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The responsibility to protect

By early last week it was becoming increasingly obvious that the military junta in Burma was being recalcitrant about accepting international aid for the victims of Cyclone Nargis. One possible way of dealing with the situation might be by invoking a new principle of international law – the Responsibility to Protect (R2P). R2P has implications beyond the situation in Burma, of course, and is something that I thought might be of interest to some readers given the increasingly interconnected nature of world society. However, international law is one domain that I did not study when reading law, so I turned to Webdiarist Dylan Kissane to ask whether he could put something together on the doctrine for Webdiary. Dylan contacted Andrea Charron, a fellow student of international relations, and together they have written the article below. Thank you, Dylan and Andrea, for taking time out from writing up your respective theses, and all the best with your studies.

Andrea Charron is a doctoral candidate in the War Studies program at the Royal Military College of Canada. With a BScH from Queen’s University, MPA from Dalhousie University and an MA in International Relations from Webster in Leiden, The Netherlands, she has an eclectic academic background. Andrea has worked as a policy advisor for Canada’s Revenue Agency, Canada’s Border Services Agency and the Privy Council Office. Dylan Kissane is a doctoral candidate in the School of International Studies of the University of South Australia. He has published articles on international relations theory in peer-reviewed journals in Australia, Hungary and Romania, presented papers at conferences in Australia, Israel and across Europe and has produced two working papers for Argentina’s Centre for International Studies. He lives in Villeurbanne, France.

The Responsibility to Protect in Context
Andrea Charron & Dylan Kissane

If one reads the UN Charter, one finds that the founders were not averse to using force in order to deter aggressors and preserve international peace and security. However, while the UN was formed to “save succeeding generations from the scourge of war”, the list of scourges is growing. The real threats to international peace and security are no longer confined to violations of state sovereignty for which the UN collective security system was created. Rather, genocide, massive violations of human rights, terrorism, and weapons of mass destruction (WMD) represent immediate international security threats that are beyond the scope of any one state to solve.

A forum through which states can act in common to ensure that international peace is maintained seems even more relevant today than it was sixty years ago, yet the UN is floundering. The Oil-for-Food scandal, the Iraq War, and lack of action in Darfur are all evidence for some pointing to the need for large-scale UN reform, including its collective security system. The UN High Level Panel (HLP) has produced a report that “puts forward a new vision of collective security - one that addresses all of the major threats to international peace and security felt around the world.” The HLP suggests collective security today should rest on three pillars or assumptions (A More Secure World 2004: 11). The first is the continued need for collective responses at the global, regional and national levels. The second is the acceptance that certain threats pose serious security concerns to all states, and the third, also known as the Responsibility to Protect, is the realization that some states cannot and will not protect their own people and will harm their neighbours.

The greatest advocate of the need to expand the UN’s collective security system to include armed humanitarian intervention was the former Secretary-General Kofi Annan. Deeply disturbed by the international community’s limited response to the Rwandan genocide, Srebrenica, Darfur and other intra-state conflicts that resulted in “gross and systematic violations of human rights that affect every precept of our common humanity,” he believes it is time to equate and translate these gross violations into threats to international peace and security.

The idea of intervening collectively with force in a state that is abusing its own people is not new – many argue it predates the UN Charter and is supported by early “just war” theory. This theory expounded the permissibility of war if the attacking states believed that their war was waged against an immoral enemy. This was considered ‘just cause.’ But today just war theory is considered antiquated customary law that has since been supplanted by the Covenant of the League, various treaties such as the Kellogg–Briand Pact, and, of course, the Charter. These legal regimes outlaw traditional war to varying degrees. Reinterpreting these bodies of law to promote armed intervention for the purpose of ending human rights abuses requires counter-restrictionist (i.e. more liberal) interpretations of these international bodies of law that some states are hesitant to support.

Furthermore, states have not used the protection of innocent civilians as a reason to use military force consistently. Even though cases such as Vietnam’s war with Cambodia and Tanzania’s war against Uganda are used as early examples of “armed humanitarian intervention”, neither Vietnam nor Tanzania used the humanitarian imperative as their just cause. Rather, the reasons for war given by Vietnam and Tanzania were self-defence for breaches to the territorial integrity of the state. The Security Council has preferred to decide each case on an individual basis and has shunned doctrinal constraints that force their collective hand. The problem for proponents of Responsibility to Protect (R2P) is that numbers are simply not in their favour – a majority of states still believe that the principle of sovereignty, as enshrined in the Charter, protects states from interference in their domestic affairs – even if those states are engaged in the large-scale abuse of their own citizens.

Having adopted the Responsibility to Protect as another pillar of the UN’s collective security system the Security Council now has a “responsibility” to act. There would be greater impetus on the Council to respond to massive human rights violations because Responsibility to Protect articulates when armed intervention is needed.

There have been many books and articles written on this new “responsibility” including Simon Chesterman’s Just War or Just Peace? Humanitarian Intervention and International Law (2001) and Nicholas Wheeler’s Saving Strangers: Humanitarian Intervention in International Society (2000) which are core texts. However, while they debate the legality of the “responsibility”, what is missing are the arguments that concretely transfer “gross violations” from the ‘respect for human rights’ basket to the ‘threats to peace and security’ basket, which then necessitates collective armed force.

The International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS) and the HLP both agree that regardless of whether a legal norm has developed or not, there is a growing international consensus that, under certain circumstances characterized by massive human rights abuses, a legitimate case for armed intervention is emerging. So long as states can make the fundamental shift in thinking from “sovereignty as authority” meaning “sovereignty as an unrivalled control over a delimited territory and the population residing within it” (Welsh 2002: 511) to “sovereignty as responsibility” meaning “sovereignty as conditional on a state demonstrating respect for a minimum standard of human rights” (Welsh 2002: 512) then a norm of responsibility to protect will emerge. If this shift can be made, then armed force can be employed more consistently.

The key will be to what extent the UN is able to establish and impose the two other responsibilities that make up the responsibility to protect. These include the responsibility to prevent (addressing root causes) and the responsibility to rebuild (recovery, reconstruction and reconciliation so as not to slip back into a state of conflict). These mandates are always preferred to armed conflict. If, after a concerted effort to stop the conflict, the Security Council must entertain the use of force as well as the possibility of a regime change then the Security Council must be willing to act decisively. After all, there is no point stopping a Pol Pot from killing his people only to leave him in-charge once the troops have left. Yet this represents the most difficult dilemma for R2P as implicit in the doctrine is the need for regime change. Collective security, based on WWII thinking, is all about stopping the unilateral use of force and not promoting regime change and democratization. It is this expansion of the collective security system that is proving most difficult for the UN system.

While R2P does not undermine collective security elements per se, it would require that the Security Council define threats to peace and security to include massive human rights abuses. With the establishment of UN judicial courts like the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, for Rwanda and the Special Tribunal for Cambodia, all signs point to this eventuality. But R2P, as former Australian Foreign Minister Gareth Evans counsels, is the last measure when all means are exhausted to protect individuals from mass atrocities.

The difficulty in expanding the doctrine of R2P to call for armed military intervention to ensure aid supplies reach the victims of the cyclone that struck Myanmar (as French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner did) is that it may do more harm than good – military interventions are never surgical, and the intervention may unleash a backlash by the military junta, especially when the troops have gone home. That does not mean that the world should stand idly by. Indeed there is a case to be made that the human rights’ record of the military junta is reason enough to invoke R2P and certainly, if they are intentionally preventing aid from reaching, especially, specific ethnic groups, the case is much stronger. But military interventions as Australia knows are fraught with difficulties. For aid workers on the ground, military interventions, however well meaning, often jeopardize, even undo their work. And so, if a military intervention cannot be sent (because it is neither the right course of action at this time nor is it likely troops will be made available) then the one thing those of us living in prosperous countries like Australia and Canada can do is accept these refugees with open arms.


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We shouldn't put all our eggs in one basket.

The Varanus Island explosion on June 3 has slashed WA's gas supply by one-third.

Prime Minister Kevin Rudd says Western Australia Premier Alan Carpenter has established the Gas Supply Coordination Group which will involve some Commonwealth and Government agencies working with key State Government agencies and industry bodies.

"This is a serious matter for Western Australia therefore it is a serious matter for all Australians," he said.

"We believe that is an appropriate level of coordination between the two governments."

"I think people in the east have not quite caught up with the severity of the impact which this is having across the WA economy. It is huge."

WA struggles with a massive reduction in its gas supply, how did this happen in a state that has enormous gas resources? It is a good time to review our critical infrastructure. What would happen if we really had a serious terrorist threat? Is our infrastructure so vulnerable that a fire on a remote island can severely effect our economy? For governments promising to protect us from attack what else could be brought undone by a well placed bomb?

All critical infrastructure should have alternate routes other wise if the war on terror did become a real war, Australia could be brought to it knees quite quickly. Why to we put all our eggs into one basket?

Right to protect and the right to retaliate.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai has threatened to send troops over the border into Pakistan to confront militants based there.

He said that when militants crossed over from Pakistan to kill Afghans and coalition troops, his nation had the right to retaliate in "self-defence".

With Karzai threatening to invade nuclear equipped Pakistan, the chance of triggering a global war moves a step closer. The situations in Burma, Zimbabwe and Dafur are still a nightmare. The US and Israel threaten an military response to Iran.

It looks like war is going to occupy our minds for years to come. The UN and the US seem to be impotent and war lords are running wild all over the globe.

In the mean while it is business as usual on the climate change front. Any thoughts on what the planet might look like in 50 years? Can anyone put forward a positive scenario for the human race?

We may have the right to protect and retaliate but I don't think we have the capability.

whack whack kojak

Hi Richard, whack whack, do you not appreciate the balance of such? And if one must use hellish metaphors devil's advocates then let us enjoy the heat. Much better than cold eh?

But sadly I must now write to complain. I do not think succintness exists, but perhaps that is no surprise eh ...

Panadol and bed rest for the dear editor, or a medic amount of reddish medicine with the favourite bouquet and perhaps leather saddle savouring?

But seriously, nice job elsewhere too. Probably need a double dose there.


Hypocrisy stinks all the way to the slaughter houses missiled

Funny how the Junta apparently allowed the entry of goods as long as they were allowed to distribute them – ie not the American military etc – but that was not good enough.

I wonder about the US refusing the help Hugo Chavez offered for the suffering citizens of New Orleans. Or is anyone going to rescue the suffering detainees of Gitmo Bay and now the Afghanistan torture prison of the Americans? Or the Tibetans? Or is it only those countries with desirable resources and regimes unable to defend themselves?

There is probably a huge argument for protection of the civilians of Palestine currently starved and bombed in their ghetto from the war machines of Israel under this type of plan. And the citizens of Sadr city from the bombing raids of US airplanes etc. Or the protection of Saudi citizens, especially women, from the inhuman regime in charge there.

Perhaps it will not just be those regimes targeted by the Neocon like elite for annexation to the realm but also those opposing may consider a bit of a grab. Venezuela might see the "cruel" Colombian government actions as justification, and Mexico? Who can wonder at the state of drug lord led anarchy causing harm there too whether they too would justify a forced control invasion?

China is full of ethnic groups, especially the NW where there is action that might fit these criteria. And what of the Indonesian government and its slow genocide and cleansing of West Papua and the peoples of the rain forest making way for palm oil plantations, and in Malaysia too?

And would the murderous action of the Ethiopians in Somalia be tolerated without the US offshore support – slaughter and starvation, and none caring? None on site reporting for our TVs. But we can't have an Islamic government there can we?

This UN proposal has too much risk of the usual manipulation by the usual players. The only problem with the current set of rules and ideals is they are not universally applied and the perpetrators and their allies can veto any action that may have held to account those war criminals in action. One only needs to demand a majority vote rather than veto in the Security Council and there already would be HUGE changes. Perhaps even limiting voting to those who have paid their membership dues would also be an improvement.

It is ridiculous to continue the farce of international justice without holding to account the perpetrators and conspirators of the Iraq war and the Afghanistan invasion. Unless all are held to account for their deeds then international law is just method of oppression against those who resist or fail to fall in line.

Until economic rationalism and globalism of power and profits are put back in the box of Dangerous tools for Exploiting, then compassion for feeding people and respecting their freedoms to choose their path and a universal justice where all are equally held to account cannot occur.

Goodness the hypocrisy of the US, its allies et al to even try this UN revision on is rank. Unless, perhaps, they showed their good intentions by offering up their own war criminals to the international courts and reparated those transgressed and withdrew from occupied lands, militarily and exploitatively.

Let us see if the US welcomes the Chinese military and Russians and Hugo's when next their National Guard in stuck in oil wars and cannot rescue their own peoples.

The Burma Junta is just as heartless for individual suffering as our allies and their 20000 foot bombings of civilians, over and over again. Hypocrisy stinks all the way to the slaughter houses missiled daily by our "allies" in the cities of the hopeless and invisible.


No good time to start

Jesus wept, I was going to thank Dylan and Andrea for the succinctity of their post, and then Angela whacks me on the other side of the head.

There's no good time to start, so I guess the best is now, before it all goes to hell in a handbasket.

Trying to protect can make things worse

Dylan and Andrea, thank you for an interesting piece. I think the world situation is so complex that some situations will lend themselves to intervention to protect on humanitarian grounds while others would not. It could, and in fact does, even worsen some situations.

Iraq is a good example. If the intervention there had been by a UN force to protect the population from the mass murderer Saddam Hussein then it is hard to believe that the situation in the country would be any different to what it is now. When opposing groups are spread throughout the population then removing a dictator who generally has the support of one of them, civil war and violence is hard if not impossible to contain. So the population continues to suffer.

The Kurds in Iraq had a better chance of protection through intervention than the Shias scattered throughout the major cities of Iraq, notwithstanding their concentration in the south.

Take Mugabe. If 40% or so of the people actually voted for him but given the humanitarian situation in the country the UN sent in a force to remove him and distribute food, there would no doubt still be ongoing civil chaos. Kenya is another example of how finely balanced relationships in the populations in many African countries are.

As for places like Somalia where there is no stable government, it would be an impossible task to protect that unfortunate population from its warring self.

Where opposing ethnic or religious groups have a degree of geographical separation from each other within a country, and from the oppressive central government such as in Kosova, there is greater chance of success as we know. The perpetrators of the oppression there could be effectively shut out by force of the region in a country in which the affected population lived.  It was more difficult in Bosnia where the ethnic/religious groups were in enclaves across a broader geographical area.

Even the most reluctant of governments tend to accept temporary intervention in the form of delivery and distribution of aid in times of natural disasters so the situation in Burma is something of an anomaly. Aceh after the tsunami is a good example. Normally the Indonesians did not welcome any foreign presence there.

I doubt things will change. The UN has failed to resolve the terrible situation in Darfur as it has failed before in Africa, and will likely fail in Burma.  And if the predictions of climate change are right, then we will see more mass displacement of populations due to catastrophric weather events in the future, let alone from continuing oppression and civil strife in many countries. Other countries can absorb some of the refugees, but I suspect the millions who are seeking refuge will continue to wait in vain for that new life opportunity.

It is not just the poor third world that is facing problems of feeding its existing populations. As world food stocks contract so too will the capacity of the world as a whole to make a difference to the lives of the millions of have nots. Compassion in a hungry world will unfortunately probably be the first victim.

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