Between July 30 and August 2, 2010, at least 303 women, men, and children were raped in the North Kivu Province of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The rapes occurred less than 30 kilometers east of the UN peacekeeping mission’s operating base. After the rapes were publicized, the UN issued a statement admitting its own failure to prevent these mass rapes, and urging the DRC to do more to protect its citizens. The UN mission’s failure in the DRC was a result of inadequate resources and constraints imposed by the limitations of their mandate. This incident demonstrates a need for the UN to reform traditional peacekeeping approaches in order to better meet its international responsibilities.

Civilian protection has become especially important to the UN in the past five years as the responsibility to protect (R2P) has emerged as an articulated consideration of states. R2P places pressure on states to protect their citizens and accept the aid of other states when they are unable to do so themselves, as well as to recognize the possibility of international intervention when state action is not sufficient to protect a population from mass atrocities. Specifically, R2P is directed at protecting against genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes, and ethnic cleansing. The responsibility extends to protecting the population against mass rape, categorized as crimes against humanity in international law. The UN has been instrumental in helping to promote R2P under the auspices of the UN Charter obligation to promote international peace and security through peacekeeping missions and asserting pressure on states; sadly, the approach has been imperfect.

The recent failure of the UN and the DRC to stop the mass rapes in North Kivu illustrates the need for R2P to be jointly assumed and more effectively enforced. In June 2010, the Security Council approved a new peacekeeping mission, United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUSCO). MONUSCO was deployed with the consent of the DRC government and charged to help ensure effective protection of civilians. The DRC’s willingness to allow non-state forces to engage within their borders showed compliance with the R2P principle “to seek assistance to protect the population.” Unfortunately, the atrocities in North Kivu exemplify a disconnect between the positive intentions of the UN and the DRC government, and the reality on the ground. Lack of funding has exacerbated communication difficulties and cultural differences, which in turn has forestalled effective and timely intervention in attacks on civilian populations. Furthermore, MONUSCO’s ability to ensure appropriate protection of civilians is constrained by the limited number of troops.

The rise of R2P demonstrates a growing trend in the international community to challenge state sovereignty in the face of potential crimes against humanity. Traditional international law emphasizes national sovereignty, but R2P allows external powers to inquire into human rights violations and “assist” states on behalf of vulnerable populations within their borders. The basis for this extraterritorial obligation to protect arises out of increased accountability obligations in international law and progressive ideas of universal jurisdiction. The UN Charter calls for the promotion and respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, and the UDHR makes these human rights and fundamental freedoms customary international law. Yet these texts are vague and difficult to enforce, making it rare for states to be held accountable for all but the worst transgressions. Therefore, even though the DRC allows UN peacekeepers to assist, MONUSCO is limited by the government in the actions it is permitted to take to protect the population.

In light of the limited nature of existing human rights mechanisms, there are numerous legal challenges to overcome in asserting the R2P. State sovereignty continues to pose a significant obstacle to the R2P because of its status as a pillar of international law. Even in circumstances where a state is willing to accept help from the international community, the assistance can be ineffective and untimely, as was the case of the peacekeeping mission in the DRC. Nonetheless, recent customary international law is permissive of international actions against large-scale and continuous violations of human rights. This movement to protect people from mass atrocities is just beginning and much still needs to be done to ensure that any proffered assistance has the effect of adequately protecting a state’s population. A first step would be to strengthen the mandate and funding of UN peacekeeping missions to ensure that peacekeepers can help to fulfill the responsibility to protect.