OBLIGATION: The UN Charter has the promotion and encouragement of respect for human rights as one of its core purposes. Picture: THINKSTOCK

COUNTRIES are increasingly under pressure to protect the human rights of their citizens in what has become a global norm recognised by the United Nations (UN).

According to the norm, individual states have to protect their populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity. At a minimum, this entails the following:

• the state should ensure that people under its jurisdiction are not subjected to genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity;

• a state should take effective and credible measures to ensure that such things do not happen; and

• when they do happen, the state should punish those who perpetrate the atrocities and provide reparations to the victims.

It implies that states should organise the governmental apparatus that exercises public power in such a way that it can ensure that crimes against humanity do not occur and that any tensions that might lead to such crimes are resolved peacefully.

It means, for example, that a state should have an independent judiciary with an impartial and effective police service, ensure the accountability of the government to the people and, effective participation of citizens in the governance of the country.

The New Partnership for African Development has instituted a peer-review mechanism to check governance practice among African states. It seeks to engage states at an early stage and ensure that they are accountable to each other as well as to their people.

Whether states are obliged to promote a world free of all crimes against humanity is a question that is answered by the UN Charter, which places the promotion and encouragement of respect for human rights as one of its core purposes. It is accepted that the international community has to use diplomatic, humanitarian and other peaceful means to protect populations from genocide, war, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity in accordance with the charter.

Peaceful and preventive measures, it should be noted, are most likely to be effective if they are undertaken early and carefully targeted and calibrated. This, in turn, requires early warning and a differentiated assessment of the circumstances of each case. Early warning is critical to avoid the use of force, which is expensive and destructive in terms of resources, infrastructure and human life.

The international community should encourage states to support the UN’s efforts to establish an early-warning capability at its headquarters. It should also encourage regional organisations to develop early-warning systems to complement efforts at the international level. In this regard, early-warning systems established by the Economic Community for West African States (Ecowas) and the Southern African Development Community (Sadc) are important initiatives that need support.

There are, however, significant problems with early-warning systems, with a perception of insufficient focus or institutional resources for risk analysis at the UN headquarters and an institutional weakness in analytical capacity at the UN. There is also the problem of states’ unwillingness to share intelligence information.

For any early-warning system to be effective, it should be generated by people and nongovernmental organisations (NGOs). This involves creating conditions where NGOs play a role and complement international and regional efforts.

Facilitating NGO work will require the creation of structures through which their participation can be channelled. A free press is probably the best early-warning system, as it can provide citizens with a range of information and opinions from various actors in a state and expose wrongdoing, thereby encouraging accountability for public officials.

Among the key factors that should trigger the attention of the global community are:

• people in leadership positions concentrated in one or more ethnic groups with display of their ethnic attributes and hostility toward other ethnic groups;

• the existence of ethnic-based political tensions;

• the composition of the police and armed forces concentrated in one or more ethnic groups with a policy of exclusion of others;

• the existence of private militias;

• the types of weapons purchased by the armed forces; and

• a history of human rights violations by the police and armed forces.

There is consensus on the elements of a good early-warning system. Strategist David Nyhein’s report prepared for the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development says it should be based on the ground, use multiple sources of information, capitalises on appropriate communication and information technology, provide regular reports and updates on conflict dynamics to national and international stakeholders, and have a strong link to responders or response mechanisms.

Many argue that the UN system does not lack relevant information. Nor is the gathering of information and assessment of information for the purpose of early warning a novel undertaking for the organisation. Often the problem with early-warning systems is not that they do not exist, but that they are generally ignored and not followed by action until after a catastrophe has occurred.

Experience tells us that intervention only follows where major powers’ interests are at stake. For example, there was no intervention in Rwanda despite an early-warning system.

In communities where there is potential for ethnic violence, it is important as part of the response to create an environment where calls for nonviolence are heard and accepted by people. This requires long-term programmes to create such environments by connecting people from different ethnic groups and enhancing inter-ethnic activities.

Another problem is that conflict analysis, including early warning, has traditionally not included women’s rights or gender perspectives. When women are not included in early-warning systems, their opportunities to participate in conflict prevention and post-conflict reconstruction are limited, thus such systems risk failing to predict or prevent conflict adequately.

Moreover, gender-based indicators can provide a better understanding of the causes of conflict and help develop more appropriate responses. Another matter that needs addressing is deciding who does what when a crisis is developing or breaks out.

All factors considered, the real problem is one of political will. Early warnings rarely lead to effective and timely responses because of the lack of political will and, in some cases, a tendency among regional organisations to insist on the right to deal with a problem when they lack the required capacity.

The work of Ecowas in Togo, Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia and that of Sadc in Madagascar is exemplary. Complaints about inaction, though justified, must be tempered with the realisation that although early warnings do not always lead to early action, the UN secretary-general’s report observes: "It is also true that early action is highly unlikely without early warning."

This means that as we work on early-warning systems, it is imperative also to build the political will to act. The international community must have zero tolerance for human rights violations, wherever they occur and regardless of the identity of the perpetrator or the victim.

Who decides when events in a country are of such gravity that they warrant an international response? The biggest danger is that the responsibility to protect will be misused by powerful states to justify intervention in the affairs of small states. After all, in reality only the major powers have the capacity to intervene militarily in other states.

Because of this danger, the best approach is to emphasise early engagement through the promotion of human rights and building states’ capacity, so further intervention does not become necessary to halt genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing or crimes against humanity.