Africa and the Roots of Responsibility to Protect

Tasneem Jamal Defence & Human Security

John Siebert

The Ploughshares Monitor Winter 2009 Volume 30 Issue 4

It may surprise some Canadians that leading African spokespersons have embraced the responsibility to protect, or R2P, as a particularly African contribution to human rights standards. After all, Canada initiated the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS) that led to the foundational report for the concept in 2001 (ICISS 2001).

The Researchers’ Preface to the ICISS background documentation indicates that R2P did not emerge ex nihilo. It rests on a foundation of past debate and practice. “The task given to us by ICISS was to lay out in straightforward and non-argumentative terms the main issues behind the debate about humanitarian intervention that has taken place over the last decade” (Weiss & Hubert 2001, p. X).

Africa’s evolving R2P security culture

Africa’s evolving peace and security architecture fits not only within the broader international stream of “humanitarian intervention” that preceded the ICISS, but is considered by some Africans as a specifically African tributary of that stream.

Algerian diplomat Mohamed Sahnoun (2009), a former top UN official and one of the co-chairs of the ICISS, recently wrote that “unlike other regions, our [i.e., African] legal systems have long acknowledged that in addition to individuals, groups and leaders having rights, they also have reciprocal duties. So the responsibility to protect is in many ways an African contribution to human rights.”

In the 1990s African intergovernmental organizations were part of a developing security culture marked by a normative affirmation of the primacy of the needs of citizens. Musifiky Mwanasali (2006, pp. 90-91) identifies a number of factors influencing this changing security culture:

  • Emphasis on the protection of civilians in international humanitarian law;
  • The democracy movement promoting the rule of law, personal freedoms, and renewed political institutions; and
  • Citizen demands for participation and transparency in governance.

The 1990s also witnessed the accelerated passing from the scene of the political “grand old men” of Africa’s immediate post-colonial period. In the wake of their passing a newer generation of African politicians, public servants, and military leaders surveyed the littered landscape of non-democratic leadership with its fixation on regime survival rather than the security and prosperity of Africans more generally. They were working for more responsive and accountable national and intergovernmental leadership.

The striking difference introduced with the 2001 ICISS Report on R2P, which distinguishes it from the previous “humanitarian assistance” stream, is characterized by commentators as: 1) a shift of focus from state sovereignty to state responsibility for the well being of its citizens; and 2) the obligation of the international community to intervene in the specific case of the four violations of international law (genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity, and ethnic cleansing) where a country is unwilling or unable to protect its citizens (Evans 2006). Brunnee and Toope (2006, p. 8) conclude, “the responsibility to protect could well be of a different order. It could entail a fundamental conceptual shift, rooted in prior developments, but going much further….”

Sudanese diplomat and scholar, Francis Deng (1996), helped to define this transformation with normative advances centered on transforming the principle of sovereignty as non-interference to “sovereignty as responsibility.”

One result of this African affirmation that states bear responsibility for the well-being of their own citizens, even beyond individual state borders, was the embedding of the principles of R2P-like intervention in the African Union Constitutive Act (2002). Article 4(h) affirms
the right of the Union to intervene in a Member State pursuant to a decision of the Assembly in respect of grave circumstances, namely: war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity.

The African Union (AU) commitment explicitly to R2P was reiterated prior to the September 2005 World Summit in the March Ezulwini Consensus (2005). The African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights (2007), to which all AU members subscribe, further reinforced in November 2007 the responsibility of states to safeguard their citizens with respect to the principle that gross and widespread violations of human rights give effect to consideration of an R2P intervention. It is widely recognized that these commitments mark a very different orientation for the AU from that of its predecessor, the Organization of African Unity from an ethos of non-interference to one of non-indifference.

To give greater effect to its commitments and provide a means for “African solutions to African problems,” the AU is establishing a peace and security architecture, whose centrepiece is the African Standby Force (ASF). Targeted to be ready for deployment by 2010, the ASF is to cooperate with the UN and subregional African organizations in conducting peace operations. The ASF plan is to have five subregional brigades in the standby force, working with the Economic Community of West African States, the Intergovernmental Authority on Development, the Southern African Development Community, the Economic Community of Central African States, and the Arab Maghreb Union. In addition to the ASF, other planned parts of the AU peace and security architecture are an early warning system, as well as a Panel of the Wise to assist with preventing the outbreak or escalation of conflict (Puley 2005, pp. 10-11).

The evolving AU security culture of non-indifference and R2P affirmations has its parallels in subregional African intergovernmental organizations, including the Economic Community of West African States and the Southern African Development Community, as well as the East Africa Community, and the International Conference on the Great Lakes Region (2009).

African CSOs that have sponsored events and made public statements in support of their governments’ commitments to R2P include the Eastern Africa Civil Society Organizations’ Forum (2009), the East Africa Law Society (2008), and the Great Lakes Parliamentary Forum on Peace – AMANI Forum (2008).

Commitment and capacity

That there was and remains a large gap between a continentwide African commitment to R2P, and African capacity and willingness to act, is also noted by Mwanasali (2004, p. 26): “The notion that the AU constitutes a regional security community may strike some with incredulity, considering all the challenges facing the continental organization and its (sometimes unfair) reputation of inefficiency.”

Inclusive intergovernmental bodies such as the AU are not performance based but aspirational in nature. All the states in a region or subregion are by definition included. States join based on their stated commitment to adhere to the principles and goals of the organization, but do not have to demonstrate the attainment of those goals or the implementation of the principles prior to joining. Moving from aspiration to implementation of R2P isn’t a challenge unique to Africa.

This article is taken from “R2P and the IGAD Sub-Region: Lessons for the AU Security Architecture” from the forthcoming book Crafting an African Security Architecture: Addressing Regional Peace and Conflict in the 21st Century, edited by Hany Besada, to be published by Ashgate in Summer 2010.



African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights. 2007. ACHPR/Res.117 (XXXXII) 07: Resolution on Strengthening the Responsibility to Protect in Africa. November.

African Union. 2002. Constitutive Act of the African Union.

———. 2005. The Ezulwini Consensus.

Brunnee, Jutta and Stephen J. Toope. 2006. Norms, Institutions and UN Reform: The Responsibility to Protect. Behind the Headlines 63:3.

Deng, F. et al. 1996. Sovereignty as Responsibility: Conflict Management in Africa. Washington, DC: The Brookings Institution.

East Africa Law Society. 2008.

Eastern Africa Civil Society Organizations’ Forum. 2009. Taken from ICRtoP participates in Eastern Africa Civil Society Forum (EACSOF), RtoP included in final communiqué. International Coalition for The Responsibility to Protect.

Evans, Gareth. 2006. The Responsibility to Protect: From an Idea to an International Norm. Keynote Opening Address by Gareth Evans, President of International Crisis Group and Co-Chair of International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty, to the Chicago Council on Global Affairs et al. Conference on The Responsibility to Protect: Engaging America, Chicago, November 15, International Crisis Group.

Great Lakes Parliamentary Forum on Peace – AMANI Forum. 2008. Global Consultative Roundtables on the Responsibility to Protect: Perspectives from East Africa and the Horn. Civil Society Consultation Conference Report: Discussion Draft, April 17-18, Metropole Hotel, Kampala, Uganda.

International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty. 2001. The Responsibility to Protect. IDRC: Ottawa.

International Conference on the Great Lakes Region. 2009.

Mwanasali, Musifiky. 2004. Emerging security architecture in Africa. Centre for Policy Studies, Johannesburg, February.

———. 2006. Africa’s Responsibility to Protect. Adekeye Adebajo and Helen Scanlon, eds. A Dialogue of the Deaf: Essays on Africa and the United Nations. The Centre for Conflict Resolution, South Africa.

Puley, Greg. 2005. The Responsibility to Protect: East, West, and Southern African Perspectives on Preventing and Responding to Humanitarian Crises. Project Ploughshares Working Paper 05-5. Prepared for Africa Peace Forum, African Women’s Development and Communication Network, Africa Institute of South Africa, and Project Ploughshares, September.

Sahnoun, Mohamed. 2009. Africa: Uphold Continent’s Contribution to Human Rights, Urges Top Diplomat., July 21.

Weiss, Thomas G. & Don Hubert. 2001.ICISS, The Responsibility to Protect: Research, Bibliography, Background. IDRC: Ottawa.

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