Africa and the Responsibility to Protect, a Costly Political Choice

Africa and the Responsibility to Protect, a Costly Political Choice

On September 20, 2019, Country representatives at the on-going 74th Session of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA 74), voted either in favour of or against the responsibility to protect and the prevention of genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity. Surprisingly, some countries decided to abstain from voting. The responsibility to protect “embodies a political commitment to end the worst forms of violence and persecution”. The principle was formed following the inability of the international community to prevent the atrocities of the Balkans and ethnic cleansing in the Rwandan massacre of the 1990s, coupled with the public outcry, criticizing the military intervention in Kosovo by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) as overreaching and a violation of the prohibition of the use of force.

I struggle to understand why any nation within the bounds of reasonableness and good conscience would vote against a principle as laudable as the responsibility to protect. It is even worse and a sign of reckless indifference if a nation abstains from voting.

The figure below shows the outcome of the vote for the inclusion of item 131 (the responsibility to protect and the prevention of genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity) in the draft of the agenda of the 74th session of the UN General Assembly.

Source: UN General Assembly 74th Session.

The UN General Assembly is the main deliberative, policymaking and representative organ of the UN. All Member States have equal representation and each of the 193 Members in the Assembly has one vote. It is important to note that votes on all resolutions require a simple majority except recommendations on peace and security, the election of Security Council members, Economic and Social Council members, and budgetary questions which require a two-thirds majority of vote by Member States.  Unfortunately, resolutions passed by the UN General Assembly is not binding on Member States. That power resides only with the UN Security Council acting under Chapter VII of the Charter.

The non-binding power of resolutions by the UN General Assembly could partly explain why of all the 50 African countries present, only Morocco, Senegal and South Africa voted in favour of including the responsibility to protect in the agenda of the UNGA 74.


Besides the non-binding nature of the UN General Assembly resolutions, what could be the other reasons for the African countries that voted against or abstained from voting? Two reasons quickly come to mind – The unpredictability of the extent of force in military intervention where misuse is probable, and more importantly, the likelihood of undermining of State sovereignty. Interestingly, most of the countries that voted against the inclusion of the responsibility to protect on the UNGA 74 agenda are predominantly resource-rich countries which raises the question of trust. I get it.

Addressing these concerns would require credible commitment from intervening forces to abide by the spirit and letter of the principle as set out in paragraphs 138, 139 and 140, respectively. Note that the use of force applies only when appropriate diplomatic, humanitarian and other peaceful means fail to achieve the expected result. The principle expressly states that, “should peaceful means be inadequate and national authorities manifestly fail to protect their populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity”, the International Community through the United Nations would intervene to restore peace. Military intervention becomes expedient under this circumstance because the world would be playing a zero-sum game if we choose not to act in the face of unconscionable and brazen crimes against humanity.


Article 2 of the Human Rights Act clearly specifies the right to life as fundamental and sacrosanct, implying that nobody, including the Government, can try to end your life. It mandates Government to make laws and take appropriate steps to protect any life in danger of death. It is basic knowledge that no meaningful development can take place in a hostile environment. Let us awaken our consciousness by at least having these conversations and subsequently following them up with conscientious actions.

The figure below is a report by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) showing the trend in source countries of refugees as at the end of 2018. African countries make up 7 of the top 10 source countries for refugees globally.

Source: UNHCR, Global Trends Forced Displacement in 2018


While South Sudan, Somalia and Burundi recorded a drop in the number of refugee seekers year-on-year, Sudan, Democratic Republic of Congo, Central African Republic, and Eritrea increased between 2017 and 2018. Responsibility to protect matters because human lives matter.

I sincerely hope that African countries have not individually and collectively made a costly political choice by their refusal to vote in favour of the responsibility to protect. Only time will tell.

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