South Kordofan and the Meaning of Civilian Protection

July 28, 2011

Several proposals are floating around that involve military-related responses to the crisis currently threatening civilians in South Kordofan. These proposals have started me thinking about the meaning of the responsibility to protect (R2P) and the fundamental assumptions I’ve held about its implementation.

From the outset I should state that I do not believe the two major proposals are capable of achieving civilian protection goals in South Kordofan. On the contrary, I think the proposals will increase threats to civilians.

The first proposal involves arming the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA)-North. The second calls for targeted strikes aimed at Khartoum’s air assets in order to protect civilians from aerial attacks and take away the air advantage the Sudanese Armed Forces have over the SPLA in order to change the situation on the ground.

SPLA-North forces in South Kordofan (Photo Credit: Trevor Snapp - GlobalPost)

Means to Achieve Objectives

I still believe the assessment to be true that the proposed military options will increase threats to civilians. However, I’ve realized my aim has been the immediate and direct protection of civilian populations. The proposals on the other hand seem to be more interested in advancing medium-term military victories for the SPLA-North. Underlying all of this seems to be the long-term goal of regime change in Sudan as a means of permanently protecting civilians. However, it’s important to recognize that the military goals of the SPLA-North may not in all or even many instances be aligned with civilian protection nor would regime change be a guaranteed cure. That being said, what I’d like to tease out here is that the proposals come down to choosing sides by supporting those considered to be the good guys (the SPLA-North in this case), so that they may have a greater likelihood of success in pursuing their military objectives.

Any intervention relies on choosing sides. However, it is my belief that a true civilian protection mission–conducted via military intervention–would choose the side of the civilians and work to protect them directly. This assertion stems from 1) the need to provide insulation between civilian protection objectives and broader, more contentious goals, and 2) the negative consequences of relying on a party to the conflict (and potentially problematic actor) to guarantee the protection of civilians. The currently proposed, military-based options run directly counter to this belief.

In fact, the concept of R2P as adopted by the international community provides some guidance on this matter. The United Nations 2005 World Summit Outcome document detailing international community’s commitment to R2P would seem to support the assumption above. By the time R2P’s third tenant comes into play, military intervention to protect civilians relies on the collective action of the states within the international community (direct) and not on non-state actors (indirect).

This isn’t to say that non-state actors in a country will not or cannot provide protection for civilians, but that this is a challenge to be managed and not one to be directly encouraged. Parties to the conflict have many different objectives. Even if protecting civilians is one of them, it may often conflict with their other military and political goals.

Additionally, history tells us that while many parties to a conflict may be able to protect civilians, they are equally capable of targeting other civilian groups that they consider to be aligned with their enemy (e.g.: the Rwandan Patriotic Front during the 1994 Rwandan genocide and the Libyan rebels currently). This is particularly a risk when the conflict involves ethnic or other identity-based tensions. I’d argue strongly that these non-state actors mentioned above are not examples of civilian protection done well or done right. This remains true even if most would claim that the objective of protecting the original group of civilians at risk is being served. Do we care about all civilians or just the civilians targeted first? Even if this scenario were to be avoided, we must recognize that the continuation and escalation of fighting will cost civilians lives. Are we willing to risk the deaths of those being targeted now on the chance that we might be able to save the civilians we assume will be at risk tomorrow?

The means to the end must not jeopardize the end. If it does, then we shouldn’t call it R2P.

All in the Details

The current implication is that these military-related options are going to have short-term and certain results. As mentioned earlier the goals of the military-related proposals seem to be long-term “civilian protection” through regime change (or loss of regime control over South Kordofan) that may very well increase threats to civilians in the short-term. The core theory would seem to be that civilians are going to be at risk anyway as long as Bashir is in power, so you might as well go right to the cause of the problem versus responding to the symptoms. While I disagree, I can appreciate the argument as an alternative theory that some might consider an option. What concerns me is that critical points like these aren’t brought out in the broader public debate. Policymakers and potential advocates have a right to information that would help them understand the means and timeline through which the objectives would be achieved.

Further, I am very concerned by the fact that the proposals seem to assume success while completely failing to recognize and mitigate fundamental challenges that could jeopardize the goals. As recognized by this blog and others, the proposals have some serious problems and are more likely to exacerbate an already bad situation than solve it. Until realistic solutions are put forward to mitigate dangers and more accurately detail what success might look like, these proposals lack viability. Getting back to where this blog started, I would argue that–once detailed–it will become even more evident that these proposals aren’t in line with R2P and are too dangerous to be called true civilian protection solutions.


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