Michelle Obama holds participates in of the Bring Back Our Girls campaign against Boko Haram

The number of people living under constant threat of armed conflict and massive human rights abuses in Nigeria is stunning. Local communities in northern Nigeria are drawn between the Boko Haram insurgents (who attack them on a daily basis) and the state security agencies in the pretext of searching for fleeing suspected terrorists. Recently, there has been unprecedented international attention on the activities of Boko Haram, largely spurred by the appalling kidnapping of 276 girls from a college in Chibok, northeast Nigeria in April 2014, and the ensuing online campaign - Bring Back Our Girls.

Boko Haram activity has grown over time in terms of the number of targets and nature of its attacks. The group has launched hundreds of coordinated attacks across the northern region since July 2009 that have resulted in the deaths of thousands and displacement of tens of thousands more. The frequency and sophistication of attacks has steadily grown; signifying enhanced planning and funding. Targeting the symbols of Nigerian state as well as schools, places of worship, motor parks, recreation centres etc. Furthermore, the violent activities undertaken by the radical group signify uncertainty as well as increased insecurity in Nigeria and the sub region.

In response to the insecurity and prevailing activities of violent extremist groups in northern Nigeria, which culminated in the abduction of the Chibok schoolgirls; various civil society organisations, women groups, religious leaders, community elders, and the media have protested and issued statements. These groups have condemned the insurgents' actions and the Nigerian federal government inaction, calling for concerted and collective efforts, at all levels, in rescuing the girls from their captors and ensuring security of lives and properties in Nigeria.

Among the groups are: Network on Police Reform in Nigeria (NOPRIN), a network of 46 civil society organisations in Nigeria that gave recommendations for a multidisciplinary approach to dealing with terrorism, including the need to restore public confidence and cooperation with police/security forces and for the government to address the socio-economic root causes of crime and corruption.

Human Rights Agenda Network (HRAN), comprising civil society organisations working on human rights issues in Nigeria, reported to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights in March 2014 the increased cases of extra judicial killings; the use of torture as well as a repressive counter-terrorism administration resulting in increased gun violence and insecurity in Nigeria.

From a regional standpoint, the West Africa Civil Society Institute (WACSI) organised a 5 day training programme for the civil society actors and media personnel in West Africa on the norms and advocacy for Responsibility to Protect (R2P) in Accra, Ghana. WACSI calls on all relevant civil society organisations in the West African / ECOWAS sub-region to pull together and add their mobilisation and advocacy weight in the search and rescue of the schoolgirls. The group also called for urgent action by the Nigerian Government to act within the context of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) and to take necessary actions.

A volunteer with a civilian militia to fight terrorists walks through Maiduguri, a stronghold of Boko Haram. Image credit: Jordi Bernabeu Farrús

The norm and principle of R2P

In October 2005, world leaders unanimously adopted the “Responsibility to Protect” (R2P) principle in paragraphs 138–140 of the UN World Summit Outcome Document. In April 2006, United Nations Security Council reaffirmed the principle in Resolution 1674. The principle has also become part of the working language of international engagement with political crises such as in the African Union/United Nations Hybrid Operation in Darfur (UNAMID) and the diplomatic efforts to resolve the post-election conflict in Kenya. As defined by the UN, the R2P is limited to the four crimes of genocide, crimes against humanity, ethnic cleansing, and war crimes. As agreed by member states, the R2P rests on three pillars.

Firstly, each state is to use appropriate and necessary means to protect its own population from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing, and crimes against humanity, and from their incitement.

The second pillar calls on the international community to provide assistance and capacity building to states that are under stress and unable to protect their civilian population from mass atrocity crimes.

The third pillar refers to the international responsibility to respond through the United Nations in a timely and decisive manner when national authorities are manifestly failing to protect their population from the four crimes identified above. In 2007, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon identified translating the R2P from words to actions as one of his main priorities and appointed a special advisor on the matter.

All have a role to play in defusing potentially catastrophic situations from happening
However, it is not enough for governments and the global community to agree that mass atrocities be punished. Policymakers and governments must be convinced that preventing mass violence is possible. Preventing mass atrocities and protecting civilians from violence requires collective efforts and actions of governments, civil society groups, and international organisations - all have a role to play in defusing potentially catastrophic situations from happening.

Governments, endorsed by the United Nations World Summit in October 2005 have a responsibility to prevent and curtail genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes, and ethnic cleansing. The principle of R2P occupies a central place in Africa’s new peace and security architecture as stated in article 4(h) of African Union’s Constitutive Act.

Therefore, civil society organisations should support efforts to raise awareness and implementation of R2P principles at national levels by incorporating the R2P principles into their work and to hold the government accountable for protecting the civilian populations.