UN News Centre: Interview with Patricia O'Brien, USG of Legal Affairs on RtoP, inter alia
UN News Centre
19 August 2013    

Looking back on five years of service, UN Legal Counsel Patricia O’Brien (…) answers questions on Responsibility to Protect, Syria (…) and more.


UN News Centre: We’d like to move on to the principle of Responsibility to Protect.  Why has it been so difficult to employ this principle, in stopping the killing in Syria, for example? 

Patricia O’Brien:
 Well, that’s a huge question.  The Secretary-General divided the principle of Responsibility to Protect, for use and comprehension, into three pillars.  The first two are focused on prevention, the first being the responsibility of States to protect their populations from war crimes, crimes against humanity genocide and ethnic cleansing.  The second pillar is the responsibility of the international community to support States in protecting their populations.  And the third pillar, which is of course the most controversial, provides, when States are manifestly failing to protect their populations, for the international community to intervene using all the authority provided by the Charter.  This includes Chapters VI, Chapter VII and Chapter VIII. 
This is one area that has been open to a lot of misunderstanding, certainly from a legal perspective.  The rule of law weaves its way through each element of Responsibility to Protect, but most importantly in the third pillar, and this is relevant when you’ve gone beyond prevention, talking about Syria.  The misinterpretation is the suggestion that Responsibility to Protect provides a further layer of international law for humanitarian intervention when the Security Council has not given its authorization to intervene, which is the case in Syria; that there is another legal basis to actually intervene.  This is not the case as far as we are concerned. 

The legal framework, as provided by the Charter, has a prohibition on the use of force except where it’s in self-defense or where the Security Council has authorized it.  In this case, the Security Council has not authorized it.  Then the question arises, is the Responsibility to Protect relevant at all for Syria now?  I would say yes, every single day, in the form of the first pillar, prevention.  This is what [Joint Special Representative Lakhdar] Brahimi is doing and what the Secretary-General is spending so much of his time doing, even in the most recent efforts to establish a mechanism to investigate the use of chemical weapons, in order to prevent and to deter the perpetration of further crimes. The fact that the Security Council has not agreed on certain authorizations is one aspect which is, of course, unfortunate.  But we can’t lose sight of the continuing relevance of Responsibility to Protect. 

UN News Centre: Is there a clear example of where the Responsibility to Protect has been applied and has saved lives with the necessary backing of the Security Council that you have described? 

Patricia O’Brien:
 Well, the obvious situation is Libya. But the Secretary-General’s efforts in so many other areas have had a very positive effect in the context of Responsibility to Protect.  Of course, we don’t have the proof that Responsibility to Protect was effective when crimes have been prevented. For example, all the efforts for Côte d’Ivoire, I think have had a success in terms of civilians and prevention of further conflict. 
Libya is the obvious example because it is the most robust application of the Responsibility to Protect, and because the Security Council for the first time actually expressly referred to the principle in its Chapter VII measures.  This gave an umbrella, if you like, for the activity that then took place.  Of course there are those who had difficulties after the NATO intervention with the use of force and how it was used, etc.  But I think also it cannot be argued against the fact that many civilian lives were saved.  It continues to be relevant for Libya in that way because we are on the ground working with the Libyans to try to ensure that there will not be a return to conflict.  That goes back to the first pillar – prevention. 

See full interview here.