This is the third post in our symposium on Palestine, Israel and the Responsibility to Protect (the others can be found here, here and here). Michael Kearney is a Lecturer in Law at the University of Sussex and has written extensively on Palestine and the International Criminal Court.
My response to students’ queries on the matter of Responsibility to Protect (R2P) has generally been that the whole narrative is a bit of a distraction: R2P merely repackages a principle that already existed, namely that states have a moral – and kind of legal – obligation to act in the face of genocide and widespread human rights abuses. The ultimate sanction against a state engaged in such abuses, the use of armed force in order to protect civilians at risk, is on the R2P table, but remains subject to Security Council approval. So, R2P gives us a significant statement of intent and principle on behalf of the international community, but means very little in practice and cannot be considered as having changed international law.
As a student when R2P became a hot topic, around 2003/4, most activists were focused on Palestine and Iraq, which we saw as major human rights issues. R2P, though clearly important, was generally perceived by us as a diversion from the immediate concerns. A non-confrontational, inherently establishment and liberal- friendly north American, ‘lets make the world nice’, kind of movement, not unlike the weird ‘Stop Kony’ fad of several years later. Rather than try and fight abuses by holding power to account, R2P proponents developed a safe ‘protest’ type discourse-conversation with neo-liberal governments, essentially limited to asking them to sort out the bad guys.
We are now asking why R2P isn’t being applied to Palestine today. In reality, it never was –not at its inception and not since. The second (al Aqsa) Palestinian intifada against Israeli occupation began in September 2000, while the original International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS) report on R2P was published in December of that year. Throughout the second intifada, the invasion of Afghanistan and the invasion of Iraq, R2P supporters had nothing of consequence to say about any of this. Their enthusiasm and focus was squarely on Darfur, sometimes stretching to Burma and Zimbabwe. Those were, in keeping with the R2P paradigm, the classic bad guys. Those places were seen to have no veneer or hint of liberal democracy, unlike, for example, ‘very democratic Israel’.
I have done a search for ‘Palestine’ through the journal Global Responsibility to Protect. Only having access to issues from 2012, but Vols 1-3, 2009-11, I found a total of four mentions of ‘Palestine’ in ‘the premier journal for the study and practice of the responsibility to protect (R2P)’.
Forgive the speculative generalisation, but this capacity to not see certain massacres, while thinking that R2P could halt others, might be traced to a particular north American style liberalism, not entirely feasible in the culture on this side of the Atlantic. Such an approach can be seen in this statement made by Michael Ignatieff, academic and former leader of the Liberal Party in Canada, in which he frames the possibility and imagination of activism as so: ‘The best human rights activists can ever hope for is to keep democratic regimes honest and to shame undemocratic ones into being less brutal’.
Can political activists or legal scholars, reluctant to see the world in terms of a democratic/non-democratic binary, and who seek to further justice and human rights, think and imagine a little more broadly than this? One might suggest that the aims and purposes of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israeli institutions allied to the occupation, actually chime nicely with the R2P narrative, i.e. placing sanctions on a state perpetrating widespread human rights abuses until such time as it lives up to its obligations under international law. It could then be that the function of R2P as per Palestine has operated for many years, and vigorously so, except under the grassroots BDS banner. This movement is distinguished from the formal, academic R2P set, insofar as it is aligned against power and the western liberal states, as well as against university managers and administrators, rather than being reliant on them1.
To speak of R2P as applying to Palestinians at all, one must accept that there is a need to protect a vulnerable population against genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing, or crimes against humanity. Many people and institutions, such as Canada, refuse to acknowledge that ethnic cleansing, apartheid, war crimes, or crimes against humanity are being, or could be, perpetrated by Israel. Continue reading