving cross-border humanitarian aid flows into Syria.

Multilateralism Is Key to Preserving the Protection Agenda

This contrasts to the late 1990s and early 2000s when elected Council members were able to leverage multilateral mechanisms to advance a more expansive understanding of the UN Charter’s commitment to security – what Kofi Annan referred to as the security of individual human beings as well as of states.  The emergence at the turn of the new millennium of two normative agendas – the Protection of Civilians (PoC) and the Responsibility to Protect (RtoP) - was a direct response to the perceived failures of states and multilateral institutions to protect populations in the former Yugoslavia and in Rwanda, and the need to strengthen the broader protection obligations of UN forces and Member States.

When reflecting on where this protection agenda stands today, it is worth remembering that multilateralism is ultimately a means and not an end. Although it serves other important objectives along the way – such as diluting the impact of asymmetric power and bringing weaker or marginalized voices to the table – its value derives from its capacity to deliver solutions to real-world problems. And while creative institutional design or reform might help at the margins, effective multilateralism rests on both a shared conception and common ownership of those problems.

The Protection Agenda Is Being Eroded by Stronger Resistance and Weaker Defense

For an actor like Germany, which is instinctively committed to multilateralism, the current context for promoting protection must seem, at best, ‘inhospitable’. After almost two decades of (relatively) successful norm diffusion and institutionalization, the protection agenda is confronting a number of countervailing forces.

The first is more assertive contestation of the protection agenda itself, including the creative reinterpretation of key principles such as RtoP in ways that elevate state responsibility for protection and downplay the role of the international community. The second is the on-going resistance of key players, most notably China and Russia, to identify protection crises as legitimate matters of international concern and action. The third is a shift in priorities among states that were previously active supporters of PoC and RtoP (such as Australia, Canada, and the UK), who are preoccupied with domestic challenges, regional crises, and other pressing transnational issues. This is exacerbated by the waning intensity of civil society activism on PoC and RtoP – like the ‘Save Darfur’ coalition – that might publicly pressure states into taking action. A final challenge is increased worry about the viability of protection mandates in peace operations – not only among Member States but also within the UN Secretariat itself. As key missions such as MONUSCO and UNAMID ‘transition’ to a different type of footprint, calls to rethink the purpose and conventional model of peacekeeping are growing louder.

So how can countries such as Germany employ multilateralism to navigate these challenges? Three operating principles might help to ‘hold the line’ and prevent significant backsliding on protection: pragmatism, shared responsibility, and partnership. Germany has some relevant experience with the first, should rethink its approach with respect to the second, and could seize new opportunities with the third.

Germany Should Promote a Pragmatic Multilateralism that Searches for Common Ground

While the first mantra may not seem novel to most diplomats, our era of geopolitical rivalry gives it new relevance: search relentlessly, and pragmatically, for common ground. In doing so, Germany already has one ‘win’ to build upon.

Despite intense political divisions over whether and how to address the unfolding humanitarian crisis in Venezuela in 2019, and a raucous Security Council meeting chaired by Germany’s Permanent Representative, multilateral diplomacy did help to facilitate the improved delivery of humanitarian assistance to needy populations and greater attention to the situation of Venezuelan refugees in neighbouring countries.

What’s the lesson? Even when deep cleavages between Great Powers might appear to crowd out the potential for promoting protection, the investment of political capital and creative collaboration with non-state actors can move the dial – even if modestly. By framing the situation in Venezuela in terms of a public health emergency, and bringing medical experts to brief the Council, the diplomatic effort meeting sought to focus attention on the denial of basic rights to food and healthcare, rather than on how to support the political opposition or facilitate regime change. In our context of deep political cleavages, protection goals are most likely to be served by seeking a basic objective that most parties can embrace, or at least live with.

Western States Should Acknowledge Their Own Responsibilities in Conflict Situations

For many Western states, multilateral efforts connected to PoC and RtoP have long been focused on assisting other actors or societies in the task of protection. It is about ‘us’ helping ‘them’ through foreign policy. But in an era in which claims about the superiority of Western models or approaches seem to pack much less punch, multilateral action to promote protection has to start by acknowledging our own risk factors that could escalate into atrocity crimes and our own role in conflict situations that place populations in peril.

One example of a reluctance to embrace shared responsibility is Germany and France’s 2019 Call for Action to bolster respect for international humanitarian law (IHL), which to date has only garnered 26 state signatures. While the goals of the initiative are laudable, they point the finger primarily at others - emphasizing the importance of training “partner armed forces” and non-state armed actors. Germany, along with many other Western states, also have not yet responded tangibly to the Secretary General’s call for all UN Member States to develop national policy frameworks to ensure respect for IHL.

A similar problem has marked Germany’s engagement on the leading cause of harm to civilian populations: the use of explosive weapons in populated areas (EWIPA). Its diplomacy has fed the impression that the central issue is the behaviour of non-state armed groups and not that of ‘responsible’, law-abiding states. In order to gain traction, today’s protection agenda must be owned by and applied to all UN members.  

Germany Can Look Out For New Partners to Support Civilian Self-Protection

The theme of shared responsibility also extends to an area of opportunity for new policy development and multilateral engagement on protection: the impetus to support community-based protection, or what is sometimes called civilian self-protection. Rather than seeing civilian populations purely as victims, or as objects of international assistance or armed protection, both scholars and policymakers are now acknowledging the ways in which civilians act to protect themselves and how such strategies might be better supported. The UN itself is exploring and experimenting with supporting community-based protection, particularly in mission contexts where it is preparing for exit. When resources are increasingly scarce, international actors must find an effective programing space between the two extremes of emergency humanitarian relief and protection through ‘boots on ground’.

If the future of PoC rests, in part, on enabling civilian populations to protect themselves, then multilateral diplomacy and donor support for such a shift is urgently required. During Germany’s term on the Security Council, another non-permanent member, Indonesia, took modest but significant steps to place community-based protection on the Council’s agenda and to begin building a cross-regional coalition. If Germany still seeks to advance protection through multilateralism, it will need to look beyond the traditional cast of Western characters, who were so crucial to the birth of the protection agenda two decades ago, and partner with those who are likely to be a central part of its future.

English Multilateralismus Protection

Jennifer M. Welsh

Jennifer M. Welsh is the Canada 150 Research Chair in Global Governance and Security at McGill University and the Director of the Centre for International Peace and Security Studies (CIPSS). From 2013-2016, she served as the Special Adviser to the UN Secretary General on the Responsibility to Protect.