The African Union became the first and still only multilateral body to entrench the principle in its governing instrument, the Constitutive Act. But, it remains untested.
The UN’s only attempt to apply the principle was in mandating a humanitarian armed intervention in the 2010/11 Libyan crisis. It was a controversial move. South Africa and others then on the Security Council faulted the US and NATO for violating the terms of the mandate to protect civilians. Instead, they charged, those intervening were intent on regime change, by deposing President Muammar Gaddafi.
The 2014 Gaza crisis, during which more than 2100 Palestinians and 66 Israeli soldiers were killed, offered another opportunity to test Responsibility to Protect framework. However, attempts to secure a binding UN resolution were stymied by a US veto.
The framework has a daunting diplomatic history. But it might finally find positive application in addressing Gaza’s humanitarian crisis. And South Africa could be the force that drives Responsibility to Protect from paper into action.
Protecting the people of Gaza
Ramaphosa and his foreign minister Lindiwe Sisulu might consider a diplomatic approach with at least three elements:
First, South Africa must be absolutely clear and transparent that an R2P intervention in Gaza would be strictly limited to protecting people. The three contending parties for control of Gaza’s people – Hamas, the Palestinian Authority based in the West Bank, and Israel – remain unable to find political compromise and appear locked into policies that only worsen suffering among the people trapped in Gaza.
South Africa can reasonably argue that none of these three parties to the Gaza conflict, or interested external powers, will benefit from an increasingly likely humanitarian catastrophe.
The country has plenty of compelling evidence to make its case. This includes the March 2018 report of the Office of the UN Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace process on the perilous conditions in Gaza. Denying Gaza access to electricity has become a capricious political weapon recently wielded by Israel and the Palestinian Authority to weaken Hamas. This while Egypt dithers with allowing occasional supplies through its border with Gaza. This has brought essential human services to a humanitarian tipping point.